Category Archives: Life in the US

Valentines for All or for Special Friends? Does it Matter?

American Valentine Traditions

When I first arrived here, I was shocked by the way Valentine’s Day is celebrated at school.  Parties and giving little bits of pointless paper to every child in the class seemed completely meaningless to me.

When I was a child we all made a card at school.  Some took it home, some gave it anonymously to someone they ‘fancied’ and some gave it to their best friend. Most of the class didn’t get a Valentine, usually one boy and one girl received loads, it didn’t really matter, that’s life.

I do however understand the policy of all or none when giving out these odd tiny Valentines they have here. Nobody wants to be the child who receives nothing.  I buy into it because the children want to give, but they ask all kinds of questions.

  • Why do I have to give something to that person if I don’t really like them?
  • Can I give something more special to my best friend or will everyone else think it is unfair?
  • It takes too long to write cards for everyone can’t I just send a few?
  • Why should I give something to someone if they are horrible to me?

The answer to most of these questions is ‘because school says’, which is always the worst kind of answer in my opinion.

I think there is a better way. Can we spend time talking with children, discussing the issues and then let them decide for themselves?

  • What would it be like if we could choose who to give Valentine’s to?
  • Could we make a few really special Valentine’s with thoughtful messages instead of a piece of paper with a name on?
  • How about if all Valentine’s were anonymous – if we gave a Valentine to the people we care about but we don’t tell them who gave it?
  • Would that make it more about seeing a smile on someone’s face rather than how great  a gift we could give?
  •   How does it feel to be the only child without a Valentine?  Think about those people, perhaps you would like to send them one so that they wouldn’t feel left out? (My daughter said she was going to send a card to the girl in her class from learning centre, even though she didn’t know her, because she thought otherwise she might not get any.) 
  • Do you feel that you should send a card to all the class to make it fair?  If you do then go ahead.
  • If we only send to some people what message are we sending? Are we saying you are the most special people in my life or I don’t like these other people?

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love and friendship. We don’t care about all people equally and that is perfectly normal. Giving to all in my opinion makes it thoughtless.  Rather than celebrating how we care for everyone, it degenerates into an automatic exercise that is expected of us.  We send cards without sentiment because we have to, not because we care about those people. We can’t write special messages to our friends because that wouldn’t be equitable and to write a long message to the whole class would take too long.

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I like the exercises where the children have to think of one good thing to say about each person in the class but even then I have had my child in tears because there are some children she doesn’t really know and can’t think of anything good to say.  Even at that level then, it is false sentiment.

I wonder how much this is thought about at school before they decide on an all or nothing policy as a matter of fairness? Is it really fair and can’t we trust our children to show kindness and know right from wrong without imposing our own ideas on them?

I wonder what the children would say if we had these discussions? I think we might be surprised.

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How to Survive a Road Trip from Seattle to Yellowstone with Three Kids, a Dog and a Tent.

 

I love the idea of a road trip. It isn’t something people do that often in the UK, since it is such a small country and the main roads are really congested. With so many places here to explore and big open roads, I can’t wait to get out and explore. Perhaps it is a little unrealistic to expect it to be plain sailing with a three kids and a dog in tow, but I’m always eager for a challenge.  A few years ago we took a road trip to Curlew lake for our first family camping holiday, which was a really successful trip. Why not take the plunge and go for the long haul?

Close to 700 miles seems an awfully long way to drive so we broke up the journey with a camping trip with friends in Eastern Washington and an overnight stay in Missoula.

Packing

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We have camping packing down to a fine art. We decided not to take the kayak on this trip but everything else in the picture was loaded into the Suburban.  Our tent is an Alaknak with an added vestibule. It has plenty of room for our family of five to walk around inside and is quick and easy to put up. We sleep on camping cots and pack a camping kitchen but to be honest on this trip we didn’t use it a lot. The best time to see wildlife is early morning and evening so we rarely got back to the campsite before it was dark.  I was told it was cold at night so packed plenty of warm clothes. We didn’t need many warm weather clothes at Yellowstone. Yellowstone is mountainous territory so has considerably cooler temperatures than surrounding regions, we mostly wore long trousers and layers.

On the Road

After our weekend camping we headed through Eastern Washington( I saw tumbleweed for the first time) towards Spokane where we took a lunch break. We then crossed the State line into Idaho.  To keep ourselves amused, we accepted a friend’s challenge to spot  licence plates from different states. This was the perfect challenge for a trip like this. Yellowstone is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, so there were plenty to find. We managed to find 45 of the 50 states by the end of our trip.

We then crossed another state line into Montana. There were lots of roads like this,

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They don’t call it the blue sky state for nothing.

Overnight Stop

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For our overnight stop we had pre-booked a cabin at KOA Missoula. I was really impressed with how neat and clean this KOA was. There were floral displays everywhere and a man who ventured out every morning to water and feed them.  The staff were really friendly and the shop well stocked.  Ice cream  was served in the evening (much to the delight of the girls) and breakfast in the morning. The girls enjoyed a dip in the pool before it got too dark.

Travelling to West Yellowstone

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The next leg of the journey, through Montana was really beautiful.  We stopped for lunch along the way and then another rest break (conveniently at a consignment/antique store) made the journey around six hours. Arriving at West Yellowstone KOA, the girls headed off to the indoor pool while Dad put up the tent.

Tips for Camping in Yellowstone

 

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Tips for Camping at Yellowstone

  • Our first concern regarding camping was that we were in grizzly bear country. The owners at the campsite assured us that they rarely see any wildlife on site except for foxes, but to keep any food locked in the car to be safe.  We also had a bear proof food container which was almost human proof too.
  • Even in the height of the summer, Yellowstone gets pretty cold at night often reaching below 0 degrees centigrade.  My advice would be to get good quality winter grade sleeping bags, lots of layers and hats for night-time.  We also bought a camping gas heater and with this on we were warm enough.  If you have very young children or are not seasoned campers I would recommend staying in a cabin or RV. Campfires are permitted at West Yellowstone KOA.
  • During the daytime, campsites are pretty quiet as all the guests are out exploring.  The pool and hot tub was very busy in the evenings when people returned.  We chose to stay at the campsite and use the facilities in the morning when it was quiet and head out after lunch. This gave us plenty of time to drive to the best places to view wildlife in the evenings.

How Easy is a Yellowstone Trip with a Dog?

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  • Dogs are permitted in Yellowstone but there are a number of restrictions.  Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails or boardwalks or on the roadside.
  • We were fortunate to have cooler, cloudy days so that we could leave the dog in the car when visiting big attractions like Old Faithful.  On warmer days we took the trails and boardwalks in shifts. I went with the younger children and then my husband and my eldest went when we got back.
  • Yellowstone is huge and a lot of the sites you can see from the road, particularly the wildlife.  I think we would probably had a different experience if we had used the trails more but it is perfectly reasonable to take a dog and do the trip in the car.

The Sights of Yellowstone

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Day 1. Artists Paintpots – We underestimated quite how big Yellowstone is and how much there is to see. On the first day we headed to artists paintpots, passing a few smaller sights on the way. We took it in turns to walk the trail and boardwalks around the hydrothermal basin, so we could leave the dog in the car. Artist paintpots is full of coloured pools and mudpots that bubble like a witches cauldron, perfect for making up fantasy stories for little ones. Yellowstone wildlife greeted us for the first time in the guise of a chipmunk and a coyote walking out of the woods past the car.

For the rest of our stay we decided we should plan the things we really wanted to see and work out a manageable route. This was our list and route.

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Day 2-Old Faithful – The times that Old Faithful is likely to erupt can be found on an app. The signal in the park is very poor, so once you get in you may find that it doesn’t work but the times can also be found in the shop. Next to Old Faithful is a display of photography and old cameras.  This was fun to visit.  At the shop we picked up Yellowstone Jack – a very cute friend to carry around and include in your pictures.  He can then be tagged on Instagram to win prizes.  The girls thought this was great fun. If geysers are your thing, there is a whole trail of different geysers around old faithful, but by this point we were a bit geysered out.

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Day 3Wildlife spotting   Our main destination for day 3 was the Hayden Valley, a good place to spot wildlife. Along the way we stopped to see an Elk, walking along the edge of the river. At the Old Faithful gift shop we bought a book,”Who Pooped in the Park”.  The book is a children’s guide to animal tracks and scat that might be found in the park. The girls were fascinated and walked around the meadow trying to identify all the different types of poop.

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We also stopped to admire many of the views and arrived at the valley at dusk.  We saw a whole herd of Bison, some walk along the road but mostly you watch them coming out to graze as daylight falls.

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We spotted a group of people looking out over the valley, so stopped to see what they could see.  They had set up very powerful scopes and showed us a pack of wolves, too far in the distance for the naked eye to see. We were hoping to see a bear but unfortunately not this time although we were assured there was one travelling down the hill.

Day 4-  Waterfalls .Our  first destination was  Canyon Village, where we stopped at the store before heading to view the Lower Falls.  The view was spectacular and you could clearly see the yellow rocks that give Yellowstone its name. Even the little ones were absorbed in a few moments of quiet contemplation.

img_0838-2 The girls amused themselves by climbing the rocks, travelling in different ways around a tree.

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Our next destination was the Lower Falls, a short distance away. We were a little cautious when we saw  bear warning signs but the girls soon found a tree trunk to amuse them.

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There is a longer walkway that takes you above the falls but it was a little late in the day to try that.   When we left it was beginning to get dark.  We saw a sign for Artist’s Point but debated whether it was too late to stop.  We decided to take a quick look and I’m so glad we did.  This was the biggest surprise of the trip, the view was so stunning that it almost didn’t seem real. The whole trip was memorable and full of new experiences but I think this is the view that will remain imprinted in my memory forever. It left me lost for words. I can clearly imagine sitting there for hours writing or painting, it certainly lives up to its name.

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I could have stayed here forever. The little ones thought the view was amazing too and they studied the rock faces with the binoculars.img_0972-2

Day 4 Final Day – The Quest to Find more Wildlife

We decided to cut our stay at West Yellowstone KOA short and booked a cabin in Deer Lodge, Montana, for a slightly warmer night and to shorten the journey home the next day. After packing up and letting the girls choose homemade fudge from the campground store, we headed back to the park for the last time. After 3 days of spotting bison, the girls were really keen to find different wildlife. Our first discovery was a mountain goat sitting in a ditch along the side of the road.

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We climbed the high ground to reach the Loire Valley.  The views as we climbed were magnificent and we stopped many times to take photographs.

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We were really keen to see bears, and stopped to use the binoculars to see if the dots in the distance might be bears, but sadly just bison.

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Our intention had been to drive some of the valley to spot wildlife and then turn around to  exit the park.  After driving for some time we  realised we had driven the whole valley and reached an exit to the park in a little town called Silvergate, where we stopped for a drink at a small café.

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I overheard the owners saying that they had been visited by a bear on recent nights and often it could be seen on the hill in front of us foraging for wild strawberries. We sat staring at the hill, but didn’t see any wildlife.

The lady told us that in the park there was a dead Bison near the old ranger station and you could often see bears feasting on the carcass.

As we headed back into the park it began to rain and as we looked to the side we were greeted by the most magnificent full rainbow, one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen.

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The rain soon stopped and we carried on until we saw crowds of people along the side of the road.  The people pointed out the location of the Bison carcass and invited us to look through their scopes.  You could clearly see a pack of wolves feasting on the carcass. The girls thought this was really cool.

Finally we travelled to the exit of the park at Mammoth Springs. Mammoth village was a pleasant surprise. It houses the parks headquarters, hotel, lodges and a historic fort. Deer were grazing everywhere and I wish we’d had time to get out and explore.  This will definitely be our first destination if we return to Yellowstone.

mammoth-hot-springsPoints to consider when visiting Yellowstone with children

  • Expect a lot of driving.  The park is vast and getting to the main attractions often involves a few hours drive.
  • Pack snacks and drinks. There are places to eat at Old Faithful, Mammoth Springs,  Canyon, Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake but they may take a while to get too and are often busy. If you travel to see wildlife in the evening as we did it will be dark by the time you leave and more difficult to find food.  There are plenty of restrooms throughout the park.
  • A lot of the wildlife is far off in the distance –  the Loire Valley has lots of bison for  close up wildlife, or Mammoth Springs for deer.  If you want to see wildlife in the distance invest in a scope (a good pair of binoculars helps but you will only see wildlife clearly with a scope).
  • Go to a visitor centre on your first day, here you can pick up junior ranger activity booklet to keep the children occupied during their stay.  The stores also have some great books for nature-based activities, facts and figures and things to spot on your journey.

We stopped overnight at Deer Lodge KOA – a small KOA perfect for an overnight stop. Our final stop was Couer D’Alene in Idaho, where we stopped for lunch, a play in the park and a swim at the beach before heading home.

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Driving itinerary

Alta Lake State Park to Spokane – 3-4 hours (with a short stop at Grand Coulee dam)

Spokane to Missoula 3- 4 hours (overnight stop)

Missoula to West Yellowstone approx. 5 hours ( we also stopped twice;  for lunch at the Smiley Moose Deli in Bozeman and to browse antique shops between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, I can’t remember exactly where ).

Return

Mammoth Springs to Deer Lodge KOA approx. 3 hours (overnight stop).

Deer Lodge KOA to Couer D’Alene  3-4 hours.

Couer D’Alene to Eastside Seattle – 4-5 hours. (one short food stop).

The children on this trip were aged 12, 7 and 5. The trip was taken during late August.

Photographs by Michael Mcclary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing Outdoors in Winter

Rolling a snowballChildren always look forward to snow days but when it is cold but there isn’t any snow or only a smattering it isn’t always  as enticing.

My children love playing with ice – so we often leave water in their water table or allow rain water to collect in containers.  They are always keen to go outside on icy day to investigate how solid the ice is and I often find strange deposits of ice in my freezer.

On New Years Eve, it snowed.  In the morning there was a smattering of snow left on the ground and the girls headed out to make tiny snow men.  They took carrots from the fridge and borrowed our dogs Santa hat.

In the haze of a tired New Years Day afternoon, my youngest asked if we could go for a walk. We headed along the trail. She started to make a snowball, it was quite big and heavy .

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We continued along the trail and found a stick. The snowball was the perfect place to store it.

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The stick was perfect for knocking snow from the branches of trees that were just out of reach.

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We started to roll the snowball.

“Maybe we could roll it back to the house and use it to make a snowman”  my daughter suggested.

It seemed a good idea at the time but rolling an ice impacted snowball uphill and sometimes through patches without snow was the best new year’s exercise I’ve had in a long time.

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We had a base for a very dirty snowman.

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We added a middle.

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and a head.

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The finished result.

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Proof that you don’t need a lot of snow to have fun.

It has stayed cold all week, so the snow hasn’t melted and even the little snowmen are still there.  Last winter we visited the storm pond when it was icy.  the children tried to break the ice with sticks but it wasn’t thick enough to stand on.

This week for the first time it has been frozen enough to stand on and even get the sledges out.  Every day after school, the girls would meet their friends at the pond. Convinced that it was solid, I allowed my daughter to use her ice-skates on the pond. This was a first for all of us and very exciting.

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My youngest found a flat round piece of ice that looked like a puck – if the weather stays cold it would be fun to find sticks and play ice hockey or grab a broom and a big piece of ice for curling.  Much better than when we tried a Winter Olympics without any snow!

Leavenworth in Winter

 

 

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Last year was our first trip to Leavenworth during the Winter.  We have visited a number of times in the summer and had heard great things about the Christmas lights, so decided to take a trip. The Christmas lighting festival takes place during the first three weeks of December. There are plenty of activities at the festival and the girls loved seeing Santa and Mrs Christmas.

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It gets very busy, so parking can be difficult.  If you prefer to go when it is quieter,the lights remain lit until February. We took another trip with guests after Christmas, which personally I preferred as it wasn’t so crowded.

Leavenworth is the perfect place to find snow. Take your sledges with you and go down the hill in the town centre.  It is pretty bumpy so your sledge may not survive evidenced by the pile of broken plastic sledges at the bottom of the hill at the end of the evening. Surprisingly, the sledges we brought over from the UK survived, but the ones we bought here cracked.sledging in leavenworth

On our first visit we weren’t quite prepared for how cold it would be. We took our dog , who shivered the whole time and since we arrived in the evening for the lights, we really needed an extra layer of clothing.  On our next visit we came fully prepared with our ski gear and left the dog at home.

Ski hill was the perfect place for my eldest to try out her snow board for the first time. Our guest skied on the larger slope and the younger ones tried out tubing.

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The view was spectacular too. When we had all had too much cold, we had hot drinks at the lodge on the hill and warmed ourselves by the fire.

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I think if I were to go again, I would book early for an overnight stay.  A day trip is fine in the Summer but I think a warm fire, hot drink and comfortable bed nearby would top off the day perfectly.

What is my Responsibility as an Early Educator in the Wake of the US Election?

Yesterday, in the wake of the US election, I was filled with  questions.  These were not questions about my role as a parent or about my future as a resident of the US but about my role and responsibility as an educator.

My core educational philosophy is to encourage children’s critical thinking and creative expression. Children should be valued for who they are and children, teachers and parents should work collaboratively, in an environment of respect and dialogue.  I draw inspiration in my thinking from Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the preschools of Reggio Emilia.  He worked with the community, to create  new schools in the aftermath of World War II that would bring hope for a new generation. He created an environment that encouraged critical thinking and creative expression, and a culture of working together with respect for one another.  Malaguzzi achieved his goal with a community of like-minded individuals.

Yesterday, a key question for me was; if I only work with liberally minded families is there really anything to change and  am I really making a difference? If I want to encourage a different way of thinking, shouldn’t I be helping children who have not been encouraged to think in this way?

I struggled with the juxtaposition between encouraging critical thinking and respecting family beliefs and cultures. I believe that it is our duty to create an environment of tolerance and open-mindedness, and to promote a culture of children who think for themselves and whose opinions and emotions are valued. However, I also believe that we should work alongside families, respect their beliefs and work together for the good of the child.

More questions arose.

Can you do both and is it even possible to foster a new way of thinking if there are opposing values at home?

If a family believes something is a fundamental truth should I give the child the tools to question their world or would this be disrespectful to the families beliefs?

Perhaps it is my own issue and not theirs and I should instead seek to understand them better and why they uphold those beliefs?

Yesterday, that is where I left it, but today things are clearer, particularly in regard to the final question.

When there is hatred, unease and unrest in the world it is because of misunderstanding, ignorance and lack of knowledge. I can criticise people if they believe in things that I find fundamentally wrong, but should not condemn them until I have listened to their story, understood why they feel that way and looked into the contexts of their beliefs.  America is divided; there is a clear feeling of them and us, but who is looking to understand why the other side holds their beliefs and the reality of their lives?

I grew up in Wales. In Wales we dislike the English because we are fed a history of English wealthy landowners who treated the working classes badly and took away our language.  We see the English as arrogant toffs who think they are above us.  Of course this is ludicrous and there is as much diversity in England as there is in Wales,but if you rarely cross the border, ignorance prevails. The same is true here. Liberals see Trump supporters as racist, bigoted individuals and people outside of the cities, see city people who are ignorant to their way of life and take away their values and livelihoods.

I think I now know my role. All children should have their minds opened.  This isn’t only about questioning and critical thinking, it is also our duty as educators, to partner with other educators from other parts of the country and the world, to help them understand what the world is like for others. Show children the diversity of the world, teach them to ask questions of one another. Do they have the same questions? Do they think the same things as me? How are they different and how are we the same?  We have a new opportunity in the world of the internet and social media to open children’s eyes so that they will not grow up in ignorance and fear.

We are all different but in many ways we are also all the same – let’s celebrate that for a while instead of trying to outdo one another all the time.

 

 

 

The Making of a Harry Potter Fan’s Holiday – Warner Bros. Studio Tour

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My twelve-year-old placed the Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio tour firmly at the top of her list of places to visit when we were in the UK.  Following our visit to the Dr. Who Experience her younger sisters were more cautious.  Friends who had visited previously, assured them that it was amazing and not a bit frightening but I’m not sure they were totally convinced. Of course, their friends were right, it wasn’t a bit scary.  You are taken on a journey to see how the film was created and  seeing the special effects behind the film alleviated all their fears, especially seeing how tiny the dementors are in real life.

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Warner Bros Studio Tour is located North of London so we stayed nearby at North Hill Farm. As a family of five it can be difficult to find hotels and B&B’s that allow us to share one room.  The family room at North Hill Farm slept five and was perfect for all of us.

Excitement mounted as we drove into the car park and saw the signs and statues outside.  All visitors require advance booking with timed slots and this allows for a wonderful experience where you never feel overwhelmed by crowds and everything is easy to see without queues.

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I have to admit to feeling a little emotional watching the introductory film and completely awestruck when the doors opened onto the great hall. Groups are led by a guide into these first two sections, while the rest of the tour is self guided.

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As a Harry Potter geek, my daughter listened to the audio tour.  I knew she would appreciate facts and figures but without it most exhibits have a guide or video screen telling you more about it.  My seven-year-old was enraptured by the talk at the wig stand and delighted in telling me stories about Malfoy’ wig.

There are plenty of exhibits young children can interact with from making magic to wand workshops and riding on a broom. The guides were so good at encouraging the kids as seen in this video clip.

Next stop Platform 9 3/4. Inside the Hogwarts Express, the carriages move through the movies in sequence , decorated with appropriate props.

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This takes you to the outside lot where you can sample butterbeer or butterbeer ice cream. The detail in Privet Drive is wonderful, each certificate on the wall depicting Dudley’s pointless achievements.

 

The final lot features special effects, illustrated by a series of clever videos and the art of Harry Potter.  The tour ends with a surprise that truly takes your breath away, so I’m not going to offer any hints to spoil it.

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Olivanders

 

There is so much to see at the Warner Bros. Studio tour. I would plan to stay at least three hours and allow extra time  for shopping. There is a lot of exclusive merchandise and entry to the shop is not permitted without a ticket for the tour.  We found some cool stuff although sadly I ruined my husband’s Slytherin Quidditch top with bleach after he had worn it once.  Looks like I have the perfect excuse to return some time. If you visit the café, the kids lunches come in this really cool knight bus box.

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There was never a complaint from any of the kids that they had seen enough, the whole experience was utterly engaging and we wouldn’t hesitate to return.  If you are looking for a full, well organised and good value experience I would put this top of your list. When I asked the girls what their favourite part of our trip was, the unanimous response was Harry Potter!  In case you need further confirmation, just look at these faces.

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Disclaimer: No payment or complimentary tickets were received for writing this post.

 

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the Musical

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I took a blogging break this summer to concentrate on travelling with my family and now I am back, I have lots to share from my busy summer.  Today is Roald Dahl day and would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, so I thought it would be fitting to share my thoughts on the West End musical production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

This was our first visit to London with the children.  We only travel home every few years, so we wanted to show them the sights and experience a West End show.  To be honest, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t our first choice of show and we arrived with a little uncertainty.  We couldn’t have chosen anything more memorable or spectacular.  From curtain up it was visually mesmerising.  Costume and set design were out of this world and totally lived up to the company’s aim to astound the audience.

Roald Dahl’s original story was preserved throughout but was cleverly tweaked with  modern touches. The children were characterised perfectly and wonderfully portrayed by the cast.  My kids spent time discussing who they would like to play;  ballet dancing Veruca Salt, video game obsessed Mike Teavee or Violet Beauregarde the acrobatic child star. The parents were also brought to life in quirky and interesting ways.

Directed by Sam Mendes, this is the first stage adaptation in 50 years and completely surpassed my expectations.  We all came out of the theatre feeling a little emotional. We had clearly witnessed something  unique and special.

If you get a chance to see it before it closes at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2017, I highly recommend it.  Don’t despair if not, a UK tour is coming soon and for US audiences, the Broadway production will open in 2017.

Disclaimer: This is a personal recommendation, no monetary compensation or complimentary tickets were received for writing this post.