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Yesterday my Mum and I took my kids to the Great North Museum, or as I used to know it, the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. We had such a brilliant time that I wanted to tell you all about it.

I used to visit this museum as a child myself. I remember going with my grandparents, probably in the school holidays while my parents were at work. The images I have are of a large, dark building, filled with dusty cases of animals. The butterflies were pinned in orderly rows in glass cases all along the upstairs balcony. There was a ‘Noah’s Ark’ feature, with stuffed animals in jaunty poses around a painted ark, again all behind glass. There were some interactive elements 20 years ago: I remember being very taken with the brass rubbing plates, and I think we built some sort of Egyptian pyramid or casket. But there was nothing like the displays and facilities they have now.

The museum underwent a massive refurbishment starting in 2006 and finishing two years later, changing from the Hancock Museum to the Great North Museum as it incorporated collections from three other local galleries. The change is extraordinary.

Upon entering the first main hall, you’re faced with a huge display of animals from floor to ceiling. Birds are suspended from the roof as if flying through the air. Some of the animals are still behind glass, but many are out in the open. Squirrels scamper across the roof of display areas and a wolf prowls through the trees as if they’ve sneaked out of their cases. The staid and stuffy museum has really come to life and the clever arrangement does justice to the collected animals.

This shot shows some butterflies suspended haphazardly in the window of a house-like display area, as if they were fluttering by. Anyone studying the collection could see them just as clearly as if they were mounted neatly in a case, but for the casual viewer or for children, the innovative arrangement brings a sense of life and of the outdoors, putting the artefacts into context.

My two-year-old absolutely loved it. He was delighted by all the animals. His favourite exhibit, though, was a journey into the afterlife, Egyptian-style. In a darkened room, a ceiling projector cast images of snakes, feathers and fire on to the floor, depicting the various stages of an ancient Egyptian descent into hell. The voiceover went quite literally over his head, but he would happily have spent hours dancing around trying to avoid the snakes or catch the feathers on the floor.

He was also pretty impressed with the dinosaur.

One of my favourite parts of the museum was a little gallery tucked away at the side of the ground floor. It was a gallery about museums: about how and why we collect things, categorise them and preserve them. The objects in this gallery were really varied, from a selection of skulls arranged neatly on a shelf to a drawer of My Little Ponies. This gallery captured, for me, the spookiness and oddity of the original museum. Amazing as the ‘animated’ collections are, there’s something special about the sense of past, the sense of wonder at this world full of diverse stuff, that a formal, ‘scientific’ museum collection evokes.

I took lots more photos yesterday and there are a few more of them on my Flick page. Unfortunately they aren’t as good as I’d like; my excuse is that most were taken whilst wearing a large and wriggly baby on my front. I’d love to go back to the Hancock Museum myself and take some proper photos with a real camera – perhaps I should add that to my plans for 2011!

This post is linked up to Something for the Weekend at Thinly Spread, a weekly link-up with loads of ideas for things to do with the kids at the weekend. Take a look for a variety of posts from some great blogs.

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THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED

You might remember last month we were lucky enough to review the Playskool Ball & Gear Centre. That post features a link for 50% cashback on Playskool toys which is active until the end of October. Now the lovely folk at Playskool have asked me to run a giveaway of the Ball & Gear Centre too.

The Ball & Gear Centre is suitable for babies from 9 months up (although as you can see, our then-five-month-old rather liked it too!).

For a chance to win, simply leave a comment on this post, telling me what toy you’d like to get for your kids for Christmas.

The competition is open to UK residents only. Entries will be accepted until midnight on Saturday 23rd October. The winner will be selected using a random number generator and will be contacted by email on Sunday 24th October. If they have not responded within five days then a new winner will be drawn. The prize will be sent directly to the winner from Playskool.

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED

Since posting this I’ve discovered that some other bloggers are giving away Playskool toys this week too. For more chances to win, check out

There’s an Explore & Grow Activity Tower at Making it up

A Step Start Walk & Ride at Transatlantic Blonde

A Gloworld Musical Gym at Typecast

Susan K Mann is giving away another Ball & Gear Centre

There’s a Chase Me Critter at Glowstars

And finally, a super-cute Lullaby Gloworm at Cooking, Cakes and Children

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The official info: Featuring music and sound effects, and 5 interchangeable gears, the colourful Playskool Explore ‘N Grow musical gear centre is an exciting toy. Toddlers can drop the ball through the shoot and press the critter to make the ball twirl and pop out. The 5 interchangeable gears can be tacked and reconfigured for more spinning options. Retails for around £24.99

What we thought: When offered the opportunity to test one of the range of Playskool toys, I chose the Ball and Gear Centre because I wanted something that my baby, who is currently just over five months old, would grow into and get a lot of use out of. He can sit unsupported, although not for very long, and he enjoys sitting in front of this and banging away at the gears (and occasionally having a chew!).

We also tried him on his tummy, which seemed to go down well. This toy is recommended for 9+ months, and I can see that it’ll be better once he can sit by himself and crawl round it, and better again once he can stand up and drop the balls in the top. I thought that my toddler (who has just turned two) might like this toy too, and although he played with it for a while, there wasn’t enough to hold his interest for long. This isn’t a criticism, though, as obviously it is aimed at a younger age group.

Pros

  • This toy appeals to quite young babies, but will hold their interest as they grow. My 2 year old matched the coloured gears up to their matching bases and stacked them all as a tower.
  • It’s bright, unfussy and very sturdy. None of these trendy muted colours.
  • It encourages hand/eye co-ordination.

Cons

  • The two plastic balls are very lightweight, and on our laminate flooring they managed to smoothly glide away under the sofa and into hidden corners as soon as they touched the ground.
  • The music, while appealing to little ones, isn’t so appealing to adults and only has one volume level (pretty loud).
  • This is a big sturdy piece of plastic and doesn’t fold down, so not ideal if you’re struggling for storage space.

In conclusion: This is a bright, fun, good quality toy that would be great for babies from around 9 – 18 months.

Now to the bit you’ve all been waiting for! Simply click through this link here for 50% off Playskool products throughout September and October.

In return for publishing this post and link I received the Playskool Ball & Gear Centre to keep, but have not received any additional payment.

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It ain’t easy being green

I’ve always liked the idea of green living. Living sustainably and not taking more than we need from the earth makes total sense to me. However, putting the principles into practice hasn’t always worked out. There was the ill-fated compost bin: the idea of dumping all our fruit and veg peelings to rot in a big tub in the corner of the back yard seemed, for some reason, like a good idea at the time. But when the bin, and the indoor ‘compost caddy’ by the sink started attracting an army of flies (presumably drawn by the putrid stench), I had to concede that my husband was right for once: the compost bin has now remained untouched for over a year.

My first foray into ‘grow your own’ was similarly short-lived. The first couple of weeks were fine, the excitement of watching little shoots sprout from the soil and grow into fresh leafy salad making me feel like domestic goddess extraordinaire. Sadly, buying planters from the 99p shop turned out to be a false economy. The stones I’d chucked in the bottom were no substitute for proper drainage and the first heavy rainfall saw my mini salad crop turn into a waterlogged swamp.

So when I received a selection of eco-friendly products from energyrethinking, I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. However, as I looked through the products and browsed the website, I realised that perhaps I’m not such an eco-disaster after all. The reusable shopping bag was a nice addition to my collection; I get my main weekly shop delivered, but always try to bring my own bags when I’m popping into the village for extra bits and bobs. The pack also included a hippo water saver – simply pop it into the toilet cistern and save water on every flush. There’s an obvious pun here that I’m not going to use… Rather, it’s a dead easy way to do a little bit for the environment, and if your water is metered it could save some pennies too. There were a couple of bits in the pack that I know I won’t use, but in true eco (and money-saving) style, those bits can go to someone who will use them, via my local Freegle group – which is my top tip for saving money, recycling all sorts of unwanted junk and getting involved in your local community. And if I can get some decent plant pots from Freegle next spring, I may well use the salad seeds from energyrethinking and give that home growing another go.

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It’s BabyD’s birthday tomorrow, and one of the presents we’ve bought for him is Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne. It’s a gorgeous book, really quirky with loads of hidden detail. The drawings are, I think, inspired by various famous works of art, or by the style of the artist. There’s a Dali pastiche, with melting bananas in place of clocks, and a burning banana casting a shadow in the background. Another page looks very like Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes, and the last is reminiscent of Rene Magritte. I also see characters I recognise from films and from Alice in Wonderland. The book is a fascinating artwork in itself, taking various styles and reproducing them with a witty and idiosyncratic twist.

What has really interested me, though, is that I really like this book. Not so long ago, I would have found this sort of thing very frustrating. I like to feel like I’m a clever person. When reading Jilly Cooper (ok, admittedly not usually the actions of a clever person, but bear with me), I love it when I recognise one of the literary allusions – spotting the odd line of Wordsworth or Catullus dropped nonchalantly into the dialogue gives me a satisfying sense of being ‘one of the gang’, in on some little joke that those who aren’t as well-read wouldn’t get. However, this is a double-edged sword. Because, of course, for every in-joke that I get, every smug nod of recognition, there are several that pass me by. When I read a quote from a poet that I didn’t recognise, I’d be really pissed off, mostly with myself for not having read enough and not knowing enough. “I don’t know whether this is Shelley or Byron – ugh, I’m so pathetic and thick.” I couldn’t bear the idea that there are people out there who’ve read gallons and gallons of poetry and literature, and who know things that I’m never likely to know.

I would have expected that Willy the Dreamer would evoke the same feelings. There are several pictures in there that look vaguely familiar, and that I’m pretty sure would have me chuckling with recognition if I was an expert in modern art. But for some reason, knowing that there are jokes I’m not getting and things I don’t know isn’t winding me up so much today. Either this is because Anthony Browne is somewhat more talented than Jilly Cooper, and his books are rich and beautiful regardless of whether you can spot every artistic reference and inspiration. Or possibly it could be because I’m becoming a little more comfortable with myself, more confident in the things I know, and in my ability to find out the things I don’t know. I do still feel like I have a lot to learn, and that I’ve a long way to go before I really understand ‘being in the world’, but perhaps part of the way there is becoming relaxed about the ideas that I can never know everything, and that there will always be people out there who know a hell of a lot more than me.

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BabyD loves Toy Story. He loves Woody, he loves Rex and he especially loves Buzz Lightyear. So when I saw that our local cinema was screening Toy Story 3 at a special mother and baby session, for children under the age of three, I thought great, he’ll love it, let’s go.

It wasn’t his first trip to the cinema. I’d previously been to Bringing in Baby screenings at a cinema in town, but the last time we did that he was about six months old and happy to sit on my knee, feeding and sleeping. Now he is almost two and is happier running around, talking incessantly. But he loves Buzz so much, I thought, surely he’ll be transfixed throughout.

Not so. Our first error was getting to our seats ten minutes before the allotted start time. He was reasonably patient; luckily we had been to the library beforehand so I had a stack of new library books to keep him diverted. The first few minutes of adverts went brilliantly: he was indeed transfixed and I even tweeted that I had high hopes for the rest of the film. Sadly, my hopes were dashed. By half way through the trailers he was getting twitchy and when the film finally started (after half an hour of trailers and ads – what were they thinking?!) he was diverted for ten minutes or so.

His behaviour then descended (understandably, as he is, remember, not yet two years old) to climbing, whinging and asking to get past. Luckily the aisles were narrow enough that my strategically placed legs were enough to stop him rampaging past the sleeping three-year-old a few seats down. He got through drinks, various snacks and back to the books. A particularly garish one with plenty of flaps held his attention reasonably well in the semi-darkness. There was more climbing, then just as I attached the little one to my breast, BabyD started whimpering ‘stuck, stuck’. He had stood near the back of his chair and (this being a cinema) the seat had flipped up, wedging his feet down the back. I managed to retrieve him, minus one shoe, which I was unable to locate until the end credits.

Despite all of this, I was able to catch some of the film, which was marvellous. The quality of the animation compared to 15 years ago is simply astounding. Scenes are rich and detailed, which adds to the pace and authenticity. There is much to entertain hardcore fans, often with lines repeated verbatim from earlier movies (presumably to raise a smile in parents who have been subjected to them often enough to learn the dialogue by heart). Woody is the real star of the show; the perfect animation of his flailing, gangly limbs makes him utterly charming and hilariously funny.

The best moment for me was undoubtedly the last scene of the film. It was just beautiful and full of joy. It finally grabbed BabyD’s attention too and with him sat on one knee and BabyC sat on the other, I admit I shed a few tears thinking of all the wonderful playtime my boys have ahead of them, and of the day when they’ll grow up and leave home, learning to leave childish things behind.

I can’t wait for the DVD so that husband and I can watch it together and share plenty laughs and I few tears over a glass of wine or two. And my next trip to the cinema with BabyD and BabyC will probably be some time around 2014.

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The Thrupenny Bits Breastfeeding Pillow is one of the best bits of baby kit I’ve come across. I only wish I had found it sooner: I bought a Widgey pillow during my first pregnancy and while that has been great to use at home, a Thrupenny Bits pillow could have done the same job and more.

The crucial design point of this pillow is that it is so lightweight, which makes it extremely portable. The polystyrene filling is robust but light as a feather. The straps can be tied at any length, so it attaches comfortably to both my slim single and my enormous twin pushchairs. It could easily be carried over the shoulder too (although I’ve never done this, as pillow plus handbag plus baby in a sling would probably be too much bulk!).

Another (minor) plus point that puts this pillow ahead of other similar products is that it can be converted into a bag by removing the filling, once you have finished breastfeeding for good. Realistically, I’m unlikely to ever use this as a handbag/fashion bag. I bought the plain cord version at £29. If I’d bought this way back when I was on full pay, I may well have gone for the larger, £55 version, which comes in more appealing fabrics. However, even in the nicest of fabrics, you can’t get round the fact that it’ll be a slouchy, unstructured bag (which might be in fashion when I finally finish feeding!) and that the strap has to be tied in a fairly bulky knot at the top. Having said that, it will make a decent nappy bag, perhaps to keep in the car with spare clothes/snacks etc for the boys.

In my opinion, the Thrupenny Bits pillow is the best breastfeeding pillow on the market: it’s attractive (with grown-up fabrics rather than babyish prints), it’s supportive and above all, it’s totally portable.

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