Friday, 5 August 2016

10 quirky things to do with the kids this summer holidays

#1 Open a pop-up cafe  

#2 Let them choose you an outfit  

#3 Visit a crop circle  

#4 Set them a shopkeeper's treasure hunt  

#5 Make a mini-garden  

#6 Be food critics   

#7 Grow your own butterflies  

#8 Give a doll a make-under  

#9 Go googly-eyeing  

#10 Turn trash to treasure  

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Guest interview: “I went trampolining in an underground cave!”

*Plus WIN a family voucher for this attraction worth £100!* 
(see end of post)

This time I talk to Isla, 8, who went to Bounce Below, a series of giant bouncy nets connected by walkways and chutes in a huge underground slate cavern in Snowdonia, North Wales.

What did you think when your mum and dad told you where you were going?
I was really excited. But I didn't know exactly what it was...they said it was a "jumparound place".

What was it like when you first walked in?
Well, first you have to go through this tunnel to get into the cave. But then it’s really the size of...HALF OF A WHOLE SCHOOL! It’s quite cold in there – I felt a drip on my head – but it’s really cool because there's lots of different colour lights shining on the walls.

So can you explain to me what’s actually inside the cave?
There's lots of trampolines on different levels and tunnels in the nets and there's these chutes and when you go down them you have to put your hands like this [crosses hands over chest] so your arms don’t get caught. The way you get up to the top is really curly wurly and when you get up there and look down you don’t know how you got there.

Was it scary?
I was a bit scared on the first trampoline because there are holes in the net like this [holds fingers in a square] and you can see people underneath through the holes. Everyone said “Don’t look down!” The first time I went down a chute it was really scary because the first bit you just drop – it's like going down a black hole. My mum and dad went first!

Did your parents enjoy it?
They thought it was cool but daddy got a bit stuck in one of the chutes because it had a small opening. 

What were the staff like?
They were really kind. But you’re not allowed to do flips.

Was there lots of Health and Safety?!
Well, you have to put a hair net and a helmet on and if your legs are bare you have to wear a jumpsuit (but mine weren’t). My dad had to put nets over his shoes too...I think it was to stop him breaking the trampolines because he’s got big feet. When the dads jumped, everyone fell over!

Have you got any advice or tips for anyone who is going there?
Try and get a trampoline all by yourself or with your family because it’s much funner.

Can you describe it in just three words.
Fun. Exciting. And...umm...bouncy!

What score do you give it out of 10?

(Four people age 7+).  All you have to do is:

1. Be a 'Liker' of the The Quirky Parent Facebook page - so click the Facebook button here if you're not already!

2. Then email the word 'BOING!' to

Ends Friday 8th July 2pm. The winner will be chosen using and announced here and on The Quirky Parent Facebook page.

This competition is now closed. The winner was Hari Vaudrey.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Bouncing off the wall: Make an ideas board

“That’s a big to-do list!” people say the first time they come into my kitchen. Then they look a bit closer. “Oh, no, it’s not a to-do list, is it?...What's lock-hopping?!”
Nope, this is absolutely not a place to scribble down drudgy things like ‘Milk, bread, bananas’ or ‘Fix toilet roll holder’. This is an ideas board. Inspiration for future fun and life-to-be-lived. Somewhere to put good ideas magpied from magazines or websites or the outside world. Somewhere to put those ideas that ping into my head when I'm in the shower or that boing out of a conversation with a friend. 
The board is divided into sections: Places to go, Things to do with Little Kid, Things to do with Big Kid (an incredibly shrinking section now that doing stuff with your mother is so not cool), Food we could make, Holidays we could go on (or dream of going on!) and Random, the section for all the things that don't fit any other section. And of course, what's on the board constantly evolves as I rub off the things we do and new ideas come bobbing along.
Making it was easy. It’s a piece of MDF painted with blackboard paint and screwed to the wall. Simples. But its more powerful than the sum of its parts. Here's what it does.

1. It gives us a grab-and-go idea whenever we need one. Having a family day out? Rainy day and want to do something arty-crafty at home? Half-term coming up and want to go away for a few days? Feel like cooking something new for dinner? It saves us starting from scratch and scrabbling around for an idea every time we need one.

2.It makes things happen! Having these ideas constantly hovering in front of my eyes when I’m unloading the dishwasher or getting peas out the freezer keeps them fresh in my mind and makes them much, much more likely to happen. It turns a ‘we could do that one day’ mentality into a ‘let's do it today’ reality.

3.It empties out my head. I don’t have to carry around all those ideas like a big black scribble inside my head anymore – or have little lists on scraps of paper all over the house like I used to. In fact, I sometimes joke that this board is the contents of my head.
Oh, and just in case you're wondering what 'lock-hopping' is, it's a half-baked idea that came to me while sitting by a canal lock one sunny day. 

Lock-hopping: Hitching a ride on a canal boat at a lock, changing boat every time you get to the next lock. The aim is to see how far you can get and to meet and talk to as many people as possible.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Quirky World: A wee jaunt to Edinburgh

It’s the Easter holidays and my daughter and I are on a £20 flight from London to Edinburgh. That’s £20 total. For the both of us. There and back. (You can knock Ryanair but they get us places other airlines aren’t cheap enough to get us!).

Then a 25-minute ride on the new swanky tram that runs from the airport to the city and there we are, slap-bang in the centre of all things Scottish.
We discuss what bagpipers might or might not wear under their kilts, try on some See-You-Jimmy hats, contemplate the idea of a deep-fried Mars Bar, and then set off to sniff out some of the quirkiest things to do in the city.

1. Go to a cat cafe
I am not a cat lover. So the idea of a cat cafe – a cafe with resident cats to pet, play and chill out with – wasn’t that tempting to me... Cat-hair sandwiches? Eau de litter tray? No thanks. My daughter, on the other hand, is definitely destined to be a dotty old cat lady, and I knew this would be a real treat for her.

So I booked an hour’s slot at Maison de Moggy and printed out the names, pictures and personalities of their twelve cats from the website for her to read on the plane. (“Look mum! It says Marcel likes having a chat!” Mmm. Really? I look forward to that.)

The owner greeted us with a quick run-through of the cafe rules before we were let loose to interact with the cats.
And I have to say the place was in fact very enticing. Halfway between a comfy living room...
...and an adventure playground for cats.
It was also spotlessly clean and odour-free. I loved the entrance to the tunnel which led to the cats' separate toilet area.
We were even asked to take our shoes off to keep the carpet clean for the cats. And actually, padding around in our socks just added to the relaxed, living-room vibe.

Drinks and cakes were available though there was no obligation to buy them as “some of our cats really like cake and you may not want to be pestered!”.

My daughter didn’t even stop to glance at the menu. While I sat on a sofa and sipped tea, she skipped from cat to cat, adoring them all. As did everyone else. It was like some sort of Feline Love Fest. Elodie, the Sphinx kitten, was particularly popular (ew).
My daughter's clear favourite though, was the more ordinary-looking Marcel.
Perhaps it was because he was such a good conversationalist.

2. Have your head served on a platter
The Camera Obscura & World of Illusions is five-floors of eye-tricking, mind-bending, body-distorting exhibits. One of those places you spend the whole time saying to each other, "Come and look at this!" and "You have to try that!"

Apart from having our heads chopped off, we swapped noses with each other, captured our shadows, shrunk our hands, stumbled around in the mirror maze, met our twin, drew with light, walked through the spinning tunnel, changed our faces to a chimp's and re-sized ourselves in the warped perspective room.
We couldn't even walk past a picture on a wall without it sucking us in. Can YOU see the hidden tiger in this picture?
At the top of the building, in a Victorian rooftop chamber is the camera obscura itself. This rather ingenious piece of equipment from the 1850s projects live moving images of the streets of Edinburgh through a pinhole camera in the roof. You can watch people and cars going about their daily business on a viewing table right in front of you.
Photograph: Edinburgh's Camera Obscura 
“19th-century technology!" said our guide. "The Victorians must have been pretty pleased with themselves, don’t you think?” Then he gave us all a piece of paper and showed us how we could play around with the images, like scooping people up onto the paper, or making a paper bridge for the traffic to drive over. “This is really fun!” said my daughter, with a slightly evil giggle.

We got even more excited when we discovered that the World of Illusions also had its own modern equivalent of a camera obscura – webcams spying on the people on the streets below that you could control yourself with a lever and a button.
Choose your spot, choose your victim and zoom on in, lip-readingly close. Catch someone swigging a can of Irn-Bru – or maybe eating a bogey! It was incredibly addictive. I did wonder about the ethics of it though.

My daughter was obviously thinking along the same lines. Because when we got back to our Novotel and were getting undressed for a swim, she suddenly stopped in her tracks, looked around the walls of the changing room and said, “Do you think there's a secret camera in here? People could be zooming in on us right now!”

3. See the UK’s only pandas and koala bears
Edinburgh Zoo has the honour of having the only Giant Pandas and Koalas in Britain.

All the koalas were actually fast asleep. They sleep 18 hours a day after all (there’s not a lot of calorific energy in eucalyptus, you know!). But we didn't mind. I mean, does it get any cuter than this?
The pandas, a male called Yáng Guāng (Sunshine) and Tián Tián (Sweetie) are on a 10-year loan from China. Being just inches away from a panda – sat in the teddy-bear position munching its way through a mountain of bamboo like every cartoon panda you've ever seen – was pretty special.
Although my daughter quickly spotted a difference. "You always think of pandas as perfectly coal black and snow white, but they're not, are they?” she said.

We only got to see Sunshine because the zoo likes to give the pandas turns at having time-out from the public eye. “They need private time,” explained the panda keeper. “To do things they’re uncomfortable doing in front of us. Just like you wouldn’t pick your nose in your living room if people were peering in your window.” At that very moment Sunshine entertained us all by going into a handstand and doing a huge gush of a wee-wee.
The rules of etiquette clearly weren't quite the same as for humans then. I always do my upside-down wees in private.

You can watch the pandas here on Edinburgh Zoo’s live web cam.

4. Go underneath the city
Photograph: The Real Mary King's Close
I love the idea of a secret world beneath our feet. A city under a city. And what do you know, Edinburgh has one! 

The Real Mary King’s Close is an underground warren of narrow 17th century streets and houses. Originally, the streets would have been open to the skies, winding downhill from the Royal Mile. But in 1753 the Royal Exchange was built on top of them and the houses used as foundations for the new buildings.

I'd worried that the one-hour underground tour by a costumed guide might be too scary or too over the head of my 10 year old. I needn’t have. Although it was incredibly atmospheric, the focus was definitely on educating rather than scaring, with enough Horrible Histories type humour and grossness to keep kids entertained.
Photograph: The Real Mary King's Close
In fact, our guide Agnes, a 17th-century maid, said it was her job to empty the household bucket of poo and wee twice a day, 7am and 10pm. She chucked it down the street like all the other maids from all the other houses and over the years, a lake of excreta formed at the bottom of the hill. Nice.

My daughter did jump at the sight of the life-like models of plague victims and she refused to go into “Annie’s room” where the ghost of a sad, abandoned, young girl was detected by a Japanese psychic as recently as 1992. Now visitors often bring her her toys.
Photograph: The Real Mary King's Close
But what most stuck in both our minds was the punishment of a woman found guilty of murder. She was tied up into a ball and with a little push sent tumbling down the hill to drown in Poop Lake. Apparently, it took her 40 minutes to penetrate the surface. Urgggh. 

"So how would you rather die?" asked my daughter on the flight back home. "Drown in Poop Lake or die of the plague?" 

"Drown in Poop Lake," I answered. "It's quicker." 

"Okay," she said. "Empty the poo and wee bucket, or have your face licked all over by a Sphinx cat?" that's a tricky one.

If you like this, you might like Warsaw, the cheapest family foreign trip ever!

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Jellybeans, Wotsits and upside-down faces: Quirky ideas for birthday party games

David’s den, Uncle Ben, cock and hen! My daughter is 10. Double digits already! 

She had her own, very precise ideas about how she wanted to celebrate her birthday. She’d even planned this rather nifty paper-engineering design for her invitation.
Yep, she wanted the tent up in the living room. Three friends. Sleeping bags. The film Matilda. Popcorn. And a Midnight Feast straight off the pages of Malory Towers. 
But there was still room for a little pre-pyjama entertainment. Here are the games we played, loosely based around the number 10, although they would work with any number, any age, any time...

Game 1: The jellybean test
I bought a box of jellybeans with interesting flavours like Candy Floss and Toasted Marshmallow. I selected 10 of the 20 flavours from the guide on the back of the packet and photographed and printed out an enlarged version of the appropriate section. 

The children took it in turns to sit in the designated ‘jellybean tasting chair' with their eyes closed. Then I popped a jellybean in their mouth (making sure I knew which flavour it was by its colouring) and showed them the guide.
Could they guess which flavour it was?!

One point for each correct answer!

Game 2: Mr. Twit
This game (not my own idea but I can't find the origin) is named after the Roald Dahl character Mr. Twit because he gets food stuck in his beard when he eats. My very obliging husband squirted himself a magnificent shaving foam beard (and eyebrows) and sat himself down on a chair in the kitchen. The girls had 10 Wotsits each and took it in turns to throw one at him from a specified distance (about 2 metres away, but I let them move a bit closer with each round). Despite the ridiculousness of the game, you should have seen the seriousness on their faces as they aimed!

One point for each Wotsit that sticks to the beard (two for an eyebrow)!

Game 3: Chinny McWizard
I made faces on their chins with googly eyes (stuck on with a smear of Pritt Stick) and noses drawn on with lip pencil. Then they took it in turns to lie on the floor in pairs (bodies and eyes covered with blankets) and strike up a conversation. Freakily funny! I fed them 10 topics to talk about, one at a time, to keep the conversation flowing (e.g. things they're scared of, a teacher at school...). I filmed the conversations so we could watch them together on the TV at the end. Here's a tiny snippet...
One point every time something they said got a laugh when we watched it on TV! 

(Though I didn’t tell them this till afterwards because I wanted them to enjoy watching themselves without worrying about how many laughs they were getting!)

The prizes
Rather than dishing out sweets to each winner of each game, I totted up their total scores at the very end.
I’d prepared a box of more substantial, non-edible prizes – a mood ring, secret message pen, whoopee cushion... The person with the most points got to choose a prize first, then the person in second place, and so on. They seemed to really like this system. 

Now time to set up camp and get cosy... Wouldn’t it be great if they were asleep by 10, I thought to myself, as I saw a pig fly over the tent.

If you like this you might like the 13 challenges I set my son on his 13th birthday.