Entertaining toddlers without breaking the bank

Cheapskate childcare: ten ways to entertain toddlers for free

By Anna Trevelyan cropped-anna-pic-2-e1436354275658.jpg

It makes my eyes water when friends tell me how much they paid to take their toddler to Peppa Pig World. The whole thing sounds hideous; from crowds and queues to tantrums and poos, and on top of all that you pay a fortune for the privilege. I’d rather wait until my little one is old enough to remember it (and, ideally, when I am old enough to forget it).

So, in a bid to celebrate the three Fs (which is what we call it in our house: ‘free family fun’, which sometimes veer into the four Fs, depending on how successful said fun is) I though I’d share my favourite ways to entertain a toddler for free.

Get crafty

Now, I’m not one of those organised mums who has a craft box full of proper glue sticks and pipe cleaners and proper things. I do it the rough way: bits of old printer paper from when I accidentally printed off 16 copies something really embarrassing (some of these can double up as an anatomy lesson too) and old greetings cards ripped up. I pinched the PVA from the man who fitted the floor (he probably shouldn’t be using child’s PVA glue anyway in his line of work, so really I did him a favour) and – get this – I raided my very old make-up bag for some excellent bits. Turns out glittery eye shadow, gaudy lip liner and even hideous 90s hair mascara are actually perfect for creating cheap and effortlessly camp masterpieces.

Make a Buggery

Erm – I’m not sure if this is the correct term. Perhaps Bug House would be better (apologies if you were Googling that title and this was not the web page you had in mind). It’s all very eco friendly and even McDonalds were doing this on their adverts. Take your little one out and collect moss, sticks, pinecones, earth and leaves, then find a place to build it all up for the little bugs to make it their home. If you’re really brave you can even dig up the unwitting creatures and stick them in it – which my little one loves – but be sure to supervise as worms will get sucked. You have been warned.

Mine doesn't quite look like this - but one day it will!

Mine doesn’t quite look like this – but one day it will!

Build a frog pond

This is better if you have a garden, as nowadays people give you suspicious looks if you take a big spade and a bin bag down to the park. This was my favourite thing to to when I was young, as I was obsessed with frog spawn (I think this is what inspired my fascination with vodka jelly). I used to steal my mum’s washing up bowl, which I cannot condone, so a bin liner works just as well. Dig a hole, line it with the plastic, or any other handy old container, and find pebbles and sticks to go inside and around it. Admittedly, you have to be a bit patient to wait for the frogs to come so you can always cheat and shove some of the bath toys in instead.

Sorry, this actually looks pretty gross. This is what you have to look forward to.

Sorry, this actually looks pretty rank. This is what you have to look forward to, anyway.

Go foraging

Now, the general public give people funny looks when lurking around in shrubberies, but with a toddler in tow it gets you off the hook. My little one will happily spend hours blackberrying, when the season is right, but throughout the year you can trot off and find other things that seem much more exciting when they’re in the wild. Dandelions, daisies, those weird white flowers that pop out of their buds when you squeeze them, and even acorn and conker collecting all makes for free outdoor fun. I’d avoid mushrooms, as it’s a risky old business, and you do have to be careful what you pick up when scrabbling around in the undergrowth. A tip from me: don’t forget the anti-bac.

Make up a dance

Some people think that tinies don’t understand rhythm, so when their mum is both rhythm-less and probably tone-deaf it makes for a perfect combination. Whilst I can get away with it, I can put on the Spice Girls without judgement and bob along to my heart’s content. Silly dances are what little people are all about, so swing your pants, twirl around and imagine you’re in that prom scene in Grease. Your little one will probably copy you, and be thinking what an amazing and entertaining dancer you are. Free fitness and admiration? Perfect.

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Us dancing in the kitchen (not really – we are even better)

Grow stuff

Salad, generally, makes me a bit angry but when it’s home-grown it’s actually quite nice. Admittedly this one isn’t exactly free, as you should probably buy the seeds rather than steal them, but they are pretty damn cheap. It’s really exciting when you grow things that you can actually eat: just don’t pin all your hopes on that one lettuce, as sometimes a builder stamps on it and ruins it before you’ve managed to harvest it (revenge for the PVA, probably). Don’t have a garden? Grow cress in eggshells with cotton wool! Grow herbs in pretty pots! Think Charlie Dimmock: whip off your bra and just grow crazy!

Dress things up

My little one isn’t yet old enough to realise the joys of dressing up, but for some reason he finds it hilarious when I put my skirt on his dinosaur. Or my scarf and hat on the bin to look like a really rubbish snowman, or if I try to squeeze my giant head into one of his baby hats. I’m determined to one day have a proper ‘art attack’ and make a massive snail outside the house from a load of old underwear, but I keep getting thwarted by the Postman or a well-meaning neighbour. One to do under the cover of winter darkness, I think.

Set up your own sports day

He isn’t the first one to laugh at my throwing and he certainly won’t be the last. Little people love it when you run around with them from A to B (warning: sometimes, embarrassingly, they even out-run you). Set up a space where you can throw (soft) things, to see who can throw the farthest, try egg and spoon with ladle and a tennis ball, and spin around ten times and try and race to the finish. A word of warning to competitive parents – you can’t be fastidious with the rules as there will be a lot of cheating (you simply can’t have a toddler beating you in a throwing competition, after all).

Spy on the neighbours

It’s a rainy day, you’ve already been soaked through splashing in puddles, and you need something dry to do – I’ve got it. My little one loves standing at the window and watching the world go by. It also gives me the perfect excuse to have a nose into what next door are doing with all that banging going on, or where exactly Roger keeps his bins where nobody can see them (and why??). It may not be hours of entertainment, but they will point out all the new things to you (him: “look!” me: “GASP! I can’t believe she has gone and got herself a hot tub right where we overlook!”). They love the interaction and you will love the gossip. Don’t expect them to share your disbelief, but they will laugh when you laugh at that fat pigeon toppling off the fence again.

Make a right old mess

For those too tight to fork out for a ball pit, make your own with a paddling pool/bathtub and some shredded up paper, flour or oats. My local playgroup even go as far as using baked beans and jelly, but I am not that brave. (If you are using a bath, however, do not wash it away down the plughole – you will have a rather embarrassing blockage to explain to a Plumber.) If you’re too scared to make that sort mess in your own home, why not try ditch diving? It’s pretty messy, it can get ugly but they will love it. Find your nearest muddy puddle and let them go wild. (Don’t forget the anti-bac, a plastic bag, and sunglasses – trust me, your eyes will thank you for it and they double as a disguise for when you schlep home looking and smelling like the Beast from Beyond.)

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Happy as a pig in a pit

I’m sure there are much more inventive (and cleaner) ways to entertain the littluns, but these ones have worked for me so far. So stuff you, Peppa Pig World! I’m saving my £93 entry fee and putting it towards my Plumber’s bill SO THERE.

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Learning optimism from an 18-month-old

How to be happy: lessons learned from an 18-month-old

By Anna Trevelyan cropped-anna-pic-2-e1436354275658.jpg

As an adult, it takes hard work to be happy. In the adult world you are constantly thrown curveballs to challenge your happiness (relationship break ups, money, the news, work, taxes, the deficit, arguments with neighbours over bins and whatever curveballs actually are as it sounds pretty painful). These things do not affect how happy my 18-month-old is. He is aware of money (in that he can’t eat it) but it doesn’t dictate his happiness. If he doesn’t have any money he is as happy as if he had a shed load of it (in fact, he’d rather have a shed load of dandelions).

I started observing his behaviour and what made him happy, in an effort to pick up some tips:

Time is more important than money

My toddler is happiest when he is around the people he loves. It’s not an expensive theme park or a meticulously planned day trip that makes him happy, it’s who he is with. He would rather be poking around in a shed full of spiders with his grand parents than at Longleat with a load of strangers. Hooray for free entertainment and no-one elbowing you out of the way to get to the porcupines.

Brands are irrelevant

He couldn’t care less about the clothes he wears, where they are from or whether they actually go together. He only wants to be warm. (Actually, he would probably rather be naked all the time but I haven’t adopted this one for decency’s sake.) I think the lesson here is that if you’re not comfortable in your own skin then you probably won’t ever be when clothed, no matter how much money you pay for it.

It doesn’t matter what you look like

It took me years of my adult life to manage to leave the house without any make-up on. My little one couldn’t care less what he looks like. Mis-matched shoes he has chosen himself, hair looking like an 80s Pat Sharp or covered head to toe in mud – he just doesn’t care how people perceive him. In fact, the crazier he looks the more people smile at him, which just makes him happier.

There’s no such thing as bad weather

I usually look outside and groan every time it’s a rainy morning. My toddler looks out in glee if it’s raining, as he is thinking of jumping in puddles and getting completely filthy in the sodden garden. He’s definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy.

Be optimistic

My toddler can’t say “no”. Literally. He can only say “yes”. He will try anything (even if it’s slimy), he smiles at anyone and he doesn’t worry about things in advance of when they may or may not happen. In short – he lives in the moment.

Challenges become opportunities

When a great mound of earth was dumped near our house (don’t ask) I was annoyed. My little one saw this as a hill to climb up and jump off of. When the bathroom was wrenched out and a gaping hole was left in its wake, he enjoyed making his voice echo. When I tripped over and sent a punnet of raspberries flying through the air he enjoyed eating them off of the floor. You get the picture – turning an annoyance into an opportunity is a very good skill to have.

Animals are our friends

My little one loves animals of all shapes and sizes (sometimes maybe a little too much – I have had to yank his hand out of a goat or llama’s mouth on more than one occasion). He respects them, he enjoys their company and he gets upset if he sees they are unhappy. If only more people shared his opinion.

See the good in everyone – so long as they are nice

No matter what age, race, sexuality, religion, gender or background, my little one will keep smiling at you if you smile back. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t criticise and he is entirely without prejudice. As long as you’re nice, he’ll like you, which is all that matters really.

Laugh at your own misfortune

On a recent trip to the shops a puddle of dripping water in the freezer aisle led to both me and my toddler doing the splits in the Tesco Express. Ordinarily I would have been furious at such an event of unwanted leg separation but we both collapsed in giggles after he started laughing first. I hate the compensation culture, so I’m encouraging more of a chortle culture.

Bank your happiness

This one is the most important – he remembers things that really make him happy and locks it away in his little memory bank. For example, when riding my bike recently he observed me topping over inelegantly into a giant bush. This made him laugh a great deal, drawing a small yet delighted crowd. Now, whenever he sees me on a bike (or even just a bike) he laughs; recalling this memory and enjoying the ridiculous scene all over again. I now try to keep a mental note of times I was particularly happy or something that really made me laugh – happiness banked – to recall later on, when it’s needed.

Clearly, I’m never going to be as care-free as he is as I do have adult things to worry about as well. But a few of them – such as not caring so much what people think, enjoying the little things in life and banking happy thoughts for a rainy day – have really stayed with me. It takes hard work to be happy. Us adults have still got the dreaded deficit to worry about. We’d better rely on our savings.screen-shot-2012-05-09-at-2-10-27-am

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when technology lets you down

The trouble with technology

By Anna Trevelyan cropped-anna-pic-2-e1436354275658.jpg

Technology is, overall, a good thing I’m pretty sure. I rarely get lost anymore, I don’t have to schlep to Tesco as often and I can pretty much find my own answer to any question (even the embarrassing ones, like ‘where is Eritrea’) without people laughing at me. However, I have come to the conclusion that some technology can cause as many problems as it solves.

(Not very) smart-phone

My worst example of ‘technology terror’, as I have now named it (a sudden attack on innocent victims from the very technology built to help the poor sods) was a smartphone I had a few years ago. Safe to say I will never buy a Nokia ever again, no matter how many pretty colours they make it in. This phone nearly ruined my life. Yes, it may have had its issues with me (being a bit bashed about, having a small amount of wine spilled over it and probably not being duly appreciated on account of it being a bit slow) but it went two steps too far to seek its revenge. Firstly, it decided to swap all the names and numbers around in my address book. My cousin became my mum, my office became my local takeaway and, worst of all, my husband became Nigel from work. Not only was I bellowing down the phone to a stunned local restaurant owner but I was sending some highly inappropriate messages to my colleague. (Nothing too bad you understand – more like “meet me at the cinema tonight!” and ‘”morning, gorgeous!”. His poor wife.) THEN the phone of doom decided to start uploading photographs straight to Facebook without any warning. This could have been VERY bad. Very bad indeed.

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Autocorrect issues

Predictive text can be a nightmare. We’ve all been there – on the old keypad phones I received daily messages saying “hi bomb” (I dread to think how many of my friends are on the M15 watch list) and the latest versions aren’t much better. ‘Houses’ can become ‘hookers’, ‘Santa’ becomes ‘Satan’ and ‘epi pen’ becomes ‘epic penis’. Maybe I should just go back to using pens and paper.

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(Another quick point: text speak. LOL is my least favourite. Floppy, incoherent connotations aside, there is a huge generation gap in the understanding of this ridiculous acronym. Young people obviously use it for laughing out loud, whereas older people use it for ‘lots of love’. I actually once received the following text: ‘Hope the funeral goes well. I’ll be thinking of you. LOL.’ For the sake of all of us please let’s just put a stop to it.)

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Internet history – to clear or not to clear?

Often having the internet history at your fingertips is a useful tool, such as when you can’t remember what you did yesterday let alone what that site was with the best brogues. BUT for many men, curious Googlers or unproductive workers this is a killer. Some of you will know exactly what I’m talking about and you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. A note to those concerned: an empty history is just as suspicious, in my humble opinion!

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Google ad embarrassment

It’s really humiliating when you are looking at the Guardian website on your lunch break and all of a sudden large adverts for bras pop up (I was clearly looking for some new undies on my home computer when know-it-all-Google decided to transfer my desktop to where I was now logged in). Sorry Google, but sometimes it just isn’t appropriate to remind me that my cup size is low on stock. (A word also to some of the gentlemen who read one of my previous blogs and are now inundated with adverts for peplum swimwear. Google, in its infinite wisdom, clearly assumes you’re a cross-dresser, and if that isn’t the case I sincerely apologise.)

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Parking assist/desist

My normal car is far too old and battered up to boast something as hi-tech as parking sensors, but if I ever hire a car or drive a work vehicle they insist on adding these pesky features. Maybe I’m just too slap-dash to use them properly but they seem to constantly judge my (perfectly adequate) parking technique and scream about how close I am to a lamp post when we all know I’ve got miles of room. So I ignore them. I think I’ve destroyed more boarder topiary and mounted more pavements when I have these sensors at my disposal, so these are going on the list.

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This one actually wasn’t me.

Indecisions, indecisions

Technology allows us to scan, search and compare so many retailers that this makes my decision making even more drawn out. Although this often allows me to get the best deal (which is great) I’m sure using up my entire month’s data allowance whilst dawdling about in John Lewis renders my £1.50 saving on a frying pan a bit of an empty victory.

'I like the dress but let me do a little comparison shopping, on the internet, first.'

‘I like the dress but let me do a little comparison shopping, on the internet, first.’   A Bacall.

Second screens

They say our TV watching habits are changing, and that barely anyone sits watching just one screen anymore – they have two! Although I’m the first to admit having access to IMDB whilst watching a TV drama is great (it saves about fifty “who is that man?”, “was he in Mrs Doubtfire?” and “he looks a bit like Terry Nutkins” style conversations) it’s also a right pain. It’s distracting, it’s annoying and it puts me on edge when we are all looking at different things. The latest ‘second screen’ technology is going to actually listen in and bring up ‘helpful’ information when it hears us commenting on it. Scary stuff. So my phone will soon be filled with pictures and facts about Terry Nutkins, apparently. They will be listening to every word: don’t say you haven’t been warned.
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Nuisance caller crisis

In the old days, my Mum would never let me answer the house phone as the lines seemed to be riddled with early 90s phone pests. I was warned about how my sister would pick up the phone and be met with heavy breathing and some rather unusual noises being broadcast down the receiver from some odd bod who never actually spoke. This doesn’t seem to happen any more (I guess they have Google for that). We are now inundated instead with calls on our mobiles from PPI salespeople, aggressive call centre workers asking about that recent ‘accident’ you allegedly had, and recorded robot voices trying to tell us something weird late at night. Call me crazy, but I’d actually rather go back to huffing noises on the house phone. At least you can ignore the phone, unplug it or just leave the receive off the hook so their bill keeps going up (oh, the hilarious tricks we used to do!). It’s harder to ignore my mobile as I’m usually so busy using it. Sorry, switch it off you say? What? How would I check my email, update my status, find my way, look up swim times, find Eritrea, check the weather or complain to South West Trains? Technology might be a right old pain but I don’t half use it.

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Why it's no bad thing that summer is over

Seven reasons not to be sad that summer’s over

By Anna Trevelyan cropped-anna-pic-2-e1436354275658.jpg

I am always a little bit sad when summer starts turning into autumn and the feeling of long, lazy days draws to a close. But fear not – let’s look on the bright (or slightly foggy) side and embrace the positives of the passing of our sunniest season…

Bugs

I know I’m not alone in hating the wasps, the flies and other irritating winged things that like to fly into your wine. Peskier than Anthea Turner on that terrible Lottery advert, they will keep coming around to bite you. Hooray for the frost that seems to see them off (but sadly Anthea will need something a little stronger, I fear).

Car windows

This may seem an odd one but more than once this summer I have come unstuck and had to make a speedy exit from the car park I was residing in, after open-window encounters. My biggest faux par was loudly stating “ooh, Jason Statham has let himself go” in the Aldi car park, which did not go down well with the large balding man standing next to my (forgotten) opened window. Air con is much safer socially, but safer still is a winter chill, meaning windows remain closed (and comments remain unheard).

Knitwear

At the risk of sounding very Jeremy Corbyn (or even Jeremy Clarkson) I am rather partial to knitwear, the odd blazer and even a touch of tweed. I am actually looking forward to being reunited with some of my slightly fraying ‘grandad’ cardigans. I’ve missed you, old friends. I’ll skip the facial hair though.

TV

If, like me, you suffer with ‘good weather guilt’ (instilled in school – where if it’s even remotely sunny you are forced out into the playground) you can look forward to some cosy nights in again this autumn. There are plenty of great new series starting soon (such as my current favourite, C4’s First Dates) so we can all put our slippers on again and snuggle up on the sofa – hooray!

Tights

I really miss tights in the summer. They cover a multitude of sins and actually make you feel taller (or is it just me)? They can double as a make-shift belt, an emergency disguise in a ‘situation’ or even a tourniquet in the event of an unfortunate adder nip when frolicking through autumn leaves (I’m sure Michael Buerk did that once on ‘999’). On a more practical note, tights also mean you don’t have to obsessively shave your legs so often. Which brings me onto my next point…

Hair

I’m not sure if this is scientifically proven, but my hair seems to grow like a beast in the summer. My roots are worse than the Whomping Willow‘s, and my eyebrows start to look like Oscar The Grouch‘s after just half a day of daring to not pluck. Bring on the large woolly hats to mask this madness. Plus, summer with a toddler means I am often expected to whip off my outer clothing at a moment’s notice, to climb inside some form of paddling pool. Let’s not even start on the bikini area, except to say that in the winter I have far more warning of such things.

States of undress

I’m sure it was somebody very over-optimistic who coined the phrase ‘Sun’s Out, Guns Out‘. They can’t have lived near me. The reality in our country’s parks and open spaces is much more ‘BBQ Food’s Out, Get Your Moobs Out’. I don’t know what it is about summer that makes people think they can bare their hairy chests and beer bellies and jog across the street, without even a second thought to the safety of the drivers whose eyes are dangerously averted from the road by the horrific view displayed before them. Winter calls for at least two layers, which I thoroughly approve of.

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In summary, winter will make you safer from stinging insects, safer from assaults upon your eyes from clothes unsuitable for public viewing, and better prepared to deal with dangerous snake bites. Hopefully such reassuring thoughts should just about last us until next year.

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Some male compliments are best left unheard

Male (so-called) compliments

By Anna Trevelyan cropped-anna-pic-2-e1436354275658.jpg

If there’s one thing I have learned over the last few years it’s this: if you are going to ask certain males their opinion on something then be prepared to deal with the consequences.

It’s an old cliché to ask him “how to I look?” and receive the “one sugar, please” answer, but there are times when you do need or want an opinion. However, this comes with a caution – you probably won’t be told what you want to hear. Fishing for compliments (in my experience) never works with most of the males in my life, but what I feel is most important is not to take any opinions to heart – as well-meaning but as poorly-sounding as these may be.

Here are a few rather more memorable responses from some of my favourite men-folk…

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Upon re-entering the living room after my pre-wedding hair and make-up rehearsal:

Male 1 (Dad): “You look…striking. Quite different.”

Male 2: “Is there going to be a circus theme?” clown

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Following my recent lunchtime eyebrow tinting disaster, resulting in me having to attend two meetings with large sunglasses on:

Nigel (work friend): “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. Yes, they’re darker, but they match your roots coming through.”

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After trying a slightly redder shade of hair colour than my usual blonde:

Husband: “It reminds me a bit of Angela Merkel. In a nice way.”

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Me (peering at an old picture without glasses on, and actually meaning it as a compliment): “Wow. Look at your hair! It looks so much better now.”

Male friend: “What? That was last year and that’s you!”

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Me: “I thought I’d pop to the shops and get a few bits to make this office feel more like a proper office. Maybe a door stop? And a door mat? What do you think?”

Boss: “You what? All I need is that jagged rock and that piece of old rug. I know people stub their feet and trip up but at least it keeps them on their toes! Plus it makes you re-think your footwear.”

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During a recent lunch at home:

Husband: “Anna, there is something disgusting on the wall in that toilet. I think you need to go and sort it out.”

Me: “That’s absolutely vile! Why would you tell me that when I’m trying to eat? Anyway, why can’t YOU go and get the bleach?”

Husband: “I was talking about that awful picture you chose to put up!”

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Whilst having a meeting with our builder about the new bathroom:

Me: “I was thinking you could put in a series of down-lighters, plus a light above the mirror so I can really see my face in detail.”

Builder: “Why on Earth would you want to do that?”

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2000px-Mars_symbol.svgWhen having a crisis of nothing clean or decent to wear to an event, except one moth-eaten old dress:

Husband: “Don’t worry, you look perfect as you are. To me.”

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Just remember ladies: If men really are from Mars this makes them Martians. They probably won’t get it. That’s fine. It’s probably better to celebrate your differences and embrace the fact that your father, friends or other half may not quite understand you – but they will probably make you chuckle whilst trying.


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I’d love to hear some of your little gems, so please do share them below!

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