Archives for category: children’s play

trees shadow 2

We may not give much thought to shadows, but dare so we’ve all enjoyed a picnic under the dappled shade of a tree or taken shelter on a scorching day to avoid the searing heat of the sun.

Parents and practitioners can’t help but have noticed children’s fascination for detail, and with shadows acting like huge lenses on the world, they bring delight from magically stretching things to giant proportions!  We sometimes forget what it’s like to experience the world from a child’s height, but our shadows give us a taste of what this feels like, while for children there’s something irresistible (not to mention wonderful for self-esteem) about suddenly being 10 feet tall! Then there’s always playground favourites like the challenge of stepping on your shadow or counting and jumping your way from one island of shade to another. Seasoned story tellers are skilled in exploiting the potential for shadows, whether it be piquing excitement, adding intrigue or let’s not forget in the case of the Dementors, introducing monster proportions and a chill factor to a tale.

Shadows clearly have a place in children’s lives but I wonder how often adults give a thought to the impact of shadow when we plan and use spaces? It takes a skilled eye to fully appreciate what will be the impact of architects and designer’s vision when magically transformed by the touch of the sun. A discreet or nondescript feature can suddenly become noteworthy or a well-proportioned structure magnified into a grotesque giant. As these images illustrate, shadows can introduce architectural interest, indicate our expectations and use of the environment, provide shelter and vitally, delight young and old with their playful results. What’s more there’s something very alluring about their fleeting presence and fact that no two shadows will ever be the same.

Just like snow transforms the ugly and mundane into sculptured beauty, so too shadows can turn a monstrosity into a visual spectacle. Simple functional pieces can be given unexpected aesthetic qualities, like these cast iron hooks which as the shadows stretch off the wall, magnifies their architectural qualities and seemingly implore us to use them to hang things on!

Well considered details like these geometric railings, can reap dividends, being magnified and duplicated. While the railings themselves may go unnoticed by a passer-by, its shadow grabs our attention, seemingly shouting ‘look at me!’ As well as shadows elevating even the most ordinary features to amazing sculptural displays they also bring welcome relief from the intense heat. Just as a space entirely in shade might feel cold, gloomy and oppressive, so too the opposite, an exposed site with no escape from the blazing sun or no private spaces for ‘hiding’ in, can feel equally unappealing. A combination of light and shade provides a range of ambient temperatures and as importantly generates spaces with different energies, moods, feelings and ways of being used. So the shade of a tree or trellis may invite people to pause and gather; while an open expanse of direct sun is a place to move quickly through; and a darkened corner, perhaps a cosy hide-away.

With careful planting and simple backdrops the impact and architectural qualities of plants can also be magnified. Like these lavender plants, look carefully and you will see how much of the picture is an illusion – only the bits above the wall are actually real, a lesson in how to maximise value for money! Some patterns and details may be a happy accident, like the extra textural interest on these seats hewn from stone. Complementing the rough granite sides, the geometric pattern provides a welcome light show for commuters and tourists.

Other images like this, effortlessly capture a single magical moment in time, with the shadows elevating a sensory experience and literally making it larger than life. Next time you’re out and about in the sun, spare a moment to consider the illusive work of the most transient artist – the touch of light and shade.

IMG_6440 camels shadow

To contact me or find out more about my books, research and the resources and services I offer go to,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.




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. 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,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.



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,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.

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!

From Japan to Malaysia and America to Australia, helicopter parenting it seems is a universally recognised phenomenon credited with reducing physical activity, stifling risk-taking and creativity and developing depression in children. We know of the health and emotional benefits of children accessing outdoor environments, but should they really have to do so in order to recover from the stresses of everyday life? With children’s lives increasingly mapped out, filled by an endless stream of classes, clubs and tutoring designed to give our children the best start in life, it is ironic that freedom to play with sticks, stones and mud outdoors may actually be what children need best.

I firmly believe that our role as adults is as ‘memory and meaning makers’ for children. It is also about instilling children with the confidence to explore the unknown, take calculated risks, make mistakes and ultimately learn from these. This cannot happen if children are cosseted and deprived the freedom and opportunities to practice making decisions.

So how do you make decisions in your household over what to do and when? Do the adults make all the plans? Are the children in control or do you manage to achieve the holy grail of calm consensus? With a background in consensus building – it’s what I used to do to help disparate groups make decisions and galvanise action, I find these same techniques have currency in family life too. That’s not to suggest that processes like these should happen all the time, as that would tip this into the realms of micro managing and would be far too unspontaneous for my liking, but when I get out coloured paper and start cutting it into business card size pieces, the excitement among my 7 and 10 year old is palpable. In fact they have now taken over the paper cutting stage of the process! What makes it all the more special is picking a good family moment, like a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast, where the plan evolves magically from a table strewn with paper and cereal packets.

We start by each writing our own priorities on separate pieces of paper. The only rule is that this needs to include a couple of essentials like ‘tidy my bedroom’ or ‘put my clothes away’, after all this is essential preparation for life.  Once finished all the ‘cards’ are turned face down and we take it in turns picking a card to turn over and read. If we agree with the idea we leave it face up, if not it is turned over. Any cards left face up at the end of this stage have been agreed by us all without a smidgen of sibling rivalry. With a firm foundation of consensus we then look at the face-down cards to agree what should happen to these ideas. Often the reason the card was turned over becomes readily apparent, with ideas like ‘Go to the moon’ having crept in from my 7 year old! We talk about why we can’t, in this case go to the moon, and then I secretly plan a moon-themed tea anyway, because, why not? Sometimes we add headers for Saturday and Sunday to start to plan each day, other times we just go with the flow.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds too planned and contrived for your liking, don’t worry there’s plenty of scope for being spontaneous. Some of the actions are as quick and simple as ‘buy a bone for the dog’, while others involve much more preparation and time, and some, dare I say it chore-orientated actions never seem to get done! So last weekend a trip to Ikea was agreed but there was still time and space to combine this with our first family trip to Lakeside, bungee trampolining and meatballs, (beef and pork I hope), at Ikea for tea! Consensus building may not be for everyone but for us it is a fun and satisfying way to avoid wasting time bickering in a family with two independent-minded children. Most importantly perhaps it’s a delight watching children’s growing sense of responsibility and pride at being listened to and valued, as their vision and ideas, even that trip to the moon, are realised.


After a break from blogging and what felt like a very long winter, Spring it seems, is finally here. Typically a time for new beginnings and a dose of spring cleaning, changes are certainly a foot in the British education system. However, the proposals being mooted for early years could not be described as a metaphorical lick of paint or sprucing up, but something fundamentally different – a wholesale demolition of the cornerstones of early learning. It seems that no amount of evidence will convince Whitehall of the value of play, and by that I mean unashamedly free, child-initiated play. Fundamental to young children’s social, emotional and physical development, play is often described as children’s work. It lies at the heart of every aspect of a child’s healthy growth and development and if not given adequate opportunities to vent this innate drive, children’s physical and emotional development will quite literally be stunted. If we want children to grow up sheepish, blindly following commands or conversely so disengaged from learning that they already feel labelled as failures, then the sort of system envisaged by Truss, with increased ratios, may be exactly what the Doctor ordered. If on the other hand we aspire for children to develop into free thinking innovators, able to solve the challenges of the world and deal with the problems that the excesses of previous generations have left behind, then this is not the best approach. We cannot miraculously expect to ignite children’s creativity and problem solving simply by the flick of a switch if they have been bought up expecting to be spoon-fed knowledge and to think inside the box.

In fact as these latest ill-conceived proposals demonstrate adults do not have a monopoly on good ideas, often failing to see what’s before their eyes. Children in contrast are technically geniuses before they enter the education system!  Whilst walking through a flower speckled field at the weekend, my 7 year old son stopped to pick three buttercups. A little further on he paused to look up at a tree before selecting a small heart-shaped leaf to pick. Turning to me he asked how he could make a small hole in the leaf. I helped him (purposely not asking him why) and having threaded the flowers through the hole, was rewarded with a beautiful miniature bouquet, fit for a fairy princess. No amount of guesses as to what he was going to do with the leaf would have yielded this exquisitely proportioned bouquet and he rather than I would have excelled in a creativity test. He had a vision and spent time selecting the tools, in this case flowers and a leaf that were fit for purpose.

Returning to the current political debate it is dangerous to look at the experience of other cultures and pick the bits that best fit with our agenda. The Government may see the appeal of orderly French early years settings but not be so drawn to the strongly unionised (dare I say rebellious) culture that predominates French adult life. Of course we want children to grow up having manners and respect and in some households no doubt this is lacking and needs redressing, but Elizabeth Truss is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To control play is to destroy the very essence of childhood. Any good early years practitioner knows only too well that subservient robotic children is all too often the sign of something sinister at work. It is as absurd as assuming that the lack of crying in pre 1990 Romanian orphanages was a sign of happy children. We know at all too costly a price what social and emotional deprivation looks like because we can see it from these neglected children’s brain scans. We can also surmise that the reason these babies didn’t cry was not because they were happy but because they knew it wouldn’t make any difference, having learnt all too soon that they would not receive affection  or comfort. If you’ve ever seen children lacklusterly following adult commands, (because they have no interest or ideas of their own); not asking those all important ‘why’ questions, (because they know they won’t be answered, or worse still these will get them into trouble); or trying to please adults by carefully not making any mess during play (because they can read adult’s emotional cues), you will know how stilted and unnatural these ‘play episodes’ are. Yet if we are to listen to Whitehall this should be what we aspire to!

In a literacy lesson last week my 10 year old daughter was considering Government proposals to lengthen the school working day and reduce holidays. The task was to consider the pros and cons of these changes and write a letter to Michael Gove in response to the consultation. After discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages she drafted a well-considered consultation response where she proposed that the school day could be lengthened in the summer term if the extra time was dedicated to outdoor activities – what a great idea! Not only are physical education and outdoor experiences vital to children’s physical, social and emotional well being, providing a buffer to the stresses of everyday life, but if you’ve ever managed to crack a challenging problem after taking the dog for a walk or gardening, you’ll have experienced for yourself its benefits to critical thinking and problem solving. The last line of her letter delivered a decisive blow as she reminded Mr Gove that ‘more time at school does not necessarily mean more learning’. It was this final line that made me bristle with pride and dare I say it encapsulated the fruits of a playful mind nurtured by a playful childhood.  Roll on National Children’s Day and our chance to put children back at the heart of the early years.

I’m convinced that collecting is in the blood. Just as infants are intuitively drawn to explore novel and familiar objects with their hands and mouth, you may have noticed how babies and children playing with the treasures in a Treasure Basket frequently appear to sort the items into different piles – the significance of which sadly we will never know. I also firmly believe that in the right hands (and mind) anything and everything can form a collection and provide satisfaction and meaning in the way it is arranged. Like the shiny drawing pins which I’m guessing were hastily removed from my son’s door judging by the paper signs strewn all over his floor.  I ventured to ask if he knew where the pins were as walking barefoot was in danger of becoming hazardous and he replied with evident satisfaction “They’re here guarding my shark’s teeth!” True to his words his lining up schema had metamorphosed the humble drawing pin into protection for his precious shark’s teeth. His arrangement of special pebbles and finds, which may look like clutter to the untrained eye, to this 6 year old is tantamount to a shrine! I marvelled at the ingenuity and wonderful fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination needed for the feat of balancing the pins without piercing fingers and wondered whether this is how the idea of barbed wire came to be?

On walks to the river through the industrial estate passersby will see another favourite form of collecting in motion. With eyes peeled on the dusty ground for scrap metal, the intrepid metal detectives transport their hoard of finds on bike and scooter, making for some unusual sights and sounds. Back at home their greasy finds are cleaned ready for use, display or simply left forgotten in the graveyard of useless things found in the utility room.

And now it seems our puppy too has the collecting bug. With walks incomplete without another stick or bone to add to the collection accumulating in the front garden. Yesterday’s log was so huge he looked ridiculous!  So important is this urge that even though evidently keen on a walk and all that that entails, on finding the right stick he has taken to stopping resolutely until allowed to return home, be it 5 metres or 50 meters away!

Now I don’t normally mix blogging with mentioning our resources, but with collecting at the forefront of my mind – we’ve just developed two great new collections, and the comments of Teach Nursery ringing in my ears “Wow I love them. How do you go about deciding what to put in the collections? They’re brilliant”, I thought I’d make an exception. There’s definitely something very appealing and satisfying about developing collections of sensory-rich resources. Maybe it’s the opportunity to look at everyday stuff with child-like eyes and appreciate its awe and wonder or perhaps sheer escapism. What’s clear is that my children also share this passion so the looming summer holidays are destined to bring lots more collecting opportunities with or without sun.

Don’t you just love those moments where a combination of children’s creativity, intelligence and mischievousness shine? One such example last week means that I can no longer look at Salad Hands in the same way!

It happened amidst the usual morning rush when I asked my 6 year old if he could get the sandwiches out of the fridge to go into their packed lunch bags. I knew something was occurring when he sat protectively clutching both bags, something I normally struggle to get him to take responsibility for! When I eventually peaked inside his lunchbox I discovered a pair of wooden salad hands! With a wide grin he explained, “I was going to eat my lunch with them!” On his way to the kitchen he’d spied the salad spoon samples that I’d sourced for a possible product. Sadly supply problems meant the product never actually came to fruition. Shame really judging by how they caught his eye and inspired his imagination.

The image of him sitting at school grappling Edward Scissorhands-like with his wrap has made me smile ever since. A bit like that classic Red Dwarf episode, the one with the mind boggling Mimosian anti-matter chopsticks.  As for his explanation, it was the sort of comment which makes you bristle with pride and know that they’re going to be OK when they grow up! In his sister’s lunchbox he’d included half a chocolate bar. Once rectified and returned to the fridge, this gave great cause for celebration at this wonderful moment of brotherly love.

So often when it comes to working with children our role is critical in either supporting or crushing children’s ideas. The chocolate was easy, being banned at school and only allowed as a rare treat, but what of the salad hands? In my rush I reasoned with him that he would probably get into trouble if he took them to school and he accepted this logic. But since then I can’t help feeling that in doing so I robbed him of his magical idea. Which brings me to tea tonight…!

There must be something in the air at the moment as signs are springing up all over our house. Visitors would be intrigued by the abundant signs, from the handwritten decorated sign on the kitchen door, welcoming you to the Italian Lounge Diner restaurant  to the sign on the wall emphatically instructing you to take  a seat in the lounge NOT THE KITCHEN. Hand decorated placemats signal who should sit where at the table and my office features a job satisfaction questionnaire neatly written on a whiteboard! Upstairs the signs continue ‘Mummy and Daddy’s’ bedroom door is a feast for the eyes with eight separate signs spelling out We ♥ U. The trend continues with welcome signs and arrows on the landing walls and yet more signs on my six year olds door proudly stating I AM ZACH complete with sword pictures. Subtlety is the name of the game in my nine year olds bedroom, with a ‘secret’ area created behind the door for displaying messages from her special friends. 

In case you’re wondering the signs are not the fall out after a major argument or part of a sponsored silence! They are not a substitute for talking or body language, both of which are evident in abundance in our house! Nor do they share a common theme, but rather a sophisticated repertoire of communication. Some seek to control and influence the child’s environment and routines; some to convey empathy and love; some provide a statement of fact and affirmation; and still others a stepping stone into a wonderfully fertile world of imagination.

Research shows the literacy benefits of surrounding children in a print-rich environment, especially one that has resonance for them as presumably one created by children themselves would have.  We also know how self affirming it is to see our own efforts displayed for all to see as well as receiving positive messages from loved ones. For children writing needs to be relevant, rooted in children’s own reality and have a purpose. That would seem to be the case in my home as the many holes in the doors and walls bear testament to!

In my quest for a healthy work life balance I decided to combine a speaking commitment at Derby University, with a family weekend in Derbyshire. As with most family weekends, it was characterised by highs and lows. The cable car ride at Matlock Bath was a hit and the picnic in the sun and exploring Chatsworth’s beautiful grounds made up for the 11pm bedtimes! My trip also gave me some food for thought…

Amongst the carefully tended beds of the formal gardens, a daisy speckled lawn featured three magical looking circles, each a metre across. I found these glistening pools of waterlogged grass mesmerising and was clearly not alone in thinking this judging by the various children who slowly approached the shimmering circles before standing, walking and jumping in them! Mother Nature and our bountiful weather certainly know how to provide intrigue, awe, wonder and excitement in abundance!

Having explored much of the gardens we reached a series of bold metal sculptures near the magnificent house. Unlike the wonderful wicker sculptures whose bulbous curves intertwined around trees, successfully merging the natural and manmade landscapes, these hard cold sculptures stood stark and distinct. As my six year old ran to the first of these industrial-looking sculptures, we read the sign saying Please do not touch the sculptures and quickly stopped the inevitable touching and climbing. A group of ladies approached us and lamented the fact that children couldn’t play with the sculptures, ripe for climbing and playing on. It was then that I realised that while these crude sculptural pieces may not be to my personal taste, they would undoubtedly have been greatly enhanced and their relevance within the landscape increased, if designed for children to enjoy and be inspired by or for adults to pause and perch on. This would have instantly softened their hard edges and created a bridge between the beautiful landscape and its admiring visitors.

The fantastic children’s play area at Chatsworth showed just how successfully large architectural and industrial sized pieces can blend with the environment and offer heaps of play potential. Two working Archimedes screws, a water wheel and a series of robust metal channels and pools encouraged children to draw water from a babbling stream and direct it into a huge sand pit to be shaped with diggers, hands and minds. This provided an altogether different experience for children as they were invited not just to connect with the open ended environment but to actively shape it, something which children across the ages actively did.

Archimedes Screw

All in all it was a magical day of exploration, sensory pleasure and play, only slightly dented by the four hour journey home!