Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Cubby House: A Site for Creative Play and Learning

When I was a kid I was always trying to make cubby houses of one form or another. As an 8 year old I built a simple house between the house and the side fence. It was just big enough for 2-3 kids and not much else. We'd escape there to talk, tell stories and talk about 'stuff'. When I was about 13 I became 'chief engineer' and 'site manager' for the creation of a soccer field in the bush near my house, complete with two sets of goals, chicken wire nets, a small 6 person grandstand and (you guessed it) a small club house. This became the site for challenges between the 'Brush Creek' all stars and the 'Glendale' also rans (except they usually won). I was also part of other grand projects with mates to build tree houses, cave houses, one (with hindsight) foolish underground house etc.   In this post I'll talk about the attractions and benefits of cubbies, the varied forms they can take, and what you might put in a cubby.

Understanding the desire to make cubby houses

I can't say I understand fully why cubby houses are such fun to make and even just to use. But for me part of the fascination was just wanting to make things and feel a sense of achievement. But I was also obviously keen to create my own space which I could retreat to and which I could share with friends for all those conversations where we shared secrets, invented codes to communicate, told jokes etc.  From a very young age lots of children have the desire to find themselves small child-sized spaces to sneak into (this gets some of them into difficulty). For most children the following are probably the most common attractions and benefits of cubby houses:

  • The fun of planning and making the cubby.
  • The gross and fine motor skills developed on the way.
  • The attraction of having personal space.
  • Having a special space to share with other children.
  • The chance to learn how to get along with other children as turns are negotiated, furniture shared etc.
  • A place to talk, play, write, eat, play games, read etc

Types of cubby houses

Because the world has changed very few children build the type of cubbies and structures that I did as a child but there are plenty of other simple options. Here are a few.

a) The Blanket Option

One of my grandchildren's favourite activities at our home is to make a cubby using a sheet, bedspread or blanket (sorry Carmen), which we attach to the top of the wardrobe and then link to 'Nanna's bed'. We usually put a small mattress on the floor or use cushions (see opposite), add some books and food and they have a perfect retreat space. The inside option is perfect for wet days.

b) The Tarpaulin Option

Wherever you can attach a tarpaulin between a fence and a tree (or the shed) you can make a cubby. In our back my grandaughter Rebecca loves to build a cubby under a tree with the tarp attached to the back fence and tied to the trees. We move a table and chairs in and Rebecca heads off for some books and Nanna provides the food. The shot opposite of Jacob and his cousin Samuel was an impromptu variation on this option.

c) The Cardboard Box Option

I always get excited when we have a large box that an appliance arrives in. Don't recycle big boxes before you've had some fun with them. The shots here show how Carmen filled a couple of wonderful hours with three of our grandchildren. With a little help Jacob designed and made most of the cubby himself.

As you can see from the photos below Jacob, Rebecca and Elsie all had a hand in the cubby. Elsie was only about 8 months at the time so she mostly watched, grabbed things and tried to communicate in between giggles and squeals of delight.

My favourite part of this 'structure' is the dog flap for his 'pet' puppy which Jacob insisted on adding. Elsie seemed determined to help in some way, enjoying the action while Chief Engineer Jacob put his finishing touches to his masterpiece.

d) The Bought Cubby Option

You can buy lots of cubby houses, tents, forts etc that while a more expensive option can still be a great source of creative play. They at least offer children the chance to engage in creative play, learn how to relate to other children in varied games and forms of interaction.

e) Building a Cubby at Home

If you're lucky enough to live in a house with a yard with enough space to place a cubby, then building your own cubby is a lot of fun. While children can't do much of the building they will love 'helping' by carrying materials, watching each step of the construction process and progressively moving things in.  Below are three generations worth of my efforts.

When our children were little we rented a house and so building an elaborate cubby was out of the question. But our neighbours had two large wooden boxes that came from a factory that they gave to us and I joined them together to make a cubby that was placed in our carport. With a few windows cut out and a door, it was well used for a number of years. 

They had many a tea party in there (my daughters Nicole and Louise are pictured on the left in 1984), read lots of books, resolved disputes over furnishings and engaged in lots of creative play together. This cubby cost almost nothing. I bought some hinges for the door, a latch to keep it closed, some plants for the flower boxes. It probably cost less than $20 in today's currency and took me not much more than a day to make.

 Of course you can build more elaborate structures. Rebecca and Elsie are relaxing on the veranda (below) of a cubby I bought cheaply second hand and which we moved in pieces to my daughter Nicole's house for reconstruction. When they moved house after 3 years we moved it again. I needed to do a more significant reconstruction (it was falling to pieces) this time. Just like Lincoln's family log cabin there are no doubt a few bits of the original still in the structure, but not many.

Above: Enjoying the delights of late afternoon on the front veranda

Now, my latest effort built for two of my grandchildren who live in the country, is just a tad more ambitious. With a cubby of this scale you need a few woodworking skills and also need to consider your neighbour's privacy and you may even need to check out local council regulations. The cubby took about a week to build (spread out over a number of weekends) but will give years of fun to Samuel and Evelyne as well as many of their friends and visitors. I got the basic idea for the cubby from a hardware store website (here) but needed to pretty much design this version myself. If you raise a cubby off the ground you will need to install rails and make sure that it isn't too high (this one is 1.2 metres high).

I also designed the cubby so that my youngest grandaughter could easily do things downstairs due to mobility issues caused by a genetic disorder. I've placed a blackboard on the 'Ground floor' and plan to add a shop counter later. Needless to say, she's worked out how to get upstairs and wants to be there most of the time anyway.

What to put in the Cubby?

What you put into a cubby will depend on the type of cubby (permanent or temporary), its size and your children's interests, but a few basic things that include would be:
  • A table and chairs (or something to it on like a small covered foam mattress).
  • A shelf or box for putting special things in.
  • Some books.
  • A tea set and plastic cutlery.
  • Maybe some dress-up clothes (if you have space).
  • There are also a lot of toy appliances that you can add (we've used toasters, a microwave and plastic vegetables).
Related links and resources

Cubby design that was the inspiration for my cubby design above (here)
A more conventional Cubby design and plans (here)
All posts on creativity (here)
All posts on play (here)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Importance of Reader Response

1. Understanding reader response

Several years ago on an international flight from London to Sydney I recall after finishing the reading of a novel (I think it was Louis de Bernieres’ ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’) becoming aware some 5-10 minutes after closing the book, that I was sitting head down, book in both hands, with it clamped between my knees. What was I doing? I was responding by quietly pondering the story, reflecting on the power of the plot, characters and its emotional impact. Literature does this to you. A story can grab hold of you. It can evoke many emotions, memories, language associations with other books and so on (see my previous series on the ‘Power of Literature’). It does this to adults and little children. For the young a book can evoke fear, curiosity, hilarious laughter, silence, tears, puzzlement, anger and so on.

For the very young preschool child the response is often simple (but nonetheless significant):
  • “I love that book”
  • “Read it again”
  • “Why did he squash the snail Grandad?!”
  • “I don’t like that picture”
  • “That’s a bit scary”
  • “I don’t know what it means”
  • “I like his baby sister, she’s funny”
Reader response for the very young sometimes doesn't involve words and can be as simple as repetitive lifting of flaps, tracing of images with the finger, laughter, or tears. It might simply lead to the child hugging the book, carrying it around, taking it to bed etc.

Of course response doesn’t just apply to literature. You might curse the IKEA instructions and rip them up when that piece of furniture just won't go together. You might want to draw a picture to make clear what you understand about volcanoes. You might feel the need to talk to someone else about your science, philosophy or geography text. Any genre can evoke response as can non-print experiences (e.g. movies, video, games, events etc). But in this post I’ll stick to response that is related to literature. The content is drawn mainly from my books ‘Pathways to Literacy’ and 'Other World: The Endless Possibilities of Literature' and was used as part of a presentation I gave at a conference last week (see this post here).

2. Do we need to do anything with children’s responses?

The simple answer to this question for the parent is, mostly no. We don’t want to destroy the child’s experience of the book by turning it into a lesson after the event. But a good understanding of response is helpful for parents to understand their children’s reactions and to help with insights about your child, their interests etc. It can also offer you occasional teachable moments when fears, doubts, frustrations, areas of interest, language gaps etc surface. But don’t try to be a teacher and create literature classes.

For the teacher, likewise we should not look to structure response after every instance of independent reading or shared reading. But there are more possibilities for the teacher than the parent, and hence the teacher should use it more deliberately. Here are a few points that I’d make about response before offering some ideas concerning how teachers (in particular) might use reader response in the classroom.

Try not to get in the way of the readers first response – as I’ve indicated already, first responses can be deeply personal and are best left alone. As well, we don’t want to disrupt the pleasure of reading by turning positive experiences of literature into lessons (unfortunately some teachers do this all the time with poetry).

Response is a natural consequence of reading and is helpful for building common ground – While not all responses should be shared (some encounters with books are very private affairs), our shared reactions to books are an important way in which we build common ground in families, classrooms, workplaces etc. While TV, YouTube, music etc have tended to take over much of the space for sharing narratives in our lives once held by books, sharing our responses to books is part of the way we deepen relationships and get to know one another. It also has a lot more to offer than some of the alternatives pushing it off centre stage.

Reader response allows us to re-evaluate (re-live) the experience of a text - By reflecting on our responses to a book the reader elaborates the meanings in their head, tests their understanding, seeks answers etc. As well, as we seek reactions from others we inevitably reflect on their interpretations, revising and reshaping our own personal interpretations.

Readers learn as a consequence of being party to the responses of other readers - There are advantages and disadvantages here. Literary interpretation is always in some sense a 'communal act' (as David Bleich suggests drawing on Bahktin), and hence there are forces stimulating more diverse meanings and others narrowing interpretations. There are dangers here. First, the discussion might lead to an accepted reading of the book that isn’t what the author had intended to communicate. Second, some voices might be silenced before legitimate interpretations have been carefully considered. Teachers need to exercise great care here.

Response permits the teacher to make judgments and predictions about the students' reading processes - The responses of our students are laden with many potential insights about them as readers. As I have suggested elsewhere (‘Teaching Reading Comprehension: meaning Makers at Work’) we can learn a great deal from students' responses to their reading whether spoken, drawn, written or dramatized. Every response is laden with information about the student's meaning making. Response enables all members of a class (including the teacher) to have access to the understandings that individuals are gaining. This in turn is an invaluable means to enable group members to support each other's growth and development as readers.

3. Talk and discussion, one key form of response

Response to literature can take may forms. I have already written on this blog about the place of drawing (here), mapping (here) and craft (here) and I might well talk in future about drama, music, movement etc.  But the most readily available, and in many senses the most powerful way to respond, is through discussion. This might be in small reading groups (3-4 students), large group/table discussion groups or even as a class (less effective). If using small groups you will need to train your class to take part in such groups and you might want to provide some known rules and procedures to moderate discussion, for example this set might be appropriate for a Grades 3-6:
Rule 1 - Everyone has the right to speak or remain silent
Rule 2 - Try to let everyone have a turn speaking before you speak again
Rule 3 - Respect all views but you can disagree politely or suggest other interpretations
Rule 4 - Listen to the group leader and each other
Rule 5 - Be ready if you are the recorder to report back to the class about your thoughts
If you as teacher are involved in any discussion it can be more free ranging but there is benefit in placing a structure around a discussion by having thought through possible avenues or angles for response. You should think through (almost systematically) the types of issues that you try to focus discussion on. The following are just some of the options and direction might take for a broad range of literature. While you won't want to talk to the average 5 year old about ideology, many of the questions below can be modified and used at varying grade levels.

A FIRST REACTION - What was your first reaction to this book? Explain it briefly. do you think you reacted that way?

FEELINGS - What feelings or emotions were you aware of while reading (or listening to) the book?

PLOT - What were the major events in the story? What was the complication in the story? The climax?

IMAGES - What images came to mind during the reading of the book? If it's a picture book you might read it again. If so you might ask: Were the images the same the second time? How did they change? What new things were seen?

ASSOCIATED MEMORIES - What memories did the book stimulate - people, places, events, sights, smells, feelings, attitudes....?

TEXTUAL ELEMENTS - Were there any features in the book that caught your attention - words, phrases, images, devices, ideas....?

JUDGEMENTS OF IMPORTANCE - What was the most important aspect (best thing) or feature of the book for your?

PROBLEMS - Was there anything in the reading of the book that caused you problems (this might relate to content, language, form etc)

AUTHOR - Do you have any feelings concerning the kind of person that the author is?

INVOLVEMENT - Did you feel involved with this book or distant from it? Did it have an impact on you? Why?

OTHER RESPONSES - How did your reading of the book (and response) differ from other group members? Did any difference really surprise you? Why?

EVOLUTION OF UNDERSTANDING - Did your understanding of the book change while you were reading it?

EVALUATION - Did you like this book? Why or why not? Would you classify it as a good book? 

ASSOCIATIONS - Did this book remind you of other literature (poetry, play, story)? What about films, videos, events in your life? What was the nature of the connection (e.g. image, word, event, personal experience, style)?

IDEOLOGY - Does the author appear to hold a particular point of view concerning ...? What is his/view? Why do you say this? Do you agree with it?

* The above list is based on a list in my book 'Pathways to Literacy'

4. Summing Up

Tolkien once said that one of the teacher's most significant functions is to stir the "cauldron of stories" that make up the collective textual history of our classrooms. That is, we need to create classrooms that are rich in textual meanings. Reader response is one of the ways that teachers and parents can do this. Use it with care and it will be a valuable way to encourage your children to grow in understanding of literature, language and the world.

5. Other resources and posts

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)
'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)
Cairney, T.H. (1991). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature. Portsmouth (NH): Heinemann.
Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A search for meaning, the heart of literacy

The title of this post is one that I am using for a keynote address that I will give to an Australian Literacy Educators' Association conference in Adelaide South Australia on Friday 16th April. This post is an introduction to the address and is a way to organise the various posts that relate to my talk as a resource for the attendees at the conference. Hopefully, it will be of interest to other readers too, especially those who are early childhood or primary school teachers interested in reading comprehension. The post covers one of the 5 sections of my address and draws on ideas from my book Pathways to Literacy (1995).

Helping young readers with comprehension

The foundations of reading comprehension occur in the first 5 years of life when children learn language as they relate to other people. Language learning occurs in rich social contexts as an extension of their relationships with others.

Research conducted with one of my students in the 1980s into the way language is socially situated (Cairney & Langbien, 1989) illustrates just how deeply embedded early literacy experiences are within the social relationships that they experience at home and school.

The following description based on field notes from Susan Langbien's classroom give a rich sense of what was going on one typical day in this Kindergarten in the Queensland Canefields.
Susan was reading to her children. Nineteen small four-year old faces were looking up at her as she chatted with them about the story, 'The three little pigs' (in Jacobs, 1969). The children were sitting cross-legged on a large carpet square at the front of the room, the venue for news, music, discussion, sharing ideas, and last, but not least, stories. The group had been asked to comment upon the story and was responding enthusiastically. Ideas flowed quickly as the comment of one child stimulated other responses. The discussion moved from one part of the story to another. Different characters were mentioned, and favourite parts shared. Sometimes the comments related closely to the story, at other times they were more egocentric. Their attention turned to the big bad wolf and Robert announced:

I've got a big bad wolf and I put him in hot water

Louise replied:

My bad wolf got shot with hot rocks

Christian responded with a somewhat deeper and more emotional thought:

The wolf got hurt because he tried to hurt the pigs
These young children were part of a small learning community in their Kindergarten (we'd call it a preschool in New South Wales), where language was important to them. They were delighting in the sharing of reading and writing. There was a nature table in one corner, large and small building blocks, easels, paints, clay, and a reading corner that was physically appealing. The reading corner included a brightly covered divan, a few cushions, a variety of books, newspapers and magazines. A sign was hanging on the wall asking "Have You Read Any Good Books Lately?" Artwork displays also showed the influence of literature, and group craft efforts to depict characters from books were proudly on show.

Above: A preschool classroom (this is NOT Susan's classroom)

The teacher in this classroom had been actively attempting to develop a community of readers and writers. Observations of the room showed that literacy was an important part of the world of this class. Each session of the day included the reading of a piece of poetry or prose. Frequently, these sessions were followed by lively discussion. Daily independent reading time was provided on the carpet area. News time frequently involved the spontaneous sharing of books. Opportunities were provided for response to reading, and this took many forms - drawing, writing, dramatic re-enactment, mime, and singing.

Even when the teacher was not initiating reading or writing, the classroom was filled with literate behaviour. In the dress-up corner several children were including story reading in creative play. Children took turns as mother reading to her baby. Genevieve was asking her pretend mum to explain why the dog in I'll Always Love You (Wilhelm, 1985) had such a sad face (this is a book about death). Mum was doing a wonderful job explaining the relationships within the story. Another group playing shops was using a receipt book to record purchases. Receipt books were often referred to in the home corner. 'Mum' and 'Dad' were reading the newspaper and later flicking through the pages of the telephone book.

This classroom was living evidence of the complex social nature of literacy. A teacher and her class were talking, listening, reading and writing as parts of a dynamic community. Literacy was being learned as children related to each other, meaning was being jointly constructed and negotiated within a complex community of relationships.

Susan's class was being introduced to the world of literacy in an environment where it was valued. Reading and writing were being shared and enjoyed, as an extension of close relationships (teacher-to-child, child-to-child). Whether inside the classroom, or in the playground, reading and writing often found their way into the language of the group. For example, at recess Christian began to chant:

Wombat stew, wombat stew, crunchy munchy for my lunchy,
wombat stew

This was obviously inspired by 'Wombat Stew' (Vaughan & Lofts, 1984), a book that Susan had shared.

Other children soon joined in and pretended their morning teas were lizards' eyes, a cane toad, mud and slime and a crocodile's tooth. A new and complex 'socially' constituted wombat stew was created. As they played they not only relived the experience of the book, they learned about language.

The linguist Michael Halliday Meaning demonstrated to us in the 1970s how language is constructed and used in social contexts (Halliday, 1975; 1978). Catherine Snow (1983) a little later showed how language learning is dependent upon social relationships. Snow examined the language interactions of parents and children in the preschool years. A particular focus of her work was the role of adults in children's language development and she noted that teachers and parents frequently facilitated language development in a number of ways:
First, adults often continued or elaborated topics that the child introduced.
Second, they reduced the uncertainty in the language task by structuring the dialogue.
Third, they constantly encouraged the pursuit of the task or the language interaction.
Homes and classrooms that create, sustain and encourage opportunities for rich language communities like Susan's classroom, will be places where literacy is stimulated and comprehension develops.

Other blog posts related to this topic

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Truth and the Internet' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Children as Bloggers' (HERE)
'Why Kids Re-read Books' (HERE)
'Making Books Come Alive' (HERE)
'Online Reading is Different' (HERE)
'What Rappers can Teach us About Language'? (HERE)
'Getting Boys into Books Through Non-fiction' (HERE)
'Great Science and Technology Books for Children Aged 3-12 years' (HERE)
All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)
'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)
'Juvenilia: The Study of Writing from Youth' (HERE)

Books I've written that are relevant

Cairney, T.H. (1990). Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work, London: Open University Press.

Cairney, T.H. (1991). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature. Portsmouth (NH): Henemann.

Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.

References cited in this Post

Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy. London: Cassell.

Cairney, T.H. & Langbien, S. (1989). Building Communities of Readers and Writers, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 42, No. 8, pp 560-567.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning how to mean. London: Edward Arnold, 1975.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978). Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning, Baltimore: University Park Press, 1978; London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

Snow, C.E. (1983). Literacy and language: Relationships during the preschool years. Harvard. Educational Review, 53, pp165-189.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Great Science & Technology Books for Children 3-12 years

'Science and technology' is an important book category for children interested in understanding the natural and man-made world. In this post I thought that I'd focus on a variety of good books in this category for children aged 3-12 years. There are a number of good reasons for this:

a) Some children are fascinated by science and find it more engaging than literature.
b) Boys have a particularly strong interest in books that show how things work, or which offer a different angle on understanding the world.
c) Through such books children are introduced to new written genres and new language.
d) These books also teach and encourage children to value problem solving, observation and learning.

In choosing such books I'd consider the following:
  • Look for varied genres, not just books that read like high school science texts.
  • Choose books that use a lot of visual literacy as well as words.
  • Look for books that use colour, drawing, diagrams and photographs.
  • Identify books that adopt innovative approaches to observation and inquiry.
Please note that the age categories below don't have 'hard' boundaries. For example, some preschool children will enjoy books from the 5-8 category and some of the preschool books will work with older children. As well, many children will enjoy the preschool books prior to age 3 years.

1. Books for preschool children

It's harder to find science and technology books for preschoolers but there are some good ones around.

Puggle (2009) by Catriona Hoy and Andrew Plant (Illustrator) - This story was stimulated by a visit by Catriona to the home of wildlife carers and a 'real life' orphaned echidna. The book tells the story of a baby echidna named Puggle who is taken to an animal refuge after his mother is hit by a car. The book traces Puggle's slow development from being helpless to being independent. It shows how it learns to suckle, how its body changes, being released into the wild. While the book is in a narrative form it communicates factual information about echidnas and has additional factual information on the end papers.

A seed is sleepy (2007) by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Illustrator) - This is a delightful picture book that describes how seeds germinate. Each double page features a different aspect of seeds with a poetic statement in large-size handwritten calligraphy. The book uses very simple narrative and poetic, for example 'a seed is clever'. Scientific information for each simple statement is offered on the back page. The botanical illustrations are outstanding watercolour plates. As it is an American book it uses imperial measurements not metric.

Let's try it out with towers and bridges: Hands-on early learning science activities (2003) by Simon, Seymour and Nicole Fauteux, and illustrated by Doug Cushman - This is one book from the 'Let's try it out' series that presents simple experiments with everyday materials. This book uses blocks, drinking straws, cardboard tubes and pieces of paper to show how buildings and bridges of different shapes can be made strong enough to withstand various forces. Australian readers may not be familiar with the introductory section about the American pioneers going west but this is a minor issue. Other books in the series can be found at the author's website:

Where in the Wild?: Camouflaged creatures concealed…and revealed (2007) by David Schwartz and Yael Schy (text) and Dwight Kuhn (photos) - This is a lift the flap book which demonstrates how camouflage works for young children It uses a stunning visual format. Each page opening has a heading and poem on the left-hand side and a full-size colour photograph opposite. In each photograph is a well-camouflaged animal. The child can lift the flap to find out what the camouflaged creature is. On the reverse of each flap is extensive information about the creature. The animals are primarily North American and feature mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and reptiles.

2. Books for children aged 5-8 years

Some of the above books are probably suitable for 5 and 6 year olds as well but there are many other wonderful books for this early school-aged group.

Bird's-eye View (2006) by Maria Gill and with photographs by Darryl Torrckler & Geoff Moon - Bird’s-eye View reveals what 13 New Zealand birds see in their natural environment. The idea came to the New Zealand author as she watched a hawk one day while driving her car. Could it see her? What do birds see? She was surprised to find only limited research on the topic. The book introduces the reader to the range of visual capabilities that a bird has compared with humans. Using recent avian-vision research a bird’s-eye view is shown in stunning panoramic images. This innovative book offers a new perspective on the way birds live. Sure to fascinate many children.

Bat loves the night (2001) by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies - This book uses a simple narrative to follow one night in the life of a Pipistrelle Bat, as it flies out between broken tiles, under trees and over bushes catching insects, before returning to its roost and its baby. Like many factual books for younger children it offers a secondary text that offer extra information on echolocation, food and roosting sites. The beautiful illustrations by Sarah Fox Davies add to the text. The book was reissued with an accompanying CD in 2008.

Robert Crowther's amazing pop-up house of inventions (2000) - Robert Crowther has been making incredible pop-up books for many years, including the well known 'The most amazing hide-and-seek alphabet book'. This book is an introduction to the history of technology, as he moves room by room through a house, including the kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom and garage. The reader lifts flaps, opens doors and turns dials to reveal when appliances, machines and other forms of technology were first invented or used.

Stephen Biesty's incredible cross-sections (1992) by Stephen Biesty (illustrator) and Richard J.C. Platt (author) C. - This fantastic book was one of the first to offer detailed cross-sections of various inventions. The large format book uses double-page pages spreads and cutaway drawing formats to reveal the inner workings of a building or vehicle. Captions are used to label relevant parts and explain the key components of each construction. The book includes castles, cathedrals, skyscrapers, coal mines, oil rigs, various ships, planes and trains. Boys will look at this book again and again. Richard Platt has also done many more books in the last 20 years (here).

The pebble in my pocket: A history of our Earth (1996) by Meredith Hooper and illustrated by Chris Coady - This books starts with a pebble small enough for a child to hold and describes geological processes from a time of volcanic activity 480 million years ago. It shows how things change as uplift and erosion of the Earth's crust, sedimentation, new cycles of uplift and erosion, and changes in living things over that time lead to constant change. The author uses simple but effective language that enables children to grasp the process of change on the Earth over millions of years.

The Emperor's Kingdom (2010) by Roger Kirkwood - This book tells of the life cycle of the Emperor Penguin. Using wonderful photographs, and an accompanying DVD it traces the cycle of life from February as they feed and build energy, April as they gather in colonies, May when the one egg is laid and the male takes responsibility to balance the egg in the freezing cold for 50 days before, June and July as the females journey to feed, the hatching and the return of the mothers. Told with simple text and stunning visual support.

3. Books for children aged 9-12 years

The Way We Work: Explore the Human Body Head to Toe (2009) by David Macaulay and Richard Walker - Macaulay changed the way we look at science books with his stunning first book 'The Way Things Work' (1988). His work communicates complex scientific and technological concepts in ways that young children can understand. His use of diagrams and visual material changed science for many children from a dull subject from a creative and engaging area of inquiry. He won the Caldecott medal for his book 'Black and White' in 1990.

This latest book has Macaulay turning his attention from technology to how the human body works. The 336 pages in double page spreads offer rich texts and (as usual) complex visuals. This is another wonderful example of how science can be made accessible for children.

The Usborne internet-linked science encyclopaedia (2000) by Kirsteen Rogers - This is a stunning comprehensive encyclopaedia that introduces a wide range of scientific topics to the young readers and in the process lists hundreds of excellent websites. It is beautifully produced, with many coloured illustrations and excellent well-written content. It is a stunning reference work for young and old. You can find the various websites mentioned in the book here.

Paper airplanes and super flyers (1996) by Neil Francis and illustrated by June Bradford - This book offers instructions on how to make gliders and paper aeroplanes, including fantastic stuff like how to add elevators, wing flaps and rudders. It also shows how to make parachutes, and kites and describes the principles of how they work.

How cool stuff works (2008) by Chris Woodford (and others) -

This excellent book examines the modern components behind a great deal of science and technology. It is divided into chapters with key verbs as headings (eg. 'Connect', 'Play', 'Move' and 'Survive'). It has full colour illustrations and graphics and is very well designed. Each page offers brief explanations of how new technology like MP3 players, voice recognition, microwave ovens, submersibles, virtual keyboards and pacemakers work.

One Small Step' (2009) by Jerry Stone - This is a wonderful recent example of a factual book about science. It 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.

Related posts and resources

Previous post on 'Getting Boys into Reading Through Non-fiction' HERE

'Good Science Books for Children', Australian Academy of Science HERE

Usborne 'Quicklinks for Internet-linked Books' HERE

Friday, April 2, 2010

Top 15 Stay at Home Holiday Activities for Kids

In Australia most schools will be shutting down for the end of term 1 break this weekend. It traditionally coincides with Easter, which is also our Autumn (Fall) season. This is a post about holiday activities but all can be used at any time. If you'd like ideas on how to celebrate a traditional Christian Easter with children you should have a look at my daughter's site where she has written a lot about Easter traditions (here).

For many parents the longer 2 week holiday itself will mean more hours to fill each day with activities that will keep your children occupied, stimulated and happy. I've written a number of posts in the past about things to do in the holidays with kids (here) and simple travel games to fill the time on trips with your children (here). Nicole (who writes Planning With Kids) has also recently written an excellent post on '10 Activities to Do With Kids at Home'.

I thought I'd offer my top 15 activities that can work inside and outside, in pretty much any type of weather. My criteria for choosing them are that the activities should:
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Get children to use their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested
Books with a difference

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

2. Books as a creative stimulus - While the shear joy of the book is usually enough, sometimes books can stimulate many wonderful creative activities. For example:

After reading Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things are" go outside and dramatise it. Let one child be Max and let others take turns at being the wild things. Make a boat out of bits of wood, or even have a go at making one out of a large cardboard box (or several).

After reading Jeannie Baker's book "Where the Forest Meets the Sea" (a book about the Daintree Rainforest in which all the pictures are collage) encourage them to make a collage out of natural materials (and maybe some wool, straws etc to supplement) in response to Baker's pictures. Or read a second book and have them use collage in response.

After reading Graeme Base's "The Waterhole" get them to paint the waterhole (they can draw the animals, cut them out and paste them around the waterhole).

3. 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!


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

5. 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 recent post on 'Children as bloggers' (here).

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


7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. Water play - This is hard in cold weather, but maybe you could make bath-time special for littlies 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.

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

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

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

Indoor and back yard fun

13. 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).

14. 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.

15. 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 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.