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End of term report: June 2014

It’s not quite the end of the week – but it is nearly the end of term.

And you can bet that, come mid August, all those bright wee things will have sprouted extra inches of leg and new hairstyles and far more in-depth knowledge of whatever it is they’re keen on.

So maybe it’s time instead to take stock of where things are at now – because assuredly it will all be different when the new term comes round.

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Like many other places, Edinburgh schools have been overtaken by loom bands. In some places, they are the reserve of girls; in others, boys are working away with the best of them to create whatever the latest plastic bangle look is coolest right now.

Mums chat in huddles, identifying the best deals and the new equipment to make the things on…and others just get fed up with lots of little coloured rubber bands everywhere.

Small D returns home with an aquarium. Think paper plate, blue-ish scene behind, clear film on the front to look like the glass. I rather like the two (actual) shells – and the carefully inscribed lines to show that they are falling down through the water.

Sports days are on and off and happen in the rain and sometimes even happen on good (bright, sunny) days.

There are end of term discos where everyone emerges dripping with sweat and clutching an ice lolly.

I think there may be the great ceremonial pile out off to the park on the last day of term, to play, eat a picnic lunch, play some more. Some of that gradual leave taking before parents batten down the hatches and engage the hard-won Long Holiday tactics.

There are coffees snatched, and parent conversations indulged in before the holidays begin, and an actually still heated beverage becomes but a happy dream.

There are calculations about rate of hair growth and the possibility of hot summer, and decisions to be made about summer haircuts.

There is the counting down of final packed lunches, and snacks, and school uniform washing loads. And there is the complicated deliberation about teacher presents/cards at the end of the school year.

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Life becomes a little bit more complex at this stage of school – but not too much so yet. Not too knowing yet. Thankfully.

Boys and girls both engage with creating their own little worlds online (mainly through Minecraft).

There are Brownies activities, and judo competitions, and a hundred and one other ways to signal the end of scheduled time for a few weeks.

Playdates involve more requests for (computer) screen time – but messing about outdoors is still high on the list of entertainments.

Swings, and hide and seek, and monkey bars at the park. Even a hammock to try out at a friend’s house, if you’re lucky.

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We have this stretch of several days of good weather. (For those used to one day sun, one day sea mist in Edinburgh, that’s unusual.) Prolonged grass cutting ensues. The new picnic bench is ready for action in the garden.

There is a scurry for sun dresses and skirts and lighter tops and sunscreen. Wearing shorts to the office (if there’s no visitors that day).

I hunt around the attic for those items that can actually come back out for use: inflatables. Games to play outdoors on the grass.

I work around the other items tucked away, those ones for rainy days and cold days and miserable days.

Not just now. Who knows how long the sun may last, but for now, we’ll live in hope of a little more summer to enjoy.

That was the week that was: early May 14

We’re into May. It’s a strange time of year in school circles – feels like pretty much every week has a different pattern.

Occasional days here; school productions there (not yet for Junior Reader, but the school got to watch the final year classes going through their paces).

Junior Reader has become interested in birds – so it was off to look at ospreys on the Monday holiday. More accurately, you look at a TV screen, with cameras trained on the nest, but the ospreys are also on a webcam, so maybe we can see what the chicks are up to next week.

The lambs have stopped their jumping in the fields, and are growing a bit more sedate. Pink blossom starts to come down, covering cars parked beneath the trees.

We tread petals into the pavements as we walk – a mixture of pink and slush, because it is usually rain that brings the petals down.

Cold and warm, cold and warm. The trees and flowers know it’s spring; the temperatures keep going up and down. We dance the late spring coats and gloves dance a little longer. (And rescue the missing child’s glove.)

It’s a time for losing things this week – glasses, glasses case – and, thankfully, finding them again. (And apologising to others who have also been looking for them on our behalf.)

School is looking at non-fiction: so homework includes a sheet where you pull information from different places in a reference book. And a reading book which has penpal correspondence between the UK and the US.

I find myself wondering whether people will keep writing letters or not, in the future. Won’t they just find it all out from Skype – or someone’s online account?

The search for a tent is finally over. Junior Reader proudly lugs it home. It’s really for back garden type activities, at least to start with. (I recommend a sleeping mat too. Thankfully they come in RED, which goes with the red sleeping bag. These things are important.)

We do a bit of DIY, and get down some of the reference books Junior Reader doesn’t normally get to see. Off to Pompeii, a quick survey of classic cars, and the very old British Empire style atlas that is delicate, but fascinating.

Dan and Junior Reader are spending more time on games now. Another go at Cluedo, and some other shorter board games. (I am permitted to nurse a heavy cold and emerge more at mealtimes.)

Junior Reader crafts a card handprint. It’s for the bedroom door, so that you are ‘scanned’ before entering. (I think it’s more of the ongoing spy fascination.)

That’s the idea, except it’s a bit low down for the adults to use. Dan pretends that the voltage is too high when using it for the first time, and we ask Junior Reader to turn it down.

There is also a sudden flurry of homemade cardboard scrolls, with little red circles on the outside, when they’re rolled up, to look like a seal. The most recent one says:

‘My dear people, I am sorry to tell you that we are at war again. From Looey [sic] the 14th, King of France.’

Oh yes, and we finished watching Dogtanian episodes (on DVD) too. Could you tell?

Event management: parents wanted

Once upon a time, many moons ago it seems, I would do a spot of event management.

Not ‘big corporate event, 600 delegates’ kind of events, but still, arrangements to make, people to look after.

Maybe it’s the current school holidays that brings it to mind, but I’d like to think that my event management skills have come on apace since becoming a parent.

If you rate your event management skills, either of senior or junior delegates, cast your experienced eye over the suggestions below and let me know if I’m missing any.

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Weather: senior delegates can be relied on to bring raincoats, umbrellas and so on.
(Do bear in mind, though, that not all possess wellies or the ability to cope with windy conditions.)

Weather considerations are particularly important when event planning for junior delegates. Some events for junior delegates may be highly weather dependent: picnics, trips to the park, use of paddling pools.

Should sufficient wellies etc. become available, all-weather puddle jumping activities are often highly rated by junior delegates.

Those wishing to hone their weather-awareness event planning skills should consider joining ‘Scottish summer’ training courses, where event planners include wellies, suncream, midge repellant and swimming costumes among their ‘must-have’ kit.

Transport: this is made much easier by things like bus passes and family railcards. But when booking travel for your junior delegates, have you packed an activity bag for them?

Many senior delegates are able to amuse themselves on train journeys; junior ones need entertainment, snacks, regulated bathroom breaks and robust answers to the questions of when you might arrive.

Seasoned event planners will know the appropriate ratio of activity items to weight of bag that they themselves will be carrying, and prepare accordingly.

Entertainment: senior delegates may just need to add caffeine, alcohol or both. Choose an environment where everyone has to stand, noise levels that mean you can’t often hear the conversation next to you, and you’re away.

Jaded senior delegates may need more help in relaxing. You may wish to add in themed events related to the country of your gathering; dancing; after-dinner comic turns, or other such forms of entertainment.

Junior delegates’ entertainment needs may be tackled in various ways. You can lay on all kinds of excitements for them, including museum trips and days out.

It may be though that their attention is elsewhere (e.g. the marine wildlife outing where the junior delegate’s attention is firmly on the machinery in the venue. I speak from experience.)

You can pursue the ‘this is all new’ entertainment policy. This allows for bracing walks along canal paths, opportunities to admire former industrial machinery while in transit, and so on.

Junior delegates however may come with their own extensive supplies of Ingenuity, Imagination and/or Novelty.

In this case, the event managers may consider skipping down the street with junior delegates, holding hands; inviting junior delegates’ views on spotting dragons in clouds, and other cost-effective entertainments.

Accommodation: Senior delegates are likely to demand a higher standard of accommodation. Rooms with en-suite bath, complementary toiletries, mini-bar etc are all likely to be welcomed, as is free wi-fi.

It is an under-acknowledged fact that junior delegates are likely to be similarly pleased by such accommodation, although the mini-bar may be used more for holding tomorrow’s lunch supplies and event managers’ chocolate rations.

Junior delegates will also appreciate: being able to use keycards to open hotel doors; being able to operate lifts by themselves; being able to eat baked beans at breakfast (aka access to hotel buffets).

Event managers’ essentials: senior delegates are likely to be troubled by an absence of badges, folders, and name tags on lanyards that are instantly discarded after the event.

Pencil cases, clipboards, mobile phones and other similar equipment are expected.

Events managers for junior delegates may need more personalised awareness of the delegates’ wishes.

They may wish to include items such as: favoured cuddly toy; new book or magazine (to be produced, suddenly, for rapid mood improvement); games with not too many pieces for use on train tables.

Other essentials may include: plasters for cut knees and other ailments; snacks and back-up snacks for sudden unassailable hunger; and chargers for mobile devices for when it All Gets Too Much.

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Happy half-term!

A Christmas Carol: Christmas parties

Ah, the Christmas party. Top contender for most feared Christmas experience? Or is that a little harsh?

Clothes shops think otherwise. Let there be little black dresses, and let them be sparkly too. Hairdressers gear up for the workload that goes with other people’s party season.

You know what they say. Introverts and extroverts both go to parties. (It’s true.)

But there is one group that soaks it all up, and one group that enjoys some of it, then secretly calculates how much a taxi home will cost if you are planning to make a break for it early.

You may have surmised which group I’m part of. (Though really, the fact that I stay home, sit on my own and write on a blog should have already given you some clues.)

The difficulty with parties is the contrast between the expectations, and our reading of what unfolds. Some days, the two may not be so far apart. Hurray for when that happens.

Or we may experience some aspect of the party which redeems it for us. It might be a good chat with a friend we haven’t spent time with for a while.

The odd free drink (depending on the party). The opportunity to see just what the photocopier can work with (depending on your Christmas party preferences).

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Christmas Past

In my memory, Christmas parties go back to the time of primary school. Those points when suddenly, non-uniform is allowed – and music, games and food combine to inflame the spirits of the under 10s.

You may even have been practising your dance moves in advance of the party. The noble Scottish tradition of teaching ceilidh dances in primary school means you can have most people up and dancing most of the time.

I think, at primary school stage, it was kind of OK. Most of us wanted games, and got them. There was some dancing, but everyone did the same, and no one had to work out what kind of dance moves were acceptable (or not).

There was food. We were expected to like jelly and ice cream, crisps and sausage rolls.
That was good, because we did. Even the wearing of party hats was not a matter of dispute.

Like any party though, there are highs and lows.  In primary school, we don’t always have the social skills to get through. To help ourselves have reasonable expectations of what the experience will be like.

By the end of school, we have it worked out enough, partly through repetition. (And I do have some positive memories of a Christmas party in my first year at secondary school, where the sixth formers brought in the (yes) records, and we suddenly felt terribly cool, dancing to the music of teenagers who had more pocket money than we did.)

But when we reach adulthood: what then? There are expectations of what we wear, how we look, what we drink, how we respond if there are ‘entertainments’. But just what are those expectations?

It would be good if, when we sign our contracts for work, and get our induction packs, someone would slip in a piece of paper that says something about how to prepare for office parties.

There may well be before-party parties, where people down a few to get up the courage to attend the actual party. (I never got invited to these (no great surprise there), but I know they happened because you could identify those who had, when they arrived at the venue.)

Every year, there are serious warnings put out to help people avoid saying and doing the wrong things at office parties. So there must be enough people who didn’t receive that slip of paper in their induction pack, so to speak.

I’m not sure that I ever saw anything particularly significant in that department. But then, I might have been having a good chat with someone, and forgotten to look up.

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Christmas Present

Junior Reader comes home from the school Christmas party. ‘Not happy Bob…not happy. Ask me why.’ (Or words to that effect.)

Well. It may be wiser to tell you what a true super hero would do if faced with organising a party for kids:

– make sure that every child gets a prize for something at the party – and make sure it happens every year.

– make sure that everyone’s cool dance moves are rewarded

– look out prizes which are not just food ones (not everyone will be able to eat them)

– magically remove any memory of trips, stumbles and other sadnesses of the day. Because if the child is feeling at all out of sorts, tired from a long term at school, or any number of other things, all the other difficulties of the day will be remembered.

I do my best to understand. I do. I am unsure how I would feel these days in a room of school kids where everyone is over-excited – not just the birthday girl or boy, as at other parties.

These days, I don’t get work parties. I get a meal and a chat. The chance to relax. I don’t have to wear a party hat. I don’t have to dress up if I don’t want to (and I generally don’t).

A meal – there’s less pressure on that front. A chat – no problem. The menu may be everything to do with Christmas, or nothing, and either is just fine.

Maybe if I view that as my party, I should see the notion of a Christmas party in a better light?

Meanwhile, I offer snuggling on the sofa and some children’s TV to soothe the wounded breast. It may well work for over 10s too.

And if you’re coming in late from an office party, you only have to wait until 6am to check. But you might want to avoid anything overly cheery, if you’ve had a few too many rounds with the office photocopier.

A Christmas Carol: buying presents

When it comes to Christmas present buying, I seem to have lost my mojo. It wasn’t always so.

I don’t want to adopt the Scrooge approach. I read a bit today about Saint Nicholas, and his frequent and anonymous gift giving. That seemed like a good thing.

At the same time, I seem to have reached a point in life where presents seem less important. I am lucky to have the things I need, and more.

As relatives grow older (clearly I do too), it can become harder to work out what to buy for them, when they too have what they need – some may already be giving away possessions.

And yet. There is something special about receiving a present – and something equally special about planning the right item for the right person.

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Christmas Past

Once upon a time, there was a little girl, who was excited about presents, but not so clear on the notion of keeping secrets. So one year, pre-Christmas, she rushed up to her daddy and said, “We’ve got your Christmas present! We got you SOCKS!”

I have moved on a little since then. (And my father has been known to receive more than socks.)

In my teens, I would think carefully about what to buy – for varied school friends, as well as family. I would even do a special day trip to look for more unusual presents than I might find in our fairly small town.

Once I was old enough to travel a bit further, independently, that was an even better source of presents. Painted wooden candlesticks, bowls and so on from Poland.

Linens from one place – honey from many more. (My mum likes honey, and likes trying different kinds.)

It was fun to go looking, trying to find items typical of a particular place – or things that were just beautiful, and right for someone I had in mind.

It didn’t always go right, of course. The item that I loved might not be so appreciated by a relative who already knew what kind of calendar she liked, and didn’t want a fancy Italian one. Even if it was on beautiful paper.

But mostly, there was joy on both sides. Certainly on mine, as the giver.

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Christmas Present

These days, going across town can constitute a work trip. Going abroad takes lots of planning – and more effort than I remember in the past.

So I am left with my imagination, a few ideas from the Internet at times, and whatever I might come across when doing regular food shops. (This is fine, convenient too, but it’s not always a place of  great gift inspiration.)

What has also changed is my realisation of just how easily gifts can be bought, added to, stockpiled. And all of a sudden, that item that you thought long and hard over, hoped would be treasured, is now just one in a collection of many.

What’s left is a desire not to buy things people don’t want. Which tends to mean I mostly buy tokens, give cash, or (with some relatives) make donations on their behalf.

There’s a small counterbalance to this. It’s less fun to open an envelope than a present, so in some cases I do both: the money for them to choose, and something small to open there and then.

Back in the spring, when I did my eco series, there was one post I had meant to write, and never got round to. The notion was: buy items that can be recycled.

I don’t mean that the person takes them straight off to the charity shop – or into a recycling bin. That would suggest that you had seriously got it wrong.

But items that are made of natural materials; that can be used up (food, of course); that can have a further life with another family, or in a charity shop, if and when you choose to part with them.

Books. Food. CDs, maybe. Games that can be passed on to others in turn.

(If I’m honest, I would just buy books for everyone on my presents list, all the time. I can get excited about that.

But I appreciate that it’s not everyone’s idea of a present – and sometimes even the avid book collector may question the need for another book.)

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Christmas Future

What about you? Are you still a keen present buyer – or recipient? Has it all paled a bit?
Do you look to the kids’ generation to be excited about present giving again?

St Nicholas gave to those who needed it – used up his inheritance that way, in fact. The Christmas story tells us of a priceless gift, one longed for by some, overlooked by others.

I want to come back to something of that sense of value and honouring in the gifts that I give. I don’t know exactly how, in a time and location that seems more about excess than value.

But I’m thinking about it. And as we’re told, it’s the thought that counts.