Review: Spielgaben

Despite the children being a little more interested in worksheets recently, I know they learn best through what they perceive to be fun: nature walks, playing on apps (on the rare occasion they are allowed screen time), magazines, story time… and playing. So after hearing about the Spielgaben I was quite excited. Then I found out the price. At around £400 once posted, it’s not a cheap investment. So, I had to be certain I wanted it, that it’d get used. That it would help. I researched all I could about it and couldn’t find any reasons not to. So we made the purchase.

I didn’t hear anything for a few days except my initial order confirmation, but then I received shipping and tracking information and the shipment was here within 2 days after that – well the first part was, the curriculum pack. The second package was damaged by the time it reached the sorting depot. However, it arrived after a few days – the box had been repaired enough to stop further damage and this prevented damage to the actual Spielgaben itself, which arrived unscathed.

The packages contained an extensive paper curriculum (including a Kindergarten pack, play guide, inspiration pack, math guide and planar figures pack), the chest of drawers (with removable top squares board,, and a peg board that can be used both upright for pegs, and upside down for dots) and all of the bits and bobs that make up each Spielgaben set – I could list, but there are pictures above and further info on their website here.

It is surprisingly small, yet shockingly extensive and quite heavy, very well packed and nicely finished. The quality can be seen and felt. It will last for sure. The website says it is suitable for ages 3-12. There’s no question that younger children will be drawn to it “things… lots of things… yay!” But so far we have tested it on age ranges 5-10 (3 children). The 10 (almost 11) year old was the one who spent the longest with it, so actually, yes it does appeal to the 10-12 bracket too.  He sat for over an hour making picture after picture using the inspiration cards, and they weren’t all just easy for him – there were some that posed a challenge.

 

So far we have only used inspiration cards, being summer holidays we are not into a full standard routine it’s just too busy everywhere so things are at a much slower pace (and therefore less activities) than in term time. Plus, this humidity and heat we have been having have slowed things immeasurably. However, I have look through all of the curriculum. It is printed on quality paper or card depending on which booklet it is.

I can see that we will be able to get a lot out of this set. Especially for improving hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, which actually is where we have some issues developmentally. Academics will be possible too – being able to discuss the things we are creating, in terms of math or science, building stories and developing language skills. The beauty of the kit is that it will be limited only by the imagination of the user. So I have no doubt, that now that the children have begun to use it, it will get a lot of use, and that it won’t be used the same way every day. These two have quite the imagination, and it’s only likely to grow with stimulus such as this. If I knew what I know now, we would have purchased this a year ago.

I would also add, for those with siblings, we have used this kit with 3 children simultaneously – you have to think a bit about what you are going to have them doing if you are doing separate tasks, but it’s feasible. Otherwise working together “engineer (picture reader), supplier (fetching materials) and builder (performing task of actually constructing picture)” and switching helps the teamwork and communication between the children too.

 

NB I have not been paid for this review, this review is based on my personal experience and observations of the kit I have paid for in full.

 

 

 

Review: West Midlands Safari Park

First I have to say, I am always very conflicted about places such as zoos, aquariums and safari parks. Like, I understand that many can do great work with conservation projects and endangered species, or even rehabilitation efforts with rescue animals that have been hurt, kept illegally or abused to the point of not being able to return to the wild. But there are also many that are terrible, keeping animals in poor, cramped conditions; caring more about profit than animal welfare. But after a debate in a recent Eco Kids magazine about the positives and negatives of zoos and the like. And actually I decided if I want the children to make an informed choice they’ll need to experience it themselves and draw their own conclusions.

With that in mind, the following will ignore my underlying moral and ethical conflict to the extent that I would consider “fair”; that is to say, if I comment on what I feel is not ethical, it’s above and beyond the “normal” level of conflict within me.

So West Midlands Safari Park happened.  The  safari itself is well thought out, with many animals experiencing a relatively “wild like” atmosphere. I am not keen on the fact that you can feed some of the animals, it takes away from the “wild” for the animal, and is purely indulgent for the humans involved. And can end in reactions that can scare or hurt the animals. That said, on the safari drive itself, although they don’t have the masses of land they’d perhaps have in the wild, the animals all do seem to have a fair amount of space, shelter food and care. But in general the overall experience of the safari itself is quite good, the animals look happy and healthy on the most part.

The walk through area contains: Penguin Cove, Sea Lion Theatre, Lorikeet Landing, Reptile World, Creepy Crawlies, Seaquarium and Twilight Cave.

The Penguin Cove does have a medium sized pool, a “beach” area and some caves. The penguins are seemingly able to retreat from spectators, the area looks well maintained and the penguins seem happy and healthy. They have balls etc. in the water to play with. The keepers to timed penguin feeds for spectators to watch, we never attended so I cannot comment on this.

The Twilight Cave, Creepy Crawlies and Seaquarium are all housed within the same building, in a “route through” style. You can skip the Twilightcave if you do not wish to go through (it is dark, damp and has bats flying around, so if bats flying or dark, damp, strong smelling rooms are an issue – for Caitlin they are – you can by pass this). It is a large room, with freedom of movement for the bats and plastic flaps that prevent the bats from escaping. It’s not possible to see much in it, but we have been there as the room’s cleaning is just finishing – so they do ensure the place is cleaned. The Seaquarium is setup with fish tanks containing the usual suspects you’d find (nothing like an Octupus in a cramped tank or anything) and Creepy Crawlies contain usual suspects of spiders, snails, ants, stick insects etc. All of the tanks looked well maintained and clean and filled with fresh supplies of relevant food and water sources.

Similarly the Reptile World seemed adequate, clean and well supplied. I struggle personally with the size of the crocodile enclosures, and perhaps some of the larger snakes (but I don’t have sufficient training and professional background to criticise the adequacy of it all – so please do just understand that is just my personal struggle).  We have not visited Lorikeet Landing.

In all of the areas you will find masses of information about all of the animals, also access to hand cleaning facilities if you have come into contact with animals etc.

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The Sea Lion Theatre provides “shows”, which are described as part of the sea lions’ enrichment program. It is packed with educational information regarding sea lions. I cannot comment further on this, as shows are an area I do not morally agree with beyond being conflicted.

Near to the Sea Lion Theatre is the entrance to the Ice Age exhibit. This is a large area of models, information and animatronics applicable to, and representative of, the Ice Age. The children absolutely loved it (Caitlin in a slightly conflicted way, as she’s still at that young-naive, “it’s alive” kind of stage). You get to walk through the smoking volcano on your way in, and there are cracks with Lava under your feet (along with rumbling sound affects). And then an adventure through the Ice Age area, complete with little finger-trail Identification games. Then at the end you walk through an Ice cave under the volcano, which is complete with its own little “secret tunnel” which the children loved going through. Even a small child’s wheelchair could fit through.

But one of the things that got them very silly and laughing we signs like the below. “No smoking. Only the volcano has permission” and “Keep to the paths. If not, the mammoth may tread on you and that might make their feet sore.” There were many others too.

 

The Land of the Living Dinosaurs had similar signs too. And was equally enjoyable. Similar to the Ice Age exhibit it is filled with models, animatronics, information and finger trail identity games. Unlike the Ice Age area though, it has a large sand pit for fossil discovery, a themed shop and a geyser sure to attract some attention. Again the children absolutely loved it (even with Caitlins slight fear that the raptors would eat her). It’s definitely a well thought out area, and fun for all ages.

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What was also fun was noticing the evolving foot prints on the floor, on the way in and way back out… see below gallery.

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Once you are through this area you cross a small, private road (with zebra stripes on the zebra crossing) which takes you over to the theme park, the Boj Giggly Park (for the little ones), the Hippo Lakes and the African village. Despite more than one visit (you get a free return included in your ticket) we didn’t have time to do everything. We did see the meerkats briefly, and breeze past the hippos and park, but didn’t really take time there. The children, were naturally, drawn to the rides, and that’s where we spent much of our remaining time.

You can purchase ride wristbands to get unlimited rides, and really, if you plan on going on rides this is the advisable thing to do. You just show your wristband and on you get. They have quite a selection of rides you can go on, from carousel-based rides and a kiddy coaster for the littlies, to flying hippos, rhino-coaster and snake helter skelter for the slightly more adrenalin filled littlies to wild water rapids,  twister-coaster and even bigger rides for the even more adrenalin fuelled theme park go-er.

There is clear signage and height checkers around this area so you’ll know what each guest can go on (whether independently or accompanied) including by the wristband exchange area where you’d purchase the wristbands from (so you’ll know if the guests can do what you expect/want them to do). The staff are very efficient at trying to get everyone through and filling up the rides etc. And were all friendly and welcoming; trust me, I know how boring it is to repeat the same safety stuff over and over, and I have been multiple places where actually they kind of show hatred towards guests who mishear/misunderstand/ask questions etc. We did not experience this here.

Then the important bit – food of course…

We only used the Dino Diner. I mean – it has a Jurassic Park feel to it and I have 2 dino mad children. Of course we ate there. The whole restaurant is decorated to have a dinosaur feel, with various dino creatures featuring around the place. The most amazing part of the decoration though was the light shades which are themed as hatched dino eggs. The children honestly wanted to take some home with them. They can not be purchased though – the talents of team they have on park created them. I think the children would lay an egg apiece if I got them a light shade like that each.

But the food. You could argue it’s over priced if you are used to your chip shop, Spoons or McDonals prices, but actually as seasoned day trippers the menu is on par, at the lower end of the scale, of attraction prices (especially when you factor in portion sizes). The first visit saw the adults with “Chip-izza” (a plate of chips covered in pizza topping) – completely by accident, I forgot what was meant to be ordered when I got to the till and end up ordering that – which was enjoyed. And the children ordering their usual “can we get away with it today Mumma?” chicken goujons and chips. The second trip saw us order a platter of sizzling chicken fajitas for 4. Including drinks, dining for 4 was around £30-35. but you can see the prices in the above gallery.

The food wasn’t fast, but it was busy, and still came out within a reasonable time frame (the kids had started moaning they were hungry but weren’t on the verge of meltdown both times, this usually happens within 20 minutes in a busy restaurant so reasonable). The food was ok, good portions as stated before. Not of excellent quality or flavour, but also not bad. For example, the chicken in the fajitas was not bad, but it was tough. But the overall flavour was good.

You can also purchase a guidebook packed full of information about the animals found at the park. I also have to point out that I am aware that safari parks and zoos such as this do important work towards conservation, research and endangered species.

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To summarise. 

Safari park and the walk through discovery trail are mostly good (well maintained, clean and the animals are clearly cared for), it just depends on your moral position on certain aspects. But the Ice Age and Land of the Living Dinosaur exhibits are unquestionably good. Theme park is good, with attentive and friendly staffing, clear signage and ability to purchase unlimited ride wristbands. The food isn’t cheap and isn’t amazing, but it’s on par with other attractions prices and a good portion and isn’t bad either.

*** As an aside. The site is wheelchair friendly (if not hilly in places). And if anyone is visiting with adults/children who have issues with busy places (but feel safe in the comfort of their car) I would say, on arrival head straight to the car park. You can do the Ice Age and Land of the Living Dinosaurs before the Discovery Trail opens, then do the Discovery Trail before the theme park opens and then get that done before people start really coming in and queuing and making it feel busy. The safari itself can be done multiple times if you want and at any point in your day. ***

Review: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (and Dippy the Dinosaur)

Knowing that Dippy the Dinosaur (the diplodocus skeleton normally resident in London’s Natural History Museum) is on tour around the UK (currently at Birmingham), how much my children love dinosaurs and how easy Birmingham is by train I decided that this was a must this summer… so a day trip was planned with my little brother (Max, only 10 months older than Logan).

We were surprised to find out it’s all free. Not just the exhibition to see Dippy, but also the entry to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. So that was a bonus. But I must say, having never been there before, and knowing it’s a free museum, we were pleasantly surprised not only of the quality of the exhibitions on offer, but also the interactivity layout and presentation of the place. It was fantastic. The regret we have is not having planned more time there. But knowing it’s free and easy to get to, I expect there shall be a return visit at some point.

There were various different permanent exhibitions, from Ancient History through to the history of Birmingham There were many artifacts on display, quizzes, electronic interactivity, models, example clothing and fashion as well as sections for the children to play on something related, for example the 1930’s kitchen in the above picture gallery.

Then it was time for Dippy, although it is free entry, you have to book in for your time slot to enter online here. It was a big hall with Dippy being the central focus. Some dinosaur related information and displays around the outer sections of the hall. And then towards the back the children were given the opportunity to write on a brown label, with a message for Dippy to take on tour with him.

The museum itself was about a 5 minute walk from the Snow Hill rail station, but surrounded by a lot of building works. It wasn’t that hard to find as it’s quite centrally located. However, using google maps on my phone for directions we ended up facing the task of getting a wheelchair up a enormous amount of steps. Luckily, Caitlin can walk, so she could get out and be supported up the steps whilst her wheelchair was carried. However, on exit we found that if you enter the museum from Edmund Street this is much more accessible. The Museum itself does have lifts, though the one at the beginning of the museum was the only one in use whilst we were there, so you had to walk back through the exhibition to get back to the lift to go down… or find a way down the stairs. Toilet facilities were good and clean, though had run out of toilet paper by the time we used.

Techniquest

Techniquest Blog_review_pic_techniquest_01 Cardiff Bay, Cardiff. http://www.techniquest.org

Before our children arrived, I have been to Techniquest several times as a child/young teen myself and with other children (friends and family). And I have to say, it’s consistent in capturing the audience. Child, and adult alike, are captivated by its play-based approach to science.

Yet, for all of its play focus of the main exhibition, there is so much to be learned. Even if you forget the additional educational shows. There is a bit of information about each interactive experiment, and many questions and suggestions to get you thinking as you play. It opens even the most educationally shy child to a world of possibility, which is something we struggle against (with our eldest) on a daily basis.

Then there are the shows in the planetarium and science theatre; different themes run at different times, which can all be checked on the website. There’s usually a show in the science theatre, where they offer a series of short and engaging experiments that fit the theme of their show. And then 2 shows in the planetarium – one suitable for the younger audience (under 7s) and one aimed at over 7s.

Whilst we were there, we attended the science theatre show (Switched on, which was an exploration of light) at no additional cost. And also the under 7s planetarium show (Space Hunters – a planetarium, show that had an interactive and fun story involving a treasure hunt in space to get the children involved and interested, before having a look at some constellations), which was about £1.50 each extra. There was also a group in, from the University I believe, educating children on healthy eating with some fun games and activities to show them about being hydrated, making healthy choices (low fat, low sugar) and gave them some information to bring home too.

The exhibition itself was very entertaining, and could easily form the basis of a very fun few hours out (or by utilising the wrist band to pop out and back in, going in the morning, popping out for a lunch and explore of the bay and then having a few more hours after lunch). Experiments range from things to do with light, to the physics of movement, to biology and human evolution. A popular section is always the water area, where the children can manoeuvre objects through a little stream, fill up various household objects to see which uses more water etc.

The entry fee wasn’t too bad we went as a family group of 5 (2 adults and 3 children) and the price was £25 for all of us. There is a small gift shop, as well as a coffee shop selling pre-packaged sandwiches, hot and cold drinks and snacks, 2 hot drinks, 5 sandwiches and 5 packets of crisps cost us £16. And there’s a car park directly opposite the back of the building (Mermaid Quay), 5 hours parking cost us £7, though if you are making a day of it, the Red Dragon centre is only a 5-minute walk away, and if you spend £5 (dinner/drinks/bowling/cinema) parking is free.

It’s somewhere we always come back to, and would always recommend to others for a bit of educational fun.

PS. I couldn’t add more than the initial picture as all of ours captured other people’s children too… difficult not to get photobombed in a place as busy as that.