Friday, 17 February 2012

Frugal Friday - 17th February

This week here in England it has been "half term", which means that for all school-age children attending public school here, there has been a holiday. As we don't have school-age children now, it did not make any difference to our plans or activities for this week, but yesterday, seeing all the families busily enjoying the unexpected sunshine in the park as we walked through there for a breath of fresh air in the afternoon, it made me think of all the times that I use to go there with the cubs and their friends, when they were younger! I was always on the lookout then for cost-free ways to keep my wee bears amused, and I thought it would be fun to share some of the most successful ideas we had over the years, with you now for this week's Frugal Friday.

Here are a few of the most popular activities we've enjoyed ...

(Please note - some of these activities aren't suitable for children to do unaccompanied by an adult, or for the very young. They are all tried and tested by the Bear Family and their friends!).

Salt dough. You probably have all the ingredients for this in your kitchen cupboards already, but even if you don't it is extremely cheap to make. All you need to make a batch of this is 2 cups all purpose flour, 1 cup salt, 1 cup water and 1 tablespoon oil (this last is optional, but does make the dough easier to knead, if you are making this with tinies). Simply mix the ingredients together, and use to create fun ornaments and models. We always used biscuit cutters to cut out ornaments for the Christmas tree. They can then be baked on a lightly greased tray in a very low oven for a good hour or more, until they are firm. Don't forget if you are making ornaments that you wish to hang, to put a hole in them before you bake! Afterwards allow to cool, and then decorate with poster paints, glitter, stickers, whatever. We often used to make gingerbread people, and we would decorate these by painting them brown (allow one side to dry before painting the other), then allowing that coat to dry before using an old toothbrush to spray dots of white paint, like icing sugar, over the "cookies". Very effective! Finally they can be varnished to make them more durable (slightly dilute PVA, which dries clear and is reasonably washable if it gets on hands or clothes, can be used for this).

Home made butter - again, you probably already have all the ingredients you need for this! It isn't "real" butter in the sense that it is churned and then rinsed many times (you could try this if you wanted, but it is quite a lot more time consuming, though you will finish up with some real buttermilk if you do!). All you need to do is get a very clean, empty jar, and put into it about a quarter full, some double or whipping cream. Screw down the lid on the jar tightly, and get shaking! It will take a fair while but eventually, you'll see the butter start to form in the bottom of the jar. Keep going and after a looooong time, you'll get some butter! If you're homeschooling this could be turned into a science lesson, as well as giving you the chance to create something you can actually eat at the end!

Pasta jewellery - we all, even the boys, used to love creating ornaments and jewellery out of pasta shapes! Use the hollow kind like macaroni, and thread onto a thin knitting needle. Then get painting! Again, to varnish once they are dry, you can use dilute PVA (if you don't dilute it at all, it is a little bit too thick to use to "paint" with) to make them more durable. If you want to use paint that won't need varnishing I reccomend Acrylic paints which you can buy from most craft shops. Gouache will also provide a pretty shiny finish but is water soluble. Powder paint is the cheapest option, or if you really want to be frugal, old magazines or wrapping paper can be used to create collage effects. Once the pasta "beads" are dry, they can be removed from the knitting needle and threaded onto cord or elastic to make necklaces and bangles.

You can also make jewellery using paper mache and a knitting needle. Paper mache is made by pasting strips of newspaper onto an object (or in this case, around it) and you can use a simple paste created from 1 cup flour and 2 cups water, or some dilute PVA, to stick the layers of newspaper together. Using moulds such as plastic bowls, inflated balloons, empty plastic bottles etc, it is possible to create paper mache objects quite simply. Once it is dry (it takes several days) you can then paint and decorate it as you wish. A couple of helpful hints here - tear the newspaper pieces quite small, and use a reasonable amount of paste. Don't be too sparing - you are aiming for a pulp, rather than just a collage effect. If the paper isn't wet enough, your finished item will fall apart once it has dried. To protect reusable items that you are using as moulds, and to make the paper mache finished item easier to remove when it is dry, coat the mould with a layer of cling film first. (This is a messy activity so be prepared to do a bit of covering-up of furniture, floors and children before you get started)!

Bubbles are great fun for tinies, and don't need to be confined to the bath! On a sunny day, simply fill up a bowl with water and plenty of washing up liquid, and a few extras such as straws (not for real tinies!), bubble wands, an egg beater etc, and let them play. I personally never had a problem with my children making a mess, as long as it was at an appropriate time and in an appropriate place. Another game that was very popular at that time, was "painting the fence" which simply involved a bucket of water and a large paintbrush! Little Bear was extremely keen on this activity, and goodness knows how it kept her amused for so long, but it always did!

When my cubs were very wee, one cheap and quick way to keep them amused was to make them simple jigsaw puzzles, using an old cereal box and pictures cut from magazines or freebies that had come through the door (fast food menus are particularly good, or the brochures that come from gardening nurseries or department stores). I'd just open out the box, paste a picture onto it and then cut it into several pieces, the younger the age of the child, the fewer the number of pieces. This would keep them occupied for a surprisingly long time although obviously the pieces aren't as durable and don't last as long as a real jigsaw.

I've spoken before about knitting - just the process of teaching this to a child will keep you occupied for some time. Little Bear's girlfriends use to find this a real treat, and would beg me to get out my knitting bag and needles and help them to learn to knit! It was such fun seeing their pleasure when they realised it wasn't all that hard to do! If knitting seems a bit too complicated, crochet is easier, using only one hook and a simpler technique. It's a great way to use up all your scraps of wool, and I used to keep them specially for this purpose. For the boys - well, the best use for a ball of wool was to create a giant "spider's web" in the living room - the wool wound all around the furniture with a "den" right in the middle! Dens are a great way to keep a group of children occupied - whether indoors or out. Whenever Papa Bear did any tree pruning, he always use to make sure he left some of the branches out for the cubs to use to make dens with. Along with a few old towels or sheets, a den could easily be made and keep them busy for hours. Indoors chairs, tables and beds can be implemented in the same way. Oftentimes if the house seemed "too quiet", I'd know it was probably becuase the cubs had got busy making a den! As long as they were willing to tidy it all up afterwards, I didn't mind them keeping themselves amused in this way, when appropriate. Far better this than watching TV.

Outdoors there are endless opportunities for fun to be had for free! Visiting the park, the lake or river, the seaside if you're close enough, or just going for a walk round and about the area where you live, gives a chance to see the world, get some fresh air and exercise, and allow you a chance to really chat and enjoy the company of your children. Family walks have always been a regular activity for us. We live close to a lake as well as a park, and love to go for long walks around there, where along with beautiful greenery and shrubs, lots of wild birds and other animals live. We usually make sure even now, to bring some stale bread along to feed the ducks with!

Of course if you're lucky enough to have a garden, you can also enjoy growing things from seed, which costs pence and yeilds wonderful rewards. Radishes are a great "first" vegetable to grow, as they are virtually indestructable, grow fast and are easy to harvest, and squashes, pumpkins and marrows are also good. When we did have a garden we always had tomato plants as well as sunflowers, and each year had a sunflower growing competition which one of the cubs always seemed to manage to win! I do miss having a garden, but even if you don't have one, there are things indoors that you can grow - we like to eat egg and cress sandwiches in the summer, and it is so easy to grow cress from seed! All you need is a plate or shallow dish lined with moistened kitchen paper. Simply sprinkle the seeds onto the paper, and keep moist, and within a week you'll have cress that you can put in salads (or feed to your pet birds or small animals, if you don't like it!).

Another "home grown" that is possible to do indoors, is sprouted pulses. Personally we don't care for the taste of these, but our pet birds adore them. You need a glass jar for this. Get about 2 tablespoons mixed dried pulses (our birds particularly like garbanzo beans and green peas) and place in the jar. Fill with water, and allow to soak overnight. In the morning drain the jar, rinse the pulses several times over with cold water (I do this by placing a piece of muslin over the top of the jar, filling it with water and then tipping it upside down and shaking it). Then cover the top of the jar with a piece of gauze, muslin or thin cloth (a clean dishcloth can be used if you've nothing else) and fasten with an elastic band or piece of string (a hair scrunchie can also be used!). Turn the jar on its side, and leave on your draining board. Twice a day, repeat the rinsing, until sprouts start to appear (usually takes about 3 days). You can let them grow for 2 - 3 more days, but check frequently to ensure they are fresh. They should have a pleasant, clean, but very earthy smell, quite "beany". If they smell unpleasant, discard. They are ready to eat once they are sprouted 2 - 3 cm or so, at which time they should be refrigerated and eaten within 24 hours.

Treasure hunts are so much fun, and don't need to cost anything. One way of getting my cubs to go outside for some fresh air was to create a treasure hunt for them, around the garden (or park). I simply used to write a list of objects that they had to find, such as a twig, a white stone, a leaf with more than one colour on it, a pink flower petal, an empty snail's shell, a dried seed pod and so on. Obviously you'll need to create the list to make it appropriate to your children's ages and abilities. With a large group of children, it is better to write the lists in different orders (use the same set of objects, but don't list them in the same order on each child's list) otherwise you'll fetch up with a crowd of children all "following the leader" as they run around the garden in a big group, making it much less exciting, and less easy for the slower children to win. I also use to do this for long car journeys, making lists of things to see, rather than collect. Older children will also appreciate being given a list with tick boxes so that they can observe and mark off what is on the list one by one, rather than actually collecting things.

Of course, never forget that one of the easiest, and cheapest things you can get your children to do to keep them happily occupied is help you with the housework! I mean in addition to their usual chore timetable. Make it more fun by setting a timer and seeing how quickly you can get things done. Or give them each a box, basket or bag and see who can fill it first with things that they no longer need, to take to the charity shop. I've also tried this trick with getting them to sort out cupboards, wardrobes and drawers, and it turns a chore into a game. I wouldn't recommend turning ALL their chores into games as this detracts from the intrinsic value of hard work done for its own worth, but there are times when it helps to get an additional task done without a fuss, and your example in doing something potentially quite undrewarding with an enthusiastic and eager heart will help them to see that even the dullest chore can be done efficiently, with the right attitude. It always helps to have a little enthusisam!

And last but not least, don't forget that your children probably have far more toys than they really need (I know mine did). Why not try doing what I did, and rotate the toys instead of allowing your children to have access to all of them at any time? They will get far more enjoyment out of having only a few toys at any one time, and if they aren't all available to play with all the time, the novelty lasts much longer! Rotate according to interest, or, if your children are older and will be able to exercise enough self discipline, allow them to choose for themselves, from a selection. Keep the rest out of sight until it is time to rotate them. And next time you have to visit a toy store, remember this wise fact that I was taught by a friend, a long time ago - most toys are bought by parents because THEY want to play with them - not the child! I also heartily recommend NEVER shopping for toys, or even going into a toy store, if you have your children with you! Remove the temptation, and you'll find requests for toys far less frequent (better still if you avoid the TV as well). That's a money saving tip definitely worth remembering.

Oh! I've enjoyed reminiscing about all the fun times we use to have! Now the cubs are grown they're well able to keep themselves busy, but we also make sure to have regular family activities that we can all enjoy. Often it may be just a walk, or a DVD shared with a nice home cooked meal, but that will suffice for us. We rarely eat out, and less rarely go anywhere that costs money. But it doesn't mean we never have any fun! I'm glad we take pleasure in the simple things - they are usually the best!