Archives for posts with tag: children


Ingredients: card, recycled wrapping paper, stickers, pens, ribbon, glue

The Big Sell: You’re bored waiting for Christmas to come? Lets make a present for your favourite toy.

Strategy: When your kids are counting down the days / minutes / seconds to Christmas with increasing feverishness, try providing them with some easy crafts to keep enthusiasm levels high and boredom levels low. I’ve taken to leaving out a bowl full of Christmas related paraphernalia – silver gel pens, ribbon off cuts, glitter shakers, red and green card, stickers – to tempt them.

Here is an easy calendar which they can make for themselves, a friend, sibling or teddy, encouraging numeracy, imagination and inspired by the spirit of giving.

Stick flaps made of recycled wrapping paper to some coloured card and invite your child to write all the days from 1 – 25, decorating behind each flap with a surprise sticker or picture. Hang ribbon at the top, wrap up and leave under the tree ready for the big day.

Verdict: In our house we are sulking, as the notorious Norovirus bug has taken us hostage just in time for the big day. But despite being very poorly, nothing holds my eldest son back from creating, and this activity occupied him for a good while, easing his symptoms.

Catchphrase: ‘We didn’t leave you out Horace (his teddy)!’

Left wanting more?

Set your child a (boredom-relieving) Christmas challenge, like making a pop up Christmas card, or a poster collage in the shape of a snowman or gingerbread man made from recycled paper.

Get yourself ahead for next year by saving all the cards and wrapping paper and folding it away in a box. This will pay dividends when it comes to new crafting ideas.

If you can recycle an old patterned jumper, why not run up a simple stocking for your child to make into their teddies? They will spend many happy hours looking through their toys to find small gifts to fill it.


Ingredients: Boxes and tubes of all shapes and sizes, bottle tops, bubble wrap, polystyrene, drinking straws, inner chocolate box packaging, some spray paints (kept out of child’s reach), stickers in all colours, winged pins, string / ribbon, different types of sticky tape (sellotape, masking tape, electrical tape, parcel tape), glues (PVA and Pritt stick), a tool that punches holes easily, possibly even a Makedo set, good quality scissors. All kept in an accessible replenishable box.

The Big Sell: Build me something the world has never seen!

Strategy: All parents do it – the roll of the eyes as you present your child with a rather expensive new Christmas present and they fling it to one side and spend the rest of the day playing with the large cardboard box. But what’s really going on here?

Children have an innate ability to be explorers – they haven’t yet learnt to be afraid of the act of creation (linking it to failure and disappointment as many of us do as we grow older). They often don’t want to be told what ‘should’ be fun (by an adult toymaker) but reject conformity to discover the world for themselves. If only we didn’t grow out of that state?!

If I were to choose one activity that has taken up 75% of my sons’ childhood so far, it would be the act of junk-modelling. And I believe it is seriously underrated as a lazy past time, an end of the day ‘that’ll occupy them for a few minutes’ second rate, cheapskate distraction before we get stressed by the mess and it’s tidied away.

But I think it is so much more. When I take a moment to watch my eldest at work with junk he is using so many skills – developing his maths by taking accurate measurements and creating symmetry; learning engineering by constructing strong platforms, pulleys, hinges, catapults; exploring critical and imaginative thinking by breaking down big dreams into the small steps towards realisation. He is also learning social skills – managing his expectations of what is achievable in a given time frame and with limited resources, recycling the useless into the useful, even demonstrating love by creating birthday presents (like a ‘tea-maker’ for me) when he has no access to bought things, and communicating his end product by providing a showcase. If I were to describe his best talents within the framework of his school curriculum, they would fall under ‘Science’ and ‘Visual arts’ – truly a Leonardo da Vinci of the junk-modelled world.

If you have a little inventor in your home, as well as supplying them with endless refuelling of interesting objects to occupy their minds and fingers, you can also encourage them with these challenges for Advanced Junk Modelling Fun:

  • The Transformer junk model – make something that turns from one object into another? (See Transformer Robot model above).
  • The Moving junk model vehicle – wheeled, flying, hovercraft (using semi-inflated balloons), floating (see Titanic model above – historically accurate as it really did sink!)
  • The Stage Set junk model – one previous effort was Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets complete with Chess set, Devils Snare (green wool), cardboard roll sewer tunnels, flying keys (hanging from thread). (The picture above is my son’s Harry Potter ‘Hogsmead’ stage set with working elevator).
  • The Garden Orchestra junk model – use old metal tubes, cans (with the edges sanded smooth), tins and pans with wooden drumsticks to make music outside.
  • The Marble Run junk model – weave all your old cardboard tubes into a taped maze.
  • The Make Do and Mend junk model – teach them about World War II and the impact of rationing on children’s experiences – invite them to invent a toy to take on an ‘evacuated’ journey (to a pretend Bunker den in the garden).
  • And of course, the Den junk model – reinvent the largest cardboard boxes you can find into an igloo / treehouse / teepee / other assorted living space of child’s choice.

The verdict: A junk modelling child is one that is following an ‘enquiry-based’ model of education, in which rather than memorising and recalling a set of facts they learn to form and test a hypothesis, use the world around them to spark an idea, pursue an ideal and visualise a transformation. A junk modelling child learns that truly creative practice can be explosive in terms of the unanticipated outcome, and that’s more exciting than any old bit of plastic from the shops.

Catchphrase: “Can I email the toy-making people, Mum, to show them my prototype for a real Harry Potter Hogsmead Play-set?”

Left wanting more?

From top to bottom: Painting alongside my children – finger painting with my three-year old; observing my seven year old start some abstract art (which I joined in with towards the end); the resulting finished painting.

Ingredients: A range of paints – finger paints, acrylics, watercolours, oils (and linseed oil), mark-making tools, and materials to paint on – wood, canvas, cartridge paper, collage paper.

The Big Sell: Let’s paint beside each other and see what we can make together.

Strategy: It occurred to me early on as a mum and an artist there was a big gap between mine and my child’s expectations of a painting. I expected them to sit quietly and to concentrate on forming a well composed painting with narrative and clear bright colours. They expected to swish some paint around a space (which included paper but also included the table, chairs, floor, their hands and feet) until a muddy blend plastered the area and they could run off half-decorated and leave me to clear up!

I wondered whether my boys would ever come to enjoy the tranquillity and focus of painting in the way that I did and what the steps were to this taking place. The answer was … yes they would, and here are some of the steps along that journey to my now seven-year old, who received mainly painting materials for his seventh birthday and loves abstract art more than any other style of painting.

  1. From 2 – 3 years onwards, make painting fun. Do it outside in the sun and paint on rolls of old wallpaper to make train tracks down the garden path. Paint hands and feet, toys, leaves, stones, feathers – anything that makes a print. Be well prepared with a bowl of warm water and wipes at the ready to clean them up and hang a washing line and pegs against a space wall if you are lacking in drying space.
  2. Introduce dialogue into their work from the word go. Once their paintings are dry (an hour or two later) reintroduce them to your child and using a fat marker pen show them what images you have seen in their paintings – turn a splodge into a face, a splash into a fish, a stripe into a stick man.
  3. Once your child starts to understand and enjoy ‘painting with mummy/daddy/carer’, try some tandem-finger painting. Pick the subject of their favourite book (such as The Hungry Caterpillar above) and show them how you can recreate the images using sharp shapes and clear bright colours with your hands, if you clean them in between with a wipe or bowl of water.
  4. Now turn to DIY toy-making. As they grow in confidence building images from shapes and colours, make their favourite cartoon character by giving them a basic outline to paint in, add finishing touches with black marker once dry, cut out and cover in sticky-back plastic so they can carry it around with them, attached to buggy.
  5. Alongside figurative art work, introduce elements of abstract art play – arrange patterned collage cut outs alongside swishes of paint and discuss what looks pleasing to their eye. Don’t be afraid to show them famous works of art to inspire them – any age can appreciate Matisse, Pollock, Picasso. Talk to them about the colours of their feelings and dreams and ask them to show you.
  6. As your child’s confidence and knowledge of painting grows, support them with increasingly interesting materials – by the age of five my eldest son was painting on wood and papier mache, and quickly progressed to canvas at six. Gather interesting mark-making tools – run down pens, bamboo scratching sticks, an old comb – and try using ink and wax to explore ways to build light and dark in images. By this age, they will appreciate a visit to child-friendly art galleries or sculpture parks. Explain that new materials are precious things to be considered and explored, parts of the rites of passage of becoming a skilled artist.
  7. Exhibit your child’s art work – not just with a magnet on the fridge – but by providing them with their own gallery space. If you can’t attach any permanent fixtures to a wall, just use a cork board covered in white or black fabric and lean it in a temporary space. Invite the child to be a curator of this exhibition and talk visitors through their paintings, rather than speaking for them.

Accompany this arts play with a culture of carrying sketchbooks on any long car or train journey, ready to play ‘Oops!’ – one person makes a ‘mistake’ (jabs a hole in the paper, creates a fold, line or squiggle) and the other has to turn it into something beautiful, before you swap turns.

The verdict: I’m aware that I may be making this arts development sound too serious and prescriptive, but that is possibly a response to the type of person my eldest son has become – a serious young man who craves authenticity and a ‘grown up’ approach. Other children may prefer to pursue a more freeform route, continuing to explore mess and mayhem indefinitely.

However, I don’t think there is any danger in exposing children to established artwork from a young age, nor from introducing this idea of dialogue and the closeness that comes from ‘drawing alongside’ a parent with their own style and artistic choices. And it goes without saying, NEVER describe yourself as ‘hopeless’ at art, no matter how lacking in confidence you are – to them you are wonderful and any poor self-esteem you display will only provide them with the weapons to be ashamed of their own efforts.

Differences between you and them as unique artists are a great gift to emphasize, as you journey towards a shared understanding of art as key to expression and freedom.

Catchphrase: I love painting beside you! It shows me what the world looks like to you.

Left wanting more?

  • Does anyone else remember the fantastic retro-joy of watching Bob Ross paint a laidback landscape?! Type his name into Youtube and enjoy watching him at work with your child!

Ingredients:  All the toys at their disposal; a climbing rope (or several dressing gown cords tied together)

The Big Sell: Me to the kids: “I’m bored, what can we play?”


My two boys never fail to amaze me, they came up with two fabulous games this weekend which I had to share.

3 year olds game: Let’s Play “Staircase Mountaineering”

Spotting his Dad’s length of climbing rope which I had been using for an Antarctic Explorers workshop, he asked me to tie it securely to the top rung of the banisters, and we proceeded to spend the next half an hour playing mountaineering down the stairs. This involved finding Arctic cuddly toys (a seal and penguin), making a basket of explorer food and flask of hot chocolate, practicing creating echoes “Can you hear me, can you hear me, can you hear me…” whilst travelling up and down the stairs holding on to the rope. I hasten to add our many adventures were heavily supervised (never leave kids and rope alone obviously!) but provided some excellent rainy day exercise and lots of educational conversations about what explorers used to eat (pemmikin and chocolate), how cold the Polar regions are, Arctic food chains, etc… all whilst sitting in the clouds perched on the top stair.

7 year olds game: Let’s play “Our Home Museum & Art Gallery”

Totally invented and delivered by my eldest, I was merely required as a Museum Visitor. I had to patiently wait for the Tour to start in the Waiting Room (dining room) before I was led around the various sections of the Museum (rooms of our house) to see the Dinosaur period (lots of plastic dinosaurs arranged on a shelf), Soldier section (Toy Story small soldiers arranged in battle pose), art gallery (his own art displayed on the walls), Victorian childhood section (rather profusely populated play room covered in lots of plastic, but at least he did try and steer me towards the wooden toys!) and finally taken to the Shop. Here he came into his own as he tried to persuade me a small box of gifts was a steal at only £7.50 (I declined). Again, wonderful opportunities for some two way educational conversations here about history (Me: “And when was the Jurassic period?” Him: “Oh well, at least a thousand years ago!”), and a chance for me to see how much school and our museum trips have inspired him.

The verdict: Sometimes kids come up with the best stuff without us interfering at all. I learn something new every day from them!

Catchphrase: My little salesman: “Well, the museum entry was free, so I really think you ought to spend some money in the shop!”

Left wanting more?

  • One thing I do to help this kind of play along, is to not allow their toys to dissolve into a horrible hybrid mess, but to organise them according to theme (sea, dinosaurs, vehicles, space etc..) in lots of pretty bags and boxes. I’ve always suspected, if you can manage to tidy and present them nicely as often as possible, the children see their toys as valuable rather than junk!


For Stop-motion animation: Fuzzy felt kit / plasticine model / toy with moveable limbs that stands alone and a digital video camera;

For Flick books: paper, stapler, pens;

For Blue-screening: a computer with an artistic photographic / editing package (such as Photoshop or Pageplus) or internet access to a free online editing tool such as

The Big Sell: You know all those fancy special effects in the movies? Let’s work out how they do it!

Strategy: These beginner approaches to animation are great for demonstrating how movie magic blooms from hard work, concentration and imagination. Explaining the technology behind scarier fantasy images can also help children overcome fears and develop a savvy awareness of the media around them.

There are three approaches below which require varying degrees of technical equipment, so pick one which fits your means and the child’s concentration span.

Stop-motion: Set your child up with a digital video camera and a tripod (or tape it to a chair if you don’t have a tripod) and look through the toy box to find an appropriate model. It needs to be one which can stand alone and has moveable parts that will stay in fixed positions – we found a Wall:E robot was excellent as he has such quizzical expressions and is on wheels . Equally, if you are able to suspend your camera to shoot downwards on to a table, fuzzy felt shapes are brilliant for moving around. Of course, you can also encourage your child to make their own model (such as a plasticine Morph, as in my earlier blog ) or use as an array of household objects with sticky googly eyes attached (as in the brilliant CBBC show Ooglies)

Explain to your child the basic principle that the moving image is made up of many photos or ‘stills’, and that the smaller the movements between the stills, the smoother the moving image will appear. Check they can think and talk through the small steps that are needed to create the live action at the end.

You can introduce story-boarding in the planning stages (draw out rows of rectangles on a blank sheet and photocopy the page for ease of use) and the idea that strong storylines require a juicy beginning, middle, and end. Ask prompting questions, such as: Who is the hero of this story? What adversity do they need to overcome? What’s a good twist at the end? Will it be a tragedy or a comedy? How could you surprise your audience? Making references to some of their known favourite movies and working out what hooks them is also a good ideas generator.

Create a backdrop if you wish; keep it simple with a plain white tablecloth or make a stylized landscape using newspaper for skyscrapers. You could even incorporate background static toys, such as a garage with lift or a dolls house.

Now get going! Hold up a title up to camera if you wish (or add in post-production using movie editing software), and then show your child how to do the first handful of stills by setting the model in a pose, pressing the Record button and silently counting ‘one’ then quickly pressing pause, before re-modelling a small change in movement. Once they have the idea, leave them to it! They may get bored towards the end and rush it, but this all helps to learn the underlying film-making principles.

Check out our artspip test animation ‘The Crafty Spider’ HERE!

Flick Books

The simplest and cheapest option, great for confident drawers, is to make a flick book by gathering many small sheets of thick paper and asking the child to draw from the back page to the front, again making small changes on each page, before stapling together. Research how they work  and their historical origins in the Zoetrope. Once finished simply flick from back to front to see the story come alive.


Lastly, and especially for children who want to understand how film directors blend reality and fantasy, is to use a simple photo editing computer package to combine a variety of photos and effects to make a new image. We started by exploring the science behind such special effects for which DVD extras can be a useful resources as they often expose behind the scenes. I then used PagePlus with my son to turn him into Harry Potter. First we uploaded a normal photo of him holding his teddy. We then used various ‘paint’ functions to turn his blond hair dark, draw on a red scar and glasses, and paste an image of Dobby over his teddy and a menacing Troll in the background. This kind of experimental software play can reveal the endless possibilities of packages like Photoshop, and illustrates how the art of drawing can progress from pen and paper when they are ready to move on.

The verdict:

Basic animation is surprisingly simple if you have some home-movie technology at your fingertips and encourages important qualities in the budding artist, including patience, perseverance and forward planning. It can generate quite a spectacular end result for those children that are persistent and pushes those growing bored of 2D into the next realm of possibilities from a technological point of view. There are routes into literacy here for reluctant writers – by focusing on the visual importance of the dramatic arc, they are required to refine their story-telling skills for maximum impact. Ultimately, if your child is proud of their final movie, you can upload it to Youtube and share it with the world!

Catchphrase: Break out the popcorn … it’s Movie Night!

Left wanting more?

1) There are so many inspirational examples out there, including the fabulous ‘The Itch of the Golden Nit’, a record-breaking Tate Movie Project with Aardman animations. There are resources available here to create animations on their webpage or watch the ‘making of’ here.

2) Take a look at these websites for more ideas:

Ingredients: Mod-rock (£3.50 per 5metre roll on Amazon), chicken wire & poster paints; DIY or shop-bought modelling clay (see recipe below or £6.75 for 1kg on Amazon); junk modelling of any sort you have to hand.

The Big Sell: As my Nana always said “I want doesn’t get!” but if you want to make your own … it does!

Strategy: Is your beloved child desperate for the latest Star Wars / Harry Potter [insert any merchandising nightmare of your choice] toy, which is out of your price range? I’ve found if children are given the option of making their own robot / space ship / stage set etc.. they are equally if not more happy with the result, than if one was bought for them. Our home is homage to many DIY replicas from my son’s latest craze.

Here’s an easy guide to modelling a Make-Your-Own toy:

1)      Wearing your thickest gardening gloves and pliers, get snipping some chicken wire into the shape of your choice (in the case above, R2-D2). Make sure the sharp ends are bent into the centre of the model – this is a job best done by an adult. Once the shape is formed, cover the kitchen table in plastic sheeting and soak cut lengths of mod rock (bandage soaked in plaster of paris) in water before draping them onto the wire frame. This is a job your child will really enjoy joining in with as it’s methodical and messy! The boring bit is waiting for the plaster to set (leave for a good 24 hours to be sure) then get painting your design. Hey presto, one life-size R2-D2 for your child to enjoy!

 2)     Follow this recipe to make your own air-drying clay if you can’t afford to buy any:

1 cup cornflour

2 cups salt

1 cup warm water

You add food colouring if you want. Mix together in a pan on a low heat, until it becomes sticky and solidified. Then knead with your hands (you may have to do this until it becomes cool enough for your child to handle).

This clay should keep pliable for at least a week if wrapped well in cling-film. When your child is ready, they can model their clay into any shape of their choice, and leave to dry for at least 24 hours to ensure it goes hard and dry all the way through. Once dry, they can paint if they wish. Good for modelling their favourite characters, both baddies and goodies – you could make a marvellous snake or three-headed dog for Harry Potter to battle.

3)     Junk modelling – THE staple activity in our household. The only problem a parent faces with junk modelling is gauging the right time to sneakily disassemble and return their models back into the recycling bin, otherwise the house would be over-run with their masterpieces! My eldest junk-models EVERY DAY after school, and no cereal box, bottle, straw, piece of string, egg box is safe as it goes straight into his Junk modelling box which lives in an easy access spot beside a sellotape dispenser and some decent scissors. He recently made The Chamber of Secrets by combining a cylindrical tube in the top of a large cardboard box, with a tangle of green wool hanging below for Devil’s Snare and shiny foil for the watery lake. We simply added chess pieces & a toy snake, and his Harry Potter figurine could drop in to his very own sophisticated stage set.

The Verdict: In my experience, it tends to be adults who discriminate between shop bought and homemade toys – children are not so fussy as long as they can indulge their latest passion. Modelling of any kind provides a child with the feeling that their dreams are within their own grasp – rather than waiting for birthdays (by which time they’ve often lost interest in the latest fad) this offers an immediate and animated way of bringing to life the stories which occupy their imaginations.  Given a little mess and patience, modelling isn’t tricky and provides grand results for your efforts – a satisfying activity to work on together.

Catchphrase: Right … who can provide the best R2-D2 sound effects?!

Left wanting more?

  • The grand masters of modelling, and homegrown UK heroes, have to be Aardman Animations – creators of Wallace & Gromit, Morph & Shaun the Sheep – all favourites in our house. You can buy a Make Your Own Morph set – £9.10 on Amazon currently – which includes a DVD. I love that our homemade Wallace and Gromit figurines have been given superb play possibilities by being combined with an electric train set or a junk-modelled Dog Food Crusher machine, we can recreate their best screen moments.
  • Once you’ve mastered the basics of modelling you could move on to live animation. I’ll follow up how to tackle this in a later blog! (To be cont ….)

Ingredients: A very sick family who, despite running sky-high temperatures and aching all over, still need some self-help entertainment after a week of being bored watching endless telly, necking paracetamol and hugging hot water bottles.

The Big Sell: Help! What can we make that requires minimal effort but provides some creative respite before we go out of our minds?!

Strategy: This was our family’s reality this week, and we came up with the following ideas to help us survive cabin fever during our plagued half term holiday.

1) Easy peasy treasure hunt. I wrote 10 rhyming clues leading the children all around the house on a treasure hunt which eventually led to a locked box with two cup-cakes inside. My son, who is currently Harry Potter-mad, particularly loved this clue:

I see I cannot trick you easily.

You are more cunning than Ron Weasley.

Next you must travel through a long dark tunnel

To find the clue where a ball meets a funnel.”

(they had to crawl through a play tunnel to their marble ball run where the clue was folded and hidden).

2) Home-made sock puppets – we added feathers, wiggly stick-on eyes, pipe-cleaners (for antennae), sticky spots, and pen embellishment on old clean socks to make our own unique aliens, forever more to be known as The Flu Specimens.

3) Origami and paper aeroplanes – an art of extreme dedication and concentration amongst the men-folk in our house, our corridors became littered with the ghosts of ingenious flying machines (my husband even tried attaching a light-weight motor to one effort!) It helped that we were given a marvellous book: “The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes” by Doug Stillinger ( There are also some wonderful app’s for your i-phone for intricate orgami animals of every sort – put ‘origami’ into search in the App Store and have a go.

The Verdict: Even in a fog of flu-induced hell, we are one of those families who can’t quite switch off and ease into chilling out. I guess we have an exceptionally low capacity for boredom? If you’re the same, I hope these ideas give you some small distraction from the pain of being ill this Winter (which if you are a parent of little ones, seems to be every other week?!) If you aren’t like us, then please just PUT YOUR FEET UP!!!

Catchphrase: Cough, wheeze, sniff … that was fun! I almost forgot I was ill for a moment!

Left wanting more?

• Make a creative sketchbook by attaching together A5 sized sheets of interesting materials – foil, fabric, baking paper, old envelopes, bubble wrap – punching holes and tying ribbon through to bind. Your kids will have to find innovative ways to make marks on all these different types of media.

• 3D drawing paper – available from Amazon for around £4, it really works! Just use a black pen on this specially gridded paper and put on your 3D glasses to watch it jump off the page!

Ingredients: A cheap photo frame from a charity shop or a recycled box (in this case a pretty circular chocolate truffle box), watercolour or acrylic paints, brushes and thick cartridge paper, pretty wrapping paper, some quiet time with your child / apart from your child.

The Big Sell: I / we wanted to make something special for you.

Strategy: Working together with your child or being inspired by your child to make a piece of art is one of my favourite peaceful past-times. Above are two examples of custom-made gifts – one of which demonstrates how you can work with your child (in this case to create a painting for my husband for Valentines), the second shows how you can be inspired to create something for your child as I produced a painting for my son who has been going through a hard time lately, and was seeking some solace to help him work through his worries.

1) A Map of Your Heart – I drew out an outline of a heart on cartridge paper and boxed off irregular shapes. Eldest son then filled in all the boxes with our shared ideas for special items my husband holds in his heart … camping, chocolate, Star Wars, etc… I then painted in the boxes with watercolour paints and mounted it in a cheap frame from a charity shop.

2) The Watcher painting – all children go through their ups and downs, and so when my eldest recently went through a tricky phase, I was inspired to produce a small bespoke painting to hang in his bedroom within eye-line of the top bunk bed (and to limit the night-time visits!). I took an old round chocolate box, backed it with pretty wrapping paper and painted an eye with the text “I am the watcher. I am watching. I am watching over you”. He was so touched and said it helped it when he was struggling to drift off at night, filled with the day’s anxieties.

The Verdict:

This kind of creative upcycling costs next to nothing but produces something which tells the recipient that they are in your thoughts, they are unique and they are worthy of your time and effort. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t confident at drawing – you can cut (or paint over) images or text from magazines to make a collage. As someone who hates the commercialism of contrived festivities such as Valentines, and who objects to forking out lots of cash for something which ‘looks bespoke’ from sites such as, I much prefer this home-grown approach, which shows your child we can all make something of value from the resources we have around us.

Catchphrase: Don’t get buying, get making!

Left wanting more?

Make a DIY voucher book for your loved one (either partner or child) by stapling together long rectangular sheets of paper and filling each page with an I.O.U. to be cashed in for the future. I.O.U. one cuddle, one story, one bubble bath, one evening in which we switch off the telly and just talk, etc…

Ingredients: Paper or thin card, brass paper fasteners, scissors, pencil

The Big Sell: Let’s make our own shadow puppets!

Strategy: This idea comes from a camping conundrum – I limit each child to one small rucksacks’ worth of toys to keep them amused on camping holidays. Last time , this included a small notebook, pencil, scissors and some brass paper fasteners (£0.99 for a box on Amazon), from which my son decided to make his own puppet.

1) Plan out the torso, limbs, head etc.. separately, making sure you make them sturdy enough to hold their shape and have space to lap over the edges where they attach to take a pin

2) Cut out and fasten together, hinging the joints using the paper fasteners

3) Decorate as much as required. Easy peasy!

4) If you wish, you could also sellotape a straw to the bottom of the torso to give a handle.

The Verdict: My son made his very favourite teddy as a puppet (which also doubled up as a playmate teddy toy that could participate in any number of imaginative games). When night time fell, whilst wrapped up in our sleeping bags, we could use the glow from the campfire and / or a torch to throw a shadow puppet theatre against the walls of the tent. Just make sure you don’t fall asleep on a stray pin!

At home, shadow puppetry (even if you just use the old-fashioned method of contorting your hands to make animal shapes) can comfort a nervous sleeper by demonstrating the wonder of the dark. As an aside, I’ve never been a big fan of co-sleeping your children for too long in case they are afraid of the dark – on the contrary I have always told my children, the dark is the most wonderful blank canvas where their dreams can come to life in the still hush of the night. Games like this can help comfort and reinforce that belief as they become empowered to treat night time as their own special adventure.

Catchphrase: Punch and Judy eat your heart out!

Left wanting more?

Ingredients: One hand-picked cuddly toy that takes on monumental significance for your child. This cannot be prescribed by any adult and the bond cannot be severed once established. For my children, a very worn bear and a very straggly elephant have become the lynch-pin of our family lives

The Big Sell: You can’t sell this one – children will either find (what I call) a ‘special love’ or they won’t. However, I don’t think it’s coincidence that both my boys ‘attached’ to their chosen toy at precisely the age they gave up breast-feeding, and simultaneously started sleeping through the night, reassured by their new companion. Things can be helped along the way however, by imbuing the toy with your own mummy smell (sleep with it for a couple of nights or wrap it in your nightie) and some drips of milk to make it a little stinky. This is, of course, a classic example of a ‘transference object’ and helped make a strange unfamiliar world increasingly safe as they travelled the pathway of my children’s development hand in paw.

Strategy: If your child happens to choose a ‘special love’ there are many uses this toy can play in the child’s development. Below I will name only a few examples of how ‘Horace’ the bear and ‘Happy’ the elephant have enhanced my children’s lives.

  1. Getting dressed and potty-training: as both boys built independence skills between the ages of 2 – 3 their cuddly functioned as a pupil to learn alongside them; always less competent than their child companion, Horace or Happy would experiment with sitting on the potty headfirst, wearing trousers on ears, tying shoelaces, etc.. thus making the whole process quite hilarious and allowing the child to take the lead.
  2. Getting to know our community: dragged along on walks to the library, hairdresser, dentist, news agent, it wasn’t long before Horace and Happy were well known in our town, and gave my children an excuse to practice talking to adults overcoming shyness. Both children have chosen voices that they use to speak as Happy and Horace, which they can often find even if they can’t find their own.
  3. Behavioural stumbling blocks: when going through tough times – the arrival of a new sibling, separation at pre-school, tears & tantrums – these raggedy heroes bore the brunt. They have been punch-bags, night watchmen and sick bed nurses. As a parent it is particularly useful for me to tackle jealousy or attention-seeking behaviour by exploring the issue through the cuddly, explaining to the child that I’ve noticed Horace has been a bit challenging recently – what do they think he is feeling? Shall we put Happy on the bottom step until he has calmed down and can talk nicely? You don’t feel like reading your school book – why not teach Horace how to read the first page, then maybe Mummy will help him to read the rest to you?
  4. Battling the war of materialism! When money gets tight it is useful to have a special toy that demonstrates the power of devotion and loyalty. When we were waiting in the late night pharmacy the other day, ill and bedraggled, we held our special loves up against all the new fluffy toys on the shelves and noticed how different they looked. Why did they look different? Because we could see the love all over them, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. On bored days, we have made new hats, costumes, masks for our old favourites, rather than trading in old for new.
  5. The power of imaginative thought: one of my most powerful childhood memories was approaching my Mum when she was baking in the kitchen and saying in an important voice that I had just remembered it was Belinda the Bunny’s birthday – we needed to throw an urgent party! My Mum would never say ‘Not now’ but react in deadly seriousness that she would immediately fill small bowls with party food and sandwiches, I could even help her make a cake. The gift that this selfless act taught me was that my creativity was important, my spontaneity was valued, my magical world had the potency to be real to another – it gave me my artistic centre and made me feel capable of anything.

The Verdict:

I cannot imagine how my children could have survived their childhood without these beloved comrades. Sometimes my eldest experiments with testing his love for his cuddly by saying “But Horace, you’re only a toy!” to which I respond (in Horace’s voice) “How dare you! I’m not only a toy! I am a real bear with real feelings and I really love you and will do forever!” and my son joyously throws his arms around his bear, and says “I know you are – I was only teasing!” Compassion, companionship, and a rich imagination have grown from the strength of this bond. Having an alter-ego as you grow gives you the chance to experiment with right and wrong, taking the leap whilst holding hands with someone.

Catchphrase: Can we take Horace and Happy too? Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without them.

Left wanting more?

If your child is bored they can make a song, a book, a painting, a costume, decorate a cake for their special toy. Allow your child to shine in showing how they have learnt to care for another, feeling the warmth of giving rather than receiving, and then you will always be able to tell your child how they are so caring and kind.