Wednesday 29 July 2015

Fab Lab Invent-A-Scent Perfume Kit - Review & Giveaway

If like me, you're looking for a fun activity to keep the kids busy on a rainy day - AKA the school summer holidays - then I can thoroughly recommend the Fab Lab Invent-a-Scent Perfume set from Interplay.

Not only did it capture my daughters imagination for a good few hours, but we also managed to sneak in a bit of stealth learning which is always a bonus when there's 6 weeks off school stretching ahead of us.

I really liked the packaging and appearance of this set. Not too overtly pink, it shows a young girl in a white coat on the box, any efforts to encourage more young girls into science is a great thing in my opinion.

Inside the box, you'll find a selection of pipettes, a pair of rubber laboratory gloves, 5 different scents, gift bottles, self-adhesive labels, tester strips and an activity guide and instructions.

The booklet was full of interesting facts - Ruby was delighted to hear about the ancient art of perfume blending and that perfume bottles have been discovered by archaeologists thought to be over 4,000 years old in Cyprus - this piqued her interest since we're off on holiday to Cyprus soon.

We read the safety instructions and information about allergens before starting on the kit.

Ruby learnt about blending different scents to make perfume, she learnt about base notes, top notes and heart notes and we talked about the perfume I wear and how it smells after different lengths of time.

There's a helpful sheet inside the booklet where you can jot down your perfume blends, useful to refer back to if you want to make up more of a particular favourite.

We had a maths lesson discussing proportions and ratios, and I found this easiest to explain it like a cake recipe which you scale up to make more, or mixing a paint colour.

Once she'd blended her first perfume, we spent a while, eyes closed smelling it and thinking about what it reminded her of and how she could best describe it. Her first blend consisted of musk base note and pink flowers and green top notes. This she said reminded her of forests and waterfalls in Wales and she named and labelled her bottle 'Woodland Waterfall'.  She came up with some great adjectives for her other perfumes and named some 'Tropical Island', 'English Country Garden', 'Fruity Fantasy' and 'Luxurious Lemon Tart'.

We had a lovely afternoon playing with scents and coming up with individual perfumes.  After mixing them on the tray, you can transfer your blend with the pipette into a gift bottle and label it up ready to give to friends.  Ruby preferred to make small amounts, experimenting with different ratios, so she'd have preferred to have more bottles included in the kit, and also some spare labels - there's only 4 for the 4 bottles so no room for errors with your writing.

I also noted that the scents were very foamy, making lots of bubbles which at times made it difficult to get back into the bottle.  This may have been partly due to inexperienced use of the pipette, but they were prone to foaming, even after I explained about suction and vacuums and how pipettes worked.

There's lots of discussion in the booklet about matching fragrances to different personalities but Ruby was less interested in this part of the kit, preferring to mix her own and experiment. 

Overall. we though this was a lovely set with good quality ingredients.  The scents were all long lasting and highly fragranced and Ruby loved using the little strips to test her perfumes (there were plenty of these included).  More gift bottles (of smaller sizes) and labels would have been useful and perhaps the plastic insert which is used as your blending palate could have been a little sturdier.  This set is aimed at age 8+ and Ruby is 7.  She struggled a little with the concept of scaling up for large quantities, and I also noted I had to help remove the plastic stoppers to open the bottles, but these quite rightly have to be tight to prevent any spillage in transit.  We spent a good few hours with this kit and there's plenty left to use it again and make up more perfumes.

So from this one activity, we had a little bit of History, lots of Science, plenty of Maths and some English and vocabulary practise - her teachers will be pleased!

The set retails at £12.99 which I think is good value for money and would make a great gift.

If you'd like to win one of these kits for yourself, simple complete the rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Terms and Conditions:

UK entrants over the age of 18 only. 
Entrants will be submitted to the random draw. 
Incomplete or Duplicate entries will be deleted. 
All times are in GMT. 
The giveaway ends at midnight on 6th August 2015
Blog Owner not responsible for non-delivery of prize. 
Entrants must leave a means of contact: either twitter handle or email address. 
Prizes must be claimed within 2 days, otherwise another winner will be selected to replace the non-claimant. 
The prize is the item featured in the post, and there is no cash alternative. 
Please allow 14 days for delivery.

I received this kit for the purpose of this review, all images and opinions are my own.  The prize will be fulfilled by Interplay.

Monday 27 July 2015

Five Free Things To Do This Summer

The long summer holiday can be an expensive time to keep the kids entertained, so here's my top five free activities which are heavy on fun and easy on the purse.

Visit the Forest

A trip to the wood is our favourite thing to do for free any time of the year, but in the summer it's perfect.  The tree canopy will protect you from scorching sun on hot days, or offer a little shelter from the rain if you're not so lucky with the weather.

There's loads to do in the forest from bird and wildlife spotting, to den building.  Take a picnic and make a day of it, but remember to take all your rubbish home with you.

This year, the Forestry Commission are hosting Superworm trails after the success of the Gruffalo and Gruffalo's Child trails last year.  Based on Julia Donaldson's popular book, follow the markers, complete the activities and have a super day out.  The trails are free to do, although you may need to pay a local parking charge if you take your car.  You can buy special activity packs but they're not necessary to complete the trails, and you can download some free activity sheets from the Forestry Commission site instead.  You'll find a full list of participating forests on the website.

In both Grizedale and Whinlatter in the Lake District, they're also hosting 'Wormy Wednesdays' on Wednesdays throughout the summer holidays.  There will be additional art and craft activities and sessions, see local sites for more information.

Splash at your local play fountain 

Hours of free fun can be had in splash parks and municipal fountains.  My favourite in London are at Granary Square in Kings Cross where they have loads of deckchairs, live music and street food, and also at the impressive backdrop of Somerset House.  You can find more London play fountains here and many large towns and cities now have their own too.  Take a towel and a change of clothes!

Canals and Rivers

I always remember summer holidays used to include trips to the river to feed the ducks - the perfect free afternoon of fun.  The Canal and Rivers Trust have a free booklet and sticker pack crammed with loads of activities, things to spot and things to make.  Send off for your 'What Shall We Do Today' pack and make the most of our waterways.

Watching the barges drift by, playing pooh sticks, collecting feathers are all childhood memories I have, and the website has a great interactive map with downloadable guides for local days out and details of events and festivals.

Incidentally, they're also on a mission to encourage us to feed the ducks more healthily.  We shouldn't be feeding them bread, but corn, peas, oats and fruit instead.  

Visit the beach

It wouldn't be the summer holidays without a trip to the seaside.  From rock-pooling to building sand-castles there's plenty of free fun to be had on the beach.  Build a moat around your castles and fill it with buckets of sea water, beach-comb for shells, driftwood and pretty pebbles, bury each other's legs in the sand, fly a kite...the list goes on.

Crabbing is a firm favourite, but remember to do it responsibly.  Here are a list of dos and don'ts to prevent causing distress to the crabs:

  • Don't put too many crabs in one bucket - four or five at the most
  • Do add some rocks and seaweed to the bucket to make them feel more at home and reduce their stress
  • Don't keep them out of the sea for too long - return them after an hour at most
  • Do keep them in sea water and change the water often to avoid asphyxiation
  • Don't keep your bucket in the sun
  • Don't use a line with a hook.  A net to hold the bait is kinder
  • Do hold your crab correctly to avoid damaging it (and avoid you getting bitten!). Hold it either side of it's shell towards the back, or finer and thumb top and bottom of the shell
  • Do separate any crabs which are fighting by returning them to the water straight away
  • Do take all your rubbish and equipment home with you - lines and nets can damage birds and marine life 
  • Do go crabbing - it's a great way to introduce kids to marine ecology.

Remember to stay safe at the beach.  The RNLI are again this year sending out Beach Smart kits free of charge, with fun stickers and safety guides.  Their motto for staying safe in the water, is to remember - hold tight, hands up if you get into any difficulty.

Visit the library

The library is always a great place to enjoy books and magazines for free.  But over the summer they always host a reading challenge too.  If you haven't already, encourage your kids to sign up.  This year the theme is Record Breakers, and children are rewarded with stickers and certificates for the amount of books they read.

Check out your local library for summer holiday activities and craft events too, many of which will be offered free of charge.

What are your favourite free things to do in the holidays?

Thursday 23 July 2015

Design Space - test out your room's colour scheme before committing

We've all been there.  Decorating or re-designing a room and having second-thoughts about the colours you've chosen.  Perhaps they don't quite go together as well as you'd anticipated, or maybe they give off a different mood than you'd been hoping for.  Or maybe you just find it difficult to visualise how a finished room will look.

Apollo Blinds have launched a new free online tool to take the stress away from your interior designing and help you experiment with different looks before the expense and effort of committing to them.

The Design Space tool is simple and intuitive to use.  Simply go to the home page and click the 'Design your room' tab at the top of the screen. You can choose from various different standard rooms to suit your home - Modern Kitchen; Vibrant Living Room; Classic Bedroom; Contemporary Living Room; Study; Modern Bathroom; Child's Room; Office; Modern Living Space; etc etc.

Once you've selected the most appropriate room to that you're redesigning, you can choose a blind type for your window dressing from the range that Apollo Blinds offer.

Then, have fun choosing colours for the blinds, the wall colours and the accessories.  Try experimenting with schemes and be bold with colours.  You can afford to go wild, trying out pattern and colour, and be a little braver than you may usually, because it's all free from any commitment.

The tool perfectly demonstrates the effect of colour on a room if ever you were in any doubt, and can be really useful for working out the ambience you are hoping to achieve.  See how these different colours change the mood from a fun and vibrant space with bright red; to a soothing, contemplative place in soft violet or a cool, fresh retreat in pale blue hues.

You can experiment mixing and matching patterns and colours to your heart's content until you come up with a look you love.  Save time and money on costly decorating mistakes, as well as finding the perfect blinds for your home. Release your inner designer with Apollo, and be a little bolder with your next room make-over and choice of window blinds.

Featured post in association with Apollo Blinds.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Making a difference with Kiddicare and Kids Company

A while ago I told you about the Colour A Child's Life Campaign with Kids Company.  Kiddicare the children's retailer have teamed up as corporate partners, and one of their commitments is to go, as a staff team, to volunteer their time to renovate rooms for young people in need of support.

I was honoured to be invited along, not just to see the project and spread the word, but to roll my sleeves up and do something practical for a change.

I can't tell you what a sense of achievement I came away with that day.  It was so good to be able to offer some practical help and to be able to make a real, tangible difference - albeit maybe seemingly small - to someones life.

The young mum we were working with had been identified by the charity as being in need of support.  She had a (completely adorable) one year old daughter herself, and had not had her own permanent home since the child was born. Brought up herself in foster care, but now classed as an adult, support from the state was lacking.  Kids Company have been working with her for a while, helping her to turn her life around and are supporting her to study and gain some qualifications so she can get a job to support her young daughter.  She's been sleeping on sofas at family and friends houses, but unfortunately she was recently exposed to a violent incident in one of the houses, and it was deemed no longer safe to stay there.

She'd been given emergency housing by the local authority in the form of a one-bedroom flat.  I have to say, personally I don't think it was fit for a young baby to live in in the state it was presented to her.  The floors were bare, there were some sharp nails sticking out which we removed - hardly appropriate for a young crawling baby.

The bedroom they'd have to share was shabby with patches of damp around the windows.  Paper was peeling off the walls, it was dark and dreary and not somewhere you'd want to bring up your child.  There was no furniture, and as a young single mum with little funds it looked like a mountain too far to climb to make this a warm, safe and welcoming home by herself.

Luckily the team from Kids Company have done this before and they assembled a crack team of staff together with Kiddicare staff and bloggers (myself, Mari from Maris World, Gail Ann from Mumma G and Simone from The Bottom of the Ironing Basket).

We had one day to transform this room before the young family were due to move in.  We were against the clock and there was a lot to do to transform it from this.

Wallpaper was stripped.  Holes filled. Woodwork sanded.  Walls painted. Skirtings and door frames glossed.  The ceiling was painted.  It was a lot of hard work, but it was also great fun working with the team.  A lovely sense of camaraderie prevailed as we all worked towards our joint mission.  Everyone had a role to do, and we worked together brilliantly as a team.

Furniture had been donated, and these flat packs were all assembled.  A carpet was laid to make the room safe for crawling and to make it feel more homely. New curtains were put up, a new light shade and a lamp to make the room feel brighter and airier.

The new occupant had a lot of input into the decor. Although she wouldn't see it until the 'big reveal' at the end, Kids Company worked closely with her to understand her tastes and what colour scheme and themes she'd like.  The aim was to create an area for the baby, and a more 'grown up' and sophisticated sleeping area for mum.

It became obvious throughout the day that we weren't just painting walls.  We were giving them some optimism.  A safe and welcoming home she could finally call her own.  A sense of belonging and  security that she'd had to wait far too long for.

After an utterly exhausting day, we were quite nervous about finally meeting the young family who's home we'd been working on all day.  There was trepidation about whether she'd like it, whether it had turned out how she'd been hoping.

We needn't have worried. It was such an emotional moment when they finally got to see the bedroom for the first time.  There were tears - from the mum and from the team.  It was such a small gesture to give up a day's work to help, but I really believe it will make a big difference. And once Kids Company have finished making the other rooms in the flat habitable, they'll have a real family home and the fresh start they truly deserve.

Kids Company are always looking for more help.  There's lots of ways you can get involved.  Why not suggest a day like this to your employer?  It's a great team building exercise, and one that will leave you with a lasting sense of achievement.  Please do spare a few minutes to watch the video, it really sums up the day.

I wish these two all the very best in their new home.  I hope it's the start of fresh and lasting happiness for them both.

Special thanks to Kiddicare and Kids Company for having me along.  What I lacked in painting skills, I hope I made up for in hoovering!

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Overnighting at the Travelodge Ashford

image credit: Travelodge Hotels

Whether you're exploring the Garden of England or looking for a handy stopover en-route to the Channel, the Travelodge at Ashford offers a great value, comfortable overnight stay.

Located close to the M20 (but not so close that you can hear the traffic), it's easy to find and perfect for an early morning getaway the next day without getting snarled up in town centre traffic.

There was ample free car parking for the hotel, and it was easy to find a space near the entrance.  Tucked away on the Eureka Retail Park, you'll find loads of eating out options, great for families if you want to dine out rather than eating in the hotel bar - choose from Frankie & Bennys; Nandos; Pizza Hut; Chiquito or takeaways at Burger King; Subway and KFC.  There's even a Cineworld on the park, so you could nip out for a family movie before bed.

We arrived at the hotel very late at night as we'd been to a Forest Live concert at Bedgebury.  Even at nearly 11:00pm, there were staff on the desk to check us in and we were given our key for the room.  We were able to get a glass of wine from the bar and it was a welcome treat to take it up to our room, kick off our soggy shoes and get out of our wet clothes (it had bucketed down earlier in the evening and we got drenched!) Had we not been looking so dishevelled, we'd have probably stayed and enjoyed our drink in the comfy lounge area.

Although there's no air conditioning in the rooms in this hotel, the staff had thoughtfully been in prior to our arrival, closed the curtains and put on a fan in the room for us.

Decorated in the corporate colour scheme, we had a comfortable king size 'Dreamer' bed, a TV and tea and coffee making facilities in our en suite room.  The bathroom was roomy and equipped with a bath, a shower over, washbasin and toilet, there was a supply of liquid soap and shower gel/shampoo in pump dispensers.  It was all clean and fresh and quiet (even with the window open all night) so we slept like logs.

Our room overlooked a small pond, and it was so peaceful and relaxing looking out onto the wildlife - I spotted rabbits lazily nibbling the grass, a heron swooping over and a family of ducks and ducklings out for a morning swim.

After a refreshing shower in the morning we headed down to breakfast.  Buffet style, there was plenty to choose from with unlimited refills of tea; coffee and fruit juice; cereals; fruit; toast; yoghurts and cooked sausages; bacon; scrambled eggs and beans.

If you're travelling with your family, it's worth remembering that kids go free with Travelodge, up to 2 children under 16 can share a family room with no additional charge, and they get free breakfast too.

There is limited free wifi in the hotel (free for first 30 minutes, then £3 for 24 hours), and snack vending machines should you get the midnight munchies.  

We had a very comfortable overnight stay. Although I didn't have as much interaction with the staff as I've had at other Travelodge hotels I've stayed in, for a budget hotel I don't think you can do better than a Travelodge for a great value stay.  Rooms are available in this location from £67 per night.

Disclosure: We were offered one nights' accommodation and breakfast for the purpose of this review.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Visiting the Duomo in Milan

Duomo Cathedral Milan pigeons

The magnificent cathedral dominates the city's skyline and whilst its grandeur can be admired from afar, it's really worth a closer look with a visit inside and if you can, upstairs to the roof for the most spectacular views of Milan.

Duomo Cathedral and square, Milan, Italy

Building started on the Duomo in 1386, but the largest church in all of Italy (the fifth largest in the world) wouldn't be completed for a further 600 years. It's incredible to think that men laboured their entire working lives on something that wouldn't even be seen finished by their great, great, great, great, great grandchildren.

The Bishop at the time insisted the cathedral was built from Candoglia marble, a distinctive salmon pink stone, and each piece was transported to the centre of Milan via the canals after the Duke of Milan gave permission for the quarried stone to be used free of charge for the holy building.  Each piece was stamped to exempt it from charges.

As we queued to get in (note for others - buy fast-track tickets in advance!) there was the most biblical of thunderstorms.  The rain was coming down in sheets, running like rivers down the streets.  I'm sure it was worthy of Noah's time.  Funny how things change, in days gone by the cathedral would have offered shelter and sanctuary, these days they make you stand in the rain and queue for tickets.  Still, it was good to see the 14th century plumbing and drainage in action!

Entrance is €2 but it's well worth purchasing a ticket for the terrace so you can enter the rooftop area.  This is €8 (half price for children) to walk up the stairs, or €13 to use the elevator.

You can get a close-up view of the spires for free from across the road in the department store rooftop cafe, but photography is difficult because of the volume of people and the glass safety barriers.  It's worth paying and the heady climb to the top - although don't do it with slippy shoes and after a half bottle of champagne like I did.  I got the proper horrors.

Inside the building itself, you can't help but be awestruck by the magnitude of the Duomo.  The towering piers, 52 in total, one for each week of the year separate the aisles.  Each column is topped with statues of saints.  As you enter from the front, look for the meridian which was installed in 1786 by astronomers to mark astronomical noon by a ray of sunlight that enters from the south aisle.

Pillars columns of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Pillars columns of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

marble carved pillars of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

It's important to remember that this is still a place of worship, so visitors are expected to be respectful.  Women will be asked to cover their shoulders, although they were ok with my long denim shorts.  Disposable ponchos are available to purchase if you don't have someone handy to lend you their jacket. Voices should be kept low, children under control, camera flashes are not allowed and the use of mobiles is very much frowned upon.  The feathered capped guards may look like something from a William Tell story, but they mean business.

Back inside the Duomo, there are countless stained glass windows to admire ranging in date from 1473 to 1988.  The intricacies, the minute details in the carving, the tiled flooring, the magnificent gilded organ pipes - it was almost too much for my eyes.

stained glass window of the Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Biblical scene carving  Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Marble floor mosaic Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Gilt organ Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

The peculiar statue of St Bartholomew, who was martyred by being flayed and crucified reminded me of those vintage anatomical drawings, all sinews and muscles.

St Bartholomew statue Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

St Bartholomew statue Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

St Bartholomew statue Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

In the vault above the choir is the Holy Nail of The Cross, a red light marking the place where a nail reputedly from Jesus' crucifixion has been kept since 1461.  It is displayed to visitors every 14 Spetember when the bishop is raised up on hidden pulleys to the niche where it is hidden.

To enter the staircase for the rooftop, you need to exit the building and walk around the side, so if you want to break up your visit with lunch (or to wait for it to stop raining in our case) then you can.

The climb wasn't so bad - I forgot to count how many steps there were on the spiral staircase, but it was so worth it for the incredible views of the city. From here you can see up close the painstaking restoration work which is ongoing, replacing sections of the marble which have been eroded by time, weather, pollution and pigeon droppings.

Marble renovation rooftop Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

See the buttresses and gargoyles from above, and take in the panoramic vistas which on a clear day allow you to see the mountains in the distance.

Gargoyle rooftop Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Rooftop view Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy

Gold statue rooftop Duomo Cathedral Milan, Italy
(scroll back up to my first picture and see if you can spot this gold statue!)

Even for a non-religious person like me, this was a visit I'll always remember.

Read my review of the hotel we stayed in during our visit to Milan, the Milano Scala Eco Hotel.

Linking up with Time Traveller.