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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!

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.

When I was at school, research for homework involved pouring through books, not just because it was fun and enriching but because there was no world wide web to answer questions for us. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a fabulously enabling tool for information finding and sharing, but I firmly believe that it is not a substitute for books.

Whilst out dog walking one weekend we came upon three boxes of dumped books left next to the river. Why anyone would feel the need to fly tip books is beyond me, when charity shops proliferate every high street providing a free outlet for people’s cast offs. Sorting through the now slightly water damaged books we discovered some real gems which we decided to take home and give a new lease of life. Once cleaned and left to dry by the radiator my 8 year old son began leafing through the books. One in particular caught his eye. Called Modern Technology it featured page after page of carefully drawn picture and nugget of facts on vehicles and construction contraptions. The best bit was the fact that the book was published in 1971 so the ‘modern’ technology solutions were themselves a talking point.  In some instances technology had moved so quickly that it was as though we now inhabit a futuristic world. In others, the book had surprising foresight, such as talking about how hybrid cars would be a pollution solution in the future.  A series of facts about traffic accidents also sparked a flurry of questions. With approximately 500 road traffic injuries cited in the UK the obvious question was how does that compare to today? A quick search on the internet provided the answer, a trebling in the number of accidents in 40 years and a discussion about why this might be.

The page about engines similarly elicited a quest for fact finding. Still clutching the book my son looked on the internet to compare engines today with the ‘modern’ and historical ones in the book.  Another page of images showed the evolution of the wheel which inspired a whole host of wheel drawing as 8 year olds do. Far from becoming redundant, this slightly dated encyclopaedia has actually taken on greater interest than perhaps it had when new. It helped of course that he could relate it to his daddy who would have been 3 years old when the book was published. This created interest and a talking point as my husband and I reminisced about life when we were younger. I fear it also confirmed in his young mind just how long ago that was!

As Oscar Wilde famously said “ If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again there is no use in reading it at all” and for this collection of discarded books this is certainly true as they have found a new lease of life and light bulb to ignite in the hands of a certain boy.

You’d have to be hibernating not to notice the carpet of autumnal coloured leaves transforming the world outside. Vibrant and springy, now is the time to gather handfuls of freshly fallen leaves for a host of fun activities. Pick the leaves carefully to avoid urban litter or other hazards. If needed, wash in soapy water and leave to dry, then you’re ready to start. My quest for leaves was driven by the challenge to make times table revision fun for my 8 year old son!  But once we got started we were inspired to do and make lots of fun things, suitable for children young and old. Here are some of the things that we did, if you come up with your own ideas don’t forget to share them!

Times table games

We played lots of times table games with the leaves, all of which were a great hit. To play any of the following games you will need 12 leaves and a pen. Write the numbers 1 to 12, one on each leaf. We wrote the numbers on the back of the leaf but either side is fine.  All these simple variations proved to be a lot of fun and due to their physicality, resulted in the children doing their times tables but with the main focus on catching or picking up the leaves!

Leaf Race

Arrange the leaves in a pile with numbers face down. Pick a times table to focus on, say the three’s and the challenge is to turn over each leaf one at a time and work out the resulting sum. So if you pick the number 4 leaf the sum is 3 times 4. You can add further excitement by doing this against the clock or using a sand timer. We also used counters on a 100 square, so he could cover the answer to the sum.

Falling Numbers

An alternative to this involved me standing on a stool and one at a time dropping a leaf for him to catch. He then worked out the number sum and positioned a counter on the 100 square grid before repeating with another leaf number. We did this against the clock which really added to the challenge and excitement.

Number Pick

Another variation involved spreading the leaves out on the floor, number side up. The challenge was to pick up the leaf and put it in a large bowl saying the answer to the sum, without using their hands. Children experimented using their elbows and feet and we also tried this with large tongs instead.

Catch a Leaf

The final variation involved throwing all the leaves up into the air for two children to try and do as many times table sums as they could with their leaves.

Here are some other fun things to do.

Leaf Masks

Make simple leaf masks by cutting eye holes in large leaves, (sycamore leaves would work well). Use the leaf stalk to hold the mask with. Decorate if wished with pens.

Leaf Boats

To make the boat hull you will need to either find a boat-shaped leaf or cut a boat shape from the centre of a large leaf, ideally with the central line of the leaf skeleton forming the centre of the hull. Cut triangular boat sails from another leaf, decorating with pen if wished. Use a small twig to create the mast and secure the sails and mast in place with sticky tac. Once finished, make more boats for a sailing race using straws to blow the boats across a tray of water.

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Leaf snowflakes

Create snowflake decorations using leaves. Simply cut geometric shapes in the folded leaves and hang by the leaf stalks from the ceiling or a window. Sycamore leaves work particularly well, as these can be folded and cut along all three lines of the main skeleton.

Creepy Crawlies

Make leaf spiders and bugs using leaves for the body, pipe cleaner legs and pen or bead eyes.

Hide & Seek

Play a game of hide and seek by spreading out the leaves and hiding treasures or mini creatures under these. Use for an unusual game of pairs, with matching pairs of items (e.g. coins, beads, numbers or pictures) hidden under different leaves, for the children to remember and pair up.

Fairy Leaf books

Gather together several leaves of the same shape and size. Pick a special one for the top and bottom of the pile, dark colours work well as they look like leather. Create mini leaf books by sewing or stapling the pile of leaves along one edge and cutting the leaves to book shape. If you’re lucky when finished the cover of the book will look like well worn leather and the pages will curl as the leaf dries out.

If you’re inspired to make the most of nature’s abundant treasures, don’t leave it too long as before you know it they’ll be transformed into a brown mushy squidge!

This half term saw my children try their hand at all manner of creative pursuits. From lantern making to glass decorating; Mexican flowers to God’s eyes; photosensitive creations to spoon whittling; musical graphics to cartoon drawing and a sprinkling of baking in between. I knew that all this artistic expression had had a positive effect when my 10 year old daughter announced to her dad that ‘We’re all artists you know’.

Like so many things in life, practice and mastery breeds confidence which in turns enables creativity to flourish. This progression was certainly in evidence when my 7 and 10 year old decided to create wooden spoons from split logs. An hours whittling yielded smooth pale bark stripped logs, then began the lengthy process of creating the ‘bowl’ of the spoon. For this we lit a fire and collected embers to carefully position on the logs and burn a hole. With adult support the children mastered the art of safely collecting embers, innovating as they did so by using a fire blower to both hold in place and ignite the embers! Next came more whittling, sawing and sanding as the children shaped their creations to something resembling a spoon. In this era of instant gratification it is important to celebrate the process as much, if not more, than the end product. This prepares children for life’s lessons that achieving almost anything great is hard work and that if you have a vision you can realise it.

When it comes to divergent thinking we know that prior to school most children would be ranked as geniuses. Yet years of colouring within the lines and learning that green is for grass and blue for sky can stifle this creativity leading children to declare “I’m not very artistic” or “I can’t draw.” A first step in reversing this trend is for us adults to rediscover our own creativity and immerse ourselves in a culture of artistic expression. You only have to look at the winners of the Turner Prize to see that we are all potential artists. It’s just a matter of how we look at the world around us, be it a messy bedroom or the carcass of a cow!

I expect most parents have been through the awkward phase of their child becoming frustrated with reading. Not quite fluent enough to read at an exciting pace to appreciate and enjoy the story, a temporary dislike of reading sets in, bringing out a stubborn streak in many a child. In my experience at times like this we need to pull back rather than chastising. Instead, channel your actions on finding the most interesting reads and exciting environments to hopefully rekindle the fire.

When it came to my seven year old son, picking a focus was easy and we started reading anything and everything to do with boats, planes and trains. The mix of reading was also key, from a fantastic diary of an epic duo circumnavigating the world in a dingy in the 1960’s, to a competent crew manual, complete with ensigns and Morse code, exciting novels of adventure to books brimming with facts about the different parts of a plane, or even the Hornby train catalogue! All these provided rich reading fodder to share with myself or my husband. With subject matter picked to appeal and excite, these reading materials also allowed my seven year old to become the expert, explaining to me about the forces of wind on a sail or design of an aircraft wing to accommodate fuel tanks. The topics may be clichéd but what was important was that they dovetailed with his current fascination. Several weeks on The Romans and cooking would have been added to the list!

With reading materials sorted the next challenge was making the occasion and environment special. Blankets and torches transformed a corner outdoors into a den, while indoors, beanbags on the floor and a canopy made from a sheet or Thai cushions in the bathroom gave reading an edge.

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For those of you gingerly nurturing fragile egos, working hard to reignite the temporarily elusive magic of stories, I have provided a photo taken this week which I hope brings you comfort and hope. The image captures the spontaneous moment when for my seven year old son, reading a book became something not easily stopped, not even for a bath! Walking in the bathroom to discover this sight was one of those everlasting special moments, especially in National Storytelling Week! It may look staged but I assure you it is not. What’s more it marks the moment my youngest child metamorphosed from recalcitrant reader to a voracious, insatiable book worm!

If you’re of a certain age then you too may have had a copy of My Learn to Cook Book – a large A4 hardback featuring a cat and dog sat next to a (now) retro cooker. Both my husband and I recall cooking classic seventies recipes from this book, from Apple Snow with cubes of crunchy apple in a frothy mix to squidgy Baked Bananas, or rich Chocolate Mouse to Lemon Fizz drink – a substitute for lemonade as I recall. Over 30 years later it’s fitting that our 10 year old daughter is equally drawn to its bright hand-drawn images and simple, step by step recipes.

While on holiday this summer in Normandy we had lots of fun making pizza, tarts and puddings. On our return this interest was reignited by a great holiday cooking club (thanks Wooden Spoons).  Collecting my 7 and 10 year old with the remains of their creations, they were keen to explain to me how they’d made scrumptious burgers, apple coleslaw and Eton mess. Since then our house has been like a heat of Masterchef! First both made 24 beef and tomato relish burgers for a family reunion, delicious by all accounts. Next came a surprise breakfast of hand-pressed tomato juice; yogurt and muesli served with grated white chocolate (a wonderfully indulgent twist); then eggs baked in tomatoes – gorgeously browned eggs cooked in the scooped out tomato shells.  In the afternoon, with shopping bags unpacked, my daughter set to work on making the most delicious crepes I have ever tasted. Rich, crisp and unctuous these eclipsed all other pancakes that I’ve tasted and that’s nothing to do with being biased!

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After burning off some energy it was time to start making pizzas for tea. Vigorous kneading transformed dough covered sticky fingers into squidgy soft dough. Then came the fun of adding our own toppings to the bases – mozzarella, green pepper, onion, mushroom, spinach, tomato and cheddar for me and pepperoni and a mix of toppings for everyone else. The result was mouth wateringly delicious, cheaper than shop bought pizzas, healthy and lots of fun to make.

Just when I thought we’d exhausted our culinary interest I was proved wrong. In fact it doesn’t get much better on a weekend morning to a) have a lie in and b) be woken up by a ‘waitress’ taking your order for breakfast! And so Saturday began with yoghurt, muesli and grated chocolate; a fruit cocktail drink (fresh orange, mango, caster sugar, sparkling water and ice in case you’re interested); eggs in tomatoes (this time with the seasoning fine tuned); and cheese and bacon croque monsieur! What a start to the weekend!

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Cooking has so many benefits from the learning to be gained from measuring, following instructions and discovering the properties of different substances first hand; the creativity of experimenting and adding a personal twist; understanding of what food is and where it comes from; interest in healthy eating and what goes in our food; and the sensory workout as the sights, sounds, smells and tastes infuse memories. Cooking is also a great way of giving children agency and control, building confidence and supporting children with food aversions.

With many children and adults unsure of where food comes from and the seasons barely noticeable from the food on our plate, I love this focus on cooking. The only challenge is making time for a brisk walk in readiness for the next heat of Masterchef! 

My mum’s wise words about milestones got me thinking this weekend. Big or small, serious or folly in the eyes of others, for the individual concerned they should always be meaningful. For my six year old boy this could be moving into the next Read, Write Inc. group (his goal not mine), becoming a model boating club member or defying gravity on the asymmetric bars. For my nine year old in contrast this could be mastering her next foray into song writing or memorising Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet to wow peers at the talent contest. For those with poor health every day can be a milestone.

So what do all of these milestones have in common? They are relevant, meaningful and imbued with vision as without these qualities we have no ownership or interest in achieving them. They can help add colour to our lives, give direction and above all provide a sense of agency and achievement. Children are experts in living in the now, getting the most out of the smallest learning opportunity, yet ironically we can chastise them for this as it’s at odds with daily commitments.  Having spring cleaned my in-tray this weekend, to help ‘see the wood for the trees’, I wonder if it’s time to rethink my milestones – why wait until New Year?

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