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!

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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! 

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.

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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.

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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No time for blogging last week what with a mountain of orders and the announcement that we had won a Slow Toy Award! The icing on the cake was confirmation that Stacking Hoops was being stocked by Selfridges, Oxford Street for Christmas!  As a non pupil day on Monday I decided to visit one of the centres that makes hoops for us, to show them our 2012 Nursery World trophy and share with them some of the great press coverage about our latest win. As you can see from the photos the members loved the trophy and were seasoned professionals when it came to posing for their novice camera woman! Here’s some photos of the least camera shy members, but thanks also goes to Pru, Mary, Sheila and all the wonderful volunteers led by OBE decorated Audrey, who together make the Centre such a special place to visit.

This week’s blog is dedicated to all the members in the Centres with which we work, without whom Stacking Hoops and several other resources, would simply not be possible. They say that a picture says a thousand words and these certainly convey their pride at being part of the team. For my part I feel that I should own up to what I get from the partnership. As well as gorgeous resources, clearly made with love and supporting a good cause which is good for the soul, visiting the Centres is like a dose of soothing medicine or warming vegetable soup, as you can’t help but leave feeling inspired, energised, grateful to be alive and humbled for what you have. If you want to hear more about the wonderful members at the Thaxted Centre check out their videos on YouTube! Thanks to the people it certainly is an incredibly special place to visit.

I’m guessing that most children will not have spent two hours of their half term visiting a day care centre but perhaps they should, as on our way home my 6 and 9 year old shared what a wonderful time they’d had talking to the people; what exciting stories they told; how genuinely interested and good at listening they are; and how nice it is to have a good old sing song of course!

Here’s a huge thank you to all the team at this and the other Centres that we work

with. I know that the members were really keen to go public with their photos and videos. Check out the videos later in the week; I think they’re amazing, but see for yourself!

  

  

  

Few things in life that are worth achieving just happen without any effort on our part. Like the amazing athletes that wowed us at the recent Olympics and Paralympics, their fleeting performance and medal wins mask years of hard work, determination, vision and belief – something that perhaps we lose sight of as armchair spectators.

For children deeply absorbed in exploration or play, focus, determination and vision are apparent as they pursue their own self-set objective, be it fitting objects inside a container, taking their first tentative steps or creating something from treasures they’ve found. Take the three year old who persevered for one hour tossing a chain in a mini pot (spaghetti perhaps?) and succeeded in repeating this 30 times without the chain falling out. Or the pair of children busily den building, who discovered with time, trial and error and collaboration that a mixture of stinky pond mud and grass cuttings made the best daub for their dens. On returning to their creations after lunch, they adapted their designs, adding extra features like a canopy, furniture and fire. The two resulting dens, each with their own individuality and features reflected a process of fine tuning as they adapted their vision and evolved thinking in line with the attributes of the raw materials.

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With time, space and practice comes mastery and this is no less true of one of our latest award winning resources – Stacking Hoops. Behind this beautiful resource, described as a ‘work of art’, lies months of work sourcing potential items with sensory appeal and a story to tell; commissioning work from centres for adults with physical or learning disabilities; experimenting with the fit and order of each hoop; and maximising its ‘wow factor’ and play potential. I’m proud to say that the result is a real team effort, from the adults in the centres and small producers that make all the gorgeous hoops to the Play to Z team that worked together to make it work. I started this business with the aspiration that it is possible to be a thriving business, make quality resources and have strong ethical and environmental credentials so winning a Nursery World 0-3’s Resource Award 2012 on top of a silver Independent Toy retailer Eco award makes this all the more wonderful. They say that play is a child’s work, and when it comes to this success story, play was definitely a key part of our work!

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After some intensive days at the recent international ECEERA conference I made some time for some R and R. On a beach near Porto I sat absorbed watching the children (of what appeared to be two families) enjoying their time at the seaside. Whilst walking along the beach, the children (two girls aged about 5 years and two boys aged about 18 months) had stopped surprised by a sudden surge of water landing nearby. Each time a wave hit the beach, jets of water were sprayed in the air by a natural rock formation. Their parents loitered, presumably unsure of whether the children were ready to move on. After some time stood watching, one mother and father sat down on the beach clearly detached from play. The other father in contrast remained standing, closely watching, offering a supportive and encouraging hand to his toddler and periodically joining in with the children’s play.  Chasing them in and out of the narrow channel of sand between the rocks further enhanced the children’s excited squeals. As if attached by an invisible thread the father kept tabs on his tottering son and the two excited girls. His subtle presence and ever ready hand to steady his teetering son supported his exploration and venturing ever closer to the sea.

A game then developed between him and the other children. It was not clear who had instigated this timeless game of chase by a ‘monster’ but judging by their outstretched hands, excited cowering behind their parents and shrieks of joy when tickled, the children were clearly enjoying it. The father masterfully maintained a conversation with the adults whilst occasionally lurching towards the children, making tickling gestures. Every now and again he interrupted his discussion to chase them, generating peals of laughter and delight. The playful and attentive disposition of this father were evident as from time to time he threw a cupped handful of sea water over the seated adults and took delight in grabbing them with his icy cold hands – this was the Atlantic after all.  Throughout he skilfully and effortlessly attended to the children’s needs, supported without stifling and joined them in their game.

One particularly playful episode culminated in the father picking up his daughter by her legs and pulling her along the sand towards the water edge where he dropped her in the sea. What happens next gives a real measure of his playfulness as seeing his daughter crying it appears that his boisterousness behaviour may have backfired as she has scratched her tummy on the course sand. He looks at her with concern and then seemingly reassured that she is ok, drops immediately to the ground gesturing for the two girls to drag him to the water. Unable to pull him, he uses his body to help them manoeuvre him to the sea where they triumphantly ‘drop’ him. His actions instantly transform the atmosphere, uniting the children and him and infusing the moment with fun.

With his involvement reaching a natural conclusion, the two girls run up the steep sandy bank that you have to negotiate before reaching the sea, running back down with arms outstretched, screaming as they do so. It’s not long before the young boys join them and all four are happily engaged in walking up the bank and running down it towards the sea, experimenting with their noise-making as they do so.

Sitting there taking it all in, I couldn’t help think that this beach offered huge play potential and affordance in two key ways. The natural rock formation with its intermittent jets of spray and the inviting sandy bank provided excitement, surprise, interest and challenge for these four children. But this alone would not have been sufficient to engage them without the positive emotional environment provided by that playful father. This play episode encapsulates perfectly the dance-like qualities of play and the importance of environmental and emotional affordance in helping children reach their potential.

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At a free festival last weekend a wealth of activities were available to tempt children to explore. As we shaped balls of mud, filled with a mix of plant seeds, an angelically-dressed toddler sat smearing thick layers of vibrant paint with a large brush, totally absorbed in the process. Miraculously her pretty white dress escaped re-decoration, although judging by her paint-smeared lips and hands later, her painting had been a full bodied experience!

Another tent offered a range of recycled and craft materials which children were using for unfettered creativity, like the 2 – 3 year old scooping handful after handful of red glitter. Watching this child burying their glue-daubed paper beneath a pile of glitter, before his mother tipped it back into the pot, made me question how often we really give agency to children in their use of resources like this. I for one know I’ve been guilty of occasionally rationing the glitter!

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In this tent, sheets of plasticised foam (the type you clad pipes with) were being cut into strips to create crowns, before being embellished and adorned with an array of materials, beads, sequins and feathers. As my 9 year old explored paint effects before creating her own crown it would have been easy to criticise my 6 year old who was busy cutting up one such strip of foam into small squares for no apparent reason. In fact, allowing him to continue revealed that far from wanton or aimless destruction the product of his toil was a set of foam squares each with a foam hand stuck on one side, real mastery of fine motor skills! He proudly showed me the set of foam paint stamps that he’d created from the wealth of resources. Not only was this an inspired and innovative use of the resources available but it vividly revealed the importance of giving children agency over their own creative explorations.

Yes some gorgeous and very individual crowns for princesses (and even an archbishop’s mitre) were made that day but, left to their own devices, children’s creativity and sense of adventure will often shine through in surprising ways.

These were the words of a charismatic speaker at a recent Early Years event. I know I’ve paraphrased and taken these words out of context, for the importance of igniting children’s interest as a tool for developing active learners was later acknowledged, but I do sometimes wonder whether we place too much emphasis upon our own importance.

Sadly a glut of work deadlines this weekend limited my time and ability to just play. Inadvertently it also gave me food for thought on the role of adults. Inspired by the glorious weather and the discovery of a seventies style broken wicker chair, my 6 and 9 year old turned it on its side, creating a cosy huddle in the shade.  After a few minutes snuggling in their creation, the 9 year old suddenly announced that she was making something, something secret. The next two hours were punctuated by requests for pieces of wood, nails and very occasional help with hammering.  After showing her how to perfect a safe and efficient hammering technique, her mastery was evident so I simply ‘supervised’ from a distance. Having ferreted through the shed and discovered a flat piece of wood she proceeded to find an assortment of pieces of architrave and 2 x1 which she attached to the four edges. As this was a covert operation it did not become clear until the end that tacks or short nails would have been better, and easier on the neighbours, than the 2” nails with which she was supplied. With the parts firmly attached she sanded the edges before getting out paint and watercolour crayons to transform the blank canvas.

Once finished it was time for its unveiling and for us to guess what we thought she’d made! Guesses of a picture, Hexbug track, stock car track, Uno card table, tray, table top and stair gate flowed thick and fast before she spilled the beans. What had started as a back support for their new huddle (she’d discovered its uncomfortable design flaw!) evolved into a dog bed before finally emerging as a purpose-designed TV dinner tray, built for two pairs of knees!

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I love how this project was self-driven, motivated by a need she alone had identified. It evolved as she worked with the resources and her familiarity and confidence grew.  Familiarity with objects is closely linked to creativity and problem solving and this certainly seemed to be the case as the project took shape. The result was a substantial piece of furniture, doubling up as a doggy stair gate in between use as a card and dinner tray!

Returning to the words of wisdom at the beginning, it’s clear to me that my role at the very most could only be described as a ‘plate spinner’ – providing occasional advice and resources to furnish her objective. As my presence was largely irrelevant I’m convinced that without my input she would have still persisted and fulfilled her vision but perhaps without discovering about wood grain, how to hold a hammer, sanding techniques and safety strategies. As I looked at the finished product I felt a mixture of pride in her determination and achievement and regret that perhaps we could have supported her better. Not in a hands-on way – it was a secret and she wanted to retain ownership, so that would not have been appropriate, but perhaps in providing more suitable wood and nails. With properly sawn timber the result would have been amazingly professional. But perhaps that’s not what this was about. Like a child being encouraged to colour within the lines or draw grass as green and sky as blue, where’s the challenge in that? What could be better than taking inspiration from what’s found around us and crafting it into something greater than the sum of its parts? That tandem tray certainly exudes quirky individuality and her granddad, a joiner would have bristled with pride!