Pennywell farm – #CountryKids

When the boys’ Grandma asked people with small children where are some good places to go with little ones in the area local to them, most people said Pennywell Farm near Buckfastleigh in Devon. It’s been going for 25 years, but they hadn’t been as a family when Daddy and his brother and sister were little, so we decided that we had to try it out. And it turned out to be an amazing day out. We went on a day that we knew didn’t have a fantastic weather forecast because although lots of it is outdoors, there is quite a bit of indoor stuff too.

The first area that we came to once we’d paid our entrance fee was the guinea pig pens. There were some benches where you could sit down, put a blanket over your knees, and have a hold and stroke of a guinea pig. Andrew was keen to have a hold, so did so with some help. The guanine pigs were very tame and happy to sit and be stroked. Joel was less keen!

Pennywell 1

Then we walked around the main yard in the centre of the farm, and saw various animals in their pens, like sheep, alpacas, shire horses, goats and more. The boys were happy to be able to see them all through the fences and the animals were obviously used to kids poking about. Soon we heard a bell ringing and a lady announcing that lamb feeding was about to begin in the main barn, so we headed over and got a seat on some of the hay bales in the tiered seating in the barn. It was a great view of the feeing pens. She explained that these lambs couldn’t be fed by their mummies because a ewe can only care properly for 2 lambs, so if she has more, then the littlest/weakest/daftest ones get kicked out the way and don’t always survive. So these were those types of lamb, and were being bottle fed on a mixture of goat’s milk from the farm goats and sheep formula milk. I was very interested in this lactation information! Andrew got to hold one of the bottles, though Daddy had to help because the lamb was very strong and pulled hard on the teat when sucking.

Pennywell 2

Just past the main barn was a smaller barn where the Pennywell miniature pigs were. Apparently these were bred at Pennywell for their small and cuddly size. And you could see that they liked nothing more than getting lots of cuddles from the guests. We sat down on a bench and got to hold a pig between Andrew and me, and he loved being stroked, nearly falling asleep on my lap. Joel wasn’t that bothered, but was happy to run around looking at other animals.

We’d seen some children having donkey and pony rides, so we headed over to where the animals were standing and saw that we had to book a slot, so we booked one in for after lunch so that Andrew could have a go. We carried on and came to a covered area that had lots of ride-on tractors to play with. There were various sizes, right from little Joel-friendly ones with no pedals that he could sit on and push with his legs, to big Andrew-friendly ones that he was keen to pedal and steer (mostly avoiding obstacles/other kids on tractors/helping adults). Both boys absolutely loved this bit, so we ended up staying for a while and as there were picnic tables right next to it under the covered area, we decided to eat our lunch there too. Next to the tractors were also some toy ride-on ponies, and Andrew figured out that to make them go you had to bounce up and down on them with your fit in the stirrups and they ‘trotted’ – ingenious idea for a ride-on I thought!

Pennywell 3

After we managed to drag them away from the tractors and ponies, we headed across to the other side of the farm, where there was a tall tower with a fabulous view over the moor to the north, and a playground. We also heard the ‘choo chop’ of a train and then spotted the sign for the ‘Rainbow Railway’. This train was just the right size for a ride with toddlers and preschoolers, and Andrew was very happy that he got to be the driver and the rest of our family sat in the carriages.

On our way back from the railway, we stopped and looked around the ‘funky foul’ area where there were all sorts of chickens and the like – some with very funky hair dos! By that time, it was nearly time for Andrew’s pony ride, so we headed back to the main yard. There was an owl display going on just near the pony park, so we managed to see some of that while waiting for the pony. The man was explaining all about how owls fly, hunt and eat their prey.

Pennywell 4

Finally came the time for the pony ride, and Andrew took to it very well. The pony’s name was Yarter and she was 17 years old. He had a ride around the main yard and up towards the tractor rides and back round again near the owl display.

By the time the pony fun was over, Joel was getting very tired, having walked around most of the farm himself. Even though we hadn’t done everything on the farm, we decided that that was enough for one day. It’s such a great day out for little ones, and even slightly older children. I think for what you get, the entrance fee is very reasonable, and we need to go back again to see what we couldn’t see in one trip. It’s definitely something I’d recommend if you’re in the area.

Linking up for the first time in a while to the fantastic #CountryKids linky
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Birds don’t have rain coats – wot so funee?

This week seems to have been a bumper week for funees, or maybe I just remembered to write more of them down?! Let’s start with a few animal ones. When we were at the garden centre (which has a very reasonably priced and nice soft play), we did our usual tour of the pets corner and saw some fish, amongst other creatures. We usually see quite a few ‘Nemo’ fish there as Andrew calls them (not that he’s ever seen the film, but he knows who Nemo is), but this week Andrew spotted another noteworthy one: “Look Mummy, it’s a bit like Tiggler!” I had to stop and think – my first thought was Tigger (did it look like a tiger?! – not really), then I got it – Ah, Tiddler! Yes he looks a bit like Tiddler, though it’s been a while since we read that book.

Following on from the lion guinea pig of last week’s funee post, we were walking through the park one day and saw some dogs, as usual. Andrew spotted a little one that had short white fur with a couple of big black patches on it: “That’s a bit like a cow puppy!” I could see where he was coming from, it did look like a mini cow with that fur.

As I’m sure many people have experienced this week, we’ve been nipping in and out of the garden depending on the showers outside. On one occasion when we were outside and it started to rain, I said to Andrew that we should go inside because it was starting to rain and we had no coats on. His reply, with a look of ‘but why mummy?!’, was thus: “But the birds are staying out mummy, and they don’t have coats on!” True, very true. I didn’t quite know how to come back from that one.

The rain was well and truly set in on Saturday when Daddy took the boys into town to another soft play centre that he found by googling which I hadn’t thought of before, even though I’ve driven past it many times when I used to live here myself. At dinner time later that day, Daddy was telling me all about his fun with transporting the boys from the car to the centre in the pouring rain – including how he forgot to put Joel’s coat on at first so had to get him back down off his back in the sling and put him back up, which he’s less practised at than me. Anyway…. in the middle of this conversation between the 2 of us, bearing in mind that it was heavily based around the theme of rain, Andrew piped up with: ”I had a leak!” It took us a moment to figure out that he actually meant “I had a leek!” (which is a rare event for him, and indeed there was a slightly smaller pile on his plate than when we started our conversation). It was an unfortunate, yet funny, homonym for that situation.

Here are the token foodie funees for this week. Wotsits create a lot of mess, as I’m sure any parent who has given them to a young child will attest. Andrew had finished eating a packet and of course had orange cheesiness all around his mouth and on his hands. When we pointed this out to him, his reply was a very matter of fact: “That’s the problem with the crisps.” He was right, and that was that. Sometimes Andrew asks for a snack if he’s hungry and there isn’t any sign of a meal coming up (he sometimes asks when there is a meal in sight too). One day, when I was sorting out a few things from my bag when we’d got back from a group at lunch time, Andrew was getting a little impatient for lunch and came out with: “I’d like something to get me going!” It took me a moment to realise that he meant ‘keep him going’.

On Sunday we had some friends come for dinner – the boys’ Godmum along with a family who we haven’t seen for a long time and the daughter is exactly a year older than Andrew so they got on very well playing together. After we’d had dinner, I suggested to Andrew that he and his friend go into the other room and play with his ‘big boys’ toys’ and let the little ones play with the general toys in the living room where we were. His friend’s mum asked her too if she wanted to go and play with the toys in the other room. Andrew stopped, looked at his friend’s mum and said “what do you say?” , as if to imply “should there be a ‘please’ in there?” Of course we all laughed at his cheekiness, and I said to him that that was a bit cheeky! He turned around and insisted “No! It’s not cheating, Mummy!” By this point we were all in fits of laughter, and off they went into the other room to play with play dough, Thunderbird toys and other games.

Wot So Funee?

A walk by the river – #CountryKids

I love the location of where we currently live – we can walk into Cambridge city centre in about half an hour (if Andrew goes all the way on the buggy board and we don’t get stuck behind tourists walking at ‘tourist’ pace!), the supermarkets are just 10-15 minutes walk, there are plenty of toddler groups within 20 minutes walk…. and also in just 5 minutes we can walk from home in a definite urban setting to a lovely rural environment with cows in a field next to the River Cam.

There is a round-trip walk from our flat, which goes along this river and across a common, and is perfect for an afternoon stroll with a baby and toddler – since having kids I’ve walked this route so many times that I can’t remember how many, either getting them off to sleep as babies or wearing Andrew (and soon Joel) out as a toddler. This week I took some photos to show what we see on our way round. Andrew is easy to spot with his pink buggy which he likes to push around the circuit, and I find it keeps him walking/running longer than if he doesn’t take it.

Walk 1

After a short walk up the road and down an alley, we come out, across a cattle grid for bikes, into a field that often has cows in (they rotate the exact bits of common that they graze on, so aren’t always in the same place). The river is at the far side, in a dip, so you can’t see it until you get closer, though if the rowers are out, we see 9 heads moving at high speed across the far end of the field! (8 rowers, 1 cox.)

Walk 2

Part of the fun of walking through this bit of field, down towards the river, is looking out for trains that pass along on the left side and go across a bridge over the river. As it’s the main line out of Cambridge, we regularly see several trains on one walk. As we get nearer the river, we can look down stream towards an old village called Fen Ditton, which we can also walk to if we go that way. Most of the time we carry on with the river on our right though, and head towards Cambridge centre.

After going under the railway bridge on a pedestrian and cycle boardwalk over the river, we come to an enclosed field with 2 horses in it. We usually stop and say hello to the horses, who are friendly – so much so that this week one of them decided to lick our buggy rain cover!

walk 3

Navigating the cattle grids (for bikes) with a buggy can be fun, though we’re getting to the stage that Andrew can almost walk the whole route and I take Joel in the sling, so I’m looking forward to not needing wheels (except maybe Andrew’s bike) for this outing! Once we’ve got through these grids, there is another field in which the path goes right next to the river, and more cows often graze there. Other animals about include plenty of ducks and some swans, as well as several dogs being walked/run in the field.

Apart from dodging cows and dogs, if we walk there towards the end of the afternoon, particularly on a Friday as we did when I took these photos, we also have to dodge the many bikes that speed home from town along the path. It’s not really a problem as the path is so wide, but I do find I need my wits about me when walking with a lively toddler, pushing a buggy, and also when the cows are standing on or near the path.

walk 4

The other mode of transport that we see lots of in this stretch of river is boats. There are house boats, canal boats and, of course, rowing boats – sometimes just single or double, and at the weekend often the 8 rowers plus cox boats (most of the college training happens early in the morning except at weekends, and although we’re up early, we don’t often make it down to the river until later in the day!)

walk 5

When we get to the foot bridge over the river, we go the other way (not crossing the river) and walk towards the park, and if we have time we stop for a play. Even if Andrew is starting to flag from walking at this point, he always seems to have enough energy for the park. Then it’s just a 10 minute walk back along the road home again.

We love being able to do this walk and never get bored of it and the views that we get on the way. We’ve walked it in all seasons: snow, rain, wind and sunshine. When we eventually move from here one day, we’ll miss this walk a lot.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

 

 

 

Fun at Wimpole Home Farm – #CountryKids

We love the fact that we live so near to the National Trust’s Wimpole Home Farm near Cambridge. We’ve been several times since we’ve had kids (and a couple of times before!) and we never get bored of it. The Wimpole Estate is a large area of land with a mansion house and a working farm with animals that are reared for milk, meat, eggs and wool. There are also extensive grounds that you can wander around and picnic in.

The last time we went was the August bank holiday Monday, which was a lovely warm day and we had a wonderful family morning out before Daddy had to go to work in the afternoon. We arrived early and ours was one of the first cars in the car park, so we bought our tickets and wandered around a bit by the entrance to the farm until it opened. As National Trust members we still have to pay to get into the farm, but is is much cheaper than the standard ticket and well worth the price for a good value family day out.

Wimpole 1 Collage

An excited Andrew was looking forward to seeing the animals, so as soon as the gate opened he steamed ahead on the path down to the farm. As we approached, we stopped to see the donkeys and goats in the first field by the reception. The first thing that Andrew spotted once we were actually inside was a tractor that you can sit on and pretend to drive, so he and Joel had a turn on that together. We also stopped to watch a baby cow having its milk from mummy, and then Andrew had a go at ‘milking’ using a milking simulator – a couple of cow sized teats hanging off a bucket of water!

Wimpole 2 Collage

Next we went over to say hello to the shire horses, which were inside the stables at that point, but they also come out to do cart rides that visitors can hop on to. There were some turkeys in the stable too, next to the horses, which Andrew found very amusing, maybe because they were down at his level and he could wave to them. I think too that he hasn’t made the connection between turkeys like this and the turkey that we eat sometimes. Joel enjoyed looking at the rabbits that were across the courtyard on our way over towards the pigs.

Wimpole 3 Collage

Soon it was time to watch the pigs being fed, so we headed over to the pig sties and stood there while other visitors congregated in anticipation of the feeding session and the pigs got very excited. But nobody official turned up with the food for a while, and Andrew needed the toilet, so while he and Daddy went off, Joel and I waited and eventually saw the pigs being fed. There was a range of ages of pig, right from little piglets to teenage pigs to mummy pigs pregnant with litters more babies!

Wimpole 4 Collage

The next thing on Andrew’s radar was the small playground (shaped like a combine harvester) and the toy tractor maze – ride on tractors that you can drive around a small maze of hay bales. We spent quite a while there, and Joel enjoyed being pushed around on a tractor too. Then we headed to the bigger adventure playground that is tucked away in a wooded bit. It was still very empty at that time, so the boys had a good go on it without the busyness that I’m sure it would have had later on in the afternoon once more people had got that far.

Wimpole 5 Collage

Having expended a lot of energy climbing, sliding, swinging, running and more, Andrew in particular was getting very tired and we knew that Daddy had to be in work fairly soon, so we started to head back to the car, stopping by some more paddocks of animals (mainly sheep and chickens) on our way, waving to the inhabitants as we passed.

As always when we visit Wimpole, we had a fun family morning out, and we’ll be back again another time to do it all again. I can definitely recommend this as a great way to let babies and toddlers experience farm animals in a family-friendly setting. It’s also good for slightly older children to learn where certain foods come from, rather than just ‘the supermarket’!

 

Linking up with the lovely Country Kids linky over at Coombe Mill’s blog
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

 

 

 

Trip to Coombe Mill – #CountryKids

Ever since I came across the Coombe Mill blog through the Country Kids linky that Fiona runs every week, I thought that it would be lovely to visit one day, either by staying there or by popping in when we’re down that way. As we go on holiday to Tom’s parents every summer, I thought it would be a possibility to have a day trip there this year, as it’s only just over an hour’s drive in good traffic. I was so glad that we managed to make it, just before Fiona and family set off on their family holiday.

PicMonkey Collage (1)

We started off on the journey down into Cornwall and made good time, so arrived in the later part of the morning. The first thing that Andrew spotted as we drew up in the car was one of the play areas, so he insisted that we get him out right away and he ran across to it, climbing up on the ship-shaped climbing frame, steering with the wheel and playing with the canon. He also liked the look of the trampoline, so had a go with some adult supervision from the other side of the netting.

Meanwhile I went across to reception and introduced myself in person to Fiona – it’s so nice to meet people in real life having tweeted with them and read their blogs. She was busy sorting things out to go away, and I felt very privileged that she was so welcoming and willing to spend time with us even though it was a big deal to get things done in order to leave the family business and go away for a week. Whilst she finished off a few things, I went back over and joined the others; my parents and parents in law were looking after Andrew on the playground. Very kindly, Fiona then came back over and invited us to their house for a cup of tea and cake, which was lovely, and we chatted for a while whilst three of her children came to join us, mainly for the cake!

PicMonkey Collage (2)

Then it was time for a farm tour, courtesy of Felix and Clio. Our guides did a great job of showing us all the animals. We saw peacocks, chickens, pigs, donkeys, deer, goats and rabbits. Andrew was very impressed, and was keen to stroke and feed animals where appropriate, as shown by the older kids. Joel also liked looking at the furry moving things, though he was getting a bit whingey by that point, maybe teeth, maybe hunger, maybe tiredness, who knows! We were all particularly impressed by the deer, who did a run by in front of us as Clio ran into the field behind them.

PicMonkey Collage (3)

PicMonkey Collage (4)

PicMonkey Collage (5)

Once the farm tour was over, and we managed to prize Andrew away from the other play areas that he had seen on the way back to the start, we sat down and had a picnic on one of the benches dotted amongst the lodges. I knew that Joel would like some milk before a nap, so I slipped into the BBQ hut to feed him – this is a fantastic hut that seats 15 people with a barbecue in the middle and a chimney that lets the smoke out, or is perfect for feeding a very distractible 9 month old away from all the sights and sounds of a family day out.

PicMonkey Collage (6)

After some milk he soon went off for a nap, so I went and joined Andrew on the play area where he was playing with Granny and Grandma. Fiona came and joined us for a bit too, and Andrew found her son Jed playing with the swing ball so tried to join in.

PicMonkey Collage (7)

After a while we headed back to the toddler-specific play area, which is full of ride-on cars. trikes and tractors, so right up Andrew’s street. He also spotted the soft play hut, and had another go on there (apparently he’d already been in when I was feeding Joel). Not that it was raining that day, but having an indoor play area is perfect for the British weather, because even though we often get togged up and go out in the rain anyway, sometimes it’s nice to have a dry place for him to burn off some energy, so I can imagine that if we stay there it would prove invaluable.

PicMonkey Collage (8)

We would have loved to stay and see the miniature railway running at 5pm, but Andrew was flagging and it was clear that he would need his nap in the car on the way home sooner than that. So we started to make a move towards the car. Once we got going, it didn’t take long for both boys to drop off (Joel had woken up from his nap as we transferred him but went back off again), and by the time we had driven through the winding lanes and reached the main road, they were both sound asleep. A sign on a great day out!

The whole family was very impressed by what we saw at Coombe Mill, and we will certainly be recommending it to other families who might be looking to holiday down in Cornwall. There is so much for young children to see and do, including helping out on the farm for feed runs which we didn’t get to experience, and it’s a great spot to go off and explore Cornwall too, from beaches to hills to towns. All the accommodation is well equipped for families with babies and toddlers, so it feels like a home from home. We are blessed with this ourselves in Devon, and at the moment I expect we’ll continue to stay with Grandma and Pop, but when the boys are a bit older we would love to go and stay at Coombe Mill for a holiday. It would be a lovely place to go with another family or two with children a similar age to ours.

So for this week’s Country Kids linky, Andrew and Joel got to be country kids at the place where Country Kids was born, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

 

 

Old MacDonald had a farm….. of choc chip shortbread animals!

Earlier in the week I blogged about making gingerbread men. At the time I made 2 different biscuit doughs, the other one being a choc chip shortbread which Andrew cut into animal shapes using a set of cute animal cutters that I was given for Christmas. The idea behind putting choc chips in was to try and get the effect of patches of darker colour on the animals, just as cows have, and often sheep, pigs, horses and ducks are more than just one colour. The problem with the chips was that they got in the way of the cutter slicing through the dough to the board, so the shapes didn’t come out as clearly as they would have without the chips – this was probably not helped by the fact that my chips were very chunky whereas using ready made chips that you can buy might have worked better as they tend to be smaller; I just think those are so expensive compared to chopping up your own chocolate.

The reason we made these, apart from it being a fun way to spend an afternoon, was as a present for Granny’s birthday. I created a photo mug online using photos of her with my little boys, and thought it would be nice to bake some biscuits to go with the tea that she can make in the mug. There’s also a story behind the Old MacDonald theme…. for Andew’s birthday, Granny and Grandad bought him one of those musical cards that blasts out Old MacDonald at full pelt when you open it, which Andrew found fascinating! Here’s a video of it – may I suggest that you only play it if you don’t mind having the song in your head for the rest of the day! In buying this card they have perpetuated a family joke that started when my grandparents bought my brother and me musical cards one Christmas, and my brother kept opening and closing his in fascination, much to the annoyance of everyone else in the room.

If you fancy making these yourself, in whatever shape you like, here’s the recipe, which is very simple to make. The semolina and granulated sugar help to give it a slightly crunchy texture as well as being lovely and ‘short’ or crumbly.

Ingredients

  • 200g plain flour
  • 100g semolina
  • 100g granulated sugar
  • 200g margarine or butter
  • 100g chocolate, chopped into small chunks, or ready-made chocolate chips

Method

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC (fan), and prepare a couple of baking sheets by lining with greaseproof paper.
  2. Cream the margarine/butter and sugar together until smooth and fluffy.
  3. Add the chocolate chips and stir in until well distributed.
  4. Add the flour and semolina and mix until a stiff dough forms, using your hands to do the last bit when it’s too stiff for a spoon.
  5. Roll out on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using biscuit cutters.
  6. Place the dough shapes on the baking sheets and bake in the oven for about 10 – 15 minutes until slightly golden on top.
  7. Remove from the oven and eat as fresh as possible, storing in an air-tight container until eaten.

Our experience of babysigning (finally!)

At last I’m getting round to writing a post about babysigning. I guess by now I should really call it ‘toddlersigning’ as my baby is no longer a baby. Even though I’m a researcher in linguistics (with my PhD specifically in phonetics), I’d not heard of the concept of baby signing until I did a taster session at a baby and toddler group that Andrew and I used to go to when I was on maternity leave – the session was when he was about 4 months old. The lady who did the session runs a babysigning business in Cambridge (called Cambridge Babysigning), and I was so interested in what we did during the taster session that I went along to five classes (run by another tutor by then because she was on maternity leave) about this time last year, when Andrew was about 8 months old. We really enjoyed the classes, and we learnt lots of very useful signs. But not long after we did the classes I went back to work, and although I don’t work on the day of the classes, I found that it was quite a commitment to pay for ongoing classes when I wasn’t sure that we would definitely make it each week with fewer days to fit things in. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m a linguist, and generally pick up languages relatively quickly, but I felt like I’d learnt enough in those five weeks, plus I bought a couple of books to reinforce what I’d learnt, that I’d got a good enough start to give it a go and use signs with Andrew on a daily basis.

Signing 'milk' at the farm whilst we were watching a cow being milked

I’m no expert on baby signing, but from what I heard at the classes and what I’ve read, the idea is that babies can use their hands to communicate much earlier than they can use their mouths to produce accurate speech sounds that we recognise as words: the motor skills involved in signing come earlier than the fine motor skills needed for saying words. The idea is not that they become reliant on their hands and therefore don’t ‘bother’ with speech, but rather the signing helps them bridge the gap between not speaking and speaking, so that they can communicate their needs and feelings before they develop accurate speech, without getting frustrated so easily. It’s not that you sign to them full sentences (like you would with a deaf person), but rather individual key words as you’re talking, and then they pick up these signs over time, and eventually use them themselves to communicate. You wouldn’t expect a child to start with full sentences in their speech development – if they say just ‘dog’ for example, it’s pretty clear from context that they’re saying something like ‘there’s a dog’ or ‘I’ve seen a dog’, or if they say ‘drink’, it’s pretty clear that they’re actually saying ‘I’d like a drink’. It’s the same for signing – if Andrew signs the word ‘milk’, for example, I know that he’d like some milk – he doesn’t have to sign ‘I’d like some milk’.

Signing 'cow' at the farm (one-handed here - it's a horn shape that he's doing with his right hand against his head - see picture below of me doing the sign)

So we started off using a few basic signs like ‘milk’, ‘food’, ‘drink’, ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’ when he was 8 months old. It’s recommended that you start with just a few key ones, and then gradually introduce more as they get the hang of signing themselves. He started to use the ‘milk’ one first, and that was around 12 months old. It varies as to how long each child picks up signing, just like any developmental step. I remember the lady who did the taster session saying that her daughter took quite a while to do her first sign, even though she’d had constant exposure to them from an early age, whereas other children in the class were quicker to use their first signs. But once she’d started, she was quick to use more and more – that kind of developmental pattern, where there’s nothing much for ages and then all of a sudden it all comes in a big rush, is seen in speech too. Over the next few months, Andrew picked up a few more, like ‘food’ and (these were the best for us) ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ – he signed those words much sooner than he said them (he’s only just started saying them in the past few weeks).

Signing 'bird' at the farm. Index finger and thumb open and close together, mimicking a bird's beak opening and closing.

He’s also very keen on animal signs, like ‘cow’, ‘duck’, ‘bird’, ‘sheep’, all of which are accompanied by the appropriate noise (like ‘moo’ etc.). I think his favourite at the moment is ‘aeroplane’, which is still just the sign, no spoken word/noise attached to it; he signs that whenever he sees or even hears a plane (or even a motorbike or something that sounds like a plane to him!!) It was a trip to an airfield and a farm recently that inspired me to finally get round to finishing this post, which had been half-written for a while, because he did lots of very enthusiastic signing on that day out! Granny and Grandad are pleased that he can sign for them, as is Grandma, though all of them have the same sign (names are signed with the first letter, so in their case it’s all ‘G’), and he doesn’t need to do the sign for Pop (his fourth grandparent) because that’s easy enough for him to say, whereas the other three are trickier. To see some of these signs in action (both Andrew and I), here’s a link to a video of us doing some signing, as a video shows the signs much better than the photos in this post, which don’t capture the movement. This is particularly important for the aeroplane sign, his favourite, so here’s a link to a separate video for this, taken when we visited the airfield.

Andrew's favourite: aeroplane - this really is better with movement, as his hand was enthusiastically moving up and down and around, rather than just being held in the air as this photo suggests.

It’s interesting that, just like early speech, his signs are not exactly like we show him, but are near enough that we can understand. For example, ‘mummy’ is three fingers on your dominant (in my case, right) hand tapped twice against your forehead; Andrew rather more enthusiastically hits the side of his head with his whole palm, but I know that this means mummy, from when he first did it and continues to do it, now with ‘mumma’ attached. Some signs he’s very accurate at though, like bird, which is the thumb and index finger opening and closing together, to mimic a bird’s opening and closing beak. Below are some pictures of me doing some signs, so hopefully you can see the difference between my signs and his signs!

Here's me doing some signs in a photo booth for a competition at the BritMums conference that I went to back in June. Top left: cow; top right: dog; bottom left: cat; bottom right: sheep. Obviously still pictures are not as good for showing signs as a video. See the youtube link for a video showing some signs that Andrew knows.

Until Andrew actually started doing his first signs, I wasn’t sure whether what we were doing with signing was particularly useful. It took a few months to really appreciate that our effort had paid off. Once he started using them, it was obvious that this was a great way for him to communicate, and it hasn’t stopped him learning to speak words, if anything it’s helped him to make that connection between objects/actions and the word that goes with them. I think for us, it’s also been useful from the point of view of introducing more than one spoken language to him. For lots of objects/actions I’ve been telling him the English, French and German word, and by signing too, he can, I hope, make the connection that all four are related. This seems to be working so far at least. So I guess he’s really having quadrilingual rather than trilingual input! He’s not yet ready to say the word ‘aeroplane’ in any language it seems, but he’s totally obsessed with signing whenever he hears or sees one, many times every day – quite often I haven’t even heard it until he signs, because they are just in the background noise to me, whereas he seems to be particularly sensitive at spotting them. And when I ask him in any of the three spoken languages ‘where’s the aeroplane?’ (or any question involving ‘aeroplane’), he enthusiastically signs, showing that he’s made the connection between the three spoken words and the sign. Amazing!

A great way to use signs and reinforce them over and over again is by singing songs and signing along to them. I reckon that’s why he’s picked up the animal ones so quickly – because there are songs like Old MacDonald Had a Farm and other classics involving animals that we sing all the time at groups and at home, and I sign along whenever we do (even though I probably look slightly odd at groups where no other parent is signing – I’m a linguist, I’m totally up for having a go at languages even if I look silly, it’s the trying that counts!) It’s not all about singing though; I mean I don’t sing to him when it’s time for food! There are quite a few everyday signs like ‘food’, ‘drink’ and ‘nappy’ that I just use every time we do that word – which is quite often, as you can imagine.

Signing 'sheep' at the farm - he was circling his hand round and round by his head and saying baa baa at the same time

I’m very glad that we came across babysigning when we did, as I feel it has definitely been a positive, helpful and fun thing for all three of us, as well as other family members, to use. Andrew does sometimes get frustrated, like lots of toddlers, usually when he doesn’t get his way with something, but I think it could be a lot worse at 18 months because I’m sure there is less communication-related frustration than if we hadn’t signed. Of course I will never know for sure on this, but from our experience, I’d recommend giving it a go. With baby number 2, we’ll be signing around them from birth, so it will be interesting to see whether he/she picks things up quicker than Andrew did, or not. I guess second children have a different experience from first children with so many things, like speech and walking (because they have an older sibling to ‘copy’ and try and be like), and signing is just another example of this.

I get the feeling that babysigning is becoming more and more popular these days. Have you given it a go? How have you found it? What does your little one make of it so far? I’d love to hear from anyone who has used or intends to use it. I’ve heard that it can be particularly important for children with learning difficulties or special needs, so I’d be interested to hear more about it from that perspective. I hope what I’ve written is interesting and informative if you hadn’t heard of babysigning before. Like I said, I’m no expert, but would be happy to answer more specific questions about our experience if you have any.

Let the talking begin!

For over a month now, Andrew has been saying his very first words. According to the NHS ‘Birth to Five’ book, which gives average ages that children tend to reach milestones of development, this is at the later end of average for starting to talk. But as Andrew was an early walker (just before his 1st birthday), I wasn’t expecting that he would talk particularly early, because it’s often the case that babies and toddlers are early at gaining some skills and later at gaining others compared to their typically-developing peers. It’s like their brains seem to concentrate on one big thing to the detriment of other big things, until the first thing is sorted and then other things get a look in. I’ll give you a run through of his first words, and add some notes to each of them, sometimes referring to ‘techie’ terms – ones that I’ve learned through studying phonetics/linguistics – but hopefully explaining them well enough in everyday words too.

His first word was ‘bye-bye’, which he says something more like ‘ba-ba’, with a short ‘a’ instead of the double vowel (or ‘diphthong’ in techie speak) that I and other British English speaking adults use. His vowel here is slowly becoming more like mine compared to when he first said the word. This is a very useful word that gets used every morning when he waves to Daddy and/or me as we go to work, plus on other occasions like when we leave a group.

His second recognisable word was ‘ball’, which he says something more like ‘buh’, with no ‘l’ and a short vowel instead of the long vowel that adults use. But it clearly refers to ‘ball’, one of his favourite toys to play with wherever he is (including in the park when older kids are trying to have a game of football…) – I can tell because he consistently points to balls and says ‘buh’. He generally likes the sound ‘b’, as his ‘buh’ has now extended to also mean ‘balloon’ (which to be fair is pretty similar to a ball in shape) and ‘bird’. Again he will consistently point to these things and say ‘buh’, as well as using the sign (as in sign language) when he points to bird.

A ball or 'buh' - one of Andrew's favourite toys to play with, even if it's not his! (This one is his though)

The next few words came about the same time; I can’t really say in which particular order. The word he now says the most on a daily basis must be ‘car’, which he says with a consonant produced slightly further back in the mouth than adults do – what I would call a ‘uvular plosive’ (instead of a ‘velar plosive’), so it sounds a bit like the ‘guttural’ sounds we associate with French ‘r’ sounds or Swiss German or Arabic. Over time this will become more English-sounding, and in the meantime I think it’s great that he can naturally use sounds that native English-speaking adults find hard to produce because they don’t use them in English. He points and says the word ‘car’ constantly as we walk anywhere next to roads, as he plays with his toy garage, and as we read books featuring cars. In fact he says car for pretty much any vehicle with wheels! Buses, lorries, vans – all cars in Andrew’s world. Bikes or motorbikes don’t seem to get this treatment, but he doesn’t consistently come out with anything else for these. Of course I encourage him when he says ‘car’, and then I go on to specify what it is if it’s not actually a car. One day he’ll figure this all out, but for now this ‘overextension’ (as is the techie term) is a normal part of language development. The classic example is when children use the word ‘dog’ to mean any four-legged, furry animal. This phenomenon happens across languages, not just in English, so it seems to be a general part of language acquisition, though researchers haven’t quite figured out exactly why it happens. It does show, however, that children initially categorise objects rather than simply label them, and then work towards being more specific in their initial categories.

Our car, which he points out every time we leave the flat.

Another word that he uses a lot is ‘shoes’. He says this as something like ‘shuhz’, so you hear mainly the two consonant ‘sh’ and ‘z’ sounds (what I would call ‘fricatives’) with a very short kind of non-descript vowel in the middle (a high central vowel that adults don’t use in English). This word is very useful for him, because he uses ‘shoes’ as a signal to let us know that he wants to go out – he brings them to us, repeating the word ‘shoes’ several times until we put them on, and then goes and stands by the front door to show that he wants to go out. Of course this isn’t always appropriate (like when I’m still in my pyjamas having got him sorted but not myself!), but he does love putting his shoes on and going out. In fact he also likes putting our shoes on and attempting to walk around constantly repeating the word ‘shoes’…. not always successfully in the case of my 2-inch-heeled mules!

Two little but powerful words he likes to use are ‘yeah’ and ‘no’. He seems to use ‘yeah’ for everything from everyday questions like ‘shall we get you dressed?’ (not his favourite activity) to questions about things he’s really excited about, like’ would you like to go to the park?’. Both his ‘yeah’ and his ‘no’ are now very adult-like, though ‘no’ started of as something more like ‘doh’, in which the vowel was pretty accurate, but the consonant wasn’t very nasal. I knew he meant ‘no’ though, because it was always accompanied by a shake of the head and usually happened just after I’ve said no to him!

One of his most recent additions was flower – he came out with this at my cousin’s wedding after several people were pointing the pretty flowers out to him, and ever since he’s been able to point them out himself. His version doesn’t sound exactly like flower, it’s more like ‘wa-wa’, but it’s obvious that this is what he means as he points to one.

Some lovely flowers or 'wa-wa' that I got for my birthday from my work friends. Andrew points this out when he's sat at the table eating lunch or tea and they are at the other end of the table 🙂

Although animal sounds aren’t technically words, I would like to quickly mention that his favourite animals to point out are ‘cow’, ‘dog’ and ‘duck’ – which he calls ‘moo’ (somewhere between ‘moo’ and ‘boo’ actually), ‘urh urh’ (trying to say ‘woof woof’ but actually sounding more like a real bark than ‘woof’!) and ‘quack’ (more like ‘kack’). His productions of cow and duck (‘moo/boo’ and ‘kack’) are always accompanied by the sign language for each, which interestingly are also quite approximate compared to those that I make with my hands. I must write a post specifically on babysigning one day (I keep saying that and never get around to it….) For some reason he seems less bothered about making the dog sign with his bark. Although he doesn’t seem to overextend the word dog (as in the example I gave above), he does seem to overextend the word ‘moo’ – generally it refers to cows (we see them quite often on the fields near us), but he’s also used it for horse (which I think he’s just about picking up the sign for now, so using ‘moo’ less often) and elephant! So it seems it can apply to any big mammal.

Ducks or 'kack, kack' swimming under the bridge where we walk across the river a few times a week to go to various groups.

I’m not quite sure why, but he often makes a sound like ‘ts’ when pointing at things that he can’t yet say the word for. As he points, I of course say the word of the object he’s pointing at, and one day he’ll have heard it enough times and be able to produce the right sounds to say it himself. Generally he likes making sounds like ‘sh’ and ‘ssss’ (what I’d call ‘fricatives’ in techie speak) all over the place, when I can’t always tell if there’s something specific he’s trying to refer to.

For anyone who remembers me writing about trilingual adventures before, here’s an update on where I’m at with introducing French and German as well as English. I’m still saying three words (one in each language) to him as we sit and read through books or point out things around the house or when we’re out and about. More recently I’ve decided to have two ‘French’ days and two ‘German’ days a week when I’m with him all day (I’m at work for the other 2.5 days), when I speak the relevant language to him when it’s just the two of us. So today is a ‘German’ day, and as we’ve walked to the shops and to groups, I’ve talked to him in German, pointing out things along the way, or making general small talk (as you do, talking to your toddler who can’t talk back, much!) Lunch was ‘Mittagessen’ and I’ve changed his ‘Windel’ instead of nappy etc. So far he’s only producing English words (or words that sound like English words). BUT, he clearly understands a lot in French and German, given how he reacts when I talk to him in either language. For example, when I ask him ‘Wo ist das Auto?’ or ‘Ou est-elle, la voiture?’ (‘Where’s the car?’), he’ll point and say ‘car’ in answer to my question. Amazing! He does this with various things, not just cars. It’s so fascinating to see the fact that he’s picking up more than one language without even thinking about it.

This leads on to an interesting point about language acquisition: the fact that he can understand a lot more (in English) than he can currently say. I’m finding that I can say some quite complicated sentences, for example give him instructions to do something like bring me his ball or put his sun hat back on, and he consistently does what I ask of him. If Tom and I are talking between us, not directly with him, and we happen to mention in passing something that he recognises, he’ll react to the word he’s heard in our speech, for example if we mentioned a dog, he’ll suddenly woof, even though we weren’t really aware he was listening to us. This has made me realise that I have to be careful now what I say. I hope that in general what I say is suitable for a toddler to hear and make sense of, but we all have days when we react and say something we wish we hadn’t – that’s the kind of thing I can just tell he’ll now pick up instantly!

I think I’ll leave this account of Andrew’s language acquisition journey here for now, but of course there’ll be much more to share over the coming months and years. You can probably tell, given my background in linguistics, that I find this all fascinating. Since Andrew was a baby, I’ve been recording him ‘talking’ – obviously this started of with baby sounds like gurgling and cooing, then babbling, and now some actual words (although capturing words on the recording is pretty difficult, because he’s aware of the recorder and then doesn’t produce them on cue like he would if it was just the two of us playing together – Observer’s Paradox, as Labov would say). These recordings are all waiting for me to sift through them and do anything specific with them – one day, if I ever get time to do that kind of thing. For now, just writing about what’s going on is interesting enough in my opinion.

Pregnancy diary: week 19 – feet up & animal instincts

This week started with a 4-day weekend, and it’s also been half-term. My parents-in-law came for the long weekend, and my mum-in-law (who is a teacher) has been here with us for the rest of the week. This means that I’ve not had to do any house work, shopping or general chores because they did them, and they have been a big help in entertaining Andrew. So I’ve had more opportunities just to put my feet up and relax compared to a normal week. I’ve still been at work for 2 days (I got half a day off for the Tuesday bank holiday), but even so it’s been less tiring than usual. I’ve also been feeling a bit less sick, which makes sense because sickness is correlated with tiredness in this pregnancy, and I’ve definitely noticed that both have dropped a bit this week. It was about this time in pregnancy with Andrew that I started to feel more normal again, so hopefully it’s not just the relaxing week that has helped in this, but a sign of how things will stay.

Definitely looking bumpy from this angle now

Despite the unusually (for Cambridge) wet weather at the weekend, we did manage to get out for a couple of days, and visit a farm on Sunday and a zoo on Monday. It was nice to get some fresh (if a little damp!) air and amble around whilst entertaining Andrew, who really needs to run around even when it’s wet. He’s just started to get interested in animals and watching what they do, so these two venues were perfect for him.

The farm was very quiet, so we got some interesting demonstrations with just us there, including a sheep being sheared and feeding time with the calves. The calf feeding time was particularly interesting from a breastfeeding point of view. There were two calves, both of whose mums were dairy cows. The farmer explained that they take the calves away from dairy cows at about 24-48 hours after birth, otherwise it leads to problems with their milk supply. Because the cow produces loads of milk even without a calf (that’s what they are bred for), the calf would have a continuous, over-generous supply to deal with, sometimes drinking more than it needs to, and often drinking from just one nipple on the udder because it doesn’t need to change to another as the supply is so generous. This leads to the cow getting mastitis in the other parts of the udder, and you end up with a poorly cow. The reasons why the farmer takes the calf away 24-48 hours after birth (and not straight away) are (a) that they do allow the calf to drink the colostrum, the early post-birth milk full of antibodies, direct from the cow, and (b) so that the cow and calf haven’t had chance to form a bond. Once they are separated, the calf still gets to drink mum’s milk, but from the calf equivalent of a baby bottle! It’s a similar thing, but with a cow-sized teat rather than a human-sized teat. Basically these calves were being fed expressed milk from a bottle! I wish I’d taken some photos, but it was so wet I just didn’t think about it at the time.

This got me thinking about how ‘animal’ breastfeeding is, in the sense of ‘natural’, and that ultimately we are just another species of mammal, similar to cows (and dogs, cats, pigs, sheep etc.) in how we’re designed to feed our young. In fact the very name ‘mammal’ comes from the fact that mammals have mammary glands (in females) that produce milk to feed the young offspring. The milk that a cow produces is tailored to provide the calf with what it needs to survive until it’s old enough to not require the milk any more, just like human milk is tailored to provide the baby with what it needs to survive until it’s old enough to not require the milk any more. This experience of hearing a farmer talk about mastitis and colostrum (two things featuring prominently in antenatal and postnatal breastfeeding info), whilst giving some calves expressed milk from a mummy cow in a bottle, really brought home to me just how biologically natural breastfeeding is.

After this demonstration, we went to look at the pigs. Initially I walked away again, repulsed by the smell and gagging, but Tom persuaded me to try holding my nose because he thought I would love to see the little piglets that were suckling on their mum. So I braved it (actually holding my nose worked surprisingly well), and it was worth it to see the tiny baby pigs climbing all over each other to get at a nipple! There was also another mummy pig who was nearly due her piglets, and definitely looked like she was going to pop any moment! I could relate to her too 🙂

Andrew looks on as a family of tapirs munch on a bush (the stripey baby is so cute!)

Babies was a theme at the zoo too. In the past few months they’d had a ‘baby boom’ as it said in the guide book. Here we’re not just talking about mammals though, but birds too. There were some owlets that had been born back in April, which didn’t look quite as cute and fluffy now as they did at a few days old in the pictures in the guide book, but still cute (you’ll have to take my word for it because I didn’t take a picture, again!) The lemurs had also been reproducing, although I’m not sure we actually saw the babies – if we did they’d grown to adult size as all the ones we saw looked the same size. Something I did capture on camera was a lovely family of tapirs – daddy, mummy and baby were happily munching on a bush in their enclosure. At one point a squirrel ran very fast through their enclosure, and it must have startled them, because all of a sudden they all ran quickly across to the other side, and the parents were very protective of the little one in their movements. Again, this reminded me of the protective feeling for my child(ren) that I have as a parent, and how we have quite a lot in common with animals: we are, after all, animals.

Next week we’ll have reached the big 2-0, the (roughly) half-way point. We’re looking forward to having another scan on Tuesday, so I’m sure there’ll be another inside the bump picture to go with the regular outside one. Where are the weeks flying to….?!