Archives for the month of: November, 2011

 Ingredients: A ball of string and scissors, paints, pins, cardboard, wooden board, etc…

The Big Sell: What on earth could you do with just a ball of string?!


Leave some bored kids together and they come up with the best ideas. One of the most exciting purchases my son requested over the summer was a ball of string, just for him. It’s amazing what he came up with by himself and when playing with cousins.

One lazy afternoon I came in the room to find he had wrapped zig-zagging string around every available door knob, chair back, banister to create a wild maze from floor to child head-height. It turns out this could be either a spider web or laser beams (in the diamond heist scene from Wallace & Gromit and The Wrong Trousers style) from which he had to escape from the middle without touching the string. This required minimal other props – maybe just his large rubbery spider toy to balance in the middle and some dexterity on his part as he clambered around. As long as you don’t mind not being able to walk across the room for the day, this game kept them going for ages!

 Other great string ideas, include:

• The old classic of joining two yoghurt pots with a long piece of string to make a primitive phone

• Use glue to stick interesting string patterns to a square of hard cardboard, allow it to dry then roll on sticky paint to make a print-making tool – you can use this to make free wrapping paper!

• Push nails or thumb tacks into a block of wood and wrap string around in the shape of a cobweb. This could either be for a mini-beast project to which you add toy insects, or you add small wooden pegs to make an innovative display board for your artwork or Christmas cards.

The Verdict: You really can make something (or things) from nothing. Arm a tool box with the bare essentials – winged pins, pipe-cleaners, sellotape, old nuts and bolts, lolly sticks, of course string (basically anything that sits unloved in the bottom of drawers) – and watch the kids blow your mind with possibilities!

Catchphrase: Watch me get past the laser beams Mummy!

Left wanting more?

Attach some small offcuts of wood or hard pieces of card using masking tape to two long parallel pieces of string to make a v dangerous rope bridge which can be strung between the backs of two chairs, then force all kinds of small toys / cars / trains to cross in the most perilous journey of their lives!!


 Ingredients: A Wooden spoon and paint; an adult and child; a group of children

The Big Sell: Three ideas for child-led play: the Listening Stick, Special Time, the Helicopter Drama technique

1)     The Listening Stick

Commonly used in schools, I believe, you paint a wooden spoon in an interesting design so that it becomes a Listening Stick, and use it during circle time. The idea is only the person holding the Listening Stick can talk and everyone else must listen. When the person has finished what they want to say, others can raise their hand to ask for the Listening Stick. A powerful tool for learning the skills of focused listening and choosing your words with care. A good tool to be used during mediation or when learning how to give and receive critical feedback. Use it at home if the kids are squabbling frequently and frustrations are escalating to the extent that no one feels listened to.

2)    One to one Special Time

This one is a gift from my parents who have always given both my children ‘Special Time’ when they look after them each week. It sounds deceptively simple but is incredibly powerful. The adult / carer reserves a chunk of time to listen to one child and play / do / discuss exactly what they wish. No tricks, no distractions, no bribes. Just listening and play. See this website for more information:

For my youngest son (now 2 and a half) this is often when he chooses to take his Grandfather out on the kind of meandering exploratory walk around the quiet streets where they live, that I seldom have time to indulge when I’m rushing about on the school run. He will explore every stone, stick, hedge and hidey-hole and come back tired yet refreshed and relaxed. The potency comes from the child being given absolute control and knowing that the adult with them loves them and wants to listen to their choices.

I know this one is hard when you have more than two children and are on your own. It was something I was aware my first born needed more than ever when his new baby brother came along, and yet I was exhausted. My solution was two-fold – I used the baby’s nap times to give him as much Special Time as I could manage, and I asked other caring adults to step in and offer him that one to one whenever they could. I was very lucky to have this support system, and I know not everyone has family nearby. If not, why not share the load with trusted friends by giving Special Time to their kids or asking them to babysit siblings so you can give Special Time to one of yours?

3)    The Helicopter Drama Technique

This requires a group of children to be seated in a circle or can be conducted one to one first and then the children are brought together. One child is picked each time – the teacher listens to them tell a story and writes it down word for word. The child can then pick the role of their choice within their story and the teacher can ask other children within the circle to help act it out. Throughout the drama the child can be asked to contribute to the direction to make sure the story is played out as they anticipated. Again, it sounds simple but the children soon cherish the privilege of being director of their own script supported by friends.  This idea can be taken to grand conclusions – for instance the work of the charity Scene and Heard who bring together children with professional actors to produce exciting new plays. Look at these sites for more information:

The Verdict: Childhood needs moments, supported by caring adults, whereby one develops a sense of being unique, of being a creative actor with one’s own choices and voice. You may have heard that the government is extending the “five a day” healthy eating programme to “five a day parenting recommendations” (,which encompass reading, listening, playing, talking. It’s all sounds so obvious but I think if we are honest we all have days when we think “What I actually do with my kids today?”

I feel if you start with small ideas such as those above, you quickly learn that a little bit of quality time goes a long way in providing your child with the creative tools and confidence to grow sturdy, well nourished imaginations. Fifteen minutes of Special Time in one day can equate to the rest of their play feeling empowered, inspired and valued.

This summer we were struck down by a run of illness and had little money, so there were no expensive trips out, very few play dates and definitely no holiday on the cards. I fell back on these kinds of activities instead and guess what … I’ve never seen my kids so relaxed, smiley and playing together so well, enjoying all their toys!

Catchphrase: “Now … I’m ready to listen. This is your time. What do you want to say?”

Left wanting more?

When you are rushed off your feet, you can draw on skills they have refined using the above tools, and say “You remember the game you wanted to play in Special Time / talked about with the Listening Stick / wrote in your Helicopter Drama session? Why don’t go and rehearse the next stage in the story upstairs for 20 minutes, and when I’ve finished what I’m doing / my phone call / this email, I will be your audience!”

Ingredients: Scraps of old fabric, dried lavender seeds or oil, pipe-cleaners, needle and thread or sewing machine.

The Big Sell: “You say, there’s a monster hiding under your bed? Well, let’s try giving him a cuddle!”


Now if the Wish Pillow didn’t work, or maybe it did but you want more from where that came from, try making a home-made monster instead. I guess it’s the equivalent of showing them the Pixar film ‘Monsters Inc’ (except my two are really scared of this film, so the reverse psychology didn’t work there!)

Our home-made monsters came from an idea my eldest had once, when despite my protesting that “Honestly, monsters really don’t exist”, he made a sign for his bedroom door which read “Good monsters welcome. Bad monsters go away!” and it seemed to have a magic effect on his sleep.

Following on from this, we decided to make our own cuddly sleepy monsters, and years later, they still spend the night in their beds. Importantly the monsters were made from their own specific designs – three eyes and one tooth for one, one eye and a curly antennae for the other – and was sewn together from scraps of fabric, pipe-cleaners to make cuddlable arms and antennae, and lavender seeds inside.

The Verdict:

The monsters seemed to have that desired talisman effect, much like a dream catcher which also hangs above their beds. I know there are conflicting schools of thought as to whether the parents should or should not try and enter into the spirit of the imaginary world to help calm nightmares. A cuddly toy which externalises the problem seems to me like a nice compromise. You’re not admitting there’s anything else there, but distracting from the unknown and the shadows by making them benign and tangible.

I’ve found, if they call out for you to say “There’s a monster in my room!” when you say “Of course there is – give him a cuddle” it makes them giggle and defuses the tension. You can even give the cuddly toy a few firm words “You are to STOP scaring the children, and if you look after them tonight, Mummy might give you a special monster breakfast in the morning – maybe some garden snails.”

Catchphrase: “Good night children, Good night little monsters. Look after each other and sleep tight.”

Left wanting more?

• You can find loads of books about monsters at the local library – from monsters that are scared of children, to ones that need the opposite things to children to get to sleep. Try Bedtime for Monsters by Ed Vere, published by Puffin.

• Another excellent book is The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside, published by Hodder Childrens Books. It gives a clear message about talking through your worries and showing them the light of day, much like this technique of externalising the problem with a custom made toy.


Ingredients: Scraps of old fabric, dried lavender seeds or oil, needle and thread or sewing machine.

The Big Sell: Shall we try a magic dream pillow to help you sleep tonight?

Strategy: Now, I have to admit I’m lucky here. Both my boys, with blackout blinds, some Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the CD player and a soothing bath and stories, have been good sleepers.

But they also are furnished with vivid imaginations and that has meant phases of trouble drifting off in the dark or waking with night terrors. I certainly don’t have a cure-all for these difficult times, but if the problem is stemming from your little ones overactive imagination, I figure the solution might come from involving them in creating something that acts as a talisman.

I’ve made my two each a Dream Pillow for Christmas from scraps of fabric, filled with lavender seeds.

The ideas goes as follows – the front contains a pocket with an image of a shut eye with wool eyelashes on the front. Every night the child can write their own note or whisper into the pocket what they wish for the narrative of their dreams that night. Then they give the pillow a good soothing smell, place the Dream pillow under their pillow and we all hope for the best!!

You could even use the pocket for occasional tooth fairy visits?

The Verdict: I don’t know yet! I’ll have to come back to this one once they’ve been handed out in the stockings! I’d love to hear if you get any good results with this one?

Catchphrase: “Mummy wishes for deep, deep uninterrupted sleep! What’s your wish?”

Left wanting more?

• If your child needs a little further convincing try putting a return note or some magic fairy dust (glitter) in while they are sleeping.

• If your child is clamming up about going through a hard time with sibling rivalry or trouble at school, the Dream Pillow could become a listening place for all sorts of woes. Maybe once they’ve talked to the Dream Pillow about it, they might feel brave enough to talk about it with you?

 Ingredients: Paper, collage materials, glue, scissors, pens

The Big Sell: We’re going to try some drawing some Trees of Life. You don’t have to be brilliant at drawing and you don’t have to show this to anyone. This is for you and it is to help us think about where we are in our lives and where we might like to go next.

Strategy: I have tried this recently with a group of young people and have tried it in the past whilst teaching students. It comes from The Evaluator’s Cookbook, published by NE-CF and Katalyst Tales (2005).

 The group of young people that I worked with were classified ‘NEET’ (which means not in education, employment or training). I’m not keen on all these labels for young people as I feel they can depersonalise their experiences and place the blame on the individual rather than looking at their whole life situations. I would prefer to say that these young people needed their confidence and self esteem building in order to value themselves and enable them to make best choices about their future. On this occasion I worked with a team of experienced youth workers and a small group of young people aged 16 – 21 years of mixed gender.

I asked the young people to draw a basic tree on an A3 piece of paper. I then asked them to decorate their trees and add comments according to the following rules:

1) The roots are your influences – who / what made you who you are today?

2) The trunk is your life today – what is the structure of your week, what fills your days?

3) The leaves are your information sources – who do you listen to, how do you find out about the world around you?

 4) The buds are your hopes – what would you like to achieve in the next week, month, year, decade?

5) The fruit are your achievements – what are you proud of? What have you accomplished?

6) I also added… weeds, which are things that may be holding you back from achieving your buds, or listening to new leaves.

If you don’t like writing (some young people had severe dyslexia) you can draw symbols for your ideas. You can make your tree as colourful as you like using the collage materials – enjoy the doodling!

Is anyone willing to show and discuss their finished tree?

The Verdict: This was the first time I had met this group of young people and the fact that they all took part and stuck at the activity for one and a half hours astounded me. Most found the activity very challenging – equally the drawing (which they some said they were no good at), the writing and the revealing of personal feelings. But they all completed their Trees of Life and some even were brave enough to show them to the group. This provided an opportunity for the youth workers to ask further questions or make comments. “I didn’t know you liked playing guitar!” “What do you think is behind your lack of confidence at job interviews?”

I think it may have helped that, as an outsider, I came in to lead the workshop – with a more trusted adult they may have found it easier to back out. But I also think it helped to have adults present who knew and could tease out their answers. I remained calm but gently pushed them through their complaints to stick with the activity – for one who did not want to draw her tree I drew a basic outline for her.

The final tree led to an open reflective discussion and the youth workers said they would like to keep the trees in the young people’s portfolios to aid one to one discussions in the future as they move forward.

Catchphrase: “What are your hopes?” “To get a job”. “What would improve the structure of your week at the moment?” “To be working”.

It was interesting to note the primary concern of all the young people, above what I had expected would be friendships, romance, cash, etc.. was EMPLOYMENT. It makes me very cross when young people are labelled as lazy or irresponsible. Most young people are very concerned rightly at the moment about their future careers given the global economic situation.

Left wanting more?

It is a very worrying time for us all but especially our future generation of decision-makers. On 6th November 2011 the Observer published an article ( about the star-studded cultural backlash against government plans to concentrate the British schools’ curriculum on a core of “traditional” subjects through the government’s push for an English Baccalaureate system. They are supporting the newly published ImagineNation: The Case for Cultural Learning, a campaigning report launched by the Cultural Learning Alliance (see I agree that unless we invest in our children as creative thinkers, both within and outside formal education, we will not nurture the transferable skills necessary to formulate a resourceful, hopeful, forward-thinking society to overcome the current hangover left by the recession, leaving only a sense of frustration and injustice.