Our final activity of the summer break was making things from Polymer clay. We have a bit of experience of polymer clay but not much so there was still an element of experimentation. It was completely freestyle so everyone got to choose what they were going to make and how many things they were going to make.
My 13 and 9 year olds must have been in dark, horror fan moods because one created a zombie and one created a plaque that was essentially a body that had been attacked by a zombie. Mayhaps I have been taking the zombie thing too far with them this summer, what with Night of the Living Dead location shoots and all, but I am happy to have some more zombie fans in the family.
My 10 year old is following his older brother’s footsteps and getting into Minecraft so he created a Creeper figure with the clay. My 7 year old decided to make a tiny, adorable bunny rabbit complete with tiny carrots. He also made a bunch of other tiny little things. He’s all about making small things he can easily shove in his pockets – which then easily end up in the washing machine.
I decided to join in too and I sort of fused what my kids were doing, combining zombies and bunnies to see if I could create tiny polymer clay versions of my zombie bunny characters. I can see those ending up in my 7 year old’s pockets too.
My kids have now returned to school after the long (ever so long) summer break but we managed to squeeze in a couple more activities in the final days of summer. One of these was making chocolate bars. It is something we have done in the past but I don’t think we have done it since we emigrated to America so they were excited to get to do it again.
I have four silicone moulds for just this purpose. I think they were designed for making bars of soap but they work perfectly for making big, fat, chunky confectionery. The boys had picked out their added ingredients so, once we had melted the chocolate on the hob (stove top), it was just a case of each kid pouring some chocolate into the mould and then building up their personalised Wonka bar using whatever ingredients they selected. There were things like M&Ms and mini-marshmallows and dried cranberries and my oldest son even added prunes. It was simple, quick, easy, and fun and the best part was, of course, that they got to have a chunking chocolate bar for dessert that evening.
It is often most fun to do something creative with the kids when nobody is aiming for realism or a likeness to something and where perfection is not necessary. That way nobody sets themselves up for stress or disappointment or dissatisfaction. That is one of the reasons why the sock monsters worked so well as opposed to some other sort of sewing project. Creating collages with magazine clippings was, therefore, the perfect activity to keep everyone happy and content with what they were producing.
We started by painting some watercolour paper with acrylic paint so that we had a bright background. Then it was simply a case of flicking through magazines and cutting out images, shapes, patterns or bits of text that caught our eye and sparked our imaginations. The idea was to construct a ludicrious, ridiculous image by doing a sort of “Frankenstein” on the images and placing them together in a funny, haphazard way. For ease of use, we adhered all of the magazine clippings using glue sticks.
My 13 year old did the one with the red background. I love that he used a roast chicken as a body for his weird creation. My 7 year old did the one on the orange background. It makes me chuckle. I love the detail of the tiny knife and fork in each hand and using the cat’s mouth was a stroke of comedy genius. My 9 year old worked on the green background. He wanted to create an action scene. I like the giant fists on the little Lego man. My 10 year old worked on the yellow background and like his little brother he chose to create an action scene. I like the way the main figure is composed out of Lego parts but ones that are out of proportion with each other. I worked on the blue background and made a little character. I used a paint pen to outline and tie the image together. Cheap and easy but so much fun.
Whose smart idea was it to include making sock monsters as an option in the summer activity box, eh?
Making sock monsters, sock monkeys, sock elephants and sock bunnies is probably super-duper easy for people who are competent at sewing. My sewing qualifications are that I can take up hems with neat little hand stitches and can replace buttons neatly. All other sewing jobs I have to do I do totally cack-handedly. I can only hand sew since I don’t even know how to thread a machine and I find it endlessly frustrating and exceedingly difficult. Sewing on Scout badges makes me grit my teeth, grimace and occasionally swear. I have a box in my bedroom that the kids call the toy hospital. In it they place any cuddly toy that needs a repair. The toy hospital has been overflowing for several months. I procrastinate over any sewing job that is non-urgent because I find sewing to be so trying. I have made sock monkeys, a sock elephant and sock monsters for my kids and those really were labours of love.
Knowing how much they love their handmade sock toys, I must have thought it would be a great idea to add that as an activity for the summer. I also thought it would be to their benefit to learn a couple of basic stitches and how to sew on buttons. Life skills.
The boys were excited at the prospect of making their own toys and trying something entirely new. They ran off to gather their chosen socks and then we settled down to start sewing. Do you know how much patience I have for threading needles? Very little. Want to guess how much patience I have for threading four needles? Zero. My ten year old chose a fluffy slipper sock which provided an extra degree of challenge since the embroidery thread kept snaggling up in all the piled fluff of the sock. I think I rethreaded his needle three times just for stitching the mouth. The boys had found stitching the mouths to be frustrating but they persevered and did it. It was useful that we were making monsters since it did not matter that the lines of the mouths were asymmetrical or otherwise wonky. Monsters are perfectly imperfect, right?
They enjoyed rummaging through my collection of random buttons to pick out eyeballs for their monsters. I have my Gran’s button tin since I spent many happy hours rummaging through them and playing with them. I think it might be a universal kid thing to find boxes of buttons appealing. Sadly very few of my buttons have any personal history. A few have been snipped from old garments but most came from a car boot sale to be deployed in craft activities and educational games I used to play with my kids when they were preschoolers. Eyeballs selected, the boys then sewed them on. To begin with they found aiming for the button holes to be difficult but then they got the hang of it and I could see they were experiencing a sense of accomplishment.
Then it was time to sew the legs up, having turned the monsters’ sock skins inside out, and the boys got to practice a different type of stitching. This they found to be much more enjoyable since, being on the inside, the neatness of the stitching did not matter. We left a gap between the legs – which my boys predictably called a “bum hole” – so we then turned the monsters right way around again. Then it was time for stuffing and they decided for themselves how plump or squashy they wanted their monsters to be. Then all that was left to do was sew up the “bum holes” and the monsters were complete.
I thought the whole activity had been a bit of an ordeal. I had been constantly rethreading needles. My oldest son had complained about me licking the thread to assist it in going through the eye of the needle so I had to contend with his germ phobia. Then there were all the snaggled stitches, the breaking threads, and the pricked fingers to deal with. They also started whining about how long this particular activity was taking. Oh well, I thought, they can’t all be winners. But, wouldn’t you know it, one of my kids had covertly been enjoying the activity all along, despite his outward protestations. The next day, he asked me if he could use another sock and make another monster. I was busy at the time but told him sure he could so long as he was prepared to do all of the sewing, though I would thread the needle for him. And so my 9 year old sat and sewed himself a sock monster with barely any guidance or assistance from me. So skills had been learned after all. The sewing ordeal had all been worth it.
One of our Summer “pot luck” activities involves each boy learning to bake a recipe of their choice.
The first to bake was my 9 year old and he chose to make banana bread. I probably make banana bread at least fortnightly. It is so simple and straightforward to make and it is impossible to fail at making banana bread – which is great since I am a pretty good cook but a pretty basic baker. I also like that banana bread uses up bananas that are so overripe and squishy that nobody is going to eat them so it prevents waste. I tend to make banana bread that contains either chunks of sticky date or chocolate chips but we had some surplus blueberries so my 9 year old decided to experiment with making banana and blueberry bread. It was pretty tasty and very sweet.
Next to bake was my seven year old. He elected to make Dulce de Leche chocolate cake from the Hungry Mum blog. Last time I made it, it was no chocolatey enough – though still delicious – but I have since got my hands on some better, more robust cocoa which made all the difference. My youngest did not have his patience tested making the actual dulce de leche: I already had one in reserve as I boil up several cans at once to speed baking up and then store them, labels off, ready for use. He was a great little pastry chef and followed the instructions given. His reward was getting to lick the spoons and bowl clean. We did end up overfilling the loaf tin but, since it was silicone, happily it expanded during cooking to accommodate the expanding cake batter. It was scrumptious and very sweet.
My 10 year old chose to make Tablet. Tablet – if you have not hear of it – is an incredibly sweet Scottish confection made from milk, sugar, and condensed milk. It is so sweet it makes teeth scream and gums cry. I do not, therefore, make it very often. However, I made some for my ten year old not so long ago as he was delivering a presentation to his class all about Greek mythology and decided that they should sample Tablet as a stand-in for Ambrosia. Imagine Zeus nibbling on Tablet?
Tablet is actually pretty simple to make. The real hassle is that it requires constant stirring for up to half an hour. The kids got fed up of stirring a pot of very hot sugary goop after approximately five minutes. This cooking stuff is hard labour, don’t you know!
It turned out we went a bit awry in our process (I said it was simple but apparently it is not foolproof) and probably let the sugar boil into too much of a syrup. The result was that when the tablet set it did so in a way that was still sticky rather than it becoming firm and smooth like fudge. Never mind. Since this batch could not be eaten as a bite size snack, we just had to turn it into dessert and serve it with vanilla ice cream.
Last but not least was my 13 year old son. Since he is older and a little more experienced, I selected a slightly more complicated recipe to work through with him. We made Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies, a recipe I found on Cooking is My Sport. We found it a little challenging because I don’t own a mixer so we had to do everything by hand and the dough mixture became quite dense. He certainly worked his arm muscles stirring. I must admit that I was worried that we had allowed the butter to get too brown but my concern was unfounded as the finished cookies were absolutely divine. The flavour was incredible and they were just the perfect balance of chewy and crisp. I heartily recommend the recipe.
Our next summer activity was to sculpt with air dry clay. Back in Scotland, we had used air dry clay several times during our summer projects – to make ancient Greek pots, for example, when learning about ancient civilizations – but this time I wanted to let the boys have complete and utter free rein. I thought it would be interesting to see what they came up with. I advised on technical issues but otherwise I was able to leave them to it.
My oldest son was over at a friend’s house so it was just the younger three for this activity. They spent quite some time sculpting – sometimes smooshing their creations up and starting over – and then we left them to dry for a couple of days. They dried out pretty quickly, perhaps because the hot and humid summer means the air conditioning has been on. Once they were dry, we got the acrylic craft paints out and they set about decorating their sculptures.
My 9 year old has been making comic books featuring a character from his imagination (who looks a lot like him, a resemblance he denies) so he decided to sculpt that character from clay so that he had his very own, one of a kind, comic book collectible. My 10 year old loves myths and legends so he made a red dragon. My 7 year old made a three-eyed slime monster but wanted to challenge himself to make some very tiny sculptures. He is one of those kids who loves to have tiny wee toys in his pocket so the idea of some small things appealed to him. In addition to the slime monster, therefore, he made a tropical fish, an apple, and a hot dog.
As I mentioned recently, my 9 year old loves to watch cooking challenge shows. That was why he recently convinced his Dad to eat a massive steak when we were on vacation as it was a challenge the restaurant ran. That was down to those competitive eating shows. He also watches shows where the contestants are given a box of random ingredients from which they have to concoct a superbly delicious and delectably presented meal. He asked if he and his brothers could have a try at doing the same thing. Who am I to stand in the way of culinary creativity? However, given they have limited experience in the kitchen, I decided it was best to steer clear of savoury ingredients for now and let them work on creating desserts.
What was a cooking challenge for them was a control freakery challenge for me.
Phase 1 was to take them shopping for the ingredients. I promised myself that, aside from stopping them going crazily over budget, I would let them buy whatever ingredients for the box of options as they saw fit. It started really well. They chose some dried cranberries, prunes and dates – all things they have seen and helped me bake with. But then in the bakery aisle, they reached for a bright blue cake mix. I gulped and went to say something, almost reached out to snatch it from their mitts and place it back on the shelf, but I had a word with myself and let them plonk it into the trolley (cart). That blue cake mix seemed to taunt me from the bottom of the trolley. This was not going to be easy. Then they decided to pick some frosting. My youngest son, a total chocoholic, reached for a chocolate fudgey type one. “No,” I said. “I really don’t think that is going to go with the dried fruit you picked out.” My 13 year old tsked at me and reminded me that I had said I would neither guide them or interfere with their choices. OK. Lips sealed – but pursed – I let them continue. The chocolate fudge frosting was not selected. Instead they picked out a lemon frosting. I managed to say nothing. How is that for self-control? Then there were sprinkles and jelly (jello) and all sorts going into the trolley. Still I said nothing. We went through the checkout. I had not made them put back a single item. I gave myself a mental high five.
So then the challenge was theirs. They made up the cake mix according to the box instructions and made the jelly. Once that was all ready, all the ingredients they had selected at the store, plus a few things we had in the larder cupboards, were set out on the kitchen counter and I left them to it. I had to leave them to it because, you know, control freakery. About an hour later they ushered me into the kitchen to show me their creations. The kitchen was utter carnage. It felt like every mixing bowl, spoon, and spatula had been used. There were sprinkles all over the floor. All. Over. But their faces were beaming with delight and that was the important thing.
That evening, for dessert, Mr Pict and I got to taste test each of their random dessert creations. The sugar high was pretty intense and lemon frosting and blue sponge cake were an interesting combination as was biting into cake and squelching into a jelly layer. We were nevertheless entirely positive and encouraging in our critiques. The best part of this challenge was that the boys’ confidence in the kitchen had grown. By creating something edible without any adult guidance whatsoever they realised that they were capable of doing more in the kitchen than they thought they were.
Now they want to do a savoury food version. I might just have to retain some control over the ingredients for that one though.