bench-black-and-white-city-new-york

You can tell a lot about a place and its culture from its seating. In this article I explore…

  • What environments for sitting in, says to us about individual’s rights and societies expectations and culture?
  • How the design of seating in the public and private realm shapes how we feel?
  • Compare approaches to function and form when planning seating solutions

Picture some atmospheric seating in a favourite spot outdoors. I wonder where your imagination took you? To a solid hewn stone bench atop a castle or riverside location; an ornately carved metal bench curved round a shaded tree trunk, or a wooden bench carved from a single tree slice? Or did you envisage something grand and huge, rustic and quaint or fantastical? Whether you’ve travelled near or far you’re sure to have encountered an array of seating solutions created from a myriad of materials. Whether they’ve ‘planted’ themselves in your archives of ‘noticings’ and memories, will I suspect come down to their successful marriage between form and function.

So what do we understand by function? For Donald Norman, as well as providing ‘delight and fun’ (2002: vii) things should be designed to be legible, that is, clear in their function. Gibson’s concept of affordance goes further, understanding the power of environments as agents in a two-way process, suggesting potential uses for individuals, but also depending upon an individual’s lens, shaped by the individual’s perception of usefulness. So to a child, the kerb may suggest ‘sit-on-able’ (Heft, 2010: 19) qualities but to an adult this is much less likely due to the disconnect between leg length and the affordance of a low step or kerb as a seat. Key to James Gibson and Harry Heft’s ideas of affordance of environments is the sense that ‘affordances are relational properties of the environment taken with reference to a specific individual’ (Heft, 2010:17).

Taken literally a seat is something to be sat on, but it should not be separated from its wider cultural and emotional affordances. Like the design of the other aspects of street furniture which shape and define our experience of the environment, the type of seating that we provide and its generosity of design, materials or size, can go a long way to providing an indicator of the value placed on people lingering in a space; the sense of safety (or otherwise) conveyed; and whether the environment is for individuals or groups.

If the raison d-etre of seating is to be sat on, what then of seats when they are empty? Reminiscent of debates about whether a tree really falls if there’s no-one there to witness or hear it, how does the design and materials of seating solutions impact upon children’s and adult’s enjoyment or experience of them when not being used as intended? And in order to garner maximum value from resources, should we be expecting seating and street furniture generally to be multi functional so as when not being used it becomes a sculpture, barrier or visual divide?

This riverside seating design actively engages people to stop, sit, lounge and socialise whilst taking in the views. The generous size and robust construction and materials suggest their ability to withstand real and varied use, be it alfresco eating, smooching couples or groups sat on the seat backs. Their nod to a sofa gives permission for people to relax, enjoy and treat them as if at home, while the bright playful colours shout out ‘use me!’ The designer has cleverly used scale not just to increase their versatility and use but as importantly, I feel, to create a surreal Alice in Wonderland-like quality, as these over-sized chairs have the effect of potentially making adults feel more playful and child-like.

The generous size and robust construction of this design invites a laid back or group interaction, suggesting to the viewer that not only is this place safe but it’s a good place to linger and relax.

IMG_8785 long picnic bench Essex uny

Compare this to a metal bench in a park near a children’s play area, the lack of back and demarcation into generous yet separate seating areas encourages a temporary form of sitting, the type characterised by perching on the edge of your seat as you wait for something or pause to watch the world go by. I wonder what was in the brief, ‘provide robust seating which encourages parents to pause without providing a space for sleeping or anti-social behaviour’ and whether in planning to prevent the ‘abuse’ of the benches, we have metaphorically thrown the baby out with the bath water as we’ve minimised adult’s comfort and therefore likeliness to linger longer while children enjoy the important business of play?

The thinking behind the seating choice and location is further muddied by this curving modern design. In many ways more inviting and open to be used flexibly by adults and children, its’ position, with back turned to the very same play area is confusing and ill-conceived. Why would we want to be encouraging parents not to visually appreciate the shared joy of children’s adventures and mastery? Or if intended for child-less passers-by, why would you choose to take in the limited view of green grass with the noises of a playground immediately behind? There is a lack of harmony between the public and private realm, creating what might be described as a ‘Norman bench’ not through its links to this historical era, but after Donald Norman, and his conclusion that ‘far too many items in the world are designed, constructed, and foisted upon us with no understanding – or even care- for how we will use them’ (vii2002: vii).

In contrast, some benches, the kinds with lots of dividers (like those annoying seats at airports), and hard and uncomfortable materials, make it abundantly clear that people are not welcome to linger. Indeed, lingering in places like these is in danger of being redefined as loitering. Comfort is not the aim because passers-by are not to be encouraged to get too comfortable. The result of such designs is to give a clear message about what is and what isn’t considered societally acceptable. Some utilitarian and poorly maintained designs can even instill a fear and feeling of the space not being safe.

stone seats

In contrast the need for plentiful seating at this river fronted location next to a busy metro stop and transport node has inspired these satisfyingly solid blocks of granite. Each block seats 4, in the lip shaped spaces, but with the potential for cross-legged sprawling too, managing to suggest multiple users without enforcing this (as the metal dividing bars of the above bench do). The roughly hewn straight sides contrast with the smoothly shaped rounded seat tops, adding textural interest and visual contrast from the way they respond to reflections and shadows. Serving as sculptural pieces when empty they have also been designed as a visual barrier to, and reminder to pedestrians of their shared use of space with trams and cars.

IMG_8383 bench with legs Budapest

A skilled designer can introduce a sense of playfulness and movement into anything. Take this, on the face of it, simple bench, but look closer and its ‘walking legs’ inject humour and surprise, elevating this fantastic piece of Budapest street furniture to something which has the power to change how we feel. Sometimes architectural moments like these are happy accidents but more usually, intentionality is key. Just as it is essential that our interactions and the environments we plan for children are infused with intentionality, described as ‘seeding the child’s learning environment (Siraj Blatchford, J. & Brock, L. https://schemaplay.wordpress.com/about/) so too the success and impact of the environments that we provide and experience are shaped by our aspirations and underlying culture. With life moving at an ever faster technological pace, why not join me to pause a while. Are you sitting comfortably?

To contact me or find out more about my books, research and the resources and services I offer go to http://www.playtoz.co,uk

Thanks to Pexels for the headline image. All other images copyright of Sue Gascoyne

 

Sue’s inspirations and background

Sue Gascoyne is a qualified Town and Country planner with a focus on design, conservation and architecture.

Sue is also a qualified Creative Arts & Play Therapist – an area which has given her an insight into the impact of environments on children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive wellbeing.

As an Early education researcher, with a specialism in sensory engagement, environments and new materialism Sue has an interest in not just the affordance of environments but how these actively shape human’s actions and experiences as agents in intra actions.

 

Advertisements

building-bricks-wall-gutter

Think of guttering and drainpipes and I hazard a guess that you’ll be picturing something like this. Am I right? But functional things like guttering do not have to be hidden or dull. Playful approaches to guttering are not new, evident on a wealth of historical buildings if we take the time to look up.

Sometimes subtlety is the most appropriate approach. With ornate details like this Indian arch, there’s no need to make a feature of managing water flow, so simple geometric openings suffice. In other buildings, prominent and scary gargoyles showcase architect’s playfulness, combining form and function with ease.

These over-sized channels on a university building playfully echo the slides of the young adult’s childhoods and the associated sense of release, freedom and fun – fitting evocations for an innovatively designed building dedicated to open mindedness and learning.

For this modern building in Budapest, the guttering and hoppers could so easily have followed the traditional straight up and down path, but instead the designer has skilfully used them to accentuate the building’s design, enhancing the details and form, much like the geometric lines so characteristic of Art Deco architecture.

For the Naze Visitor Centre, an Essex Wildlife Trust building, the drainpipe has been reimagined as a sculptural piece. Dripping like a chain necklace when dry, it’s so straight and still that you have to touch it to make sure its not a playful piece of trickery, with fused together chain links. When wet the chain strands encircle the falling water creating a mesmarising water feature. With a wall of glass and views of the cliffs and sea not only does this cleverly avoid visually dividing the view, as more traditional guttering would, but it provides a playful feature to be admired as visitors within enjoy tea and cake in inclement weather!

Strange as it may sound, playfulness and guttering are also natural partners when it comes to children!

Children love to play with water, perhaps because of its sensory qualities; wealth of sounds; ways of sparking or mirroring emotions, be it calming and absorbing or excitable fun; or because children love to move with their whole bodies and water does too! In the hands of a child some offcuts of guttering and lengths of pipes can free children up to a world of problem solving and make-believe adventures.  Attach some pipes or guttering to an underused wall outdoors, (fixed centrally to enable them to pivot), provide some buckets and smaller containers and watch children’s experiments and cooperative skills flourish.

But as these young children demonstrated, the addition of water is not a pre-requisite to their productive use. The provision of a piece of broken guttering destined for the rubbish pile as it had a hole in it, became an added feature as children fed a selection of small objects, from conkers and corks to plastic milk bottle lids down the enclosed pipe, using the fortuitous hole as a spyhole and entry point for clearing blockages. The addition of some sturdy cardboard tubes added to children’s play, which was at times excitable and at others calm, not unlike a scientist at work.

For another child a long length of pipe became a tool for focussing yet also limiting eye contact in a one-to-one play therapy session. As the child controlled the position of the tube, it provided opportunities for developing attachment in an age-appropriate way.

I hope I’ve persuaded you that there’s more to guttering and downpipes than meets the eye and that we’re never too old to play!

I’d love to hear your ideas and playful wonderings!

To contact me or find out more about my books, research and the resources and services I offer go to http://www.playtoz.co,uk

  Sue’s inspirations and background

Sue Gascoyne is a qualified Town and Country planner with a focus on design, conservation and architecture.

Sue is also a qualified Creative Arts & Play Therapist – an area which has given her an insight into the impact of environments on children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive wellbeing.

As an Early education researcher, with a specialism in sensory engagement, environments and new materialism Sue has an interest in not just the affordance of environments but how these actively shape human’s actions and experiences as agents in intra actions.

In this article I explore some thoughts about…

  • What environments say to us about individual’s rights and societies expectations and culture?
  • How can the design of environments and spaces in the public and private realm shape how we feel?
  • Is a focus on function and form enough when planning street furniture, spaces and buildings?
  • What do we understand by function? – As in the literal function of something, e.g. as a bollard to stop cars damaging a tree, property or people, or its wider cultural and emotional affordances, as an indicator of the value placed on pedestrians as opposed to cars?
  • Does it matter and how might it help better shape environments for children?

Take a look at these bollards on two Budapest streets and jot down any thoughts and reactions that they evoke. I did just that and this is what my list included. I then grouped these into the following different themes:

Quirky

Interesting

Exciting

Novel

Eye catching

Unusual

Anti-establishment

Challenging

Creative

Animated

Fluid

THEME Novelty
Fun

Sense of humour

Playful

Child-like

Movement

THEME Playful
Sculptures

Design

Art forms

Public art

‘Look at me!’

THEME Art
Safe

Reclaiming the streets

Pedestrian power THEME Control

 

Influenced by the world of design and planning (the focus of my MA); our knowledge of the emotional benefits of the environment and the importance of sensory engagement for wellbeing; and the exciting field of new materialism (the idea that environments and objects shape us as much as we them, and the potential in the ‘space’ in between this intra-action, for creating and experiencing a unique assemblage), four qualities of spaces and environments emerge for me:

Legibility – how clear it is about how spaces, structures or environments can or should be used and experienced?

Emotion – if and how spaces, structures and environments influence our feelings?

Safety – how safe or unsafe these spaces, structures and environments feel?

Engagement – if and how these spaces, structures and environments invite or resist interactions and if so, whether as individuals or groups?

All the above factors will influence an individual’s and community’s sense of Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence within the space. These three psychological needs are cornerstones of Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination theory (2000) which is founded on the idea of humans being naturally curious, and provided they feel secure, intrinsically motivated to explore their environment. Relatedness encompasses caring for others and feeling connected and belonging to a community, while ‘competence is defined as the need to experience oneself as effective in interacting with one’s environment’ (Whipple, Bernier & Mageau, 2009). Autonomy is about having a sense of being able to make your own choices and is not at all equated with independence. If all of this seems unrelated to those bollards let me try to make the connections!

ARC in Action

If we view bollards simplistically as a barrier to movement, then we see that a barbed wire fence will fulfil much the same function as the bollards, but with startling different effects:SMALL arc BOLLARDS

Of course, barbed wire is an extreme, but there are a plethora of other barriers to our entry in streetscapes around the world, which have been created with their function, (primarily as a device to keep people out), prevailing over form. Without much if any consideration, these utilitarian designs will be subtly influence if and how we interact with environments, how we behave, how we experience these environments and how they make us feel.

Returning to the 4 qualities identified above, lets compare our potential experience of the following environments as pedestrians:

  1 2 3
LEGIBILITY I can choose to move quickly or slowly. I feel safe and protected. I have permission to move within the barrier. The barrier is to keep me and the tree safe not to restrict my movements. This space is part of the public realm and I can use and enjoy it. This is not intended for me. If this sturdy building is at risk from cars then I must be too. This is a space to move quickly through. I need to be cautious and vigilant as there is a danger of hazards. I am not allowed to access this area. I don’t belong there and it is not mine to use. I mustn’t be curious but accept the limitations. I can’t interact with the environment.
EMOTION A sense of fun, laughter and playfulness. I feel positive and enriched. I feel capable and in control of myself. I feel like a valued member of the community. I feel liberated not trapped. Austere, harsh and jarring. An eye sore and reminder of the power of the car. I feel on the periphery. Excluded and caged. Trapped and not free. Negative and controlled. Questioning why the area is restricted and is it safe.
SAFETY I can interact with the environment and feel empowered by it. I don’t need to rush. I could pause perched on a bollard and children are beckoned to run around the bollards. I must be unsafe. Accidents are likely. I need to be vigilant, cautious and not linger. Cars are threatening and powerful. I am vulnerable. Is the fence protecting something or keeping me safe? What’s the threat? How could I safely get over the barrier if I needed to escape? Am I being watched to see if I behave?
ENGAGEMENT My interaction is welcome and invited, whether as a positive feeling when quickly passing by or as an open invitation to linger and pause.  I have a strong sense of autonomy, relatedness and competence (ARC). My interaction is not welcome. The colour and stripes make me cautious and alert. This is not a place to linger. I don’t have rights of way. I don’t feel valued, capable or in control so have a poor sense of ARC Keep moving and don’t come too close. Lingering here could be seen as loitering with intent. If I look round, I’ll look guilty.

I don’t feel included, able to make choices or interact with the environment so have a poor sense of ARC.

These are just four possibilities and you may have come up with your own equally, if not more valid tools for appraising spaces, structures and environments, in which case I’d love to hear these. Of course, I’ve purposely picked extremes of environments for maximum effect, but I hope in doing so it has made apparent the effect, whether intentional or not on our experience as pedestrians. So far we have viewed this through the lens of an adult, but change the scale to introduce the child’s perspectives, and these positive or negative consequences are potentially considerably greater.

Context is Key

Returning to those delightfully animated bollards, their designer clearly understood the importance of context and consistency, ensuring that the paving and other street furniture – in this case the wonderful eye-like tree openings, acted in harmony with the jaunty bollards, so that they complemented rather than competed with each other. Quality materials were also key, as was a natural palette of colour that would have been intrusive. Rather than creating them in highly visible colours and uniformly spaced and angled, which would facilitate quicker and easier parking, the bollards serve as a traffic calming measure, effectively slowing down manoeuvres and reclaiming the streets for pedestrians. For a child coursing down the street the quirky angles break up the bollard’s height, provide a sense of movement and invitation for a child to run round them. They also create exciting shadows to be noticed and delighted in.

I’m conscious that by trying to quantify something ethereal I may be devaluing the very source of wonder and delight which was worthy of sharing! Like Maria’s Montessori’s plea that we don’t try to ‘pin the butterfly to the board’ in our eagerness to understand a child’s actions. The best design solutions are not born out of a checklist of do’s and don’ts, but an awareness of the power vested in environments to shape people’s experience, emotions and perception of rights and values.

Food for thought

Having praised these bollards for their playfulness and appeal to people, unfortunately this is the very thing that’s missing from the photo! So picture a child you know (or the child within you!) and think about if and how they would notice, react to, interact with and be affected by these quirky structures? What might they do? How would they use them and the space? How might their experience of these differ to the utilitarian bollards in the article? Now think about the environments in which children spend much of their time – these are likely to be early childcare centres. Next time you have an opportunity, position yourself at a child’s height and consider how does the existing design, layout and qualities affect children? Try to view he environment and spaces through the lens of a child. What messages and emotions do the spaces and designs convey? What changes if any, could improve children’s experience? Whose purpose do they fulfil? What impact, if any, do they have on children’s sense of safety, control, rights and values?

I’d love to hear your ideas and any challenges you may have to my wonderings!

To contact me or find out more about my books, research and the resources and services I offer go to http://www.playtoz.co,uk

 

 

Sue’s inspirations and background

Sue Gascoyne is a qualified Town and Country planner with a focus on design, conservation and architecture.

Sue is also a qualified Creative Arts & Play Therapist – an area which has given her an insight into the impact of environments on children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive wellbeing.

As an Early education researcher, with a specialism in sensory engagement, environments and new materialism Sue has an interest in not just the affordance of environments but how these actively shape human’s actions and experiences as agents in intra actions.

My name is Kevin and I’ve just started a 10 week placement at @playtoz as part of my Masters in Health and Organizational research at The #University of Essex. I am keen to investigate ways of supporting people within #Dementia. Having seen my Nan suffer from Dementia I would like to explore the link between the symptoms of mood and behaviour, (two key consequences of Dementia) and the use of #sensory-rich resources – objects, toys or messy play resources, hence my placement at award-winning sensory play resource and training provider – Play to Z.  Initially I hope to explore the benefits of stimulating Dementia sufferer’s senses of touch and smell to ultimately improve their behaviour and mood as I feel that this in turn could act as a coping strategy, supporting both the patient and carer.

I am passionate about conducting meaningful research that can help make a difference to people’s lives, which is why I am looking for Dementia sufferers, carers and families to be involved in my research by trying out a range of (observed) resources or activities, and providing feedback on their affects, if any.

I would be really interested to hear from anyone who’d like to be involved or feels they can provide information, advice or insight to help shape my dissertation focus and ultimately make a difference.

Kevin Hughes

Email: research@playtoz.co.uk

Mobile: 07506755781

Tel: 01206 796722

On a crisp day, with gloved fingers keeping the cold at bay and the sun warming noses and cheeks, there’s something really thrilling about venturing out in fresh snow. If you’re like me, you may even be tempted to create snow angels or start a snowball fight. But I wonder if the same is true on chillingly cold damp grey days, when all but the most stalwart adult would rather stay snuggled up indoors? For children their keen interest in just about everything outside seems to protect them from the cold and damp, much like the Ready Brek ad of my childhood. If you have children then at some point you too will probably have felt the need to explain to strangers their lack of coat when you’re wrapped up from the cold like Michelin man! Children, unlike adults, show little awareness of the cold and given something exciting to do, can play absorbed in low temperatures for hours. Adults however, myself included, are much less likely to respond enthusiastically when cold which makes me wonder if it is the adults rather than the children in nurseries and schools, who need the protective clothing! So if the right clothes and being absorbed in something are key, here are some ideas for fun things to do on those cold grey winter days:

  • Make a mud pit as this is great for splashing in; experimenting with  consistency for creating mud pictures; mixing up hearty concoctions with old pots and pans; and of course, making mud pies.
  • Fill an old ice cube tray with mud and leave outside overnight to freeze in the freezing temperatures. Turn the mini bricks out for lots of building fun. Add small world figures for firing imagination.
  • If you don’t fancy getting messy, make frozen mini ice bricks instead to build igloos with.
  • If it’s damp and cold outdoors then why not create a fire pit for charcoal making, toasting of marshmallows and warming chilly fingers by the fire? Share a flask of hot chocolate for the best snack ever!
  • Make ice sculptures to hang on the trees. Simply arrange holly and other foliage or sliced citrus fruit in transparent plastic takeaway containers. Add a loop of string for hanging, fill with water, put the lid on and leave to freeze over night. Freezing accentuates the colours in the leaves, berries and fruit creating a truly mesmerising display guaranteed to melt even the frostiest heart!

Lots of children, my own son included, can become disenfranchised by subjects that feel too much like hard work, with maths and literacy typically falling into this camp. For some maybe they sense failure and therefore feel safer not trying, for others the learning approach, mechanics of writing or lack of perceived relevance to their lives may be the root cause.

Walking back from school last week it was a welcome surprise to hear the words ‘That was the best literacy lesson ever!’ Now that’s a lesson ripe for Ofsted inspection! With descriptive content never the issue for my son, but the mechanics of punctuation, handwriting and staying on task the culprits, the challenge of writing a story using certain punctuation and with a word count of precisely 201 words, achieved the desired effect. With a verdict of ‘That was the best literacy lesson ever!’,  I expect you’re wondering how this was achieved? Working in pairs, story writing was elevated to a challenge and the focus on a precise word count, not 198, 200 or 202, but 201 words, apparently freed him up to write with excitement and drive.

This week his verdict was ‘Literacy is awesome!’ High praise indeed from an 8 year old sceptic! Walking through the school gate home from school he eagerly shared what they had done and later over dinner excitedly told the whole family about his robotic invention for tackling the tiresome chores of Christmas preparation. Like any good robot his naturally came complete with ipad (for online shopping of course), large box (for hiding presents in), extendable arms (for multiple present wrapping) and hover board for beating the Christmas rush! A great teacher is able to tap into the interests and strengths of children and in so doing help support and extend learning. Clearly this activity did just that. An avid inventor already, working in pairs his time and energy saving ideas flowed and literacy came to the fore as he labelled the gadgets and features of their invention.

With two such positive evaluations I was keen to share this great feedback and apparent change in attitude with his teacher. ‘How interesting’ his teacher reflected with evident satisfaction ‘as we scrapped literacy lessons last week and have been focussing on challenges, with a literacy focus instead!’ As the irony of this revelation sank in I couldn’t help smiling at the message written large by an 8 year old. With an ever greater Government focus on school readiness and meeting literacy and numeracy targets I hope Nicky Morgan will be persuaded by this convincing argument.  As for the robot invention, I’ll guess I’ll have to wait until next year!

shell-sand close upIf we take the time to watch children, and I mean really watch them rather than pre-judging or paying lip service to this as we busy adults are prone to do, then they can do as Rudyard Kipling suggest, ‘teach us delight in simple things’. It doesn’t happen though unless we give them the time and freedom to become truly absorbed in whatever captures their interest, be it an unusual stone, an insect or inviting puddle.

If you’ve ever tried to walk anywhere fast you’ll know how much there is for young children to marvel at in everyday life and how open they are to its possibilities. Us adults in contrast miss so much by virtue of being in a rush and plagued by preconceptions. With this in mind storytelling guru #MiltonErickson implores adults to look afresh at our environment saying “Did you know that every blade of grass is a different shade of green?” 1 In so doing we can open our minds to new possibilities and be rewarded with wondrous awe and wonder, discovering a wealth of patterns, symmetry, joy and inspiration in everyday nature.

If you need a reminder of nature’s awe and wonder then google ‘sand grains microscope’ on the internet and be amazed by the gloriously detailed, highly patterned images that you will see.  I guarantee you will never look at a sandy beach in quite the same way again! Inspired by the sticky globule left by some gorgeous Longiflora lilies, my 11 year old dusted off her magnifier to take a closer look. What followed said it all, as she gasped with awe as a multitude of dash-like lines came into view. How fitting then that her science homework was to create a cell? Choosing a plant cell to make, she set to work with jelly, a bouncy ball and loom bands to create the different #cell parts! If you want to have a go at making your own cell or even a cellular cake, check out http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Model-Cell. For more microscopic inspiration treat yourself to The Natural World Close Up (Giles Sparrow, 2011). Much more than just a coffee table book, children and adults alike will be wowed by the close up views of nature revealed. So go ahead and enjoy nature close up this weekend.

1 (My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, Sidney Rosen, 1991).

Image source – http://geology.com/articles/sand-grains.shtml

Nature's Miracles

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying:

“There are two ways to live. You can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle. “

It seems to me that children are naturally endowed with an appreciation of awe and wonder, easily finding miracles in a frozen puddle, fossil, unusual shell or snowflake. Given time, children’s fascination for detail and a positive disposition help prime them for spotting the abundant miracles offered by Mother nature, the very same things that often pass us adults by. Reading this quote really struck a chord for me. As a parent I feel that a key part of my role is about providing magical moments in my children’s lives, from Christmas stockings to fairy notes or even just an amazing icicle that I’ve spotted or a picture of a building or construction vehicle that I think they’d enjoy. These little pieces of magic don’t have to cost the earth but bring real pleasure and delight. For a baby where every experience brings something exciting, finding out that a metal tin can be open and shut, makes noise when banged or a rattle when filled and shaken, are all mini miracles to discover.

Striding purposefully to school one balmy spring afternoon last week my eyes were drawn to a young boy on the other side of the road. Aged about three years old, he walked slowly yet equally purposefully, with his neck craned upwards and his head looking skyward. The source of wonderment was the billowing petals on a cherry tree, filling the sky with creamy blossom and literally captivating this little boy’s interest. As he approached the densest part of the canopy, nearest the trunk, he slowed to a standstill, just staring open-mouthed at the laden brunches above. His mum (I presume) who had been walking a little way ahead, turned and paused before remarking upon how beautiful the tree was. Unhurried he moved on, his gaze averted by the speckled pattern of blossom on the floor.

Walking back from school with my children I told them about the little boy and suggested that we cross the road so that we too could enjoy its magic and the miracle of nature’s abundant store cupboard. And that’s exactly what we did, whilst trying to catch fluttering petals in our hands and open mouths!

2014 – A time for reaching for the stars

I remember years ago debating the issue of emotional intelligence with my husband. He was firmly of the opinion that it is a result of nature, while I was equally assured that nurture had to be involved. The debate had been sparked by one of those pearls of wisdom that young children are adept at dropping into the conversation. Aged 4 our daughter matter of factly suggested to her daddy that maybe ‘a compromise’ would help him with the power struggle that he was having with her younger brother! Flushed with pride at her emotionally sophisticated comment, these words spawned the nature/nurture debate.

Seven years later I was reminded of this by the inscription on a mug that I was given this Christmas.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

As I read the words on her carefully chosen present I couldn’t help feeling moved. With the loss of my mum to cancer in 2013 it had not been a good year and Christmas was understandably slightly subdued. Knowing my love of good old fashioned tea and my appreciation of this positive mantra, my 11 year old’s emotional intelligence made my day. Whether nature or nurture, or a combination of the two, tea’s never tasted so good!

Christmas Treasures

It was our staff Christmas party this weekend, the culmination of a good year’s work and lots of home baking! The tree was up and looking majestic, nibbles arranged and glasses ready to be charged with mulled wine. With adults happily ensconced on sofas and children playing nicely, a knock on the door bought the arrival of our youngest guest, a gorgeous 1 year old who I have been observing playing for the last 6 months. Raring to go and making an instant beeline for the peanuts, chocolates and glasses on the coffee table, adults sprang into action removing everything to a safer level. This little girl was clearly in exploratory mode and so an empty table was simply not going to do. Grabbing a treasure basket for her to play with kept her happily occupied for the next three hours picking up objects, taking them to the other guests and doing a circuit of the ground floor, always with object in hand. Even hardened skeptics would have been converted to the joys of treasure baskets seeing this toddler happily occupied and clearly on a mission to toddle and explore. Now you might be forgiven for thinking that she only played with the treasures because there was nothing else to do, but this was not the case. With a splendid real tree bedecked in sparkling lights and decorations, a growing mound of brightly wrapped presents under the tree and stairs to climb, there were lots more obvious distractions to be had.

Clearing up later, a warm glowing feeling pervaded. Not just because of the lovely company and tasty food but because this little 1 year old had poignantly reminded me of the importance of what we do, providing children with the opportunity to do what they do best, playing.