Posts Tagged ‘children’

Leave it in the drawer

In October 2015 on October 12, 2015 at 9:54 pm


Sarah: We’re about to launch into term 4 of the Australian school year.

The past 2 weeks have been work-free and somewhat luxurious, with lots of extended family and friend catchups, and a 6-day trip to Queensland for my husband, myself and our three children.

Northern Australia turned on magnificent clear blue skies and moderate, sunny temperatures. Perfect for swimming, canoeing and runs on the beach.

However the best part of my holiday was that I managed to read two books: The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham, and The Knowledge Wars by Peter Doherty.

I reckon I’ve nailed the sole factor that contributed to me completing these: each morning I put my mobile phone in a drawer, and left it there for most of the day. Minutes and even hours normally spent scrolling, searching, flicking, liking and sharing were instead spent with eyes on paper. And thinking. Occasionally dozing.

It felt so good.


Top 10 tips to surviving meals with children – from a nutritionist

In September 2015 on September 14, 2015 at 2:37 pm


Sarah: This blog is all about finding and applying science in every day life.

There is no better proponent of this philosophy than Adelaide nutritionist Dr Jane Bowen, who has developed her own approach to healthy eating and meal-management in her busy family of 5, including 3 young children.

After chatting with Jane last week, I’ve stolen her best ideas and compacted them into a list.

Here are Jane’s top tips to surviving meals with children, and setting your kids on the right track towards nutritious eating for life.

  1. Be a good role model
  2. Think about food behaviours
  3. Eat dinner early
  4. Have strategies up your sleeve
  5. Plan ahead
  6. Don’t insist on an empty plate
  7. Avoid making dessert a permanent fixture
  8. Let your children make some food decisions
  9. Make eating about nutrition not fullness
  10. Talk about food and health

More detail on each item is available in the full version of my article.

[image thanks to David D]

The ingredients of life

In September 2015 on September 2, 2015 at 2:38 pm


Sarah: There’s a cemetery near my house.

The kids and I walk past it often. We’re prone to wandering amongst the gravestones as well, sometimes to pick dandelions and other times trying to find a geocache that someone has sneakily tucked away somewhere very secret.

My little one is aged 6. He asked me recently:

“Where the people are whose headstones are shown above the ground?”

I said they were buried underneath.

Large pause.

“But what happens to their bodies, they’re in the dirt!”

I paused too.

Eventually I came up with something.

“People’s bodies are made from the same ingredients that make dirt.

So the bodies just break down and make new dirt.

So then it helps new flowers and tress to grow.”

Damn I was happy with that explanation! I think he was too – as he leapt on his scooter and raced away.


Mental health: it’s messier than snot

In April 2015 on April 10, 2015 at 11:17 am


Sarah: Snot, hacking cough and vomiting. To most parents, these are very familiar occurrences and sure signs that an unwanted viral or bacterial passenger has hopped on board and created a physical health problem for our child.

But how do we know if our offspring are struggling with mental health? Sure, behavioural signals can be a clue. Tears, anxiety, anger and moodiness may crop up — and yet we all know these are all part of a normal childhood as well. How can we tell when children cross the line into the danger zone for mental health? And then what can we do to access appropriate help?

Recently — along with other parents and staff representatives — I was invited by managers at my children’s school to help bring a program of mental health awareness into play. It’s called Kids Matter, and is designed:

to provide schools with an over-arching but flexible approach to improving the mental health and wellbeing of students

Kids Matters has four partners: Principals Australia, The Australia Psychological Society, beyond blue: the national depression initiative and the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.

We’re still early on in the process, and working out how best to involve and educate our school community about the program. However, I think it’s worth sharing some of the resources that are available through Kids Matter. Fact sheets and case studies cover stuff like:

Other information covers bullying, depression, body image, cultural diversity….and more.

You don’t need your school to get on board to access these sheets – I know I’ll be reading through a few which seem relevant to my particular household at the moment.

[image thanks to]

Teeth, immunity and third-child guilt

In February 2015 on February 11, 2015 at 1:34 pm

brush teeth

Sarah: There’s nothing like a third child to amplify levels of parental guilt and anxiety.

After our first two children being born quite close together, we had a four-year breather and then rolled the dice once more.

The first child had my full attention until he was nearly two. Upon weaning, he enjoyed hand-picked,-slow-steamed-mashed-with-stainless-steel-organic-local-fruit-and-vegetables. I brushed his teeth with care and dedication, he enjoyed kinder-gym and swimming lessons from a young age, we built train tracks together and we went to the park regularly.

That child — now aged 11 — does not have a single problem with his teeth.

Child number three — who has enjoyed a busy, crazy, rushed existence since his arrival 5 years ago — went for his second routine dental checkup recently. A cavity was discovered.

Immediate feelings, so many feelings. I didn’t teach him to brush properly! I should have done more brushing myself! His diet is terrible! He is a poor neglected kid! I am a failure!

We arranged to see a specialist for the repair. As I weakly offered various mea culpa statements at our first appointment, she was pretty-much unmoved, saying offhand,

“Oh children with asthma are much more likely to have cavities.”

WHAT! Yes, he does suffer from asthma, and I know a lot about the condition; this association I was not aware of. With further questioning she explained it was probably a result of the drying effect of oral preventer ‘puffer’ medication on saliva (which is protective of teeth), an underlying difference in immunity associated with asthma and induced changes in immunity due to use of anti-inflammatory steroid puffers.

Not content with one point of view, I also looked it up. Yes, I found support in a comprehensive 2011 paper that reviewed the evidence from many other publications:

“Evidence from this analysis suggests that asthma doubles the risk of caries in both primary and permanent dentition.”

“Physicians and dentists should recommend preventive measures against caries for persons with asthma.”

Well that would have been nice to know earlier. But at least I’m not beating myself up quite so much now.

[image thanks to makelessnoise on flickr]

Mosquitoes. What have they done for you lately?

In December 2014 on December 8, 2014 at 10:28 pm


Sarah: My daughter is a mosquito magnet. If there’s a mozzie within a 5km radius* of her bare skin, it will track her down and feed with fury.

For her, twilight games of backyard cricket require physical barriers in the form of long sleeves, leggings and socks. Not ideal in the heat of an Australian summer.

This morning she spotted a little winged drone as we drove to school holiday activities — inside the car! With the window rapidly thrown open, she managed to flush it outside. And sighed.

“Mum….do mosquitoes actually do anything good for our environment?”

I knew just the bloke to ask. Proceed direct to twitter. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

A quick tweet from someone at a science centre on the San Juan Islands provided my first bit of new info:

Bat food! (among other things) — Kwiaht (@Kwiaht) December 8, 2014

Then up popped Dr Cameron Webb.

As well as good for frogs, fish, birds, bats and lots of insects they may also be pollinators of some plants! — Dr Cameron Webb (@Mozziebites) December 8, 2014

Another tweeter was also interested, evolutionary biologist Steven Vamosi.  

Any hard data on meaningful impairment to ecosystem function when they are excluded/absent? — Steven Vamosi (@smvamosi) December 8, 2014

Basically he was asking, ‘Are there any measurements of ecosystem health in places where mosquitoes have been removed?’ In other words, do we even know how important mosquitoes are to our world? Cameron replied:

Steve again (ty is twitter shorthand for thank you): 

Ty & indeed, but urgent need for data like that, as we present case to public about imp. of biodiversity — Steven Vamosi (@smvamosi) December 8, 2014

And Cameron agreed right back: 

Yes, information important for balancing environmental protection and human health in mosquito control too — Dr Cameron Webb (@Mozziebites) December 8, 2014

So there we had it. In short, my dear daughter, mosquitoes do make a positive contribution to our environment. But we need more information to understand this better. And we particularly need more information when it comes to the kinds of mosquitoes that spread not just itchiness but deadly diseases like malaria.

We can achieve this through scientific study. As an example, here’s some more reading from Cameron’s blog about how he has performed studies looking at the importance of mosquitoes in bat diets: what do bats eat more often, mosquitoes or moths?

*probably an exaggeration


In November 2014 on November 5, 2014 at 9:37 am

say no

Sarah: Saying ‘no’ on a daily — if not an hourly — basis is one of my challenges of being a parent. It doesn’t feel good to be the constant bearer of bad news.

But kids aren’t the only ones who have to get used to ‘no’. There’s an awful lot of self-imposed ‘no’ in most of our lives every day.

It’s something that struck me in the Post Office just this week. As we lined up with my parcel — an item of online-bought clothing to be returned — my son and I were confronted with an aisle of temptations. New drink bottles, books, fancy pen holders…the list went on. At the desk, miscellaneous bags of chocolates and lollies were everywhere we looked. The kid asked me in a half-hearted, I-already-know-the-answer-kinda-way, ‘Can we have one, Mum?‘ Answering in the negative, I had a sudden craving for sugar and had to make a conscious effort to stand my ground.

It got me thinking.

The first world in which I live is full of excess and choices.

The service station, the stationary shop, the swimming pool, the school tuck shop, the netball courts, the tennis club and more; all offer lollies, ice-blocks, chips and sweet drinks. I say no in all of these places many, many times each week. To my kids, and to myself.

I’m online working every day, and to take a break will browse around on Facebook and clothing websites. The temptations continue — T shirts for less than $20. Bargain summer dresses. Cheap ‘n’ cheerful scarves. Just say no, Sarah! Usually I do. But sometimes I don’t (and sometimes it bites me on the bum; refer above to item of clothing to be returned via the Post Office and at my cost).

–> Electronic devices – don’t use them too much!

–> Quick and easy take-away dinner options – not a good idea!

–> Staying up late and watching TV — ’cause there’s always something on — you’ll regret that tomorrow!

Saying no, staying in control, knowing when to switch stuff off. It’s hard. But I think it’s important.

What I do wonder is whether there is a psychological cost to telling yourself ‘no’ on a constant basis.

[image thanks to abhi on flickr]

Happy Birthday Siding Springs! (#starfest2014)

In October 2014 on October 9, 2014 at 7:46 am

Kirsti starfest1 Khaiam with sun

Kirsti: The telescopes at ANU’s Siding Springs Observatory in the Warrumbungle National Park are having birthdays! FOUR birthdays in fact. And they celebrated recently with one of the best programs for Starfest2014 to date.

The Warrumbungle Festival of the Stars is on right now, and runs until Monday 27th of October. It’s the community’s way of saying “we love astronomy and art!”, and Starfest2014 is a part of it. The event attracts professional and amateur astronomers from all over Australia, as well as families, tourists, travellers and science nerds from near and far.

I happened to go this year, and boy do I wish I’d had some more kid-free time for the adult stuff! There was Science in the Pub with Radio National’s Robyn Williams, and an all-star cast (pun intended) including @astropixie. There were talks by amaze-balls astronomers like Fred Watson and Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, and astronaut Andy Thomas giving the Bok Lecture!

We got to see some talks for kids, and spent time in the exploratory centre at Siding Springs. Here I learnt I would weigh almost 2 tonnes on the sun but only about 10 kgs on the Moon (note to self: go there some day).

But we were absolutely blown away by the sheer size and workings of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, operated by the Australian Astronomical Observatory. It turned 40 this year, having taken its first photos in 1974. Over its life it has detected clouds near the surface of Venus, photographed the explosion of the Supernova 1987A (allowing astronomers’ unprecedented understanding of the death of a star), and identified (for the first time) an isolated brown dwarf star in our Galaxy! These, and oh, just a few other spectacularly life-changing things….

We were able to walk around inside it, stare in awe at the 3.9m diameter mirror, and then walk out onto the observation deck about 26m up, with the most incredible view of the Warrumbungle National Park ever!

Kirsti starfest 2 Warrumbungle panorama

So even though I am into tiny things with six legs on our own planet, Starfest2014 succeeded in blowing my mind with big picture space science. It’s worth the drive out there at this time of year as all the wildflowers are out too.

Ahhhh, school holidays, why are you over?!

Go outside!

In September 2014 on September 18, 2014 at 8:56 pm


Sarah: Go outside!

Not only do these two words echo from my own childhood, but they also spill out of my own mouth at least once a day directed towards the little ones in our house.

Being a ‘Messenger Mum‘ for a local newspaper in Adelaide, I was recently asked to contribute my thoughts on nature play – getting my kids outside to experience the world. Here’s what I wrote:

We believe playing outside is a critical component of our children’s lives and is valuable from a physical and mental health point of view. We also see it brings educational and joyful experiences they would otherwise miss out on.

In our own backyard, my husband has initiated butterfly watching as a hobby for the kids. On sunny days 1, 2 or all 3 of them can be found outside with small nets, trapping butterflies and working out the species and gender of the finds.

At every opportunity (sadly diminishing with the kids’ weekend sports commitments, but I digress…..) we head to Yorke Peninsula. Here the children roam about without the stress of traffic and constant ‘stranger danger’. We encourage the older two children to make small expeditions on bike or foot to explore and find friends. It’s a freedom they don’t get anywhere else.

At Yorkes we are also passionate beachcombers. Beachcombing is a hobby which can bring incredible joy and wonder to children and adults alike. From an educational perspective, beach walks can be used to explore many contemporary issues. For example, finding cuttlefish bones can lead to discussions of different animal species, why these animals die, thinking about cuttlefish breeding grounds in South Australia and whether human activities are impacting on these. Perhaps it’s just the scientist in me, but I insist on beachcombing as part of a normal childhood!

Jumping about in muddy puddles

In June 2014 on June 14, 2014 at 11:14 am


Sarah: Some scientists just inherently know how to communicate.

Entomologist Dr Cameron Webb is one of those people. This week he sent me a wonderful idea for a blog post, and followed up a few days later with this story: 

Cameron: The joys of beach combing are well known but what about “bush combing”? Perhaps not quite the same, but after a bit of rain, there is much joy to be had splashing about in puddles, ponds and potholes in your local bushland.

A wet winter weekend is just the time to start sloshing about.

Most of my summer is spent chasing mosquitoes about the wetlands of NSW, from coastal saltmarshes and mangroves to constructed waste-water treatment wetlands. I’m generally targeting specific mosquitoes, tracking changes in abundance and processing them for the detection of pathogens such as Ross River virus. However, Australia boasts a diverse mosquito fauna and many species are found in highly specialised ecological niches. It is often difficult for me to justify spending time hunting down these less common mosquitoes.

One of my favourite environments to explore “for fun” are the sandstone escarpments around Sydney. Amongst the bushland trails, there are often outcrops of sandstone where potholes form and trap rainwater. These mini-wetlands are often thriving ecosystems of aquatic insects and visiting vertebrates but while they may be less well studied than their coastal cousins, they’re still ecologically important.

My daughter and I set off to Buffalo Creek Reserve (near the Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre) with a bag packed with collecting equipment and the ever essential snacks. Miss 6 is a keen insect wrangler having picked up a few skills accompanying me on quick weekend trips to work for maintenance of our laboratory mosquito colonies.

Our main target was a series of freshwater rock pools that, in size and shape are not dissimilar to those of coastal rock shelves. These shallow pools are typically black and on first glance you may be surprised that there is much life in them at all. Stop for a moment and you can see they’re alive with all manner of invertebrates.

There may not be so many frogs about in winter (but these habitats often contain a range of neat tadpoles) but there are still plenty of aquatic invertebrates. There were lots of tiny crustaceans (mostly ostracods and copepods) as well as a few bright red immature stages of chironomids (non-biting midges) but we were mostly interested in the mosquito larvae.

Using an old soup ladle and small disposal plastic pipette, we were able to collect dozens of wrigglers and a few pupae.


We brought them home and over the course of a couple of days what they start to emerge, a process I’m still fascinated by despite watching it happen for over a decade!

There was some surprising diversity in the mosquitoes we collected with a total of four species. Aedes alboannulatus, Aedes notoscriptus, Aedes rubrithorax and Culex quinquefasciatus. Aedes notoscriptus is usually found in artificial water holding containers (e.g. pot plant saucers, discarded tyres, buckets, bird baths etc) and Cx. quinquefasciatus is associated with similar, but generally more polluted, urban habitats. The other two species are typically found in highly ephemeral habitats, Aedes rubrithorax (shown here) almost exclusively in bushland pools like these.


Next time you’re out in the bush after some rain, take the time to stop and have a close look in those puddles, you may be missing a glimpse into some unique bushland biodiversity!

If you’re keen on hunting down some aquatic invertebrates, make sure you pick up a copy of “The Waterbug Book: A guide to the freshwater macroinvertebrates of temperate Australia” by Gooderham and Tsyrlin (CSIRO Publishing).

*Dr Cameron Webb is a Medical Entomologist with the University of Sydney and Pathology West – ICPMR Westmead based at Westmead Hospital, Sydney. You can follow Cameron on Twitter (@mozziebites) or check out his blog