Archives for the month of: October, 2011

Ingredients: Paper and pen and/or computer programme with ‘Wingdings’ typeface.

The Big Sell: We must create a new code language so the baddies can’t intercept our messages!

Strategy:        In the UK, there is a high level of concern about boys’ enthusiasm and abilities in literacy. My two have grown up in a household which is full of books, with a quantity of children’s books that would rival the local library, and faithfully read at least 3 books every night since they were 3 months old. But STILL my eldest, despite loving being read to, has resisted learning to read. I have struggled to work out why this is – perhaps as he is quite proud about learning he feels embarrassed when he gets words wrong? Perhaps he has a low concentration span and gets frustrated that the slow pace of his reading prevents him from getting into the story? Regardless of the reason, I’ve had to think of creative ways to keep his enthusiasm buoyant in each of his three first years at school when it’s started to wane.  

My essential 3 golden rules are:

1)      Don’t get stressed about it yourself. If they don’t want to read a story, create a word game, like Word Bingo, instead until they get over the stubborn phase. (I have to repeat this mantra to myself as I must admit it really gets to me when he’s resistant as I love books so much!)

2)      Don’t stop reading to them. Even when it’s gets frustrating that you feel you are doing all the work, seek out books that they will love and keep their passion burning for story-telling. Or get them to make their own books if they are artistic like mine, which they can then read to others.

3)      Even if you feel like they have more than sufficient books at home, keep up frequent library visits so that they feel the printed word is infinite and all-encompassing, framing their play and accessible within their community.

I also want to share a game I created which, although not directly a reading activity, underpins the idea of the importance and excitement of communication. My sons love playing secret spies and by employing some ‘danger’ in our literacy games they suddenly become fun.

We invent our own ciphers either using ‘Wingdings’ on Microsoft Office Word to assign a symbol to each letter of the alphabet, or drawing our own symbols (e.g. a cat face for c, a house for h, etc…).

We can then use our ciphers to write a short message and post or hand to each other. A nice aspect of this game is the child and adult are at level pegging – it’s equally hard to extrapolate meaning which gives the child back some power, whilst also reinforcing how crucial it is to find a way to communicate effectively. You can introduce some time limits, for instance “We must crack this code before the bomb explodes!” if needed.

The Verdict: This doesn’t work every time, if the child is tired or overly stressed about reading. However, used at the right time it can reintroduce a sense of challenge in a slightly subversive way.  For a teacher, it could be a way to get a group of children to work together to encourage reading by leaving secret messages to each other – perhaps to crack a series of clues to locate a prize? It can also tie in to historical messages about communication – how did MI5 use codes to win World War 2? How did other cultures use smoke signals or pigeon carriers to carry information?

Catchphrase: S.O.S!

Left wanting more?

  • Read ‘Why?’ by Lindsay Camp, published by Andersen. It not only helps kids empathise with how they often use language to wind up their parents, but an alien species descends with their own code language supplied at the end of the book.
  • If you have an i-phone there’s a brilliant app with Grover from Sesame Street called ‘There’s a Monster at the End of this Book’. It encourages the same interactive approach towards reading as above, in which the process of storytelling can come alive for the reader. Loved equally by our 6 and 2 year olds.


Ingredients: Rug, blanket or large towel; any associated paraphernalia you might need for your journey, a favourite cuddly or two, your own mouths to make noises and / or some musical instruments.

The Big Sell: Let’s go on a flying carpet journey – hold on tight!

Strategy:        Do the kids need an outing but it’s raining outside and there’s no cash left for a train or bus ride? I take mine on imaginary journeys using a rug as a flying carpet. The children choose the location – the zoo, seaside, moon – and we have to find ways to make the noises using our mouths and a box of instruments I’ve gathered (shakers made from yoghurt pots taped together with rice or lentils inside, rainmakers, wooden sticks, bells, whistles, tambourines). As we journey closer to our destination the noises get louder, when we’re creeping up on the sleeping dragon the noises must fall to a whisper. Sometimes we close our eyes and listen carefully to hear what noises are all already around us and might give a clues to our imaginary world – the hush of passing traffic might be a waterfall nearby, the squeal of children outside must be mischievous munchkins. All this sensory exploration helps grow the imagination and set the scene for a rich and child-led drama game to which they hold the key. There can be disaster  (teddy’s fallen from the hot air balloon, can we throw out a tea towel for him to hold onto?!) and happy endings (we’ve arrived home to a princesses tea party – help me arrange the biscuits on this pretty plate).

The Verdict: Even my older boy will fall back into this kind of play with his younger brother. They adore the fact that the adult also suspends disbelief and shares the imaginary world that they often live in. Suddenly the same old four walls fall away and every object lying around has an exciting use – a wooden spoon becomes a paddle, a throw an invisible blanket, Daddy’s shoes are the feet of the sleeping giant. We now keep a rucksack handy filled with useful travelling tools – a compass, an electronic toy from a charity shop that bleeps and can be a walkie talkie, an old crab line, a small pencil and notebook, a torch, binoculars. One of my favourite ‘Mummy memories’ will be when my two sons first came downstairs (age 18 months and four and a half) both dressed in travelling hats and matching rucksacks ready to take their first imaginary journey in the garden, without me!

Catchphrase: Quick, the giant’s woken! Run back to the flying carpet!

Left wanting more?

  • Look at ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, by Michael Rosen published by Walker Books, for another journey that uses sounds to come alive. Use it journey round the house – the swishy grass is the doormat, the squelchy mud bouncing on the bed, the dark cave under the duvet! And of the course favourite teddy has to play the ferocious bear!!!

Ingredients: Watercolour paints, blank canvas (buy 4 for £4.50 at Wilkinsons), paintbrushes, pencil

The Big Sell: Sometimes you can paint how you feel rather than what you see…

Strategy:        My first born happened to be a particularly emotionally sensitive child. The ‘terrible twos’ lasted from about 14 months to about four and a half. I can honestly say he was born with an ‘artistic temperament’ – his incredibly supportive teachers would come to the classroom door and be very sympathetic as they discussed trying to help him to manage his feelings of agony and ecstasy. I spent the first couple of years learning how to read his rollercoaster moods and offer activities that would help him to vent and work through the tougher times. It became obvious that play dough was a great calmer and very soon conversations would flow about translating how he felt into an image or shape. By the time he was nearly five he was probably one of the most emotionally literate people I know.

I started showing him works by Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky, Matisse (who he also studied at school) and explaining to him how adults often find it much harder to show how they feel than children, but these artists had used the paint to try and show their feelings. People could look into their paintings and instead of seeing something they could recognise they could just see how it made them feel.

It led to discussions about ‘mistakes’ – I told him “Do you want to know what most people are scared of? Mistakes! And it stops them from even trying in case they fail. For some people the scariest thing is a blank canvas because they are too afraid to start in case they get it wrong.”

One day I gave him a blank canvas and said he could make anything as long as he took it seriously as it was a special space. He wanted to make “an abstract painting” like those I’d shown him. Within 30 minutes he sketched out shapes and started filling them in with colour (“This is the heart, so it is red. The hope is at the top looking up and it is yellow. But it has black around it because sadness can always come after a happy moment. But the sadness is good because then you know what happiness is.”) All the conversations we had had over the last six years were contained in this painting. He worked more freely and without self-consciousness than I ever could. He said it was called Feeling and wrote it across the top.

I told him “Only the artist can say when the painting is finished, and when it is, they just know”. He loved this and said I was allowed to help him paint in the blocks of colour, but insisted I stop when he told me to.

The Verdict: He kept going back to look at his canvas when it was drying and said “Mummy I’m going to be famous one day and my paintings will be hung in museums.” I know this may sound terribly precocious, but I’d always rather hear a child describe themselves as something special rather than nothing special. I think we are so afraid of youth today – of the strength and vociferousness of their instincts. I think we worry we must curb their passions in case they expect or ask too much of their lives, rather than sharing their self-belief and so belittling them. Their leisure time can be so prescribed, controlled, sanitised, sold as ready entertainment. I see children who cannot operate without a set structure unless they veer into chaos. And at the most extreme end of the scale, as we have seen in Britain with rioting recently, if you cut away all the roots of creative choice, the pathway can lead to destruction.

When I was pregnant I started writing a book to my unborn son and I said that my greatest hope for him was to have the gift of imagination, as the best resource to see him through life. And in order to grow imagination the right conditions need to be provided – of space for boredom, mistakes, mess, reflection, exploration, investigation and of being able to express your feelings without fear or shame. It has sometimes been hard living with a little person who feels life so acutely but if I hadn’t tried sharing abstract art with him, I never would had known how he would understand it so naturally, without fear and preconception, be able to use it as a tool by which to communicate how he felt with others, without resorting to tantrum or tears, but with pride.

Catchphrase: At the end he said, “I’m not scared of making mistakes Mummy. Because if you make a mistake you can always turn it into something beautiful”

Left wanting more?

  • Absolute must is the book ‘Beautiful Oops’ by Barney Saltzberg, published by Workman. This book is for all ages and literally shows how a mistake can be the best thing ever.
  • We now play ‘Oops!’ at home – one person makes a ‘mistake’ (jabbing a hole in a piece of paper, folding over a corner, creating a scribble) and the next person has to turn it into something beautiful. The best game for growing creative thinkers.

Ingredients: A garden, local park or other green space, pair of scissors and / or as many wood-working tools that you consider safe for your age group, pencils.

The Big Sell:  Let’s make our own Forest School!

Strategy:        If you haven’t heard of Forest Schools, check out their website: Their philosophy is “to encourage and inspire individuals of any age through positive outdoor experiences.” I’m very lucky that my eldest son already goes to a school that provides regular Forest School activities in their conservation garden. But if this is new to your child, look at the website with them and then get going in your own green space!

Over the summer I was cutting back the garden and decided to utilise some of the cuttings for impromptu arts projects with the bored kids. We used some lengths of clematis vine to wrap a wreath shape and then stuck leaves in between the twisted branches. The final leafy wreath became our Forest Schools Sign that we tied to a low hanging branch of a bush of our ‘Forest Schools area’ on the grass.

We then searched the garden for large flat leaves and used these as ‘drawing pads’ etching Forest School secret code-words and pictures on the leaves with pencils by leaning on the hard patio. These could then be poked back on to low hanging branches or posted through a (blanket) den door to gain entry.

Finally we collected pebbles and painted Forest animals (ladybirds, hedgehogs) on the top side and laid these out to dry to decorate our Forest Schools home.

The Verdict: Once the garden toys have lost their sparkle this idea presents children with the idea that their garden holds a treasure trove of natural resources they can plunder if they use their imagination. Around the same time the BBC were screening ‘Human Planet’ and we showed our son one clip of the family living in the sky high tree-houses – he was captivated and this added lots of value to the Forest School idea. The Forest Schools aim to provide children with a sense of awe and wonder at the environment which is especially important as we often wrap them up in such cotton wool at home. Although some of the activities can seem dangerous they intentionally gradually introduce ideas of responsibility and measured risks to children who will usually take this very seriously and consequently feel very special. Once our boys had created their own Forest School in our small back garden, they brought our blankets, cushions and snacks and felt very at home to the extent they wanted to sleep out there!

Catchphrase: “Now we have Forest Schools at home too!”

Left wanting more?

  • The tradition of Forest Schools often involves fire-making with school age children, with very careful safety rules (and the occasional use of marsh-mallows might not go amiss!) You can buy a Storm Kettle from sites such as and they are perfect to get an older child starting to build their own fire from which they can boil water.
  • Additionally when we had some very bright (unexpected!) October sunshine last week, my husband brought out a magnifying glass and carefully taught our son to burn symbols onto wood whilst wearing sunglasses to protect his eyes.
  • Also, if you love this kind of outdoorsy play you MUST visit Bewilderwood in Norfolk which is a theme park like no other. Look at and feel inspired to make a trip!

Ingredients: Paper or an old sheet, paint, all size paintbrushes / sponges, a messy plastic sheet underneath + a toddler or two. (Try painting in the garden if you feel too anxious about mess inside)

The Big Sell:  Shall we do some splashy paintings?

Strategy:        It can be hard to know where to start with creative play at toddlers. Their mark-making can seem incredibly chaotic, short-lived and messy and as adults we can find it hard to know how to react or encourage their next steps. (Let’s face it, how many times have we spent 15minutes laying the table with plastic sheeting, paper, paints in pots, toddler dressed in apron… only for them to get bored after 2 seconds and wander off?!)

Tip: If your kids hate aprons (as both mine did) just sacrifice an old t-shirt or shirt (put on backwards) to the God of art and keep in the painting box for these occasions.

So I wanted to share some ideas for how to keep them interested and you from pulling your hair out. Young children naturally gravitate towards circles in their early mark-making.

You can develop this by combining their mark-making with their favourite nursery rhymes, for instance ‘Round and round the garden goes the teddy bear’ (round and round with the paintbrush in circles) ‘one step, two step’ (jab the paintbrush to make sploshes twice), ‘tickly under there’ (squiggly mess! Child giggles). Combining the narrative with the marks starts to enable the child to understand there is a connection between themselves and what they have made and this is the earliest step to introducing narrative into their paintings.

Other ideas include making “footsteps up the garden and splash in the muddy puddles!”, adding their favourite nursery music tape in the background and painting along to the singing, or painting ‘train tracks’ and using some washable cars / trains to run along the messy tracks and then make their own tyre tracks.

The Verdict: Youngest son (now age 2 ½) has been painting like this since he was around 13 months and now paints most days. Time spent sitting at the table has gradually increased from 2 seconds to more than 10 minutes! He soon moved on to painting the palms of his hands and making splashy hand shapes which is a real milestone I remember from older son’s childhood. He’s also started to make early face shapes, building on his confidence with circles to add eyes. I believe from these small acorns, big oak trees will grow!

Catchphrase: “More paint muddy puddles?”

Left wanting more?

  • If you are interested have a look at the history of Mandala circles which have been recurrent throughout many cultures and show that the circle is a powerful symbol that carries a universal formative language.
  • Try the same technique in other media such as sand, play dough, porridge oats or flour or dyed rice in a tray, etc…
  • If you want an adult inspiration for the potential for drawing in sand, check out the Youtube clip of “sand drawing for the Ukraine’s Got Talent competition”.

Ingredients: A talkative child/children combined with a bored Sunday afternoon / walk to school / car journey to fill up.

The Big Sell:  Let’s take turns telling a story and see where it takes us…

Strategy:        Old reliable favourite in our family that I consider far less mind-numbing than I-Spy.

I take turns telling a story with child / children such as:

“Once upon a time there was a frog called Gerald who really wanted to fly… (your turn)”

“… so he climbed up a tree and jumped off but luckily was rescued by a passing sparrow called Brenda who took him back to her nest and tried to eat him (your turn)”

“… but he escaped and decided to follow plan B by strapping himself to a passing ladybird….” etc…

The Verdict: My son now often asks if we can play this game either if he is bored stiff or wants a bit of one to one quality time. The beauty is not only that it makes turn-taking fun (you really can’t wait to  hear what the other person is going to come up with!) but it teaches imaginative story-telling and broad vocabulary by stealth; the more you use your turns to add twists, turns, humour or tragedy, the greater the landscape of your child’s imagination. Of course, it works particularly well for boosting your child’s self esteem if you make them / their teddy / their siblings, the main protagonists / heroes / heroines of the tale. When I first started playing this game my son would tend towards more conventional plot lines which came to a close quite quickly, or would say little and ask me to take longer turns. However, as his confidence grew he took on more of the story with increasingly adventurous twists and is now an excellently eccentric story teller and I barely get a word in edgeways! You can’t really go wrong with this one!

Catchphrase: “Another one! Another one! Can I start this time?”

Left wanting more?

  • If you want a drawing version of this game, try using a piece of paper to take it in turns to draw the face, chest, tummy, hips, legs, feet of an imaginary person or creature without the other person seeing, folding over each section. When you open up the page you can see what wonderfully strange individual you have made together.
  • You could develop a particularly successful stepping stone story into a written version by asking your child to make it into a book or illustrating text you have typed out on the computer.