Monday, December 28, 2009

20 Simple Travel Games for Children: Stimulating Language & Thinking

This post is a follow on from my last post 'Children's Holiday Activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning' (here), it is also pretty much a repeat of a similar post in July. This time I've just focussed on great language games that can be easily played in the car on long (or short) journeys. Many of them could also be played in a bus, or in some cases, a train. I've tried to keep the ideas simple and adaptable for use with children of varied ages. I've included a number of games that we played with our children in the car when they were young, some I used when teaching and a few new ones that I'd love to play with my grandchildren. Most of the new ones are adaptations of some activities from a great resource published by Usborne Children's books, '50 things to do on a journey' (here). This great resource has a range of written and verbal activities that cover literacy, mathematics and general knowledge. My focus in this post is on language and thinking. One thing to note about these games is that you don't have to play every one of them competitively. If you do, you might need to handicap older children.

1. Sound word categories

You start this game by agreeing on 3-5 categories (depending on the age of the children and their vocabularies) for which people will have to be able to think of words that belong to them; for example, an insect, flower, person, country, girl's name, action word. Someone chooses a letter (maybe Mum or Dad to make sure that it isn't too hard) that has to be used by everyone and is applied to each category. The fastest person to quickly name their words earns 3 points, the second gets 2 and the third 1. So for the letter 'f' and the three categories insect, country and girl's name you could say fly, France and Fiona. A parent usually acts as the timer.

2. Top 6 (or 10 if your children get to be good at it)

This activity is a variation on the previous 'Sound Word Categories'. You vary it by choosing a category and then seeing if someone can list 6-10 words that fit the category. For example, think of 10 car names, dogs, books, insects, snakes, footballers etc. The person who thinks of the most words in a category wins.

3. Rhyming words

Pick a word that is easy to rhyme with other real words. Each person takes a turn. The winner is the person who is the last one to think of a rhyming word. For example, heat, seat, meat, bleat, sleet, neat, pleat..... If the children are older they can write the words down simultaneously.

4. Don't say yes

This is a slightly harder game but lots of fun. One person has to answer questions and the others get to ask them questions to which the answer is obviously 'yes', but they must answer every question truthfully without saying 'yes'. If they do say 'yes', or can't answer, the turn ends and the person asking the question earns a point. For example, Karen is asked, "Do you like ice-cream"? To which she might answer, "Most people like milk-based products that are cold." The next person in the car asks a question, but it mustn't be simply the same question. For example, they could ask, "Do you like milk-based products in cones?" To which the reply might be, "Some I like to eat in a wafer case."

5. Spotto......

One of our family's favourite games in the car was 'Spotto windmill'. We lived in the country and often drove for 5-6 hours towards the coast. In key areas there were lots of windmills pumping water for stock. But you don't have to use windmills; you can spot billboards, bridges, trees, birds, and animals, almost anything that is common. The game can be concluded in various ways, such as the first to 30, ending it at a specific landmark or just stopping when you're tired of it or you run out of windmills (or whatever).

6. What's your job

This game starts with someone thinking of a job. Others then guess by trying to find out details about what the person does, where they work, they use tools, what skills you need etc. The skill is in asking just the right questions. Does this person work outdoors? Do they drive something? Do they use special tools? Can they work alone? etc. The aim is to see who can get it right. Every person in the car takes it in turns to ask a question and you keep rotating until someone gets it right. That person gets to pick the next job and it all starts over again.

7. Guess my song

Someone picks a song and they have to hum the first line. Everyone in the car has one guess then the person hums an extra line if no-one gets it after the first round. This continues until someone gets the song.

8. Guess the person

One person in the car thinks of a person everyone knows (e.g. a family member, TV star, book character, teacher, cartoon character, famous person), and then everyone takes turns to ask a question about them. Is it a man or a woman? Are they young or old? Does she have black hair? Does he wear glasses? Is she famous?

9. I Spy..

This is a well-known game. It can be varied for young children by simply asking for categories rather than insisting on letter names or sounds. So the variations can include: "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with" 'p' (letter name) or 'p' (sound name) or even, "that is green". The last variation is a good way to involve very young children and the categories can be very varied. "I spy with my little eye a thing that ...." is black...or, a little thing that bites... or, a person who likes coffee... or, a thing the car has to stop at etc.

10. Back to back words

People think of words that begin the way the last word ends. You will need to demonstrate this a few times and it isn't that suitable for children under 6 years. It might go like this: pot, tree, egg, goat, top, pot, turtle, elf, fog, goldfish. You can make the game harder for older children if you like by asking for the words to fit specific single categories like animals, names, places.

11. Who lives there?

This is a great game. Wait till you stop at traffic lights or you are travelling slowly enough to see a house long enough to remember some details. People take turns adding details to describe who might live there. This can be very creative or an accurate set of predictions. Each player builds (plausibly) on the previous person's clues. For example, first person says, "a mother lives there with her three children". The next person says, "the children are aged 3, 7 and 16". The next person says, "their names are, Sue, Pickle and Wobble.". The next says, "Wobble is named after his Dad (Bobble) who is on a round the world yacht trip" etc. When people run out of ideas you start again. You could vary this by choosing a car. The first person might say, "That car has a family of three children and their parents heading for the seaside".

12. Twenty questions

This starts with someone choosing an object, person, place, country etc that others have to identify. The others in the car have a chance to ask questions (maximum of 20 for each thing chosen). The questions are answered with a 'yes' or a 'no'. When someone thinks they know it they can guess. You can score this different ways (or not all). The person whose word is not guessed can score points as can the person who guesses correctly.

13. Memory game

There are many memory games, but a common one involves thinking of things that are in the car (or the boot/trunk), an imaginary backpack, suitcase, the kitchen at home, the beach where you'll visit. The people in the car add an item to a list and the next person must repeat previous details and add their own. People are eliminated when they forget an item. So it could start like this: "In the car we have a radio", to which someone says, "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel", which could become "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel, plus a pesky sister.....". A parent might write them down as you progress to avoid disputes.

14. Never-ending story

This game has two main forms, a single word version and a sentence version. In the word version people in the car take turns adding to a story one word at a time. It might go like this: "It", "was", "the", "first", "day", "of", "the", "monster's", "summer", "camp"....and so on. The members of the game try to make it impossible to add to the story because the last word is pretty much the last word.

The sentence version is slightly more complex but just as much fun.

15. Word association

This game is a bit trickier but can be handled by children 6+. Someone starts with a word and the next person has to add a word that has an association. Using just nouns and verbs is easiest. The game ends when a word is repeated or someone is stuck. You can have winners and losers if you want but it isn't necessary. Here's how it might go. "Dogs", "bark", "bones", "kennel", "growl", "fleas", "wag", "tail", "scratch" etc.

16. Who am I?

The first player thinks of the name of someone who everyone will know then gives a clue about their identity, for example, Big Bird, a relative, a cartoon character etc. The people in the car then take turns trying to guess who it is. If they get it then they have a turn at choosing the identity. For example, if the player chose 'Bob the Builder' they might start like this: "I fix things".

17. Oh no!

This is a great idea for 3-4 people in a car. Someone starts a story with the words "Oh no!" followed by a simple statement. They might say, "Oh no! There's a spider in my pocket." People then take it in turns to add to the story using "but" as their first word to turn a serious circumstance into a not so serious one, and vice versa. They might add, "But it is only plastic". To which someone might say, "but it has dynamite in it". This continues until the players get sick of it or until everyone agrees that an appropriate ending has been found.

18. Special choices
This game requires people to choose between two options and give their reasons. Someone has to come up with the choice. For example, "If I had to choose between snakes or caterpillars" might receive the responses" "I'd choose caterpillars because I'm a robin", or "I'd choose a snake to surprise my teacher" and so on.

19. Twenty-Five

The first person chooses a letter or sound at random. Each person then needs to write down (or say) 25 things inside or outside the car that begin with the letter. The game ends either by at the end of set time (say 3 minutes) and the points are tallied. You can score many ways, such as 1 point for every correct word or 1 for each word and 3-5 for each unique word.

20. Teapot This game starts with one player picking a verb (action/doing word). The other players in the car then have to ask questions about the verb, but they replace it with the word "teapot." For example, if the word is "swim", the first question asked might be, "Do cars teapot?" Of the course the answer is "No." Players keep asking questions until someone guesses the verb.
'50 Things to do on a journey', Usborne Activity Cards.

'Children's Holiday Activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'.

'Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 1

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 2

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Children's Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning

Australian school children have just commenced summer holidays. This is a time when parents can find children challenging. It is probably even more challenging for northern hemisphere parents who have children locked inside during cold winter weather. It is so easy for children to become bored in the holidays when their daily routines are suddenly changed. I've written a variety of posts on 'Stimulating Language and Literacy Learning' last year (here & here) and wrote a post similar to this one to coincide with the northern hemisphere summer (in July). My assumption is that you will be responsible for one or more children for a period of at least a couple of weeks. I'll offer some general hints then simply list 30 ideas that I think will work with most kids.

A few basics hints:
  • Have a strategy for the holidays - map out a timetable (post it on the wall) and try to plan a few significant events and think through the general structure of each day.
  • If you have younger children still at home, being joined by school kids on holidays, try to think about how you will cope with all their interests and think about varying daily routines a little.
  • Pace yourself - don't use all your best ideas in the first few days (you'll wear them and yourself out and you'll struggle to keep up the variation later).
  • Expect bad weather - think about some ideas that will work in rainy weather as well. It's called the "Law of Holidays" - expect lots of wet weather and a day or two of sick kids.
Here are 30 simple ideas

Books with a difference

1. Pick some special books they haven't seen - try to borrow or buy at least 2 books for each child that you think they'll enjoy. For young children these will end up being read and re-read many times. You don't have to buy them, visit a library or buy them cheaply at the local opportunity shop (most have lots of books). See my post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here.

2. Books as a creative stimulus - While the shear joy of the book is usually enough, sometimes books can stimulate many wonderful creative activities. For example:
  • After reading Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things are" go outside and dramatise it. Let one child be Max and let others take turns at being the wild things. Make a boat out of bits of wood, or even have a go at making one out of a large cardboard box (or several).
  • After reading Jeannie Baker's book "Where the Forest Meets the Sea" (a book about the Daintree Rainforest in which all the pictures are collage) encourage them to make a collage out of natural materials (and maybe some wool, straws etc to supplement) in response to Baker's pictures. Or read a second book and have them use collage in response.
  • After reading Graeme Base's "The Waterhole" get them to paint the waterhole (they can draw the animals, cut them out and paste them around the waterhole).
3. Books in cars - Some children don't like reading in cars (and some get car sick) so why not try a read aloud book (book with a CD). It will help to make a long trip shorter. I'll repeat my post on this topic in the next week or so (the original post is here).

4. Dramatisation - Dramatisation is an excellent way to respond to a book. If you have a dress-up box all the better. Let your children either re-tell the story through dramatisation or improvise. Get involved to help set the pattern for turn taking etc. I play a mean wolf, and an even better Grandma!


5. Free writing - Encourage all children (even as young as 1 year-old) to 'write'. Give them some paper and ask them to write. Write with them. You can make up some lined books with a cover and suggest that that they tell a story in words and pictures. Even 3-4 year-olds will give the words a go. See my previous post on writing (here).

6. Diaries and journals - Introduce older children to diaries or holiday journals.

7. A holiday blog - Tech savvy mums and dads might encourage their children to write online. Why not set up a family blog that can be read by friends and relatives (even if only for two weeks). You could use this as part of a trip away, or just use it at home. Older children could set up the blog themselves and all family members could contribute. Let them have access to a digital camera and a scanner and the sky is the limit.

8. Start a family joke or riddle book - give them some jokes as models ("Knock, knock", "Why did the centipede cross the road"....)

9. Email or letter exchange - Encourage your children to write letters, send postcards or send emails to relatives and friends.


In a two-week holiday I'd aim to plan 3-4 outings. Some outings cost nothing; others do come at a price. Here are a few ideas:

10. Zoos or wildlife parks - If you're in the city the zoo takes a lot of beating. It's expensive one-off, but a Zoo Friends' program (e.g. Taronga Park Zoo, Sydney) will enable you to go whenever you like for about the cost of 3 family trips. If you live in Sydney a cheaper option (but a good one) is Featherdale Wildlife Park at Blacktown and the kids will get VERY close to the animals (and will be able to feed them) in a small and friendly park with lots of free parking. Again in Sydney there is our wonderful Aquarium (book online it's cheaper).

11. Visit a museum or art gallery - In Sydney we have many including the Australian Museum in College Street, the Power House and the Museum of Sydney. The Australian Museum has a wonderful dinosaur exhibition. The Maritime Museum is worth a visit.

12. Visit an historic site - There are free sites and some that charge. In Sydney it's free to visit La Perouse including Captain Cook's landing place. But you can pay reasonable admission prices to go to places like Elizabeth Farm, Old Government House (Parramattta) and the Hyde Park Barracks (one of my favourites).

NOTE: If you're not in Sydney this is no excuse; most towns of 10,000+ people have significant places to visit. For example, Bathurst (NSW) has the Australian Mineral and Fossil Museum in Bathurst (NSW) is a stunning museum that will get any child interested in rocks! As well it has the Bathurst Sheep & Cattle Drome. Sovereign Hill is a replica of an early Australian gold rush town and its in regional Ballarat (Vic). You can visit Timber Town, that re-creates an early Australian mill town in the 1800s, at Wauchope (near Port Macquarie) on the NSW mid-north coastal region.

13. Walks - In most places you will find national parks, botanic gardens or physical features and locations worth visiting. Remember that boys in particular love open spaces. Give them an oval and they'll run around for hours rumbling, throwing balls and chasing other people. If you want something more structured and planned and you live on the coast, why not explore some beaches (you don't have to swim in winter). In Sydney John Wells has documented all 150 of Sydney's beaches complete with public transport advice and things to do - this is a classic non-commercial website. You can have fun even in winter. Rug up and collect shells, rocks and just fossick.


14. The cinema - On wet days movies are perfect. In Australia Tuesday is usually half price at many theatres so this is the perfect time to go. As usual there many new release movies - 'Where the Wild Things are' is just out on the big screen (although don't take this as recommendation to view it).

15. Plan a home movie night - get a good DVD, spread out blankets and pillows on the floor, dim the lights, make some popcorn or make some pizza. There are so many good children's movies to choose from, some of which relate to well-known books. This is a good way to get your children to read the book, particularly if it is a challenging read. In Australia 'Ice Age 3' is out on DVD.


If you're imaginative you can come up with your own ideas. If you're not, and want a good website try Kids Craft Weekly (which is outstanding).

16. Planned craft could include - simple beadwork, noodle craft, mask making, making plaster moulds (and painting them), anything for young children that requires paper tearing, gluing, glitter, stickers.

17. Simple activity books - Discount shops like Reject Shops, Teks, Go-Lo etc often have stacks of colouring in books, dot-to-dot, alphabet, pre-reading etc. Not really all craft, but they combine some colouring with word play etc (don't do too much of this).

18. Unstructured creative craft needs materials - Stock up when you go to the supermarket with simple materials like paper plates (good for masks), brown paper bags, sticky tape, glue, cotton balls, tooth picks, paper cupcake holders, straws (cutting up and threading), noodles (for threading).

19. Reverse Garbage - The Reverse Garbage is a not-for-profit co-operative that sells industrial discards, off-cuts and over-runs to the public for creative uses. They have been operating in Marrickville for 31 years (this one is for Sydney people only, but there may be equivalents in other places). Take the kids as an excursion, let them choose some stuff then take it home to use.

Creative Play

I've written a number of previous posts on play (here) but planning for play is important. While you can say to your children go outside and 'play', doing some simple planning at times will lead to more stimulating play times.

20. Dress-up box - If you don't have one take the kids to the Op shop to start one. You might even pick up some gems like old helmets, hats, belts (you can cut them down), handbags etc.

21. Water play - This is hard in winter, but maybe you could make bath-time special for littlies with extra bubbles, different stuff to take in it. In warmer weather give them a bucket of water and some things to scoop, sieve etc - BUT ONLY UNDER SUPERVISION, kids can drown in a few inches of water, even in a bucket.

22. Play dough - Carmen's can't fail recipe is 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 cup of plain flour, 0.5 cup of cooking salt, 2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar, 1 cup of water, colouring. Mix together and put in a saucepan on medium heat until it binds together, stirring all the time. Fold together by hand. If you keep it in a sealed plastic bag it will last for ages in or outside the fridge.

There are endless things to do with play dough. Try to move beyond just cutting out shapes (which kids still love). Encourage them to make a house, a farmyard, a bed, and an aquarium. Use some plastic animals with the play dough or small plastic people. If you don't mind tossing the play dough out you can let them use sticks, plants etc to make simple dioramas. Kids will create complex stories as they manipulate the play dough.

Above: Jacob (5), Rebecca (3) and Elsie 18 months playing with play dough

23. Bubbles - You can't go wrong with bubbles.

24. Balloons - Blow them up, let them go, kick them around, let out the air to make noises (boys love it!), try some helion balloons and let them go, etc.

25. Build a cubby house - No not with wood, just use a table, some chairs, wardrobes (hitch the blankets into the top of the doors, some pegs and sheets and blankets. By draping them over other objects you should be able to create a special space (about 2x2 metres is enough for three small kids). Try to get at least 1.5 metres of height. Have the kids 'help' and then get them to collect some special things to have in the cubby. Use a toy box for a table, some cushions to sit on. I always let my grandchildren have my cheap transistor radio from my shed (lots of fun). Girls might like a tea set; boys will collect animals and toys, both will like books. If you're up to it, climb in as well and read some stories. They'll like the edges tucked in to cut out light so you might need a torch. I've seen a cubby of this kind amuse kids for half a day. Then of course for the adventurous you can share some snack food as well.

Above: Jacob in a 'house' that he made (with help) from a box we saved

Indoor and back yard fun

26. Treasure hunts - Write the clues on paper using words and pictures depending on ages and make the treasure worthwhile (chocolate, a coupon for an ice cream in the kitchen etc).

27. Board games (see my previous post here)

28. Cooking - Kids love cooking with their mothers or fathers. Do simple stuff; my daughter Nicole has talked about this a number of times on her blog 168 Hours.

29. Household chores - I know that Nicole has blogged on this too; Jake and Rebecca just loved washing the outside windows. Give them a bucket, sponges, scraper etc and they'll have fun. They'll enjoy gardening as well (give them a confined and simple task) if you do it with them.

30. Scavenger hunts - There are endless ideas for this activity and it is great in the park or in a yard. For a great variation try an insect scavenger hunt (one of my grandchildren's favourite activities). You'll be surprised just how many you can find. You'll to be careful turning rocks over and digging around, but even in Australia it's low risk if you supervise. Place a pile of bricks in a damp place and then let the kids help you to uncover them a few days later - watch the critters scurry.

Some good kids websites (just a sample)

Kids websites will also provide hours of focused fun activities for children. Here are a few examples:

Postman Pat
Clifford the big red dog
Animal homes (games etc)
The Playground ABC Kids
Thomas and Friends
Kids Discovery (older kids) - play games; build your own volcano etc
Google Earth (older kids can explore their world)

I hope the ideas in both posts offer a few new ideas, or maybe just reminders of things you have forgotten. With all the ideas the aim has been to:
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Use their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deliberate Play

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I place a high value on play (see all posts on play here). I have argued previously that play:
  • Is best when kept simple (see previous post here).
  • Can be structured and unstructured.
  • Can be self-initiated or initiated by others (especially parents and preschool teachers and carers).
  • Has extraordinary potential to develop creativity and problem solving.
  • Offers countless opportunities for children to learn.
However, there is a fine line between being deliberate in play and simply taking over the child’s play to turn it into school. While I’ve said before that we need to be careful not to make every instance of play a lesson, in the busyness of life it’s far more likely that we’ll do the opposite, that is, we’ll just let our children amuse themselves. While it’s important for any child to do just this, and parents can’t be on task all day, play offers a wonderful opportunity for children to learn many things. I would suggest that just as we say that parents should read to their children each day, I believe that parents should also be more deliberate about stimulating learning in at least one period of play each day.

This post is about how we can do this. I want to share an example of a play situation with one of my grandchildren just last week and then tease out some of things that I was doing.

Cooking with Sam

My grandson Samuel (who turns 4 in three months) loves lots of games – cars, Thomas trains, kicking balls (in fact all sports), rumbling, painting, cooking etc. When he was staying last week after playing with cars for 30 minutes, he pointed to a box of children’s kitchen cooking utensils and imitation food, and indicated that he wanted to “play with these”. I took a plastic children’s table outside and set up the utensils and ‘food’. My wife Carmen said, “put the sheet underneath, he’s used to pretty messy cooking” (see opposite). Carmen often lets our grandchildren have noodles, water, playdough, rice and flour which they ‘cook with’ outside. She would also have a dish of water and a towel on hand, and it’s always outside in the yard or on the back patio. Our grandchildren ‘bake’ cakes in an imaginary oven under one of my garden seats. When I discover some of their dishes days later, they are usually mouldy and definitely not edible. I decided for a more basic imaginary cooking session with Sam, no flour, rice, water etc. just plastic food, some utensils and lots of imagination.

Here’s roughly how it went.

Could I have a salad sandwich Sam”, handing Sam some of the food.
Okay”, says Sam. “You need toast too”.
All right, and don’t forget the tomato”.

Sam cooked and I ate most of the time. The dishes moved from assorted sandwiches, to toasted sandwiches, to cooked chicken, an unusual fruit stew, fruit soup, fruit salad etc. We made cups of tea (with milk and sugar) and drank them between the many courses. Occasionally, I would take over the cooking and give him one of my specialities – pineapple and strawberry pie, chicken casserole and so on. We sustained the cooking for almost an hour and only then stopped because it was almost our lunchtime.

What I was teaching Sam

Throughout the cooking I was conscious that there were some things that I was trying to teach Sam. Some of these emerged simply as a result of the play. For example, I noticed that when I asked Sam for a spoon that sometimes he grabbed a fork. So throughout our extensive meals I made sure that I kept asking him for a full set of cutlery – “and don’t forget my spoon”. But there were many other learning opportunities that the cooking activity offered. Here are just some that I can recall:

  • I was constantly introducing new or reinforcing old vocabulary – stew, soup, bake, fry, heat, cool, stir, serve, cucumber, salt, lifter, pot holder, strainer.
  • I was constantly reinforcing language concepts – off/on, hotter/colder, sharp/blunt, high/low and sweet/sour.
  • I was modelling some of the speech sounds that he still has to learn, particularly some initial consonant blends (e.g. ‘tr’).
  • I was reinforcing social conventions and manners – “Could you pass me the tea please?” “I’d like sugar as well, please.” “Would you like some soup Sam?” “Could you help me clear the table please Sam?
  • I was teaching him about safety – “use the pot holder Sam, that’s hot!
  • I was reinforcing basic language recount structure – as I structured a meal situation (over and over again), I was demonstrating the basic elements of recount - first we do this, then this, followed by that etc. This type of structure is the foundation of the recount structure that is often used to tell about the events of the day when you ask your child (for example) to “tell Daddy what happened today”.
Summing up

This type of play where an adult tries to more systematically provide opportunities for children’s learning is very important. While the example I have used was structured around cooking, it could just as easily have been focussed on water play, cars, playing in the dolls house, the sand pit, play dough etc. I believe that some of this type of play should occur each day at home. This type of play, which I call "Deliberate Play", involves an adult more systematically reinforcing a variety of things that you are trying to teach your child. While the aim is still to play, you are more consciously observing your child's learning and offering support. If you’re reading this as a preschool teacher, then you will recognise that these opportunities will usually be group activities or occur within learning centres. While you may be interacting with 4-6 children, all will have the opportunity to learn even if you are spreading your targeted comments or questions around the group. I hope that parents and preschool carers and teachers can recognise in the example above some of things that you do each day with your own children. At the very least I hope that this will reinforce some of the ways we can support our children’s learning through play.

Related Posts

'The Role of Adults in Play' (here)
All my previous posts on play (here)
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' (here)
'Guiding Children's Learning' (here)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Children's books that tell the story of Christmas

I did a post on Christmas last year as part of the 'Key Themes in Literature' series (here), but I thought that I'd update the information and post it again. Christmas is a major celebration in most western countries and is arguably the largest religious celebration in the world. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago, the Christmas story is told and retold in varied forms in many Australian families and also in our schools. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson publish a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here)

There are also many wonderful works of literature that build on the Christmas theme. Some of these are quite faithful to the traditional telling while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, typically love, devotion, kindness and sacrifice. Here are some of best examples that I know of. I'd be keen to hear of any others that you like.

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. Then Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their ideas of what Jesus was like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately (my daughter is reading it to her children this Christmas here).

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Dick Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching. For example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice. Some examples:

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (see my daughter's post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. This probably deserves to be in its own category. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. This new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is arguably one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree which offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley, but he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.

3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore. There are many published editions of this classic poem, but one I like is the board version compiled by Harold Darling and Cooper for preschoolers.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of alittle girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what the will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!

Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald. This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.

Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun

The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie.

Summing Up

There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Improving Comprehension: Map Making

The need for 'deep' reading

As I said in my first post in this series on 'Improving Comprehension', we need to encourage ‘deep’ reading. For example, with the reading of literature we want children not only to be able to read the words and follow a basic narrative plot, we want them " grasp the richness of characterization, the devices the author uses to create mood and tension, the intent and purpose of the writer and the language devices employed; all the while being moved by the text and able to reflect and respond critically to it."

I also suggested in the first post (citing Corcoran & Evans, 1987) that one helpful way to do this is by using a framework that targets some of the major categories of mental activity that relate to the reading of literature:
Picturing and imaging - developing a rich mental picture.
Anticipating and restrospecting - predicting upcoming events, or reflecting on the ideas in the book.
Engagement and construction – becoming emotionally involved in the text, identifying with characters and situations.
Valuing and evaluating - making judgements about a text and its worth, as well as applying their own value judgements to the events and situations that unfold.
In this post I want to look at mapping, which I have also written about in my book 'Pathways to Literacy' (here).

The Purpose of Maps for Reading

My first post on 'Improving Comprehension' was concerned with ‘Sketch to Stretch’ (Cairney, 1990). This strategy involves asking children to sketch in response to reading, hearing or even viewing a story (here). The strategy of 'Map Making' also involves drawing and similarly helps the reader to build a rich mental picture as they read and to engage more deeply with the text. More specifically it helps the reader to:
  • gain a clearer sense of the setting;
  • engage more deeply with the plot; and
  • establish more clearly the sequence of events and recall them in greater depth.
How to use the strategy

Mapping can occur during and after reading. Some books also include their own maps that are designed to help the reader connect the events of the story to space. For example, 'Watership Down', 'The Hobbit' (see opposite) 'The Sign of the Seahorse' and 'My Place' to name just a few. The latter uses maps on every page to help the reader build a richer understanding of the important issues that the book raise about Indigenous Australians (see my previous post on this book HERE).

Getting readers to draw maps can be done at varied points in the reading process:
You can show readers a map before they read the story and briefly talk about the story's setting.
You can ask your children to draw a map after the reading to help them recall the story and integrate elements of the plot.
You can ask your children to draw a map or plan after the reading and then have them use it to explain what the story was about.
The example below (also reproduced in my book 'Pathways to Literacy') was drawn by a year 6 child part way through the reading of Roald Dahl's biography 'Boy: Tales of Childhood'. The mapping strategy was used after my students had read the chapter titled 'The magic island' which tells of a journey by boat from Newcastle upon Tyne to Norway. After reading the chapter I asked my students to draw a map of the journey to help them recall the details. What the drawing shows is just how detailed this child's recall was and how well it enabled the reader to recall not just the setting but the journey as well.

Summing up

Mapping is a helpful way to encourage readers to gain a rich impression of the setting and in the process, to recall the essential details of the story.

Related Posts

I’ve written extensively about comprehension in my various books (for example here and here) and in articles in academic journals.

My previous post on 'Sketch to Stretch' (here).

All previous posts on comprehension (here)