Friday, 23 August 2013

Bit quiet on the blog front

My apologies for being a bit quiet on the blog front this month.  Littlest has been having a lot of sleep disturbance from teething and a worsening of his apnoea due to inflamed tonsils.  Since a dose of steroids from the hospital has given us a couple of days of untroubled sleep I've been feverishly catching up on my Open University study.

One of the reasons I like doing sponsored posts and reviews is that it gives me a boot up the rump to write even when everything else seems to be conspiring against it, and since I really love writing that's a real win - the last post was written despite a broken toe and slipped disc for example and gave me a real sense of achievement that helped to make sure I didn't start to feel sorry for myself.

Finally, thank you folks, I appreciate all the views.  Here's a random cute picture of Toby last year that always makes me smile xxx

Monday, 12 August 2013

Beyond traditional narrative storytelling

 As mentioned in an earlier post, we were fortunate enough to be sent some great books to review last week.  The previous post dealt with the books for Toby's age range (although both boys are thoroughly enjoying them).  This post focuses on Ollie's books - 'Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou' by Julia Donaldson and Karen George, and 'Little Mouse's Big Book of Beasts' by Emily Gravett.

Ollie, as with most small folk, is a creature of habit. He likes a straight forward A to B narrative, with lots of cosy rhyming and bright, easy to interpret imagery. I suspect this is why children in his age range all adore modern classics such as the series of books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, including 'The Gruffalo' and 'The Smartest Giant in Town'.

 Knowing how much Ollie has enjoyed these in the past, I was really interested to receive another Julia Donaldson book, the result of a different collaboration, this time with talented new illustrator Karen George (winner of Waterstone's Picture This Competition).  Wake Up Do Lydia Lou has all of the rhyming charm and build up of characters and noises familiar to readers of Donaldson's previous works, but this time paired with George's clean lines and dream-like pastel palette of colours.  The sweetest-looking ghost since Casper wants to wake up Lydia Lou to give her a scare, but even with the help of a series of noisy assistants he can't manage to make her.  Ollie thoroughly enjoyed this one and has picked it out a few times already to read at bedtime, and to his little brother, picking out the words such as 'boo' which he can read himself.

The repetition and rhyme of this type of book (familiar also to fans of Dr Zeuss) appeals to the natural way that children learn, giving them a sense of achievement because they can predict the direction the story is going in and start to join in with the repeated elements, but with the added gentle stimulation of each newly introduced element.  Have you noticed that your little people will choose the same book or the same film over and over - this is why.  Repetition is a hugely important facet of the way children learn and as such they are 'programmed' to seek it out.  They can also become overwhelmed by sensory overload because their senses are so much more active than our own and their brains far more receptive to external stimulation.  Demanding you play a game you are thoroughly bored with, or insisting on the same lunch every day for a fortnight is part of the way small children (and older children and adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorder) cope with all this sensory input.

Along with the comfort zone activities, it is however important to introduce novel ideas and experiences to prevent them falling into lifelong ruts.  The last book we were sent is certainly in a prime position to do this.  Emily Gravett is the author/illustrator of one of both my boys favourite's 'Orange Pear Apple Bear', so I thought we knew what to expect.  It could not have been more different.  'Little Mouse's Big Book of Beasts' is like an artist's scrapbook, with torn-out, repasted and drawn over pages adapting what would have been a straightforward rhyming bestiary.  Ollie was definitely outside his comfort zone and thought another child had 'ruined' the book.  Over time he has come to be fascinated by the clever way the 'mouse' has changed the bestiary to it's liking, with it's funny commentary and interactive lift-the-flaps.  I cannot remember another book where a newspaper is supplied on the page about wasps with which to splat one (Ollie's response - 'poor wasp, we do not hurt insects, that is not kind...').  His face in the picture at the top of the page says a great deal about his reaction - and that is the whole point of this clever book - he is reacting to it.  He's challenged, he's uncomfortable, but he's discovering that stories can be more than a narrative and art can be all about surprise.  I think we will be seeing a whole raft of new concepts coming into his own crafting and drawing as a result of this innovative book.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Thinking outside the (cardboard) box

The main theme of today's post will come as no surprise many parent, but may provide some useful insight for newbie parents and anyone who's feeling as if they're drowning in expensive toys that never get played with.

How many times have you heard parents complaining that they gave their beloved child the best, brightest, trendiest toy that money could buy, but to the parent's disappointment the child was more interested in the wrapping paper and the box?  How many of us learn from that experience - not many because, myself included, we get sucked into the idea that we are being cheap and somehow under-demonstrating the depths of our love if we fail to buy expensive gifts.  Older children may genuinely feel hard done by if they don't receive the same branded goods as their peers, but little ones really don't buy in to that and it's worth making the most of those years.  If you have small ones who do pester excessively for particular branded toys it might be worth looking at how much advertising they are being exposed to - we're TV limiters anyway, but completely avoid commercial kids TV because of the saturation of adverts on it.  I remember well my own childhood angst at not having the shoes I saw on the telly that came with 'free' plastic jewellery, or deep upset at returning from a trip to the toy store without my own Boglin (a weird rubber gremlin puppet thing if you don't remember them). I was very well provided for in the toy department, but the adverts are extremely clever at making products seem essential.  Think how well they work on adults, with our years of hardening against their wiles, and then consider that children are inherently impressionable and have no way of tuning out from the adverts.

Once you fork out for the apparently desperately needed toy, watch just how many times they play with it.  Also make a mental note of how they are interacting with it - are they just re-running an episode of the show it was based on?  Now give them an empty box and watch them again - one day you'll have a spaceship, another day a boat, or a racing car, or a fire engine, or a castle.  The difference is that they will be using their imaginations to a much greater extent, and have a much greater opportunity to develop the toy themselves - help them to paint it, cut it, stick things to it.  Part of the reason that boxes and other non-plastic toys appeal so much to children is that they use their senses in different ways to adults.  Adults are programmed for the most part to experience the world in a very audio-visual way and will see a plastic toy that flashes and sings as highly interactive.  For young children however this is lacking the more important cues of texture, smell, taste and mouth feel.  Plastic toys all taste the same and smell the same.
Manipulating a box into an imagined artifact or vehicle is much more stimulating, and will be even ,ore so if there are other children or a parent to share in the game.  Often they will need help in creating what their minds can see, especially when they're very young.  Ollie decided one morning last week that he wanted to make a giraffe, and a dig through the craft cupboard provided an empty teabag box (for the body), a nearly used-up roll of aluminium foil (the foil was scrunched up for the head and the cardboard tube provided a neck) and a small stack of yellow napkins.  Mixing half and half PVA glue and water provided paste for him to stick his torn up napkins on to the basic giraffe shape I had put together for him.  After it was dry he drew circles in a felt-tip pen for the pattern and added googly eyes, pompom ears and a wool tail.

The top image was a 'save the day' toy after he got upset that his friend had a toy aeroplane and he didn't (he's going through a phase of comparing what he has with his friends - why is so-and-so's garden bigger, why do we have a blue car and they have a grey car etc...).  Driving home from his friend in the pouring rain on a Sunday evening meant buying a toy plane was out of the question, so when we got home we just made one.  He went from sobbing his heart out to smiling in the space of five minutes of cutting up an old nappy box and gluing bits on to the basic shape.  I did buy him a real one later in the week.  No prizes for guessing which one is still being played with while the other sits neglected in the toy box.

The final image is of the 'robot' he wanted to make after seeing a man walking around at our local play in the park day dressed entirely in boxes.  A donation of a box and some paints from the kind activity organiser, a couple of minutes with the scissors on my part, and about 30 minutes of concentrated painting on it by Ollie and Toby and the robot was ready.  Since we got it home it has so far mainly been a space rocket.  Ollie even sat in it to have his lunch, insisting that I pass each item of food to him through the round window that had started off the afternoon being an arm hole.  It is currently as flat as a pancake, but is easily resurrected with the help of a roll of parcel tape.

So next time you're getting nagged for a new toy, why not consider a big box filled with balloons instead.  I'm certainly going to try to follow my own advice (not always successfully - who can resist die cast toy cars for 50p at the local supermarket?)

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Baby bookworm

 We are a certified household of book lovers.  I spent a large portion of my childhood with my nose in a book, and have been fortunate enough to have been able to work as a library assistant at times during my very varied work history.  Matt (hubby) loves historic novels and is working his way through classic literature at the moment.  We both read to the boys during the day, and especially at bedtime, so I guess it's no surprise that the boys love books too.  Ollie went to sleep grumbling tonight because I only read him four books and he wanted me to read him 'ten books' - he picked what he wanted from his bookshelves and then staggered in to my room under a pile of actually about twenty books.

Toby (pictured) took to books almost as soon as he could focus his eyes.  If I can't find him it's because he's perched in the reading corner in Ollie's room or has tucked himself into my bed with a book.  His current favourite is Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear by Emily Gravett, published by Macmillan Children's Books, which is wonderfully simple and surreal (also the first book Ollie, who's three, has learned to read for himself)

We all love Macmillan's books, and so were hugely excited to receive some books from them to review this week.  There were two for Toby, and two for Ollie.  Look out for another post later on reviewing Ollie's books.  The first book out of the parcel was Dear Zoo Spin and Say and was met with a lot of enthusiasm from both boys.  It is an activity version of their much loved (and well worn) Dear Zoo book.  Instead of the narrative and lift-the-flaps of the version we already have, this one comes with spinners and a variety of new characters.  Toby loved spinning the pointer around and having myself or Ollie calling out what it had landed on.  He also liked roaring at any animal the spinner landed on that he thought might roar.  This board book was extremely well built and should survive as much attention as it's predecessor has.  It is also a lovely way to teach animal recognition skills, colours, numbers and counting, either as a first introduction in smaller children, or to increase and cement previous learning in slightly older pre-schoolers.  It is a fantastic addition to our home-story telling toolbox too.  Spin the pointer and pick an animal to begin your tale, then keep spinning to select other elements as you go along. 'I went to the zoo and I saw a ....spin....leopard, I tried to have lunch with it but it was...spin...too scary, I went next door and found a etc...  This kind of game mixes random elements with your gentle guidance in a direction you think the story will take, plus lots of not-so-gentle ideas from your little one.  Most of ours somehow end up involving poo. If you follow the web link it will take you to information about the book, but also to supplementary activities such as a printable colouring sheet

The next book for Toby was a really charming new book called 'This Royal Baby' by Zita Newcome, which is perfectly timed to tap into the baby fever surrounding the birth of Prince George here in Britain.  It is a pull-the-tab action book, with eleven different babies for your own baby to play with.  As with the spin and say book, this is a really sturdy board book, which came as a relief given how many lift-the-flap and pull-the-tab books I end up having to mend (or return sheepishly to the library for them to mend).  It's not that the boys are rough with books - they are oddly well behaved with them - it's just that lots of books seem to have 'gone cheap' and not been designed for babies to really get to grips with.  Toby struggled a bit to pull the tabs when they were brand new, but fortunately there are also circular tabs which rock from side to side and were easier for his slightly uncoordinated paws to manage.  The contents were sweet without being cloying, with babies wiggling ears, waving their arms and blowing bubbles.  Even very small babies love to look at pictures of baby faces, so this book would be a great choice for a gift to new parents.  It even had both by boys squealing with laughter at the cheeky baby poking it's tongue out, which was really unusual since they never normally laugh out loud at books.  The range of different faces is a lovely way to introduce children to talking about emotions - Ollie was fascinated by 'the tired baby wears a frown' and had lots of questions about why it was tired, why did it look sad and so on.  It also eased in the idea that babies are all the same, all have the same emotions and actions, whether they're wearing a crown or not.  I think this book will be a popular choice in our home for a long time to come.

Our thanks to Macmillan Children's Books for sending these to us to review.  The book images are from their website.  Toby reading in bed and the opinions expressed are genuine and all my own :)

Friday, 2 August 2013

Lammas and castles

 Just a short post today.  Yesterday (1st August) was Lammas - the Anglo-saxon festival of loaf-mass, which was an intriguing mixture of Pagan magic rite and Christian blessing (the Wikipedia entry on this is a good starting point to find out more about Lammas).  It wasn't something I had in the forefront of my thoughts until I saw that there was a Lammas festival event at Bodium Castle.  This had to be worth a trip.  We spent the morning on a visit to our local Police Station courtesy of an invite from an amazing Community Mums volunteer I met on a facepainting course, and then drove up to the Castle for the afternoon.

The National Trust yearly membership (and English Heritage too) are an expensive initial outlay, but worth ten times their value in free days out for the rest of the year.
At Bodium the NT had made a great effort to make children feel welcome, with traditional fairground attractions such as coconut shys, a hand-cranked merry-go-round (Toby's favourite thing that afternoon if you don't include rubbing ice-cream over himself), craft tent where you could make a kite or a corn dolly, a dress up tent, bird of prey to hold, a tractor ride and much more.

Ollie's favourite was the medieval bread making inside the Castle walls.  He was given the job of milling some corn using a traditional quern stone (with help from the demonstrator) and then rubbing the resultant crushed corn through a cloth to sieve out the flour from the bran.  That flour was then used for the children to make beer bread patties, which were cooked in a clay oven mock up and given back to them warm to eat.  We were there for over half an hour.  He loves making bread and this whole process really caught his attention.  It was a great simple way to make a bread treat quickly if you're in the mood for doing some baking with your kids, but they're little enough to want the finished product almost instantly.

Here's my take on what we did:
Put your oven on to 200 degrees C
Put two cups of wholemeal flour in a bowl, stir in a half teaspoon of baking power and a pinch of salt
Make a well in the middle and pour in a little strong ale (any beer will do, but strong ale best)
Stir it up, adding a little more beer until it starts to hold together and make a dough ball
Give it a quick roll around with your hands - if it's crumbly add more beer, if it's sticky add more flour.
Roll walnut-sized chunks of dough in your hands to make balls
Put your dough balls on a floured baking sheet, mark the top with a cross and put in the hot oven
When they smell good, take them out and check they're done by poking in a fork - if it comes out clean, with no dough sticking to it they're done.

Baking powder wasn't around in Medieval times, but it helps to lighten the finished product.  Because baking powder starts to work as soon as you add liquid, be as quick as you can after you add the beer.  All usual precautions and safety considerations apply when baking with kids - take care with hot ovens etc...

A Lammas treat you can make the whole year round - great with soup, or make a little hole and add a tiny dob of jam for mini healthier doughnuts.  Enjoy x

P.S. on the raw food front - 6lbs lost so far in 5 days, but had half a regular portion of fish and chips in a beachside cafe tonight as my one meal off a week so not holding out great expectations of another loss tomorrow ;)