Thursday, 18 December 2014

PNP Portable North Pole review and Discount Code

For the past few years, I've used the PNP Portable North Pole ( website to create a special video message from Santa for my girls.

The first time we showed them their personalised videos, I loved watching the amazement in their eyes as they listened to Santa deciding whether they had been naughty or nice. Now it has become one of our traditions and I can't imagine Christmas without it.

The videos take just minutes to create; you are led through some basic questions such as name, gender, age etc, and then you have the chance to upload photos of different events to make it even more special. Santa will mention your child's birthday, or holidays, or favourite toy, and you can watch the look of surprise and wonder on your child's face as they try and figure out how he knows their name and what they've been up to!

There are options on the website; you can send your child a free short video from Santa or you can pay just a little for the Premium option and your child will receive a longer 5 minute video. There's also the option to receive phone calls from Santa, along with an extra Christmas Eve video as he sets off and you can now download an App too. 

If you haven't heard of this website, you should pop over there now. It's a good example of how technology has advanced - I'm sure my mum would have loved to do this for me as a child too, but I'm way too old for it to have been invented!

For all my lucky readers I've got a special treat - use this promo code BLG20BKP to receive 20% off all digital products (exluding in-app purchases).

Disclosure: we were given access to the site in order to enable us to write this review; all opinions are honest and our own though!

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Friday, 12 December 2014

Siblings {December}

Christmas is fast approaching and I wanted to try and get a photo of the girls with their Christmas hats on this month. We didn't quite manage it but I got the next best thing - on the Siblings photo linky day they were decorating their gingerbread houses together so that seemed like the perfect opportunity to grab a picture.

Of course I took the usual 20 or so snaps, saying 'thumbs down, please', 'can you try and look at the camera', 'Tamsin you're going to have to keep smiling for longer than that', 'put your tongue away please', 'can you sit still!' and 'the sooner you both stay still, look at the camera and do a proper smile, the sooner you can go and play'. Every. Single. Time.

Despite the hassle, I have totally loved joining in with the Siblings linky, and am excited to be able to bring you (well, OK, it's for me in all honesty!) the 2014 Siblings round-up for Steph's Two Girls. I'll definitely be joining in again next year as it's a great way to document the growing up....

Merry Christmas everyone!
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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Has Autism or Is Autistic, which would you choose?

I know it's nearly Christmas and we're all busy, so I don't want to get too heavy on you, but... I have a question.
Picture was taken in summer this year; I don't think it answers the question but I love this as you can see how truly happy she was!
Would you say Sasha has autism? Or would you say she is autistic? 

This year I've been helping to run some Early Support workshops for parents of children with disabilities (note I'm not using the phrase disabled children). At one of these sessions, I was challenged on my choice of language. Initially I felt slightly miffed that someone had picked me up on the words I had used, and I didn't believe I was in the wrong.

I can see now though that I had become lazy with my use of language; I had been referring to our eldest girl Tamsin as our “normal” (said in that way where you use your fingers as the exaggerated question marks) child.

On the one hand, I’m almost ashamed to admit that, but on the other, in my defence, it seemed as if saying 'normal', along with the finger actions, had become part of a colloquial language, the sort of language that other parents of children with special needs would understand. Those parents would also mostly understand the term 'neurotypical' (typical brain) to mean the same. Personally I wouldn't use neurotypical in general speech, as it is not a common term. It feels quite 'medical' and unlikely to be known by parents of children without disabilities. 

I’ve been asking myself, what does “normal” mean? I’d argue that it doesn’t mean the opposite of abnormal. Normal describes a group of people who generally follow the same rules in life, those who can fit in with the crowd when they see fit, and not deviate too much from those unspoken social rules. Of course it doesn’t feel right to say that our youngest Sasha is ‘not normal’, but it is true that she is different from the majority – some like to say we are all different, all on the spectrum somewhere. 

Of course there are plenty who don’t consider themselves to be part of this ‘majority’ group, and will no doubt say whilst laughing that they are not “normal”. In reality those people are just running on the outskirts of the main pack. The real issue is knowing where that blurred line right on the outer edges starts and stops. I think most people could say truthfully whether they or their children fall inside or outside of that “normal” group? We may all be on a spectrum of sorts, and lots of us may show some traits which have links with autism (anxiety, lack of sociability, some sensory issues maybe), but I don’t think we can say we are all somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Anyhow, I digress. The discussion here is over language and what is or isn’t acceptable. Times change. Most of you would be horrified I’m sure, if you thought that someone with a learning disability could still be called a retard in this day and age. Yet it still happens. Sometimes that term is used through ignorance, but sometimes sadly also with ill intent.

It was suggested by another mum of a child with a disability that I should use the term ‘typically developing’ for my eldest child. A bit of a mouthful maybe, but probably a nicer way to go about it. This mum was also very insistent on the idea that our children should be called ‘children with disabilities’ and not ‘disabled children’. It’s a subtle difference, but a very important one. I’m inclined to agree with her on that. It's called 'person-first' language. Our children have disabilities, yes, but they are also happy children with their own individual personalities. Their disabilities do not define them.

I wonder constantly whether I should say Sasha HAS autism, or do I say Sasha IS autistic? Does it really matter? Apparently it does matter, a lot, to parents and people within the autistic community. The lovely Jess who blogs over at Diary of a Mom has written a brilliant post about this, and I love her reasoning. In fact I love her whole blog as she has a girl (with autism, or autistic) older than Sasha and I feel like I can learn a lot from her experiences. I'll openly admit I don't write as eloquently as her though, and I do tend to go off at a tangent, so I'll apologise for that now!

I agree that saying Sasha 'has' autism almost makes it sound like she has something bad. It might sound as if Sasha has caught a disease. Does saying she 'is' autistic on the other hand, give the right impression that the autism was there from birth, and that it is not going away? Does it though also infer that that's all she is, autistic and nothing else? I think not. I think you can be autistic and also be musical, or autistic and good at sports, or autistic and confident, sociable, friendly... do you see where I am going with this?!

I struggle to ever call Sasha disabled – that sounds so serious and as if there are other implications. To be honest though, she is, and there are. Autism is a hidden disability. It's not something to be scared of, or to hide away. In society today, Sasha is classed as disabled, as if something is 'wrong' with her. It's not my favourite word, so I don't use it to describe her. 

I wasn't intentionally linking "normal" with 'not disabled', but I can see that by default I was doing so. I'm sorry for any hurt caused. I'm often putting my foot in it, and I frequently struggle to get my words out in the right way, but I do hope no-one holds it against me. 

In all honesty, I don't mind whether people describe Sasha as autistic or say that she has autism. As long as it is said without malice, and with some understanding, I'm happy with either; I'd rather folks talked about it than didn't mention it at all because they are too scared of upsetting me or others with disabilities. 

So I'm interested to know, how do you feel? Do you always know the right language to use? Do you believe in person-first language? Are you affronted by others' choice of words? Or are you simply not sure and scared of getting it wrong?

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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Christmas gift idea for anyone - Dobble!

Are you still looking for those last minute Christmas gifts or stocking fillers? Well look no further, I have the perfect suggestion for you..... DOBBLE.

 This is a card game which comes in a lovely round tin, and which can be played by pretty much anyone (it says aged 6 and over, but I reckon you can still enjoy it with the toddlers - as long as you let them win).  It's a fast paced game, and there are 5 different versions which you can try out. Personally I think you could even play it alone!

There are 55 cards, with 8 symbols on each card, and over 50 symbols in the pack. All you have to do is be the first to spot the matching symbol on any two cards. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well let me tell you, it's not. Sometimes our youngest can actually beat us to it, we don't even need to let her win!

We really enjoyed this on a rainy day whilst away at Center Parcs recently - the size of it, and the handy carrying tin, means that it is very portable and perfect for travel, so it can be played all year round. 
We even played it as a family whilst waiting for a meal (though we did have to try hard not to scream out loud!).

It's so good, it was named in the Telegraph's Five of the Best Board games.

You can read more about it on the Dobble Facebook page.

Retailing at around £12.99 (but there are some good discounts on at various retailers at the moment), I definitely think this will be well received by anyone, young or old.

Seriously, one of the best gift ideas I am ever going to give you. No need to thank me, I'm just kind like that.

We were given the above product for the purpose of this review, but have not received payment. All the views expressed here are honest and our own.
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Saturday, 6 December 2014

LED Hut Christmas Lights Review

I'm so excited about Christmas; it's definitely my favourite time of the year. It's just been made even more sparkly by the addition of some fabulous new festive lights for the front of our house.
Apologies for the quality; am still hoping Santa is going to bring me a decent camera!
There's such a great range over at LED Hut that I really struggled to pick just one option for new lights. There's a strong chance I'll be back for more. They have fairy lights, tree lights, candle lights, curtain lights and window lights, for both indoors and outdoors.

As a start for us though, I settled on the Outdoor Icicle Lights, which is a chain of Stars with a tree, santa, angel and snowman (as you can see above). Each light shape is 20cm high and they sit on a 5m long cable, so they are perfect for across your house, in a bush or round a tree even. They have a 2 year warranty and a 30 day hassle free return policy, though I doubt you'd need to use it. I also loved the Santa for inside a window, perfect for Christmas lovers like me!

The LED Hut website is vast and covers everything from bulbs to spotlights and garden lights as well as the great Christmas offering. Right now they have 35% off all Christmas lights (see code on the LED Hut website), so I definitely suggest you check it out as soon as possible!

We were given the above product for the purpose of this review, but have not received payment. All the views expressed here are honest and our own.
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Monday, 1 December 2014

Top 5 activities at Center Parcs Elveden Forest #CPFamilyBreaks

I *may* have mentioned before how much I love Center Parcs.... which is why I was so delighted to win a place in their Family Bloggers Club 2014.

Now, I don't know if you've noticed, but if you look up, right at the top of my blog page, there are some headers/tabs for different sections on my blog. They're not very noticeable and I really need to find some time to change this design (any offers of help gratefully received of course!), but in the meantime I'm drawing your attention to them. 

One of those tabs says 'We Love Center Parcs'. If you click on that, you will find every post (hopefully!) that I've written about Center Parcs. 
Just one small Center Parcs collage!
As a part of the Family Bloggers Club, we got a chance to experience a weekend family break to Elveden Forest in Suffolk recently. We were asked to create a video to share our experiences, and we enjoyed it so much that we actually made two. The first is our 'official' video showing our Top 5 activities at Center Parcs: 

and the second is a tour of the 3 bedroom lodge we stayed in there: 

I've absolutely no experience of editing or creating movies, but I hope you've like these clips despite that fact..... I'm actually very proud of the second one, as the two girls starred in that without any briefing or preparing beforehand. They just worked together, without interrupting each other, and gave a clear account of exactly what was what. Or so I think anyway, but of course I realise that I'm slightly biased! 

Our Top 5 activities at Center Parcs are:

1. Swimming

The girls have LOVED the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at every Center Parcs we've been to (Sherwood Forest, Woburn Forest and Elveden Forest so far). We always spend a couple of hours in the pools on each day we are there - so Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday. The rides/flumes are amazing, with different options in each location but always a Wave pool and Rapids in each one we've been to. At Elveden, Sasha loved the Lazy River best and Tamsin enjoyed all the slides and the Rapids. My favourite is the outdoor pool - amazing, especially at night-time when you can see the stars and even in Winter when it's cold outside!

2. Hiring bikes

A great way to get some family exercise in, especially if you don't get much chance to do it round your own home. The paths and roads are generally traffic free which means it's a safe place to be. You can choose from a variety of adult and child sized bikes, and tag-alongs or even tandems.

3. Outdoor Activities

Tamsin was keen to do Tree Trekking again - she tried this for the first time last year with me at Sherwood Forest, very successfully. This time Daddy fancied his chances and they set off just as it began to rain for the first time during the whole weekend. She battled on though, and I was very proud watching her do the zipwires (have to admit I struggled with those myself last year). In other years across the parks we've had fun on boats on the lake, played Adventure golf, laser shooting and done a Treasure Trail. You can also play tennis and do laser shooting, amongst other activities.

4. Indoor Activities

This time we chose to do Roller Skating as a family for a change, and we had a laugh as we just about managed to stay upright. Previously we've attempted rock climbing, and enjoyed the Sports Hall, where you can play indoor bowling, table tennis, badminton, arcade games, pool and snooker or join fitness classes.

5. Outdoor Fun

There is just so much space for the children to run and play outdoors. At Elveden I counted at least 6 different playgrounds for children of all ages - and that was all in one area. Also worth mentioning is that some of the eating places have outdoor playgrounds attached so you can enjoy a leisurely meal, and there's also at least one with an indoor soft play and computers are - a real hit with our girls.

Another amazing activity is the Aqua Sana Spa in each Center Parcs, and the firework displays (I could go on all night). Seasonal activities are fab too - Winter Wonderland was on at this time of year and the girls got to visit Santa and see singing reindeers. There were also festive cupcake decorating and festive pottery painting sessions, along with sleigh rides in the woods. There are SO many more activities than I can list - check them out at Things To Do. I've not even had chance to mention the yummy restaurants and the shows and shopping...

For some more ideas of the endless possibilities that await you at Center Parcs, I'd like to invite you to pop over to my Pinterest page and browse my Center Parcs board #CPFamilyBreaks.

We've always enjoyed Center Parcs and what I particularly notice is that we have never seen anyone having a bad time there. Everyone looks happy and seem to be enjoying what's on offer. Staff are polite and go out of their way to be helpful. It's never too crowded either, which is important for us. We think it's a fab place to go with family or friends.

Disclosure: we were sent to experience a weekend break and Elveden and asked to produce a video clip, but not steered in any way about what to say in that or this blog post. These are our true and honest opinions - we love Center Parcs, and we will be going back! 

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Friday, 28 November 2014

Different, or Typical. Which is more amazing?

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some Christmas shopping in a place I love. Instead of doing that, I chose to indulge in my favourite occupation. People watching. 

I am always amazed by how different and individual people are (and boy do they look Different with a capital D down Oxford Street!). When we were first given the diagnosis for Sasha, one of the first things I did was to stop and marvel at how amazing Tamsin is, and all the other typical children like her. In fact, how amazing all adults are, as we've all obviously been through that childhood stage!

Typical children learn so much in their young years, and plenty of what we learn is without ever being specifically taught it. For example, who told you not to stand right next to someone, touching them, when you're talking to them? Who defined personal space for you? There are some unwritten rules, and on top of that there are rules which are not even spoken about.

I never told Tamsin not to throw a whole toilet roll down the toilet, yet she never did. She made it through her toddler years without having that urge, until she was old enough to understand that it was wrong and wouldn't do it for that reason. Likewise with drawing on walls. Sasha did both these things, because it never occurred to me to tell her not to. I appreciate that there are plenty of toddlers who are not diagnosed with autism who do write on walls; there are not so many who don't learn not to after the first couple of times of being told. 

Did you ever specifically tell your toddler that the person running the music session was in charge and therefore we should all do what she says? Well, I never had to tell Tamsin that, she just watched, and listened, and learned. Amazing, although I didn't think so at the time. That's what most children do, nothing special about that. 

It didn't work like that for Sasha though. Even when we explained these 'rules', Sasha never really understood why she should follow them. So she didn't mostly. If you're into neurology, I think it could be quite fascinating - something to do with the front left (or right?) of the brain not developing in the same way.

All the people I saw yesterday out on the busy Christmas shopping streets got me thinking. What is really so bad about being different? Everyone has something to offer, it's just a case of unlocking the potential. For some that is more difficult, but it doesn't mean they are any less worthy of a place in this world.

I just have to steer Sasha through the difficult school years ahead and protect her somehow from the inevitable bullying. I can help her by spreading awareness and helping others to understand her difficulties, and by not hiding her away. Maybe sometimes I will feel like hiding myself, but I'm sure I'll push on through.

Hopefully, at the other end of it, she will be loved and appreciated for who she is, once out in that big, bad grown up world. I hope she loves herself too. Acceptance is the goal.

As parents, isn't that what we all want for all our children?

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Monday, 24 November 2014

Nintendo for Christmas!

Have I ever told you that we LOVE Nintendo?! They make quality products, which keep my girls entertained for good periods of time, and the girls are always excited when there are new releases.

So when we were asked to trial the new Disney Magical World for the DS systems, we jumped at the chance (notice how it's 'we'? I'm a fan too!). In this, you get to create your own personalised character, then you go exploring the special town of Castleton. There, you can bump into all your favourite Disney characters, such as Mickey and Minnie of course, and Goofy, Pooh Bear, Cinderella.... over 60 of them in fact!

In the game you can decorate your own cafe and make recipes to entice other characters to your world, whilst also making them furniture and clothing, and selling items to gain more coins. There's plenty to collect, and new worlds to explore, which will keep you going for a long time. Disney Magical World is similar to Animal Crossing, but at the same time has key differences which mean it is not just a copy and it works well as a game in its own right, especially if you love Disney.

We were also invited to spend a day in London trying out all their fab 3DS products recently and as usual, it was a brilliant event. Mario and Luigi chased Tamsin around briefly and then both girls enjoyed time on various consoles, playing some games they already had, then some which were new. It's fair to say that everything went down well with them! 

We've reviewed Tomodachi Life already - read this post: We love Nintendo: Tomodachi Life review  and we also loved Yoshi's New Island. All great picks for Christmas!

As you can see, there was also face painting and cake decorating and balloon making, and even a bit of time for some fun in the photo booth.

Thanks so much Nintendo for the fab day out, and for producing such fab products!

Disclosure: we went sent tickets for this event and gifted Disney Magical World, but haven't been asked to write anything specifically and all opinions expressed are our own.
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My Magical Mermaid Review

Are you still looking for some items to ask Santa to bring for your children's stockings? Or have you, like me, only just started? Either way, let me help you out with a quick and easy suggestion.

My Magical Mermaid is a new toy from the makers of the very popular RoboFish from last year. I'm sure lots of little ones will love unwrapping these on Christmas Day. From the makers of the very popular RoboFish from last year

Normally I'd show pictures of my girls with the items we review, but as this is a great bathtime toy for us I'm not sure that's appropriate on my blog! So instead I'd like to give you the link to the special website for these Mermaids, where you can read some fun facts and see the different products on offer.

They swim with life-like movements, both vertically and horizontally (if you remove the weight from the tail area). Aimed at children over the age of 3, this product comes with batteries included - hooray for no panic on Christmas Day! An improvement has also been made with this technology; the toy goes 'to sleep' after a certain length of time of not being played with and this leads to a huge saving on battery life.

We reviewed the individual Mermaids which retail at around £9.99 (but there's a good offer on right now if you look closely), and the girls loved them! There's also a Water Wonderland playset for all-day round fun.

We were given the above product for the purpose of this review, but have not received payment. All the views expressed here are our own.
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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Have you heard of SmugMug?

I love photos. Always have. This is a great thing, as it means I have literally thousands (possibly millions?!) of memories to look back on which all make me smile. 
Siblings photos - these make me smile of course!
Someone on Facebook recently asked me to pick just five photos that make me smile. I nearly didn't do it, as I found it just too stressful. I mean, only five photos?! Crazy. I had to join in though, so I just picked any five photos after spending an hour or two pouring over some of the rest.

I've owned a compact camera for as long as I can remember, and the various versions of it have done their job pretty well along the decades (yes, I am THAT old). In recent years I've loved the introduction of smart phones, as they've made even more photo opportunities possible on a daily basis - I can probably count the number of times I've been out without my phone on one hand. I'm generally happy with the quality of snaps which can be achieved. On my Christmas wish list though, is a DSLR - a posh camera for those who have no idea what I'm talking about. Lots of people own them these days, and I LOVE the precision effects which can be achieved with them.

That's why I was so excited when I was offered the chance to attend a mini workshop with some other bloggers at the Nikon School of Photography. We were handed a 'posh' camera to experiment with, and there was a cute baby model on hand to snap away at.
The lovely Victoria from VeViVos and Mari from Mari's World

The event was actually being held to showcase the work of SmugMug.

I'll confess to not knowing about this company beforehand, but I came away super excited and impressed with their offering. The company was set up in Silicone Valley by a father and son team, and the business remains family orientated which I think is rare these days. They are all passionate about photography, and in their words they believe in 'service with a smile' and 'heroic 24/7 support'.

They gave us some top tips about photography which I hope to post in more detail soon, but the one that stuck in my mind was BACK UP following the 3-2-1 (Dusty Bin?!) rule. That means 3 copies of every photo, on 2 different types of storage (so hard drive and flash drive would work) and make sure 1 of those copies is off-site (ie if your house burned down you would still have them safe somewhere!). I have been guilty of not finding the time to sort backups out but it's now top of my priority list.

We were given the opportunity to try out their site and service and I can honestly say I am as impressed as I thought I would be. Customer service replies were super quick and very helpful. You can upload unlimited photos and video clips (up to 20 minutes per clip) to your own personal web page, and then customise that in any way you fancy, however many times you fancy! Each photo can be edited individually on the site and you can group your photos into albums of your own choosing.

You can have private or personal albums on there; the beauty of this is that you can choose to share with just your friends and family, whether that's everyday photos or special events, or you can showcase your work to the whole world.

So here's the link to my personal SmugMug page: 

As the (not very good, hastily snapped) picture above shows, you will be able to browse and see that I have two of my albums on show. In reality, I have several more saved behind the scenes which are not for public viewing. Clever eh? You can order prints, share to the usual photo media sites or send direct to friends, so it really is all encompassing.

Some of the features offered (too many to list!) are:

Customisable website, with responsive design
Fully hosted, unlimited traffic
No ads or spam
Unlimited uploads (each photo can be up to 50MB and video clip up to 3GB)
Gorgeous full-screen galleries
Embed photos and videos on other websites
Detailed stats and analytics
24/7 support (all across the world)
Create a completely personal homepage
Simple drag-and-drop site customisation
Every image backed up with Amazon web services

For the rest, check out their FEATURES page.

I was pleasantly surprised at the low cost for all these features - it is only $40 per year (about £26) which is actually much cheaper than some cloud storage I know of, and with so much more to offer. There are higher cost options for business use, but honestly the basic option will cover most people's needs. You can start with a free trial, that costs nothing....

A huge vote for SmugMug here, am happy to have them in my life! If you're tempted to try, please do use my referral code to sign up and then we can both benefit... 

Disclaimer: we were gifted an annual subscription to this service in order to trial it, but all opinions are honest and my own and were not influenced in any way.
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