Monday, 15 September 2014

Viking Day - Thor's Hammer

Every once in a while you've got to make something with your children. Whether it's an awesome sandcastle, a camp at home, or something more permanent, it's fundamental to their development.

At our house, we're cardboard experts. There isn't much that we couldn't build out of spare supermarket cardboard boxes, given a couple of weeks and suitable inspiration.

So, when Viking Day came around at the infant school, inspiration struck.

Thor and his Hammer
We had just watched Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. A mystical romp based (loosely) on the comic
book series.

For those who don't know, Thor has a magical hammer, that only he can pick up. He and his hammer then proceed to save the world from Malekith and his army of Dark Elves. The hammer is pretty special!

Viking day at the infant school involves dressing up as a Viking and coming into school for some Viking-themes activities. There is generally a rule about dressing up for school... NO WEAPONS!

But this is a Hammer right? It's a tool not a weapon.

We proceeded to make a Viking cloak out of an old pair of suedette curtain that were in the loft. The best design I'd seen for a Viking-ish cloak was from Game of Thrones. And a useful little instructable for that here.

Now, a word about cardboard... it's not very strong! So when making anything that requires structural integrity, you have to understand the forces likely to be imparted on the creation. Thor's hammer looks like a hammer, feels like a hammer, and in the hands of an 8 year old, becomes a hammer.

There were two considerations:

1. The hammer would have to have a strong stem/handle.
2. The head of the hammer couldn't be too solid, in case it connected (accidentally) with another child!

Over the course of one evening the hammer's structure was developed, using a cardboard box, a length of plastic plumbing pipe and two 15cm rulers.

As with most of our cardboard projects, the brown parcel tape allows us to secure everything immediately - much better than glueing. Slots were cut into the plastic pipe into which the 15cm rulers were slid. It was a tight fit, and when parcel taped to the box, provided excellent 'torsional' strength.

The basic rectangular cardboard box was built up on both end with 4 additional layers of cardboard in gradually smaller sizes. With the parcel tape stretched tight over the corners, the hammer head takes on the bevelled shape of Thor's hammer.  But it still takes some imagination to see the likeness!

The next stage was to add a cap to the end of the handle, to give that a feeling of substance. The top of a nearly-empty plastic Bovril jar was used. The remaining Bovril was put on toast as a mid-build snack :-).  And to give the handle more texture, a length of CAT5 (thick) cable was wrapped around the plastic tube. The last step in construction was to add the 'Leather Strap' which Thor uses to swing the Hammer and activate more powerful magic! I used off-cuts from the Viking cloak curtain fabric cut into long strips, and secured them through more slots cut into the plastic pipe.

I was particularly pleased with the size and feel of the handle with these additions. The hammer was ready for decoration.

Paper mache has been our go-to covering for most of our cardboard projects. It nicely covers the brown parcel tape, fits into all the nooks and crannies, and is great fun for the kids to help with.  Our mache recipe is warm water with a good slug of PVA glue. We've tried with flour, but the adhesive properties when dry mean PVA gets our approval.

When covered in paper mache, the final form begins to appear.

With the obligatory two layers of paper all over, the hammer took a full day to dry, so plan ahead!

When wet with paper mache, the cardboard tends to go a little soft, so its important to lean the model in a way that doesn't dent of deform the shape until it dries. It's also good to rotate it, for even drying, every few hours.

Once dry the hammer was ready for painting.

Our paint of choice here was a metallic spray paint in silver. We used Hammerite crinkle paint to try to achieve a 'hammered steel' look, but on the newspaper, which was rough anyway, it just provided a nice dull sheen, as the base for further decoration. The Hammerite paint is also quite durable and flexible (to cope with metal heat expansion), which makes it ideal for a hammer that would be knocked around!

The hammer was beginning to take shape, and we could start to see how the finished article would look. But now we needed to make it as realistic as possible.

The next steps were using brown electrical tape on the handle, in the gaps between the ridges made by the CAT5 cable under the paper mache. This left a really good visual effect on the handle - I was particularly proud of this part!

NOTE: You'll see an old towel protecting the kitchen work surface. This towel now has a good amount of Hammerite paint on it - as a permanent reminder of the project. And it was donated to Bentley, our Spaniel as a dog towel. Try not to leave permanent spots of paint or glue around your kitchen, those are not the kind of iritating memories we're trying to create! Old towels are perfect underneath paper mache projects, as they absorb the inevitable drips.

The Head of the Hammer was decorated in a Viking pattern with a Sharpie permanent marker. And with the metallic paint looking great already, there wasn't much more finishing required.

Thor's Finished Hammer
8 Year old was delighted with the outcome, and wore his costume with more pride and sense of achievement than had we gone to a toy shop and bought something similar. Being involved in every stage of the project, he and the other kids really got to learn about how to produce something from basic materials, how to construct, decorate and finish with detail.

Because we did this during the week long mid-term break, we were in a very Vikingy mood all week. So at the end of the week we had a Viking Feast at home with some friends.

Keeping it as authentic as possible, we ate by candle-light, using only knives and hands. The menu included a whole roast chicken, roast rack of lamb, roast pork rib, fried mushrooms, boiled eggs, ham, chunky bread, root vegetables and ginger beer.

This topped off a great week of syllabus enriching Viking learning. We're going to struggle to improve on that when the topic changes next term. But with a little ingenuity, inspriation and effort, we'll have a great time - whether it's Egyptians, Victorians or any other period of history!!!

Get a Theme Park all to yourself!

Theme Parks... love them! But also... hate them! 

There is so much fun to be had, with thrilling rides, excited children and people watching. But boy are they hard work. Put in a seven hour shift, hit 3 big rides, pay £££'s for fast food, and then pay more £££'s to win an enormous polystyrene-filled donut/spongebob/angry-bird, and have to carry it around all day.

Is there a better way ?

Sure as "eggs is eggs"... there is!

There are only three ways to improve the theme park experience. And one of those doesn't count for anyone on a budget. Let's use Thorpe Park in Surrey, England as our example.

Option 1: Fast-Track / VIP Fast-Track / Platinum Fast-Track

Not cheap
Adult ticket price: £29.99 online. Ultimate fast-track ticket £75.00.  Yes, you can get cheaper Fast-Track tickets, but even 3 rides for £25.00 will leave you queuing most of the day for the other rides that you're only killing time with until your next Fast Track timeslot comes up. To recap. A day out for a family of 4 at Thorpe Park would cost around £120. To be able to skip the queues you'll need to find another £300! 

That's some Merlin Entertainment magic for you! 

Option 2: Early Doors

The DaddyDaddyCool crew can 'do' Legoland in 90 mins, be back in the car and heading off for fun elsewhere. 

If you have an annual pass, this is a good stop-gap option, but beware the pit-falls. 

Most theme parks open quite early in the summer. Not many people plan to get to the gate just before the opening time. And even fewer are happy to run from the gate to the rides flat out. 

If you do have time-management and kids who can get a lick-on, then this one's for you. I promise you the first ride will not have a queue. The second ride will have a 10 minute queue, and the third will be sub 20 mins.  

If you plan your route carefully, you might get 4 or even 5 big rides done within 90 minutes. You'll be tired and thirsty, but it's well worth it. Just remember, no picnic, no toilet stops, no untied shoelaces, just get there, get round, and take no prisoners.

You might then decide to relax and enjoy the rest of the theme park at a more leisurely pace. But if my experience is anything to go by, the kiddie rides don't hold much attraction if you've just been upside-down 10 times. We usually just head off to our next activity, happy to have snuck in some special 'coaster' time.

WARNING 1: Theme Parks with Hotels attached often allow hotel guests to enter the park 1 hour earlier. Check you theme park's rules on this. If they do, then just don't try 'Early Doors'. 

WARNING 2: Some Theme Parks open early, but don't open the rides early. Alton Towers don't open Oblivion until 30 minutes after the gates, and at Legoland you can shop and eat at the entrance courtyard from 10am, but you'll have to wait until 10:15 to be allowed down the hill to the rides. Ugh!

Option 3: Do this and you won't ever bother with Options 1 or 2, NOT EVER!

Many theme parks have a limited number of 'Nights', where the park is open from just after normal closing time to around 10:00pm. To use Thorpe Park as an example, it is open on 3 weekends per year on Friday and Saturday nights from 7pm until 10pm. It is also open on the weekend of Halloween, but that's one to avoid.

Better at night!
Not many people know about or realise that these 'Nights' even happen. Which means, that the parks are practically empty on these nights. And by "empty", I mean practically no queues, at all!

If your kids are..

  A) Big enough for the big rides
  B) Able to stay up late, 

     ........then this is the ONLY TIME TO GO!

At Thorpe Park, the tickets are £15 each - that's 50% off the normal day ticket. Only the big rides are open, and there is usually extra entertainment laid on - disco, beach games, etc.. to foster a party atmosphere. Because the DaddyDaddyCool crew have season passes, it cost just £5 per person to enter. 

I did this twice this summer. Once with adult friends, to scope it out. And then again with my 3 kids. The adult visit was mostly to check that the theme park at night wasn't over-run with gangs of unruly teenagers, that might be a bit much for my 8/11/13 year olds.

As adults we had a fabulous time. All the big rides, some of them twice, and back to Ascot for civilised dinner after. A fun night out. But the visit with the kids was really very special.

My 8 year old just crept over the 140cm mark for the first time this summer. For 2 years he has had to wait by the exit door of all the big rides while I took the older kids on the big, awesome rides. That can't have been much fun for him. But he never complained, his time would come.

We arrived at Thorpe Park just before 7pm to secure our tickets and queue for the opening. As hoards of 'day' visitors streamed out of the park, we were headed back into the park as the sun was getting low in the sky. That was a great feeling in itself. With the excitement that we all had for our littlest growing all the time, we headed straight for SWARM, the newest coaster in the park. It is fast and smooth, involving barrel-rolls, twists, near-misses, smoke and impressive speed. 

Now... I said that the Park was practically empty. There were plenty of people around, but the capacity of these rides is such that every time we got to a new roller coaster, we simply decided whether we wanted to wait 1-3 minutes to be in the front row seats, or whether to get straight on any other seat. That's a pretty good choice to have.

It was this busy!
So SWARM was in front of us, and we waited for one (half-full) ride to set off, and we were next in line. We had all four front seats on one the best coasters in Europe. Our 8 year old held it together - he was clearly nervous, but committed to enter into the 'Big Ride' fraternity!

After some screaming, some teeth clenching and a lot of laughing, we were off and heading to the next ride. Time now 7:07! 

Our non-optimised route!
After that we took our time and rode Nemesis Inferno, Collosus, Saw and... my favourite... Stealth - twice! We had a few drinks breaks to sit and chat about how incredible the park is when it's nearly empty, and when it's dark. There was a lot of positive excitement and everyone was so pleased to have our littlest finally be able to join in the fun. 

We had done the big 5 coasters and it was only 9:00pm. So we went back and did SWARM one more time.

The short drive home had all three kids giving their verdicts on each of the rides, and their differing viewpoints from being first timers, to being (at aged 11) seasoned coaster-riders.

I think we'll remember that night for a very long time to come. And frankly, I don't want to go back to long boring days at a theme park, ever again. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Staycation Planner

If you're lucky enough to live somewhere that has plenty to offer children and adults for entertainment, then you'll struggle to not come up with ideas to fill a two week 'Staycation'.

We started a few months before the holidays by thinking of fun things to do, to add to the 'Staycation List'. I kept a running list on my iPhone on Evernote, which we rapidly expanded over the course of a few weeks.

Simply driving around your local area, you're likely to come across potential activities that are usually too expensive, take too long, or that simply don't make the hard priority for activities on a weekend.

Activity list being prioritised
A few weeks before the holidays started, we took the list and attempted to decide which would make the cut, and which would be left over for either later in the year or odd days in the future. This proved difficult to achieve around the kitchen table, so we all together devised a process for prioritization. A simple grid was drawn up in MS Excel with all the activities listed and a column for each child to place their priority from 1 to 10.  In fact we ranked all activities, so it was 1 to 26!

The scores were totalled and the list re-ordered into lowest scores first and highest scores last. But this did create some malcontent, which was resolved by ordering the activities by 'number of top 10 scores'.  This created a well prioritized list, and allowed us to draw a provisional line under the top 12 activities. We figured that we would need 12 activities to fill the days, with a few rest days thrown in too.

Then came the 'Scheduling'.

A number of activities required optimal weather conditions, e.g. flying lessons, beach day, lake day, etc... whilst some were best reserved for rainy days (we have plenty of those in an English summer!). So some care and attention was taken to book weather critical days earlier in the period than later, to allow for weather-driven re-arrangements.

Our final Staycation planner

Because of our working schedules, we ended up needing to fill 3 weeks of Staycation not 2 - which allowed us to go deeper into the prioritized list, and fit in some more great activities. In the end we completed 21 activites in 3 weeks!

Now... I hear you thinking... "3 weeks of daily activities with my kids? Ugh!". But, believe me, these were the best 3 weeks of my summer by far. Having activities to focus on, and avoiding the "What are we doing today Dad?" questions was priceless.

Our schedule chopped and changed throughout the whole process, but we treated the schedule like a moving target, and it really helped us stay on track to get everything done.

On the list were a couple of major, pre-booked events.  The Red Bull Air Race tickets had been bought months before for the first Sunday of the Staycation. Thinking about that event inspired me to look into flying lessons for the kids. Those had then been booked for the begining of the second week, giving a nice 'Aviation Theme' to the holiday. We could have added other themed events, such as paper aeroplane competition and a flight simulator day, but frankly... we had too much on the list already.

Some of the activities were only good for a few hours, and we could fit two into a day. We tried to keep the joint activities linked in some way. For example, we wanted to go indoor climbing and also visit the indoor trampoline zone. So we called that 'Superhero Day'. I wanted to spend the day dressed as Spiderman with the kids as other superheroes. But that idea was vitoed on grounds of high embarrassment factor. But we did climb like Spiderman, and somersault like Jedis!

The decision to not book the flying lessons right at the end of the holiday paid off, as the weather closed in on the Tuesday, and it had to be moved back a few days.

It was important to keep a few days clear as 'rest days', for us to stay around the house, get chores done and generally relax. I still shudder to remember a 14 day Florida Theme Park holiday involving theme parks on 13 of those days. We came back exhausted! So 'rest days' were necessary and actually very enjoyable.

Although we planned all the activities as a family, we did invite various friends and families to join us when appropriate. That really helped to alter the family dynamic of 3 children, and gave both children and adults a break to have fun with their peers.

One other point to mention is that the holiday finished as school started. So we left a couple of empty of 'light' days to allow for school preparations. Buying shoes/sneakers/cleats/uniform/books, etc... Especially as middle child was starting a new school. We got to the first school day well rested, well organised, and ready to learn!

Follow some of the above advice, and you'll have no difficulty planning a thoroughly entertaining, enriching and rewarding Staycation. And don't forget to plan some time afterwards to create the 'Staycation Video' !!! - The introduction to ours is here...

A couple of final notes, that I'm sure are worth mentioning...

1. We slept in our own comfy beds, every night. Bliss!
2. We spent far less than we would have spent on just airplane flights to somewhere hot!

What's not to love about a UK Staycation!!!

Top Gear Race

The BBC's excellent Top Gear show is highly entertaining. It is also built on a tried and tested formula, the presenters frequently make fun of this fact on the show. As good story tellers, they attempt to build suspense and intrigue with every one of their 'Top Gear Races'. Sometimes it will be Rally Car vs Snowboarder, sometimes, Car vs Speedboat vs Plane, but for this we're focussed on the classic - Train vs Car.

The format is simple.  The older kids race by train to a destination, whilst DaddyDaddyCool and younger child race by car (observing speed limits) to the same destination.

The winner of the race is the team sitting comfortably with a cool drink at an iconic or picturesque location. Great hilarity ensues from bragging rights to the winner and the stories of the experiences along the way.

When we had completed our the Top Gear Race this summer, it had the most profound effect on my eldest two children, as they visibly grew stronger and more self reliant. Not bad for a fun day out.

The scores...

Fun and Memorable : 10/10

- Produced plenty of funny moments, challenges, bonding time, excitement & stories to tell.

Risk Level : Low/Moderate

- Carefully planned to minimise risks, but children must be confident, trustworthy and emotionally strong under pressure.

Ideal Group Size incl. Adults : 4+ (minimum 3)

- One adult can race 2 children, but ideally 1 adult + 1 younger child can race 2 or more older children. 

Cost : £60+petrol

- Train tickets (First Class advisable), car parking and entry to the destination attraction.


Decide whether your eldest children are able and willing to travel alone to an unfamiliar place

- Are your children trust worthy? Can you leave them alone at home for 2+ hours without incident?
- Can your children orient themselves? Have they managed to meet you somewhere other than home?
- Are your children confident in asking for directions or help?
- Are your children emotionally stable under pressure?
- Can your children use a mobile phone and location-aware apps


If your answer to any of these questions is "I think so". Then it's a black flag for the race (i.e. DON'T DO IT!). You must be confident that your children can handle unexpected circumstances, and they must have proven that to you in the past. 

For example, my middle son (11) is an orienteering champion - he knows how to read a map. My daughter has managed school bus cancellations, deep snow and changes of schedule adeptly, using her mobile phone where necessary to get out of trouble. Both these kids are either head boy or top of their school academically. My risk assessment got the green flag!

Plan a suitable route and iconic destination

Train journey should be direct, point-to-point, with no changes, and preferably to a terminal stop.

The car journey should be of equivalent duration given normal traffic - at the time of the race.

The destination should be either elevated, or with glorious views - to make the finish a special place

The car and train journeys should follow a similar accessible direction, so as nor to be too far apart


We planned a route from Woking Station to Portsmouth Harbour. The train terminates at Portsmouth, removing the risk of 'missing the stop'. The train line followed the A3/M27 quite closely, so that in the event of illness, or other problem, the car would be able to pick the older kids up from the train at any stop. The car journey should have been 6 mins faster than the train. 

The destination was the cafe at the top of the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth. This left a 5-10 minute walk after the train journey, and a slightly shorter walk from the Gunwharf Quays car park.

Choose a sensible start time

- Choose a non-peak travel time. A quiet train and quiet roads make for a safer, more enjoyable trip
- Plan to arrive mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when your destination will be quieter
- Give plenty of time to get to the start point, and have a drink/snack together beforehand
- Allow plenty of time for activities after the event, or in case the plan changes or there are problems

Notes: We planned for the 10:30 train out of Woking, and arrived 45 mins before this, allowing us to purchase train tickets (first class - with WiFi) and orient ourselves to the right platform. We then checked the older kids had what they needed in a backpack: train map, destination map, fully charged phones, snacks, water bottles & money. 

Then we sat down with Starbucks' frappucinos and talked about the challenge. This gave them a chance for last minute questions, of which there were many, and a chance to relax. A hurried approach to the start of the race would have been unpleasant and risked raising their level of anxiety.

Stay in touch, record the event and add educational elements

Firstly... VERY IMPORTANT... Tell someone else what you are doing that day. If there are any problems along the way (e.g. a road traffic incident or severe adult illness) then other adults that aren't involved should be on hand to help out, knowing what you're doing and where you'll be.

Now.... download a location tracking app for each of the smartphones being used. Test these before you go.

Keep the apps updated throughout the race, so that both 'teams' know each others whereabouts.

Use messaging and phone calls for as many updates, and as much 
friendly banter as you can.

Video as much of the experience as you can, safely.

Use a variety of viewpoints, from different devices: i.e. mobile phones, videocameras & go-pro cameras.

Record locations, conversations, thoughts, fun, and experiences along the way.

Give the 'Train Team' something to do on the train - e.g. research the destination for interesting facts. Have the 'Train Team' present those facts on video using Top Gear's  conversational style.

Notes: We used Life360 because of a mix of Apple and Android smartphones. It was laggy when not in 3G coverage, but this added uncertainty and excitement to the race. Apple's 'Find my friends' app is another good option.


Seeing them off
With all the preparation in place, the children happy and confident, and a sense of competition in the air. It's race day!

Stay calm and positive at all times in order to engender the same attitude in your children.

Get the 'Train Team' off to a good start by seeing them on to the train and waving them off.

Don't 'Race' in the car - drive at speed limits, take extra care, and drive as safely as possible.

Talk like it's a race with your younger child in the car.

Keep track of your respective locations and likely destination time throughout.

Throw in some adventure to the car journey: e.g. 'Accidental' wrong turns, un-scheduled toilet stops, etc..

Have the children give updates on location on the phone.

When on foot, RUN!


The 'Train Team' quickly took the lead, as the 'Car Team' negotiatied the Woking streets. But then the car journey was aided by a new tunnel around Hindhead on the A3, which quickened our journey, but also allowed for a Top Gear-esque video segment - open-windows and listen the engine roar. Shame I was in my 2.0TDI not one of the V8 supercars that Clarkson et. al get to drive in! 

We were on track to arrive ahead of the 'Train Team', and when the train was held up without a platform at Havant, I insisted on a toilet stop for the 'Car Team', and made it as slow and complicated a diversion as possible. The key here, is to keep the arrival times as close together as possible. 

I actually wanted the 'Train Team' to win, because it would build their confidence even more, and would make for a great video segment as the 'Car Team' arrived. 

After a long sprint through Gunwharf Quays Shopping Centre, the 'Car Team' arrived at the tower. The plan to be sitting in the restaturant 150ft up in the air didn't materialise because there was a long queue for tickets. The 'Train Team' arrived just 20 secs after us, and despite remonstrations from the youngest son, we called it a draw, and headed up to the restaurant en masse.

Because we were in Portsmouth just before lunch time, we had plenty of time to visit the seafront, the small theme park, and have some fish and chips for tea before heading home. Making it a really fun day out and one that we'll talk about for years to come.

Wrapping up the day with a Video and keeping the memories alive

If you have remembered to record the experience with your smartphones and videocameras, you'll be able to produce a Top Gear-style video short to show the family and friends. Once you have collated all the different photos and vide clips onto one computer, you can use simple video editing software such as iMovie (Mac) or Movie Editor (PC). 

If it is for your own use you can overlay your favorite songs or themes such as the chase theme from the Benny Hill Show, to sped up footage of the chase. Have fun with it, and remember to jump between footage from the 'Train Team' and the 'Car Team', to create the feeling of a race. Note: If you plan to upload the video to Youtube, make sure that you don't use commercial music. Youtube tend to ban videos where they suspect copyright is being infringed.

Of course, the video is a great tool to help remember the experience and look back on in years to come. But the main purpose of the activity was to have fun, build confidence, and make memories. This can all be done without videos, but by talking about the activity with friends and family after the event. This is exciting for the children and helps them develop an ability to put experiences into words, tell compelling stories, and speak to adults - all very useful life skills!

Possible Improvements on the Activity...

Ensure that the end destination is quickly accessible without queueing. For a close race, there may only be less than 10 mins difference between the teams. Even a short queue can put a spanner in the works. Ideally we would have purchased the tower tickets beforehand, but even then the queue to go up in the lift would have made for no clear winner.

Make the challenge harder for older children. If children are familiar with travelling by train on their own, then adding a train change for them would add complexity and challenge. Only do this if your children are very familiary with the train system!

Involve other types of transport. If you are in a large city, then there are typically many options for getting from A to B. We discussed running a similar race in London using tube, riverboat, bus and bike. For this we'll need to join up with more people (and responsible adults). But it does sound like fun!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Welcome to DaddyDaddyCool

Welcome to the blog that promises to help you give your children a more fulfilling and memorable childhood. Your opinions and comments are important to me. Please feel free to share.

IMPORTANT! Some of the activities described herein have questionable levels of exposure, safety, and risk. You should decide whether your children are at a suitable level of intellectual and emotional development, with enough common sense and worldliness to make the risks acceptable BEFORE planning any activity.

My children are my main source of joy and inspiration for the activities depicted in this blog. I love them dearly, and want only the best for them. Sometimes you have to tuck your balls away and let them do the things they need to do to grow up, even if it takes you and them out of your respective comfort zones.  The first activity is one of those....