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Monday, 7 April 2014

The end is in sight ...

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a long winter. Signs of spring appeared in the last few weeks, but for us March’s cheery daffodils were mostly viewed through a window – because of a combination of illness in the children and some frankly rubbish weather.

But − it does seem like the end is in sight. In the last couple of days it hasn’t exactly been wall-to-wall sunshine but it’s been warm enough for me to feel that it’s OK to give the chesty baby a bit of fresh air (in contrast to the freezing haar we had this time last week), and we’ve even been able to hang the washing out for a few hours. Things are looking up.

And, excitingly, Edition 14 of Edinburgh for Under Fives is finally coming together. After a year of enrolling researchers, compiling, editing, commissioning features written by parents and carers, collecting some gorgeous photos (including the one for the cover, taken by Susan of Clear Photography), liaising with our new and lovely designer (Marie of MAMi Designs) and our new and lovely web agency (Starbit Media), we have not only a book that’s currently about two thirds designed, but a new website that will be launched when the book’s published. As ever, being an old-fashioned type, I love the solid and flick through-able nature of the printed version, but the online stuff is really exciting – it’s searchable, contains maps with arrows so you can see exactly where you’re heading, and will be compatible with smartphones and tablets so you can access it when you’re out and about.  It’s been a long time coming but definitely worth the wait.

So, when will all this be available? Our best aim is for the end of May, but there’s still a lot to do so we’ll keep you posted if it’s likely to be any longer. It’ll certainly be ready for the summer season to give you all sorts of ideas for getting out and about around Edinburgh with your littl’uns. But in the meantime, here’s the cover. Hope you like it.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Lots of play, not much to pay

During my nearly four years of having under 5s, I’ve experienced a fair few indoor play areas. Some you’d expect to be good – for example, the ones that you have to pay to visit, in play cafés and so on. But just occasionally you come across a wee indoor play area that’s fantastic – and free (or accessible for the price of a coffee). And that’s a nice feeling. There are such areas at the National Museum (the Imagine Room), Craigmillar Library (where there’s a ball pit, a “mirror tent” and other wee toys such as trolleys, not to mention all the nearby books), Potter Around (a ceramics café in Burntisland, Fife), and North Edinburgh Arts Centre, where my two recently spent a very happy couple of hours (and, consequently, so did I).

I have heard reports of others (in cafés mostly) from friends – that the Edinburgh Cheesecake Company and Lucy’s Café, both in Corstorphine, and Leo’s Beanery on Howe Street have great play areas, for example. However, when you can count on one hand the really great indoor play areas you know personally that are free (or nearly free), it makes you wonder what makes a good one and why they’re like hens’ teeth.

So, for the purposes of this study, this is what we found at North Edinburgh Arts Centre:

- Two tables and four chairs (chunky ones that didn’t tip over)
- Paper (blank) and pens (that worked)
- Dressing-up box
- Books for a range of ages. I had to promise my daughter that we would return and read the Sleeping Beauty book next time
- Baby toys – not just one. Three is a good number. North Edinburgh Arts Centre has a couple of wire/bead ones, a xylophone and a cuddly something-or-other
- A nice big box of chunky Lego/Duplo (to empty and then fill up again for babies of a certain age)
- A wee indoor slide
- A blackboard and chalk
- Proximity to a café – I could drink a coffee right next to the play area
- Enough room to walk around without bumping into other children
- Wipeable surfaces (my son’s going through a “turn the beaker upside down when mum’s not looking” stage
- Comfy sofa – for breastfeeding, cuddling, putting on a snowsuit, reading a book.

To this list, North Edinburgh Arts Centre is about to add “a nice view” as it’s re-doing its garden, for which great things are planned including an outdoor play area (roll on the summer). I should add that all of its toys were lovely and clean.

With the exception of the nice view, the space and perhaps the blackboard, sofa and slide, most of the items on this list aren’t all that hard to sort out, particularly if you have or know children who have outgrown toys, books and dressing-up outfits. Yet too often you hear about a café with a play area, journey there filled with hope and find a grubby toy kitchen with no utensils, one chair, a sad-looking doll, one toy for a baby, a wee car and two books – all of which will probably keep your children happy for around seven minutes.

I hear that some Edinburgh restaurants are giving out tablets to occupy little ones during mealtimes, which seems amazing, but I can’t help feeling that these venues could get a nice variety of second hand toys for the sort of money you might spend on a tablet. You could produce a really good play area (or toy box, if you haven’t the room) for children to enjoy with just a bit of thought, a small outlay and some regular low-grade maintenance (cleaning, mending, replacement of batteries when needed).

And then? Then families will rush back (because they’ve promised their delighted children they will, as much as anything), and recommend you to their friends. Which, with cafés at least, seems to be a wise investment – a coffee might be what they order to begin with, but coffee can lead to cake, then to a sandwich and maybe some snacks for the kids. And, in the end, everyone leaves happy, which is definitely how we all felt when we finally trundled out of the door of North Edinburgh Arts Centre a couple of weeks ago. 

Until next time, happy playing!


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Soul food

It’s at this time of year, when you and your little ones are running from a sharp shower or seeking refuge from an icy wind, that you so appreciate what people do voluntarily in our city to offer shelter and refreshment for prices that still leave you some money to pay your own heating bills.

There are actually lots of wonderful venues in Edinburgh that are largely or completely staffed by volunteers and are, amazingly, free to enter – Gorgie City Farm and the Water of Leith Visitor Centre are just two. But if you’re after a less structured experience for an hour (just a sit down in the warm with a coffee and a bun perhaps), you might want to locate your nearest community café.

Our closest is Newhaven Connections – great for a sandwich and a coffee before or after a play at Trinity’s Victoria Park. But recently we went to Café Life at the Lifecare Centre, Stockbridge, down Cheyne Street and only a stone’s throw from Raeburn Place. It’s a lovely, light room with windows on all sides, space to potter about for the children and the BBC News Channel on the TV (turned down low) for the adults. Leith Community Centre Café has nice views up Leith Walk and over South Leith Parish Church, as well as Wi-Fi and a wee children’s play area with books to read. Then the Friday before last we took the bus through to Café Connect at the Eric Liddell Centre, Morningside. Situated just on “Holy Corner”, you can pop up a couple of steps to an area overlooking the busy traffic junction. We spent ages mesmerised by the cars, bikes and people coming and going. Also within the centre is a second-hand children’s clothes shop, Tots Togs (donations welcome), and a bookstall.

One great thing about these cafés is that you feel you can linger and no-one will mind. They’re a place from which to watch the world go by (quite literally, at the Eric Liddell Centre), often situated in centres that have lots happening that you can nosey in on. The Eric Liddell Centre had a judo and a dancing class in the short time we were there and my children enjoyed seeing the participants dressed in their various activity-appropriate costumes. They’re usually roomy, too, which means that you can easily park a buggy or let a toddler run free. The feel is quite different to an average café – I suppose it’s to do with being right at the centre of the local community. Which, if you’re a sentimental fool like me, warms your heart, as well as the rest of you, for the time that you’re there.

Edinburgh Community Cafés have their own dedicated website and – oh, joy − a map with the cafés marked. But don’t forget your local community centre or church, either. There’s a lovely café, The Sycamore Tree, at Davidson’s Mains Parish Church that you won’t find on the Community Cafés website – open most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10.00-13.30, with fresh soup served from 12.00. In a wee hall at the back, as long as you tidy them away again afterwards, your little one can play with the toys belonging to the toddler group while you have a cuppa and some home baking. Even better, on the last Friday of every month at 12.30 they hold an event for all ages and serve bacon rolls and hotdogs while the littl’uns get on with a craft activity. Hurrah for the community. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

New Year, new adventures

I love New Year’s Resolutions. Time was (before children) when I would spend all of New Year’s Eve curled up with a little notebook crafting my list of things to change, things to achieve, things to give up. There’s just something about turning over a new leaf that appeals to me (I’m someone that makes End-of-Holiday Resolutions, for goodness’ sake). Usually, I’d end up with quite a few resolutions – about 16 on average. Most of which I’d forgotten by 4th January.

For me, New Year wouldn’t be New Year without my resolutions. This year’s list is a little shorter than in past years – just the 14 items. It contains the usual stuff (“Give up sugar” – no, really, I have to. This time last year I had a new baby, and the hungry-making combination of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation meant that in 2013 I ate virtually nothing but biscuits and chocolate).

But there are a couple that I really hope will stick. One is “Get out every day with the children”. To be truthful, we usually do set foot outside the door. Whether the trips we take are enriching is another matter. Sure, I get my errands done – shopping, posting a letter – but what do they get out of it? Fresh air. Sight of a cat, maybe. On a good day, we might bump into someone we know, pop into the playpark or get to the Botanics. We’ve been known to stretch to a play café or a soft play. We go to local toddler groups. We visited the zoo once in 2013 (not enough to justify my membership in that particular year, alas). We do the National Museum of Scotland from time to time. But I usually save proper outings for the weekend − when I have backup. I fear we’ve hit a rut.

So, “Get out every day” really means “Get out every day to somewhere interesting and different”. At the moment I’m busy editing all the entries for the new edition of Edinburgh for Under Fives which is out in May, and there’s something about reading other people’s accounts of going somewhere with their children that encourages you to do the same. The libraries section has reminded me what brilliant facilities we have in the city – all for free (“Be frugal” resolution – tick!). So maybe I’ll pop to the new library building at Drumbrae, which sounds amazing. The swimming section has made me think that it might be nice to go with the baby to a pool one morning while my daughter’s in nursery – perhaps the refurbished Ainslie Park, or Glenogle (“Be healthy” resolution – tick!). On the strength of a couple of the reviews that have come in we’ve taken the children to playparks we hadn’t visited before – to Haugh Park to see the Shetland Ponies, to Musselburgh Links Playground to try its fancy equipment. They had such a nice time we took a few snaps (“Take more pictures of the children” resolution – tick!).

All these plans on the strength of a few reviews. That’s what the book’s about, I suppose. And I am quite suggestible, but that’s not so terrible. Ah – except the next section I’m tackling is Eat & Drink. This could mean an awful lot of coffee and cake! What was that resolution about sugar? I seem to have forgotten …
Until next time