Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The Importance of Play Revisited

One of the most popular posts I've ever written on this blog (in fact the 2nd most popular at 35,000 reads) was one that considered how soon children can and should start writing (in the sense of writing 'real' words)? This might seem a silly question today, but for those of us over the age of 50, we all recall that researchers, educators, teachers and parents assumed that children should only learn to express themselves in handwriting once they had the foundations in listening, speaking, reading, writing letters and pretty much in this order. Of course, now we know this was incorrect.

Above: Two children reading together

While there were some reasonable grounds for supporting the traditional order, including the young child's difficulty physically handling pencils to create letters and words, more limited hand eye coordination etc, we accept now that it was simplistic to assume that there needed to be a lock step developmental sequence for spoken and written language. 


We also know, there are good reasons (and evidence) to support the early introduction of writing early (and some of us spent many years making this point). For example, while educators, psychologists and paediatricians once assumed there is little communicative intent with a newborn baby, it's clear that almost from the first day of life, babies begin to respond to their world. And many of their very early vocalisations, eye movements, gazes, facial movements and body movements are attempts to communicate. I'm a bit of a baby whisperer myself, and can get smiles from babies very early (and NO older readers, it isn't 'wind'!!).

Well known paediatrician Dr Kim Oates gave a wonderful lecture on this topic at New College in 2006 as part of the New College Lecture series (that at the time I hosted here). While speaking follows well after the ability to hear and respond to sound, attempts to communicate commence almost immediately. Babies will begin to focus their eyes on objects, and particularly faces talking to them VERY early.

Lydia writing at Palace of Versailles

Any as for writing, parents will attest to the marks small children will make on floors, walls and paper if they get hold of a crayon of pencil! Children begin attempting to place their mark on the world as soon as they can grab anything that will make a mark. It's as if they want to be able to say:

"Look, I did this. This is MY mark.

And of course, if you ask older toddlers what it says, they will often say things like, "me and mummy", "It's just a word", "it's a drawing", "dog" etc.

What do we know about early scribble and drawing?

We now know that even children's earliest scribbles very quickly have meaning associated with them. While at first children are as much interested in the gross motor movement (the rhythmic drawing of circular patterns, fast scribble to fill a page etc), they soon begin to attempt much more, as they seek to communicate or create meaning through their scribbles, patterns and drawing.

Above: Sample from the "Young in Art" site showing intent in the drawing of a young child

There have been numerous studies of children's early art, and many examined early literacy prior to the 1970s, but few looked closely at the relationship between the two. A colleague and dear friend of mine (still!) from Indiana University, Professor Jerome C. Harste conducted significant research in the late 1970s and early 1980s that taught us much about children's early writing. With his colleagues Professors Virginia Woodward and Carolyn Burke and many graduate students, they studied the early writing of children aged 3, 4, 5 & 6 years. They concluded that the process of scribbling "bears sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic similarity" to the processes we observe in reading and writing [See Harste, Woodward & Burke (1983), Language Stories and Literacy Lessons.

Harste, Woodward and Burke concluded that most children know the difference between reading and writing by age 3, and by this time they are developing an understanding of written language, demonstrated in their scribbles and attempts to write and draw. They argued against traditional developmental notions and suggested from at least the age of 3, children begin to demonstrate elements of authoring. They named this the "authoring cycle". As they examined the early 'scribble' and 'writing' of very young children they identified:

  • Organization (evidence of conventions and the genesis of cognitive processes similar to adults)
  • Intentionality (evidence children knew their marks signify something)
  • Generativeness (an attempt to generate or make meaning)
  • Risk-taking (trying things they hadn't before)
  • Awareness that writing & language have social functions
  • Understanding that context matters in language (i.e. the situation is related to what you write and how you use it)
  • Meaning making in children's 'scribbles', and later words using invented spelling, that formed a text or unit of meaning. They also realized that the sum of the elements collectively meant something.

For example, picking up on just one of the above elements of authoring, Harste, Woodward and Burke observed in the scribbles of children from families who had a first language other than English, some interesting differences. 

The writing below shows just how different scribble can be for four-year-old children living in homes that speak different languages; in this case, English, Arabic and Hebrew. 

They concluded that evidence like this demonstrates that at age four, and even before, these children were trying to write words, and their 'scribble' demonstrated organization similar to the processes used by proficient writers.

So, what does this mean for early writing?

Even though we've moved a great deal in family and school practices in the last 30 years, the following brief comments are still relevant and important for parents and Preschool teachers to understand. 

I believe we need to:

  • Take children's early drawing and scribble seriously - look at it, enjoy it, discuss it with your children (e.g. "What's this?" "What does this mean?" etc).
  • Encourage children to write - give them blank paper and simply suggest they "write"!
  • Let children see you writing and talk about your writing.
  • Look for patterns in children's early drawing and scribble and expect to learn things about your child from it.
  • In short, encourage writing just as much as you encourage reading and celebrate their drawing and 'writing'. How? Put it on the wall, fridge, notice board. Date it and keep it, or make up a writers' folder etc.

I have also written about this topic at length in other publications such as my book "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.

What's different since I first wrote about this topic over 25 years ago? And why does it matter?

a) The Differences

There are a number of key differences in 2023. 

First, children are more likely to use devices for writing and drawing today. Early scribbles might be made on an iPad or similar device as well as on paper, walls, footpaths etc. And of course, most of these are rarely retained.

Second, adults should take early writing and drawing in any form more seriously. Look intently, ask your children to explain what they've written, drawn and so on. For example, the image below was drawn in 2007 and is one of my favourites from a grandchild who at the time was 4 years old. We'd been to the aquarium and he drew this back home and explained that he'd drawn it from the perspective of the fish. After he drew the image below he said, "that's how the fish looked at us while we were looking at them." 

Third, children probably spend less time with parents in the earliest development phases (0-4 years) than they did 30-50 years ago; attending playgroups and childcare centres. 

b) The adjustments we need to make

Today, parents and teachers are far less likely to observe their children or students as they compose, whether in text or drawings. 

As parents, we need to see iPads and other devices not just as a way to keep our children quiet, while we do other things. To be sure, there are times when we do NEED to do this. In days gone by the TV and toys played their part in achieving this, as did sand pits, parks etc (but let's not lose these either).

Above: A teacher using an iPad to demonstrate

My recommendation to parents (& teachers) is that when children are using devices, we need to ask them regularly what they're doing, and comment on drawings etc. You might even capture screen shots of special things to share with others (like parents, family etc). Create an electronic portfolio for toddlers.

Teachers of course can make much greater use of iPads and other devices in the classroom to encourage writing, drawing and far more. They are now tools that can be used individually or in groups. I have a graduate student Norah Aldossary who has just completed an interesting PhD on this titled 'The Potential of iPad Apps to support Vocabulary Development in Children Learning English as an Additional Language'.

Other literacy educators have been doing great work in considering how to use devices for learning in classrooms. For example, Michelle Neumann has written about this in 'Teacher Scaffolding of Preschoolers' Shared Story App and a Printed Book' (2019). The many studies by Michelle and others have shown varied benefits from using iPads in this more educational way. Some have found varied benefits, for example:

  • Vocabulary benefits (e.g. Shang & Gray, 2014)
  • Comprehension benefits (e.g. O'Toole & Kannsass, 2018)
  • Word learning in 5 year olds (e.g. Korat et al., 2010)

However conversely, others have found that if used badly, devices might lead to poorer vocabulary and story comprehension (e.g. de Jong and Bus (2003). This seems linked to the children ignoring the text and 'reading' the pictures alone. I'd also suspect, this is linked as well to less child and adult interaction, which we know 'stretches' children's language and learning.

Another interesting study by Roskos, Carroll and Burnstein (2012) looked closely at how teachers used the iPads. They found benefits when teachers used the iPad to extend shared reading by asking questions, explaining word meanings and engaging the students in conversation as they read the iPad stories. This of course leads to development.

In short, as we live in times where the parent and child, or the teacher and her/his students no longer sit reading book stories like they once did with their children, the iPad has potential to facilitate play and experimentation with language and with it growth in language, reading and writing.

Summing up

Children's play always has been, and still is, very important for learning. While the world has changed as technology has developed, the importance of stories and the interaction of children with adults as well as other children, is a key factor in early learning. There is a freedom in play that encourages:

  • Risk taking
  • Experimentation
  • Boldness

We must never allow our busyness, or the convenience of devices to reduce the place of play in children's early years, both prior to school, but also at school. This is a challenge that teachers and parents alike need to take on.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

What are the favourite ‘fairy’ stories?

I'm grateful to 'Flash Academy' for surveying children's favourite stories around the world. The most popular stories were mostly written in English, which reflects the dominance of children's book publishing in English as a universal language. Thanks to Book Riot for also sharing the 'Flash Academy' review online.


You might be surprised by the most popular story in your own country. For example, in my country (Australia), it was 'Puss in Boots'.


Some of the most popular stories included 'Jack and the Beanstalk', 'Thumbelina', 'Red Riding Hood', 'Puss in Boots', and 'Hansel and Gretel'. And many of the favourites were written in the 17th and 18th centuries.


There were some variations by the language used in nations, but not many as children's books are more widely published in English. But a couple of stories did seem to have favourites in specific regions of the world reflecting their own culture and traditions. For example, Middle Eastern and North African nations like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba Jordan all had 'Aladdin' in first place! This wasn't the case in most of the other nations.


You might like to do your own survey by class or school to see what children under the age of 7 years indicate as their favourite. This would be a fun and useful activity for any classroom teacher or librarian (school or public). Of course, I'm sure that if you survey children their choices might well be books that they've read recently.


It is also interesting to ponder which stories written in the last 50 years in our own countries, might just make such a list in 100 years. I suspect that a small number will. For example, I think that Australian and English classics of the last 20-40 years that might make such a list are 'Possum Magic' (Mem Fox), 'Where's Julias' (John Burningham), 'Cowardly Clyde' (Bill Peet), 'The Nativity' by Julie Vivas, and 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' (Beatrix Potter). There are many wonderful books loved by children, but will their children and grandchildren also know of them and love them? Such classic children’s books survive long term because children find deep meaning and connection to their lives in any age.



Friday, February 24, 2023

The Slow Death of Creativity and Imagination in our schools - PART 2

A recent media report presented survey results which suggested 60% of parents find it hard to play with their children. Another report indicated parents should spend at least 30 mins a day in directed play with their  toddlers. The media report shared some surprising comments: "I don't have the time." "I don't know how to play with a toddler." And "I hate playing with my toddler".  

I wrote a post in 2020 titled 'The Slow Death of the Imagination in our Schools - Part 1'. It seems like I need to write Part 2. The recent media reports and responses have stunned me into action!

My purpose in writing the post isn't to make parents feel guilty, especially in an age where both parents typically have paid jobs outside the home. Time is sometimes hard to stretch to allow things that might seem less critical (e.g. playing with our children). And of course, a sole parent needs to do the lot! 

I want instead, to remind everyone that creativity is critical for the world! Creative activities are not an optional extra in life. Unfortunately, we live in times where the globe faces numerous challenges. These include climate change, tragic natural events, the loss of far too many animal, insect, plant and marine species etc. On top of this we have seen global conflicts, pandemics and more. Now, I won't depress my readers. But we need to deal with our challenges. And it isn't just knowledge that will help to solve our many global challenges. Creativity is required in concert with knowledge to enable us to sustain our world. 

The problematic factor is that our schools have never had less time for fostering creativity. This is one of our great educational challenges. Teachers live in an age of constant external pressures to help children succeed on tests. The sad part is that the the more we test, the less time we have to teach and encourage creativity and the application of knowledge to the world. The nations that privilege and promote this at EVERY level of education, will be best placed. 

My post is motivated by the release of the latest NAPLAN test results. These once again show that Australia lags well behind nations like Sweden, where higher marks are demonstrated across all social class levels, as well as regional and urban locations. This is important because while politicians don't spend much time comparing public and private education, they should. Why? Because it would shed light on the great challenges for the public education system to teach more than just knowledge for external tests. We need a greater concentration on developing learners who can solve problems and seek creative solutions, not simply achieve high marks on external standardized tests.

Some of the depressing trends we've seen in higher education include:

  • Lower entry scores to be educated as a teacher than virtually any other course.
  • Large salary gaps between teachers in public and private education. 
  • More children in public education from disadvantaged communities including urban and rural schools.
  • All of the above tend to skew results for children of the privileged who typically attend private or selective schools.

Creativity is NOT simply a gift to privileged children

Above: A 'Big' sister reads to Lydia (age 1 day)
Creativity and imagination are available to all children. In fact, all children are born with an innate desire to explore the world. From birth, they receive a vast array of stimuli as they observe and try to make sense of their surroundings. The environment in which they live has a profound impact on them. Children commence life with great potential - notwithstanding genetic variations. But their environment can have negative as well as positive effects on their learning.

The potential impact of poverty and neglect on children's early development, underlines the need to ensure that children entering school are given every opportunity to be stimulated, inspired and have their horizons widened.

Neuroscience research has taught us a number of things about the young brain, including the immense capacity of children to learn, and for their minds to expand when stimulated. But across our school education system in Australia, I still see a dumbing down of the curriculum. State and nationally mandated testing seems increasingly to shape school programs and classroom practices, as well as wider community expectations.

Above: Philosopher Martin Buber
Social Philosopher Martin Buber suggested at an education conference in 1925 that imagination and creativity are not developed over time. His big take home message was that every child is born with a disposition to be creative.

However sadly, parents, teachers and schools can suppress this inbuilt creativity, and drive it from them with banal and repetitive activities.

As teachers and parents we can either "draw out these powers", or stifle them when done badly. What we offer in schools is but "...a selection of the world." In short, each child is born with an innate ability and desire to explore, imagine and create. The parent or teacher who says I have no time for creative work and play, is limiting the child's potential.

For most children, the first few years of life offer ample opportunities to explore, experiment and seek to push beyond their capacity to do most things. Preschool for most children can still offer freedom to explore, find out, imagine and act upon the creative urge they have to know and create. But by Kindergarten they begin to be trained to produce that which is seen as acceptable.

Above: A three year old doing some 'creative' writing

What can we do?

As parents and teachers we need to work hard at creating learning environments in which children are encouraged to ask "why?', "what if",  "how come" type questions. Parents, should endeavour not to become tired of the toddler asking "why", "what if", "how come" questions. We need to respond to them.

We also need to seek a variety of experiences for our children. As a parent and grandparent I spent as much time as possible with my children (and grandchildren) exploring their world. This included digging in my compost heap, seeking out bugs in our back yard, paddling in estuaries and rock pools, looking at the sky, and reading about the natural wonders of the world. We also read hundreds of books together, drew pictures after key experiences and more.

Teachers also need to look for ways to stimulate the imaginations of the children in our classes. There are many ways to do this, including reading to them and encouraging their responses (in word, drawing, actions...). There are also numerous simple experiences that we can integrate into classroom activities at varied grade levels.

Above: The restored Gramaphone that I still have!
As a young teacher I arrived at school one morning with a 'mystery' object. I found an old 1920s gramaphone on the side of the road. I put it in my car boot (trunk) and took it to school and simply placed it at the front of the classroom. Questions flowed. "What's that?" "Where did you get it?" "My grandma has one of those!" "We've got some old records in our shed, can I go and get them?" The creative activities and knowledge gained from this simply object sustained several days of varied activities and much learning.

In another school we created a number of gardens for flowers and edible plants. While teaching a grade 2/3 composite class we built a brontosaurus (measuring 3 metres by 1 metre) as a garden centrepiece in the school playground. To the joy of the  students, this was featured on the front page of our city newspaper.

Of course, there are subjects in the curriculum that should naturally allow imagination to be developed; including science, art and craft. 

My point in revisiting the previous post with an update, is that I have a sense that we've gone backwards. We cannot afford to allow creativity to be lost in the desire to skill, drill and educate for external exams. Education at all levels is about growing our students in more than just subject knowledge. 

Never allow the 'what if'? question to leave your classroom or home. 

If parents reading this post feel they haven't the time, or they don't know what to do, talk to other parents who do seem to do it, or just give it a go.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Four Great New Books Ideal for Readers 10-15 years

Regular readers now of my blog now that I often share good literature for younger readers. Often they are picture books for children aged 5-12 years. In this post I look at some short novels (all illustrated in some way). The four books chosen across the age range above, starting with the book for the youngest (closer to 5-8) and the last for older readers (12-13).

1. Fairy Tales Gone Bad: Creeping Beauty

Eshe and her twelve sisters are Fairy Godmothers, honoured for the incredible gifts they can bestow. But Eshe’s special abilities are a little different – she can glimpse into the future! And, one day, Eshe foresees something terrifying: a world blanketed in creeping vines and a girl covered in thorns. Eshe needs to stop her vision becoming true, but it will require old and powerful magic. And she won’t be able to do it alone… 

This twist on a well-known fair story is the third and final book in a slightly dark trilogy that twists the classics. It is written in verse, by well known and celebrated poet Joseph Coelho. It is illustrated by Freya Hartas.

This tale about 13 sisters (a 'tredicimalets'!) focusses on Mythica, the youngest of a baker's dozen. All 13 have gifts, including luck, talent, success, imagination, dreams etc. But is the gifts didn't like you, they might just turn into "uncontrollable ear wax", "bad breath", "sneeze laughing". The reader with a great imagination, and the weird and unusual, will love this book.

Freya Hartas also brings another dimension to the tale with her wonderful black and white line illustrations.

2. 'Crunch' written & illustrated by Kayla Miller

Olive is balancing the too-many things she has to do with the too-few hours in the day to do them... When everything adds up, suddenly it's crunch time!

Kayla Miller, the New York Times bestselling author–illustrator of Click, Camp, Act and Clash, returns with a new Olive story!

Its no secret that Olive loves trying new things. Between taking guitar lessons, making a short film, joining Berry Scouts and leading the charge on her school’s dress code reform, Olive has her hands full! But she enjoys being busy so staying on track with her jam-packed schedule should be no problem . . . right?

Olive loves to do new things and juggles guitar lessons, she joins the Berry Scouts. She enjoys being busy son juggles everything without any problems. But over time she begins to struggle. But will her 'sizzle' life style become a mere 'fizzle'? But then there comes a crunch time. 

It saddens me that life of our children has become so full of things that 'must' be done that don't have enough time to be just 'kids'. The carefree life of childhood that was once the norm for many children is under pressure.

Because this 214 page book is in the form of a graphic novel (or cartoon style book) it is certainly suitable for 10-13 year olds, even if not strong readers.

As these two images show, like any graphic novel the illustrations and text always contribute to the story and meaning. A wide age group will be able to relate to the story, particularly the age group 10-13.

Kayla Miller demonstrates wonderful illustrations as well as good writing. I suspect that once they read one of her books they will want to read them all. 

3. Diamond Brothers Detectives: Where Seagulls Dare

     By Anthony Horowitz & Illustrations by Mark Beech

Anthony Horowitz is a prolific acclaimed writer from the UK for both children & adults. His work includes books, TV series (e.g. 'Foyles War' & 'Midsomer Murders'), plays and journalism (when does he sleep!). He has over 50 books in print that includes the best selling 'Alex Rider' spy series for teenagers (over 21 million copies sold). This book is 245 pages long with a handful of delightful black line drawings. This is the 6th book in the Diamond Brothers series. 

This time they are searching for a missing technology genius. But while they search there is a desperate and notorious gang of thugs hot on his heels. This time Nick has his oldest brother Tim ("the world's worst detective") with him. Will they crack yet another case and survive? Like all of the books in the series it is a 'page turner' that children will find hard to put down!

Readers 11-14 yrs will enjoy this latest book in the series.

4. 'Tilda' by Sue Whiting

Overnight Matilda becomes an 'orphan' when her grandfather her carer heads off to war. Tilda refuses to believe that her grandfather has gone forever. But Sister Agatha who is in charge of the convent tells her she has been abandoned. But her grandfather told her he would be back! Is Sister Agatha out to get her? Why is she so hateful to her? Tilda refuses to accept that she is an orphan.

L.M. Montgomery meets Ruth Park in a story of friendship, hope and resilience.

You have a big heart. And people blessed with a big heart have a choice to make. Do they fill that heart with light and love or do they fill it with darkness and hate? This is your choice to make, Matilda. Make it wisely.

Tilda Moss refuses to believe her Grandfather has abandoned her and left her, alone and orphaned, in Brushwood Convent and Home for Girls, no matter what Sister Agatha says. Tilda's home has been destroyed in a fire and her Papa has headed off to the Bore war to earn money to rebuild their home and lives. A promise is made to Tilda by her Papa as he heads off that he would be back for her as soon as he returns from the war.

But Tilda is convinced the dreadful Sister Agatha is out to get her. She tells Tilda her grandfather will never return. Why is she so hateful all the time? She insists that Matilda declare to all at the convent that she is an orphan. She is not an orphan and she will never say it! Something is amiss and Tilda and her best friend Annie need to find out what before it is too late.

The story is a work of fiction motivated by Sue Whiting's own life inspired by her Grandmother who she knows little about. Readers aged 13-15 will enjoy the book. She is the author of over 60 books. 



Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Holiday Ideas to Stimulate Children & Reduce Screen Time

In Australia our schools have just closed for the Summer holidays. After over two years of Covid isolation, lock downs and disrupted lives, life is just starting to return to normal. As we enter holiday periods with our children and grandchildren it's helpful to plan a little. While some children might go to summer camps, or holidays with families, there will be plenty of time either at home or away for children to become bored. Hopefully, the solution is NOT just to simply increase their screen time.

Today I'm making the traditional family Christmas pudding with one of my granddaughters. Always a special treat which I once did with one of my daughters. I hope that my readers all have their own traditions that you look forward to each year. If not start some with your children or grandchildren.

But the holidays in summer are usually long, so it's good to think ahead about things you might do with your children and perhaps grandchildren. If Christmas falls in winter as it does in the US and other northern hemisphere nations, then outdoor activities will be hard. But there are plenty of things to be done inside that are stimulating and fun.

I've also written a number of posts in the past about things to do in the holidays with kids (here), as well as simple travel games to fill the time on trips with your children (here). There is also a post on Planning With Kids that offers '20 Great Holiday or Travel Activities for Kids (5-15)'. To maintain some balance you might also find my post on 'Boredom is still good for children!' to be helpful.

In this post I thought I'd revisit some of the ideas and add a few more. There is no better way to stimulate your children's minds and prepare them for another year of school in 2023.

My criteria for choosing these holiday activities are that they:

  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Involve using their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development 
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested
Encourage your children to make a film 

1. Use a simple animation app to get them started - This sounds a big deal but it's not with the right app. I wrote a post about some wonderful apps for digital story telling a few years ago (HERE). One of my favourites is 'Puppet Pals. For one thing, it's VERY easy to use. Your children will work it out in minutes. Puppet Pals is available as a free app for the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. Most apps are available for other devices as well. It's essentially a simple way to create an animated movie using 'cut-out' themed characters and a variety of backdrops and scenes to create an animated 'puppet' play.

There is a free version that comes with Wild West backgrounds and actors.  However, you can also purchase different themes for as little as $US0.99 or the 'Director's Cut' in which you can access all the themes for $US2.99. These allow you to obtain a range of additional scenarios and characters based on themes such as monsters, space, pirates, arthropod armada, Christmas and so on. You can even make your backdrops and characters.

It's a very simple app to use that provides very easy storyboarding. You can record dialogue, move characters around, create some simple effects, change backdrops and settings and characters. While ideally, before creating the animation, the writer/producer prepares plot summaries and story ideas, but I've seen my grandchildren make excellent animations on their first take. One I've used used is the 'Arthropod Armada' theme from 'Director's Cut'. 

Puppet Pals is a wonderful resource for supporting story telling, writing, language development, creativity, and problem solving, while at the same time introducing them to film making and animation. I could see myself using a smartboard to collaboratively develop a story with my class before introducing individuals and groups to this smart little app.

Books with a difference

2. Pick some special books they haven't seen - try to borrow or buy at least 2 books for each child. Based on their interests try to choose books they'll enjoy, not simply books you'd like them to read. Opportunity shops, book exchanges and libraries are also a great place to start looking for some cheap second hand books. I have another post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here. Alternatively, take them to your local library to choose some.

3. Use Books as a creative stimulus - While the sheer 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).

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. Diaries and journals - Introduce older children to diaries or holiday journals. Make this fun, not a school activity. Some might prefer to just make it a scrapbook by pasting in tickets, leaves they collect, food wrappers etc. But you can also show them how to create a travel diary.

6. 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. See my post on 'Children as bloggers' (here).

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


8. Structured Craft ideas - simple beadwork, noodle craft, mask making, making plaster moulds (and painting them), anything for young children that requires paper tearing, gluing, glitter, stickers, works well.

9. Unstructured creative craft - 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).

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.

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

11. Water play
 - This is hard in cold weather, but maybe you could make bath-time special for young children with extra bubbles, different stuff to take into it. In warmer weather give them a bucket of water and some things to scoop, sieve etc - obviously only UNDER SUPERVISION. Above, it's pick on Grandad day!

12. Play dough - You can buy cheap coloured modelling clay but home-made playdough works well. My wife '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.

The blanket cubby!
13. 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 used to let my grandchildren have my cheap transistor radio from my shed (lots of fun). Some will enjoy a tea set; others will collect animals and toys. 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. You can even build a cubby inside! See my post on cubbies (here).

Above: A 'house' one of my grandchildren made (with help) from a box I saved

Indoor and back yard fun

14. 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). For something a little more challenging why not try a map with grid references (see picture opposite).

15. Cooking - Kids love cooking with their mothers or fathers. Do simple stuff. Nicole (Planning With Kids) has lots of great ideas for cooking with kids on her site. Don't forget to make it a language activity as well by getting them to follow the recipes.

16. Insect scavenger hunt - Try an insect scavenger hunt (one of my grandchildren's favourite activities). You'll be surprised just how many you can find. You'll need 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. We always enjoy a good snail race afterwards!

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.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Sharing the Stories & Songs of Christmas

Storytelling is a central part of what it means to be human. Holidays often create the perfect context for storytelling. They create 'space' to spend time with family and friends in varied contexts, and each offer opportunities to share stories and yarns.  

In Australia, schools have their longest break of about 6 weeks in Dec-Jan as we approach Christmas. This is a time when we also celebrate the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago. 

It's a time for holidays, religious observance for some, special food, music and in many cases, the exchange of gifts. Even if you don't have any religious conviction, most people look forward to holiday seasons as a special time to catch up with family and friends. But hopefully many teachers and parents will consider the deeper meaning of Christmas.

1. Sharing story through songs & music

Storytelling, is at the very centre of most Christmas gatherings. And music has a special place in our 'storytelling'. Whether religious or secular, music and storytelling are often intertwined. 
As a child, I grew up in a house where music was sung and played often. This included lots of popular ballads, country, blues and pop. When we went for our annual holidays at the Lake Macquarie, singing was never far from our gatherings. On hot summer afternoons at my grandparents’ home at Wangi Wangi we would swim. But after it, we would end up with community singing on the front verandah of my grandparents' house. My father would take his accordion onto the verandah and ask my mother or sister Dianne to sing. Like a magnet, people would emerge from their tents to join in the celebration. At times 50-80 people would come out of their tents and caravans to join us in my grandparents front yard.

Above: My parents performing in a community concert

As well, as traditional Christmas carols like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night" they would sing popular music that usually had a strong sense of story.

2. Some examples of books to share with a Christmas theme

Books about Christian traditions have been the focus of hundreds of different titles some are closely centred on the Christian message, others not so much. But the Bible's account of the baby Jesus born in a manger in a humble barn is at the very centre of Christmas celebrations for many.

In our schools during the Christmas season, we often share stories with our students that have a Christmas theme. As a teacher I always found time for the sharing of the Christmas story as well as some stories with a 'twist' like the Dr Seuss classic Could the Grinch who hated Christmas 'steal it' so that it couldn't occur? This classic and well known Dr Seuss book, takes a different look at the meaning of Christmas.
'The Jolly Christmas Postman' by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

"It's Christmas Eve and the Jolly Postman is delivering greetings to various fairy-tale characters - there's a card for Baby Bear, a game appropriately called 'Beware' for Red Riding Hood from Mr Wolf, a get-well jigsaw for hospitalised Humpty Dumpty and three more surprise envelopes containing letters, cards, etc." 
'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy
is a beautifully told story that traces elements of the story of the birth of Jesus.

The fields near Bethlehem are filled with great joy when angels appear telling of the birth of a very special baby. Madelon’s uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels all have gifts for the Saviour. But Madelon has nothing. What could she possibly give him? This version of the Christmas story uses the efforts of a small child to follow others to see the Christ Child. A beautiful illustration of those who would spend great effort to come and adore Him.

The rich and evocative oil paintings by fine artist Lucy Hennessy are stunning and in their muted softness leaves the reader to imagine the scene in all of its mystery and richness.

'The Christmas Promise'
by Alison Mitchell and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri

This wonderful retelling of the Christmas story is brought to us by the highly successful team that has brought us a whole series of children's stories based on the Bible. It tells of how God kept His promise to send a new King.

A long, long time ago so long that it's hard to imagine God promised a new King. He wasn't any ordinary king, like the ones we see on TV or in books. He would be different. He would be a new King; a rescuing King; a forever King! 

I love the books in this series titled "Tell the Truth". Like all of the books in the series, it tells the Christmas story in a simple way that children can grasp, while remaining true to the Bible's narrative. The book will help preschool children discover how the Bible explains how God kept His Christmas Promise.

The wonderful illustrations by Catalina Echeverri are also faithful and consistent with the Bible-centered story-telling of Alison Mitchell. Together, they make this a book that both parents and children will love.

'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.

'The Christmas Book', written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. 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. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

'Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale' by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

'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 Best Christmas Pageant Ever' by Barbara Robinsion . This book 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.

'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. When 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 idea of what Jesus might have looked like).
3. Sharing family anecdotes & stories that enrich children's knowledge of the past (BUT avoid controversial topics!).

Another wonderful thing about holiday seasons is that you have time to sit with our children and share the events of the year, and perhaps those we shared with family and friends in years past. "Can you remember the time when we egged Mr Smith's car"? These build children's knowledge of the family and the world, as well as their own ability to share stories. "Tell us the story about the time you got lost in the bush Dad". 
"What was it like going to school when you were a kid Mum?" "What was the funniest thing that happened at school this year"? "Tell us another story Grandad from when you were a kid". As you share your own stories as parents, you help to build family traditions, as well as teaching them how to tell stories themselves.

4. Engage your children in preparations 

Having time to do things with your children as you prepare for a time like Christmas will often create those 'spaces' where things can be shared as we make the preparations. Get your children to help decorate the Christmas tree. This isn't just for fun or to fill in time, it allows space and time to share stories and for your children to become better storytellers themselves. 
In the case of parents, you might share stories of the type "I remember when...". "Do you know where this Christmas decoration came from?" "Do you remember when you made this silver star"? Or perhaps, while you're getting your children to help make some decorations you can simply share jokes and anecdotes, or reminisce. 
A special time in our home is decorating the tree each year with decorations that our children made over 30 years ago! Looking at precious decorations is a great story telling event. "Do you remember who made this?" "Did you know that this decoration was on my mother's tree". Stories will flow!

5. Get children involved in using 'procedural texts'

One of our family's most treasured traditions is the making of the Christmas pudding. As a child, my grandparents involved my sister and me in this activity. This was always one of our special family events at Christmas. I implemented the same tradition with my daughters, and more recently, my grandchildren. As well as the fun we have as we prepare for the cooking, we have to follow the recipe, share stories, and lick the bowls. This is a great language event as stories and anecdotes just flow.

6. Involve your children in the making of presents, cards and gifts

Some of my favourite presents as a parent have been the gifts that my children and grandchildren made for me. It's fun to involve children as we make preparations for the exchange of gifts. This might be making yummy food, lollies or snacks to share with neighbours. Once again, there are recipes to follow, stories to tell, gift labels to write, and much more. Card making is just one fun non-food way to link literacy activities to holiday seasons. As well, children might make a book to give to their grandparents or their teacher. Making items for family and friends to hang on their tree is a great literacy activity already mentioned above.

Summing up

Literacy and storytelling are implicated in pretty much all aspects of life. Holiday seasons are just one context that offer opportunities to ground storytelling in 'real' life. As we engage with our children every day, there are numerous ways that the stories we share can help to build their knowledge and their proficiency as users of language whether in spoken or written form. As well, we can develop a shared history that binds family members together.