Showing posts with label parenting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parenting. Show all posts

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Are we blindly in love with our children?

The well-known Australian author John Marsden recently wrote a short piece in the Australian College of Educators publication 'Professional Educator' (Vol 13, Issue 3). As well as being a great author of children's and young adult books, he runs an alternative school in rural Victoria (Australia) for about 150 children called Candlebark. His key criteria for building the perfect school include having lots of space, interesting buildings, good resources, a challenging playground, great Internet and a variety of farm animals.

Like many teachers and principals he has some common concerns about education. For example, he's concerned about bullying. But not bullying by children of other children, he's concerned about bullying by parents of teachers and principals. How does he experience this bullying? In his words, at the hands of people who he describes as "in love" with their children. He describes it this way:
"We are seeing an epidemic of terrible parenting at the moment. Not just the familiar benign (and sometimes malign) neglect of decades past, but a new phenomenon: educated middle-class parents who don't just love their children, but are in love with them. This is another manifestation of narcissism. The fruit of their loins must be superior to every other child who has walked the earth... such parents agonise over every little disappointment their child suffers, lavish them with praise when they manage to eat a green bean ('We are so proud of you'), record every moment of their lives on camera, encourage them to parrot adult phrases at each other ('Scott you hurt my feelings when you took my pencil sharpener yesterday'), manipulate their friendships and encourage their feuds... In short, they minimise their children's transgressions, block the school's attempts to create a culture with consistent values, have no regard for those who are hurt by their children's narcissism, and blame the school for the child's aberrant behaviour. They are doing awful damage, irreparable damage, to their kids."
These are strong words, but John Marsden isn't the first teacher or principal to say such things. But before every parent becomes defensive at his words, it might be helpful to use his comments to shine a light on our parenting skills and our attitudes towards schools and teachers. I haven't taught for many years in a primary school, but when I did I can't say I had the experience that Marsden describes. As a teacher I had a position of authority that was respected. This meant that parents didn't question my every move, nor the sometimes critical comments I made about their children. Their first reaction was not immediately to defend their child. As a child if ever I complained about my teachers my Dad would typically say, "you probably deserved to be punished". We need to teach our children to show respect for their parents, for teachers and in fact for all people in society who fulfil roles with some authority. We also need to demonstrate some respect for them ourselves.

Above: My one-teacher school

When I took action as a teacher parents usually stood with me rather than in opposition to me. I can recall one memorable morning when I was teaching in a one-teacher school (I had 31 children across seven grades). I was standing in the driveway before school as parents and children were arriving. A child in year 3 was abusing his mother as he was getting out of the car. I grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out and said sternly, "I don't ever want to hear you speak to your mother like that again". His mother thanked me and she went home.  If I did this today I would probably be disciplined for grabbing the child, and the parent might well tell be to butt out of their parenting.

I saw a daytime breakfast host stand recently stand up on the set when a policeman walked in as a guest. The other panellists looked at her, laughed and asked, "Why are you standing"? She replied, "it was spontaneous, my father always taught me to stand whenever a policeman entered a room". It was a ritual that was a sign of respect. Another example comes from a school I visited this week, where there is a daily ritual of unknown origin that they say has been around for years. At the end of the day as students file out of the room their teacher is standing at the door to shake the hand of each student. The child thanks the teacher and in turn, the teacher thanks the child. The above examples are small things, but they show a respect for teachers and others in authority, which is sadly lacking in communities today. I suspect that this is more than just a minor lack of manners and etiquette; it shows something much deeper about parenting and how we raise our children. I think we need to take heed of John Marsden's wise (and confronting) words; there is great wisdom in what he has to say.




Monday, June 25, 2012

The over-achieving parent: It could be you!

I had a scary experience recently at a park in the inner-west of Sydney while I was out with one of my daughters, her husband and two of their children. This was a time for all of us to play and have fun together. To climb on everything that could be climbed, dig sand with the mechanical shovel, pretend we were warriors defending our stone fort, trying desperately to keep the marauding hordes at bay (my grandson Sam and I were the warriors, and the hordes were, well... the local pigeons!). It was also a time to see how fast we could go down the slippery dip (that is, the kids plus my son-in-law), and for my grandson and me to ramble along the shore nearby to collect some sticks (vital to create arrows, never destined to be fired), look at emerging mangroves, discuss the wind turbine, talk about the difference between light rail and heavy rail trains, read a sign that spoke of re-vegetation near the water's edge and discuss how mangrove trees grow in water. We also discussed how people were being kept off the site, talked about the working harbour across the bay, peered at distant buildings and Sydney's great bridges and so on. There was even time for an ice cream. All the while we were there we were talking, telling each other stories, occasionally bursting into rhyme, song and laughter. It was a wonderfully enjoyable and rich time of learning.


And then something scary happened. My daughter and I noticed a woman talking VERY loudly on her mobile phone. She was there with her 7-8 year-old son who had just finished a game of Australian Rules football on an adjoining oval. It was one of those conversations that was difficult not to hear, or not to listen to, as painful as it was. I kept wondering (as did my daughter), is this lady serious? We eventually left the sandpit just near where she was sitting, led by the children to the next fun 'station'! But each time we came back near the sandpit, she seemed to be still talking loudly to the same person about the same content, and her son was still playing by himself. I'd estimate that her phone conversation lasted for over 30 minutes, most of the time they were at the park.  The following is the mum's side of the conversation. It reflects the rough record of the encounter hastily written down later on my iPhone. The conversation of course is not continuous, but it would seem that it was rather repetitive and cyclical, so it seems almost linear:

"I'm worried about his school work."
"He's under-performing, because he's deliberately not putting in the effort because he's scared he's going to lose."
"He got 73% in maths, but that was the bottom 20 in year so he got a pass..."
"It's hard for me because I'm not in classroom. I can't control what goes on there."
"He needs a goal..like, you know, what do you want to achieve with each task. So in spelling it would be every word correct, all sentence structure complete..."
"They need to tell him, now look at your portfolio and set a goal. Don't necessarily aim for 5 [i.e. I assume the reporting uses a 5 point assessment scale]. But 2x 4's and the rest 3's...."
"That will be enough to say he's succeeded this semester."
"Then we make them harder goals next semester."
"Just like in his AFL, we need to measure success. He may not win the game, but set goals, this game.. I may lose 8-20, next game 8-16."
"I'm not going to let you bench yourself because you can't 'win'."
"He needs mental toughness."

Now, I have to say that I wasn't using listening equipment, nor was my daughter. This was an animated conversation you could hear across the park. I need also to stress, that this mother no doubt loves her son and wants to do the best things she can for him. But I found this a scary conversation because I suspect that what she is doing is not in his best interests at all. Why? Let me give you just five reasons.

First, here is a parent for whom the judgement of the worth of her son's life seems to be shaped in a major way by the need for him to be successful as assessed on a limited range of academic attainment measures at school.
Second, here is parent who cannot accept that her son might not outperform the majority of his age cohort.
Third, here is a mother who wants to control her child's life so much that she almost cannot cope because she can't be in the classroom directing it.
Fourth, here is a mother who is failing to grasp that her son has worth that cannot be measured in the way she and the school is trying to do it.
Fifth, here is a mother that has missed the chance to have a variety of rich experiences with her son that she would struggle to have in many other ways.

What had both the boy and the mother missed out on? The boy missed an opportunity to learn in a manner that isn't common in most schools. The mum missed the chance to interact with her son informally at a much deeper level and to enrich his knowledge and learning at the same time. Both missed the opportunity to strengthen their relationship, listen to each other and grow in their understanding of one another. This was a significant missed opportunity.

My encouragement to readers of this blog is that if you find yourself drifting in the same direction as this mother, take a 'chill pill', to quote some of the residents of my college. Then reassess your own expectations and ask yourself, "what is driving my expectations, and what might be the consequences if left unchecked?"

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Power of Simple Play

From the Archives - This is a revised version of a post on 23rd Nov 2009


The erosion of time for play

As I wrote in a post last year, children's play is seen by psychologists, educators and paediatricians as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a right of every child. But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded that many "....children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."

Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, in a recent edition of the Belfast Telegraph a report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of "unstructured, loosely supervised" playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

In our 'time poor' age where all parents want their children to be successful in life, there is a temptation to concentrate children's spare time on structured activities. But this may not be the best thing for them. The growth of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read' (reviewed on this blog here & here) is just one example of how this is happening. The program seeks to teach children to read from as early as 6-9 months. Play is critical for children's development; it isn't an optional extra in their lives.

The loss of 'simple' play

There is also a tendency in our age to buy children lots of complex toys that don't necessarily add much to their development anyway. Louisa recently made a useful comment about this on the 4th part of my earlier series on play (here) that I did last year. Far too often, modern toys that are lavished on most children in developed countries do little to develop creativity, problem solving and knowledge. Notwithstanding the fact that you buy wonderful educational toys that can stimulate development, unstructured and spontaneous play offers the best opportunities for the development of creativity, problem solving and learning.

In an interesting article, 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness', Elizabeth Jones has argued that:
In their play, children invent the world for themselves and create a place for themselves in it. They are re-creating their pasts and imagining their futures, while grounding themselves in the reality and fantasy of their lives here-and-now.
In the article I referred to earlier by Kenneth Ginsburg, he concludes that:
  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to healthy brain development.
  • Through play, children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
  • Through play children can also conquer their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
  • As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
  • When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
A simple example of creative unstructured play

I've shared many examples on this blog of unstructured and semi-structured play (check out all posts on play here). A recent example occurred just last week. I was visiting my daughter's for dinner and had a couple of hours to play with her three children (my grandchildren). My wife Carmen had bought two inexpensive packets ($2 each) of multi-coloured modelling clay with some adhesive eyes in the packets. I simply asked all three grandchildren would they like to make something. I joined in (as I often do). This is how the activity unfolded.

All three children chose some colours (I limited them to three sticks of clay at first to share the two packets three ways). Rebecca (5) and Elsie (almost 3) started making animals (a turtle, sheep, snake...), while Jacob (7) began making an invented animal with special body armour. Jacob's animal inspired me to make a strange space creature from a long thin sausage of clay; I called it a "Squiggle Monster". This led Jacob to create another even more unusual fox-like space creature. This led me to build a laser canon "for protection" against all the space creatures. The girls continued to independently create their animals. Rebecca wandered off to play another word game and Elsie kept making (and re-making) more animals.




Above: Rebecca's animals (left) and Elsie's (right)

Jacob and I had now developed quite a collection of strange space creatures and soon their destinies began to merge as we chattered about their bodies, dangerous protective weapons, sounds and so on. Barricades were built, several laser weapons positioned, force shields activated. And then...the battle began (with the demands of dinner all the while pressing in on us as we played on the dining table!). This simple activity generated lots of stimulation for all three children but in particular (on this occasion) for Jacob and Elsie. There was lots of creative thought, problem solving, hypothesising, rich language being used and so on:

"What colour can a Squiggle Monster be?" (Grandad) "Any" (Jacob)
"See these three eyes. They can see 500km." (Jacob)
"How does a Squiggle Monster die? I know, he just unravels." (Grandad)
"He's spitting acid." (Jacob)
"What's this animal Grandad?" (Elsie)
"Do you know why he can't get through the force field?" (Jacob)
"If I make this bigger will it stop them?" (Grandad)
"Look at mine Grandad". (Rebecca)
"See his rotating antennae?" (Jacob)
"What's a laser Grandad?" (Elsie)

Play doesn't need complex toys or structured activities for learning to occur, in fact, there is good evidence to suggest that play of the above type does more for creativity, problems solving, language and learning than lots of expensive toys.

Some quick practical implications from the above

So play is critical to children's development, and time is essential to create 'space' for play. There are challenges here for parents and teachers. How do we resist the temptation to structure children's life in and out of school so much that there is little opportunity for play? As well, how do we encourage children to spend time with other children engaging in play? Here are some quick suggestions:
  • Parents and teachers need to create and promote regular opportunities for free play.
  • Play should be as active as possible and where possible encourage interaction with others.
  • Remember that simplicity usually works best (remember the tendency of the baby to like the box rather than the toy!)
  • Play needs to be as child-centred as possible, not teacher centred or parent centred.
  • Try to provide access to materials and simple toys that stimulate imagination, creativity and problem solving.
  • Parents, teachers and caregivers should try to provide as much spontaneous time and play as possible.
  • Make good use of story, most play involves some type of inventive story telling.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers need to spend more time being good listeners and observers of children at play and be prepared to respond to, assist, offer materials, engage and ask questions rather than simply correcting, redirecting and controlling such play.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers should sponsor and support children having a range of interests that can be the springboard for play and learning.
Evaluating your child's play

If you wonder whether your child has sufficient good opportunities for play you might ask yourself the following questions:
How often does my child (or my children) have time for spontaneous play?
How often do I direct the play rather than responding to or supporting it?
How varied are my child's opportunities for play?
How often does my child have the opportunity to interact with others in creative play situations?
How often do I provide materials for creative play?
How often does my child's play stimulate creativity, problem solving, language use and learning?
How often do planned activities lead to creative play (e.g. TV or a story leads to play. Or, a lesson on some topic leads to playground play)?
What are your thoughts? Any ideas that seem to work?

Related links and resources

All posts on Play from this blog (HERE)

A recent post on creativity (mainly for teachers) HERE and another (mainly for parents) HERE

All my posts with relevance to creativity (HERE)

Elizabeth Jones article 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness'

Kenneth R. Ginsburg's report on play

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Importance of 'Simple' Play


The erosion of time for play

As I wrote in a post last year, children's play is seen by psychologists, educators and paediatricians as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a right of every child. But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded that many "....children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."

Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, in a recent edition of the Belfast Telegraph a report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of "unstructured, loosely supervised" playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

In our 'time poor' age where all parents want their children to be successful in life, there is a temptation to concentrate children's spare time on structured activities. But this may not be the best thing for them. The growth of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read' (reviewed on this blog here & here) is just one example of how this is happening. The program seeks to teach children to read from as early as 6-9 months. Play is critical for children's development; it isn't an optional extra in their lives.

The loss of 'simple' play

There is also a tendency in our age to buy children lots of complex toys that don't necessarily add much to their development anyway. Louisa recently made a useful comment about this on the 4th part of my earlier series on play (here) that I did last year. Far too often, modern toys that are lavished on most children in developed countries do little to develop creativity, problem solving and knowledge. Notwithstanding the fact that you buy wonderful educational toys that can stimulate development, unstructured and spontaneous play offers the best opportunities for the development of creativity, problem solving and learning.

In an interesting article, 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness', Elizabeth Jones has argued that:
In their play, children invent the world for themselves and create a place for themselves in it. They are re-creating their pasts and imagining their futures, while grounding themselves in the reality and fantasy of their lives here-and-now.
In the article I referred to earlier by Kenneth Ginsburg, he concludes that:
  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to healthy brain development.
  • Through play, children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
  • Through play children can also conquer their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
  • As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
  • When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
A simple example of creative unstructured play

I've shared many examples on this blog of unstructured and semi-structured play (check out all posts on play here). A recent example occurred just last week. I was visiting my daughter's for dinner and had a couple of hours to play with her three children (my grandchildren). My wife Carmen had bought two inexpensive packets ($2 each) of multi-coloured modelling clay with some adhesive eyes in the packets. I simply asked all three grandchildren would they like to make something. I joined in (as I often do). This is how the activity unfolded.

All three children chose some colours (I limited them to three sticks of clay at first to share the two packets three ways). Rebecca (5) and Elsie (almost 3) started making animals (a turtle, sheep, snake...), while Jacob (7) began making an invented animal with special body armour. Jacob's animal inspired me to make a strange space creature from a long thin sausage of clay; I called it a "Squiggle Monster". This led Jacob to create another even more unusual fox-like space creature. This led me to build a laser canon "for protection" against all the space creatures. The girls continued to independently create their animals. Rebecca wandered off to play another word game and Elsie kept making (and re-making) more animals.




Above: Rebecca's animals (left) and Elsie's (right)

Jacob and I had now developed quite a collection of strange space creatures and soon their destinies began to merge as we chattered about their bodies, dangerous protective weapons, sounds and so on. Barricades were built, several laser weapons positioned, force shields activated. And then...the battle began (with the demands of dinner all the while pressing in on us as we played on the dining table!). This simple activity generated lots of stimulation for all three children but in particular (on this occasion) for Jacob and Elsie. There was lots of creative thought, problem solving, hypothesising, rich language being used and so on:

"What colour can a Squiggle Monster be?" (Grandad) "Any" (Jacob)
"See these three eyes. They can see 500km." (Jacob)
"How does a Squiggle Monster die? I know, he just unravels." (Grandad)
"He's spitting acid." (Jacob)
"What's this animal Grandad?" (Elsie)
"Do you know why he can't get through the force field?" (Jacob)
"If I make this bigger will it stop them?" (Grandad)
"Look at mine Grandad". (Rebecca)
"See his rotating antennae?" (Jacob)
"What's a laser Grandad?" (Elsie)

Play doesn't need complex toys or structured activities for learning to occur, in fact, there is good evidence to suggest that play of the above type does more for creativity, problems solving, language and learning than lots of expensive toys.

Some quick practical implications from the above

So play is critical to children's development, and time is essential to create 'space' for play. There are challenges here for parents and teachers. How do we resist the temptation to structure children's life in and out of school so much that there is little opportunity for play? As well, how do we encourage children to spend time with other children engaging in play? Here are some quick suggestions:
  • Parents and teachers need to create and promote regular opportunities for free play.
  • Play should be as active as possible and where possible encourage interaction with others.
  • Remember that simplicity usually works best (remember the tendency of the baby to like the box rather than the toy!)
  • Play needs to be as child-centred as possible, not teacher centred or parent centred.
  • Try to provide access to materials and simple toys that stimulate imagination, creativity and problem solving.
  • Parents, teachers and caregivers should try to provide as much spontaneous time and play as possible.
  • Make good use of story, most play involves some type of inventive story telling.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers need to spend more time being good listeners and observers of children at play and be prepared to respond to, assist, offer materials, engage and ask questions rather than simply correcting, redirecting and controlling such play.
  • Parents, teachers and care givers should sponsor and support children having a range of interests that can be the springboard for play and learning.
Evaluating your child's play

If you wonder whether your child has sufficient good opportunities for play you might ask yourself the following questions:
How often does my child (or my children) have time for spontaneous play?
How often do I direct the play rather than responding to or supporting it?
How varied are my child's opportunities for play?
How often does my child have the opportunity to interact with others in creative play situations?
How often do I provide materials for creative play?
How often does my child's play stimulate creativity, problem solving, language use and learning?
How often do planned activities lead to creative play (e.g. TV or a story leads to play. Or, a lesson on some topic leads to playground play)?
What are your thoughts? Any ideas that seem to work?

Related links and resources

All posts on Play from this blog (HERE)

A recent post on creativity (mainly for teachers) HERE and another (mainly for parents) HERE

All my posts with relevance to creativity (HERE)

Elizabeth Jones article 'The Play's the thing: Styles of playfulness'

Kenneth R. Ginsburg's report on play

Monday, August 31, 2009

Getting boys into reading through non-fiction material

I wrote a post on 'The Challenge of Boys and Reading" in July in which I commented that boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when:

".....the books and the reading event (whether at school, or reading with mum and dad) offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things."

For many boys (like girls) the narrative form is the best way into literacy, but some boys are reluctant to read narratives. Our aim as parents or teachers is to develop boys who can read every imaginable genre when it is appropriate to their needs. We want them to read in a sustained way written text presented in traditional print forms (e.g. books, magazines, letters), electronic forms, or in fact text found anywhere within the child's world. So we should seek to explore any textual form available to introduce them to reading and then gently push them to explore other forms of reading, as well as to read in more sustained ways and for all imaginable purposes. I've tried below to offer a range of ideas for boys aged from beginning readers to young teenager. All are meant to offer an alternative pathway for pushing forward reluctant readers. They are roughly in order of increasing difficulty and age appropriateness, but some examples are relevant across all ages.

Introduce them to magazines - boys will love to flick through the pages of magazines on topics that interest them. Something like National Geographic is ideal (or a children's version of this type of magazine like 'Kids Almanac'). If they are expendable (e.g. old National Geographics), let them cut out interesting pictures and get them to make a book by sticking them in and then labelling them. Later you can write words for them that they dictate or you can encourage them from a very early age to try to 'write' (see my previous post on 'When do children start writing' here) words that go with the pictures.

Explore websites together - from about 3 years most boys will love to explore computers with you. Choose some simple websites (I list a few on the sidebar of this blog site), National Geographic Kids is worth a look. The Australian Museum has a great site called 'Wild Kids' where lots of facts and pictures can be found about animals - great fun to explore (and it's reading!). Show them how you open the site. Then explore the pages of the site pointing to and reading words. Don't make this a reading lesson, the text is peripheral to the exploration, images etc. But you are 'warming them up' to print. There are some greats sites to explore on sharks, reptiles etc.

Explore factual books together - boys love to learn new things. Borrow factual books from the library about space, dinosaurs, cars, trains, reptiles, sea creatures, insects, how things work etc. Boys will flick pages and look at pictures for ages. Sit with them and selectively draw attention to words. Perhaps use the book as a springboard to other activities (e.g. craft, drawing) and encourage the use of writing to label or supplement drawings. A brilliant example of this type of book is 'The Way Things Work' by David Macaulay (the author's website is also worth a visit here). This book explains with words, diagrams and pictures how things work, for example, electricity, pulleys, microscopes, smoke detectors etc. This can be flicked through or read. It isn't a simple book but is ideal for an older boy who isn't keen on stories but may respond to a more difficult factual book that will encourage him to read for more sustained periods. And this is one of our aims, to give them reading 'stamina'. Another great example (again) is 'Nat Geo Almanac 2010'.

A sub-category of this approach is the use of 'key fact' books. Many boys will love books that offer a mix of drawings and pictures with facts about things that fascinate them. Some of these books use extended text but others use short 'sharp' statement with good accompanying graphics or images. Popular topic areas with boys include:
  • Egyptology
  • Jet planes
  • Weather
  • Animals of all kinds
  • History
  • Sport
  • Science
  • Engineering
Here are a couple of examples:

1001 Unbelievable Facts, by Helen Otway (there is a whole series of '1001 Fact..' books, 'Backpack Books' published by DK)
100 Things You Should Know About Ancient Rome, by Fiona Mcdonald
Dinosaurs (Pocket Series), produced as part of a series of non-fiction books by DK Publishing
My Panda Book, by Stuart P. Levine. This is one of a series of books published in partnership with the Smithsonian.

A wonderful recent example of a fact book that my wife bought for me (and which I've shared with my grandson) is 'One Small Step'. This was produced to commemorate the first moon landing on July 20th 1969. The book is a replica of a scrapbook put together by a 12 year old boy whose grandad was working in the Houston Control Room on the day when man first made it to the moon. It’s a collection of Moon-landing memorabilia (e.g. space menus, certificates, transcript of the first steps exchange etc), photographs and so on. It also has more recent space science information, including the future of space travel.

Joke books - There are numerous joke books that boys will use for hours with family and friends. For some reluctant readers joke books are the place that they will drift to in order to avoid sustained reading. The aim isn't to allow this to happen, but these books if managed well can be a way to get boys reading more difficult material. There are lots of books of this type, the follwoing are just a couple of examples.

Knock Knock Who's There: My First Knock Knock Book by Tad Hills is a great introduction to humour in books with answers under flaps.
The Everything Kids' Joke Book
, by Michael Dahl offers Jokes for upper Primary children (aged 7-12 years) plus a second section on how to write jokes.
The Family Joke Book, by Brad Taylor

Books that encourage boys to make and do things - there are many examples of books of this type. They show boys how to make simple things, conduct science experiments and so on. Places like the National Geographic stores can be a good place to look for books of this type. A well-known recent example is The Dangerous Book for Boys. This book offers a range of ideas for making and doing things. For example, how to make the greatest paper plane in the world, building a tree house, all about dinosaurs, making a G0-cart, how to go fishing, juggling, all about Australian snakes, skimming stones and so on. This isn't a simple book (about grade 4-5 standard) but the content will help boys to 'stretch' themselves. It is also a great book for boys to read and 'do' with an adult.

Graphic novels and comics - While this category often uses narrative, there are many good examples that are non-fiction. It seems the Graphic Novel is making a comeback in this digital age. A graphic novel uses a combination of text and art. They can include biographies, narratives, memoirs and journals, classic story retellings etc. For example, there are now graphic-novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics such as The Red Badge of Courage, Beowulf, Greek myths, The Adventures of Robin Hood, even The Canterbury Tales. Some people lump comics and graphic novels together but they are slightly different forms. Whereas the graphic novel uses more extended text mixed with illustrations and images, the comic makes use of the speech balloon and is usually restricted to narrative forms. There is still a place for comic books (see my previous post on this here). What the graphic novel offers is a carefully crafted interplay of image and word with many other devices used to draw attention to print (e.g. different fonts, sizes etc).

It is not a new form, for example, well-known children's author Raymond Briggs has used the format to powerful effect with works like '
When the Wind Blows' (1986) that tells of the impact of an atomic blast on an elderly British couple who approach the impending disaster as if they were simply trying to survive the Blitz of WWII. He was also responsible for the very confronting picture book The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman which is a political satire about the Falklands war (this is at best a young adult book).

A final comment on literature


As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
We spend most of our lives telling each other stories. Yes, I know that there are countless language genres with their own structure, purpose, modalities and so on, but we build our relationships with one another, we share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading isn't meant to be an alternative to reading literature. Eventually, we should aim to have our boys loving literature too.

Related posts

Key themes in children's books: Humour (here)

All my posts on boys and education (here)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The 4th 'R': Rest!

We live in an age of increasing busyness. A 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report on how Australians use their time indicated that "..we are spending less time playing, sleeping, and eating and drinking, but longer working." In response to this report and the comments of a leading school principal, I wrote a post on the topic and focussed on how parents' increasing hours of work can impact on family life (you can read it here).

Related links


Research by Andrea Faber Taylor & Frances E. Kuo (click here)

New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope (click here)

Abstract of the article by Barros, Silver, Stein, Pediatrics in Review (click here)

Harvard medical research study on fitness and academic achievement (click here)


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Australian Fatherhood Research Network

The Australian Fatherhood Research Network (AFRN) was launched at a seminar sponsored by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), and supported by the Family Action Centre (FAC), at the University of Newcastle in April 2008. I am part of the steering group responsible for creating the AFRN. Dr Richard Fletcher is the driving force behind the network. In a recent Courier-Mail article in support of the new network he calls for much more attention to research on fathers. He comments quite rightly that even research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics needs to be reviewed, because much data on caregivers simply seeks information on mothers, and assumes that it is the same for fathers. He also suggests that we lack Australian research that will help policy development:

"....we either lack Australian research or we have research in a variety of areas with no overview to make it useful to policy development"

The network has been supported by an initial grant from the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY), a national organisation with more than 850 members (including individuals and organisations) across Australia.

ARACY encourages collaboration between researchers, policy makers and practitioners from a broad range of disciplines. ARACY's founders believed that by working together we are more likely to uncover solutions to the problems affecting children and young people than by working in isolation.

The AFRN aims to promote high-quality collaborative research into fatherhood and fathering in Australia by encouraging researchers, academics, managers, practitioners and those developing policy to pay attention to the important role that fathers play in family and community life. I am convenor of one of the four planned strands of research - The father’s role in children’s literacy.

The Network has just launched its website and with it an outline of and links to a variety of interesting research concerning fathers, for example:
This is a new venture that is housed within the successful Family Action Centre (FAC) at Newcastle University. The FAC aims to strengthen families and communities by undertaking research, training and learning; developing and implementing strength-based programs; and creating models of practice that promote sustainability, social justice and community leadership.

Hopefully, this new network will have some positive outcomes and will lead to new research on the role of fathers, as well as new knowledge concerning how we can support fathers to be even more effective in fulfilling their important unique role within families. If you would like to join the network and receive regular updates you can find a link here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's all about time:How busy lives affect families

The principal of Presbyterian Ladies College (Sydney), Dr William McKeith, has said what many of us have been thinking for a long time. The mad pace of modern life is having a negative impact on families. He points out that an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report this year on how Australians use their time indicates that "..we are spending less time playing, sleeping, and eating and drinking, but longer working." The ABS survey shows how patterns of time use have changed and indicates that people are becoming increasingly time poor and that working non-standard hours and bringing work home is having an impact.

His personal comments on the pace of life ring true:

"We can feel it and see it all around us. Hairdressers are often open into the night, international banks are conducting business on combined southern and northern hemisphere time, emails and text messages find us day and night, seven days a week.

"When we adults are busy filling our days and nights with more and more work, where are all the children? Might I suggest that many of the social and emotional challenges confronting our young people are grounded in the work patterns of we, their parents. Parents are not available to supervise the use of the internet and video games, to check on the appropriateness of friendships, to visit the school, to welcome the child in from school. We are tired, stressed, irritable much of the time. Some parents will seek out ways of avoiding contact with their children in order to minimise their exposure to these feelings."

A more worrying feature of the report is that according to the ABS survey approximately 25% of children (17 and under) have a parent living elsewhere (perhaps interstate or overseas) and there are increasing numbers of children in boarding schools who rarely see their parents.

Dr McKeith concludes:
"There is a tension between hours and patterns of work and family values and the care of our children. As a force for the protection of family values and community welfare, government has a role to play. I suspect that in the interests of our children we are well overdue for a realistic appraisal of how we are balancing our work and family lives."

While there are families living in poverty for whom there is no possibility of reduced hours of work if they are to cover the essentials of life (food, basic shelter and daily needs), for many, there are choices to be made. The process used for making life choices may need to place a higher priority on the needs of children and the impact on family life more generally. The issues surrounding why parents are working longer hours are complex, but it would seem that there are choices to be made about careers, the size of mortgages, the importance of overseas holidays, entertainment etc, and that the human costs borne by our families must be considered more seriously.

You can read Dr McKeith's full Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece here or a version that appeared in the Brisbane Times here.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The importance of family support

In a recent article in the New York Times the findings of a major study by the USA Educational Testing Service highlights just how important it is for parents to spend time with their children. As well, it repeats the consistent finding of 50 years worth of research that if you read to and with your children regularly that it helps your child's reading and chances of success at school. The study also offers some public policy reminders and shows why single parents find it harder to offer children the support they need. One of the challenges of being a sole parent is finding the time to give one-on-one attention, including reading.

The study, The Family: America's Smallest School concludes that a large proportion of low achievement in schools can be explained by factors that have nothing to do with schools. Instead, the researchers suggest that school failure is often linked to the level of poverty and government’s inadequate support for programs that could make a difference, like high-quality day care and paid maternity leave.

The E.T.S. looked at the impact of four non-school variables: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using theses four variables, the researchers were able to predict each US state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with great accuracy.

“Together, these four factors account for about two-thirds of the large differences among states,” the report said. In other words, the states that had the lowest test scores tended to be those that had the highest percentages of children from single-parent families, eighth graders watching lots of TV and eighth graders absent a lot, and the lowest percentages of young children being read to regularly, regardless of what was going on in their schools."