Thursday, June 27, 2013

15 great stay at home holiday activities

In Australia most schools shut down for the end of term 2 break this week, North American schools have closed for summer and British schools close in a few weeks. While it's winter in Australia and Summer in the northern hemisphere here are some activities to try with your children that are fun, simple and can be done at home. While it's a post about holiday activities any of them can be used at other times.

For many parents holidays 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). There is also an excellent post on Planning With Kids that offers '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
  • 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
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. Op shops, book exchanges and libraries are the place to start. See my post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here. Take your children with you to the op shop or library to choose them.

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. Make this fun, not a school activity. If they just want to make it a scrapbook by pasting in tickets, leaves they collect, food wrappers etc, then let them. But you can also show them how to create a travel diary.

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. 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!
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. You can even build a cubby inside! See my post on cubbies (here).

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.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Craig Smith the Illustrator: An interview and review of his work

Craig Smith's Background
Craig Smith is a prolific illustrator who has been amusing and entertaining children for many years. He has illustrated 380 books. This includes trade and illustrated books, series, and book covers. He has a quirky, mischievous and humorous style that always seems to have surprises in each work. His artwork combines a wonderful sense of the absurd with attention to detail. As you read his complete bibliography you are quickly struck by just how many wonderful writers he has illustrated for and how many varied publishers. Craig Smith has been in high demand as an illustrator for almost 40 years. He estimates that this has required approximately 9,000 illustrations! 

He has won a number of awards; including The NSW Premiers Literary Award 1982 for Nan Hunt's authored book 'Whistle Up a Chimney', and a number of awards from the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA). The latter included an Honour Book for 'Where's Mum?' (1993), another for 'Cat' (2008), and a shortlisting for 'Billy the Punk' (1996).   

Craig grew up in the Adelaide Hills. He has been a freelance illustrator since 1976. Like many artists and authors, for some of his early years he had part-time jobs to make a living - washing dishes in a restaurant, scraping rust off the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and doing drawings for advertising. One of the more interesting jobs he had as a young man was working as a nurse's aide in a hospital for the elderly. In that role he was able to observe the human body. This experience he suggests stayed with him and affected the way he has been able to develop characters in his work. He lives with Erica, in Melbourne and has four grown-up children, and four grandchildren. 

Some of my favourite Craig Smith books

His most recent book has just been published by Allen & Unwin. It is called 'Where Are You, Banana?' (2013) and was written by Sofie Laguna. Roddy's dog, Banana, has disappeared! But when Roddy hears a wail from the drain, he finds an ingenious way to rescue his beloved pet. There is a free audio reading available for a smartphone or tablet via QR code printed inside the book. As usual, Craig's illustrations are vibrant and make the story come to life.

With so many books to choose from, it's risky trying to select just a handful of Craig's many wonderful works. But here are some of my favourites.

1. 'Black Dog', author Christobel Mattingly, William Collins, 1979 (Out of print)

This was Craig's first book and was done completely in very fine line work and black and white.  Crosshatched in a long, careful and laborious way, using an ultra fine technical pen. Sadly, it's out of print, but I'm glad to have it in my collection.

2. 'Whistle Up the Chimney', author Nan Hunt, William Collins, 1981

Mrs Millie Mack lived alone in her little cottage, and as she sat down to knit at night she liked to listen to her fire going crickle crackle.  But one winter, when she threw several pieces of wood from a 'bogey louvre' from an old railway carriage, there were very surprising results. I've always loved this book and have been reading it to children for over 30 years. The wonderful line and wash drawings of Craig Smith give Mrs Mack a personality that many will recognize. Curiously, when I discussed the book once with Nan's daughter she commented that Mrs Mack looked just like her mum.  This is all the more surprising given Craig's comments in his interview about little contact with authors. This wonderful book won The NSW Premiers Literary Award in 1982.

3. 'Sister Madge's Book of Nuns', author Doug MacLeod, Omnibus, 1986 (new edition 2012)

This book is just as funny today as it was almost 30 years ago when first released. Doug MacLeod's text and Craig's illustrations almost compete for the right to be more outrageous. I think it's a draw! It is written in hilarious verse and introduces Sister Madge Mappin and other equally unusual inhabitants of the Convent of Our Lady of Immense Proportions. Craig's illustrations (the old and new version) make a significant contribution to this book of irreverent fun.

4. 'Pigtales', author Ron Elisha, Random House, 1994 (Out of print)

This book about a pig was written by Ron Elisha a medical practitioner and playwright from Melbourne. While the book is out of print, if you can find a copy somewhere you'll enjoy it. Once again, Craig's illustrations help to make the book. Craig suggests that this 'under recognised' book contains one of his favourite drawings ‘In the back of a smallgoods van, hung a dejected Prince Porgy, awaiting his final deliverance....I’ve always loved the poignant characterisation of poor Porgy. I've wondered if my feeling for Porgy is because my childhood was close to a small abattoir. These things do leave lasting impressions.'

5. 'Billy the Punk', author Jessica Carroll, Random House, 1995

Billy decides that he needs to look different. And he doesn't care that no one much likes his hair or his new clothes. While Craig makes great use of fine line in his books, in this one he uses colour to bring out the 'emotion' or mood of the story. In Craig's words, 'Billy walking to school is in a cool blue, to show his aloneness, or self-centredness. (Of course, other elements that emphasise this are the ‘from behind’ point of view, and the empty landscape). When he’s being yelled at by his teacher, the colour surrounding her is hot, angry, orange.' The book was shortlisted in the CBCA awards 1996.

6. 'Cat', author Mike Dumbleton, Working Title Press, 2007 (Out of Print)

'Cat' is about a day in the life of a cat of course. It is a very simple but animated story with few words. Craig's images are essential to the strength of the work. The life of a cat can be dangerous. It is a great read aloud book for younger readers. It was a CBCA Book of the Year Early Childhood Honour Book in 2008.

My Interview with Craig Smith

The following interview is one of the most interesting that I've done. As well as helping to offer an insight into Craig Smith the illustrator and person, it provides a huge amount of good practical advice for young illustrators.

1. Was your gift for drawing obvious early? Who encouraged its development?

As a child and adolescent I had very average skills. However my older sister, Maire, has superb drawing skills, and these were apparent as far back as young childhood.

My developmental pathway came about through visiting my sister at art school (SA School of Art in Adelaide), and becoming enthralled by the place in all its facets: painting, sculpture, film (rudimentary animation) and graphic design (especially typography). My portfolio was sufficient to become enrolled - I suspect it was partly because my sister was brilliant.

However, like a lot of art students, I had a good work ethic, and the lecturers were good, occasionally inspiring, as were many of my classmates. Plus, the campus library with its contemporary art journals and illustration compendiums made clear the international standard we wanted to attain in the energized environment of Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan’s (South) Australia in the 1970’s.

Two last points; Life-drawing is the foundation skill for an illustrator. My lecturer George Tetlow was a terrific guide to how to do it. Lastly, I was lucky to strike a friendship with John Nowland, an inspired and very professional graphic designer. This friendship had – as well - all the aspects of a genuine mentor/mentee relationship.

2. What books and illustrators were influential for you when you were growing up, and as an adult? Who inspired you, and perhaps what illustrators and authors still do?

I’ve always enjoyed browsing and reading books. An example of a pivotal book was Lord of the Flies by William Golding – read at 13. I imagine this was a pivotal text for many. For the purpose here, I’ll concentrate on illustrators that inspired me, and especially around the period of art school, and the ten years thereafter – when most receptive to influence.

First influence, being taught the principles of Swiss graphic design, exemplified in the book: Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice by Armin Hofmann. My first bible at art school.

Secondly, New York graphic designer Milton Glaser. His book Milton Glaser Graphic Design was my second bible at art school.

Next, by now I was drifting towards illustrative solutions for all my art school work. A number of Swiss/German artists became especially influential, Etienne Delessert, Heinz Edelmann, Roland Topor, Tomi Ungerer and most of all, the great Karl Friedrich Waechtar.

They were especially influential by their exotic & peculiar Europeanness. Others included Ralph Steadman, John Burningham, Michael Foreman and Tony Ross in the UK. A very, very useful photographic resource was The Human Figure In Motion by Eadweard Muybridge. Nowadays, there is less that is influential but a lot that is charming and provoking; Leigh Hobbs and Shaun Tan come immediately to mind.

3. Do you have any preferred methods or medium?

The medium is the simple part – arrived at by years of experience, and still steadily changing. Basically the medium is, a blending of gouache paint (useful for watercolour like effects – but less troublesomely soluble than watercolour), acrylic paint and acrylic ink. My illustration has always relied on an outline. This part of the illustration has changed most over years, from a precise opaque line drawn with a nib, and embellished with crosshatching - to nowadays an imprecise line still drawn with a nib, but the ink often much watered down and with little or no crosshatching.

I rely on observing what happens as paint and ink dries, and trying to manipulate that. With regard to computer skills; you must have them. At the minimum to work professionally, you should have the ability to make basic alterations in Photoshop, as necessary, (to the scan files). Actually ‘painting’ for long hours on computer is physically stressful and eventually torturous, in a way that real painting never is.

4. How important is a sense of ‘partnership’ between author and illustrator? What is the key to the collaboration between author and illustrator working as it has for so many of your books?

A publishing strategy is to partner people with the hope it works commercially. Occasionally it does, mostly it fizzles. In my experience, it does not involve directly working together at all – you just share a rapport, and attitude, with regard to the story. A different way of looking at it is, the rapport is actually with the editor. A good, supportive, thoughtful relationship with an editor is very motivating. I think it is the principal relationship. My working practice requires mostly being left alone.

5. What is the best response you've ever had to a book?

The first book… Then being offered another one after that! I’m always cheered by a response that I periodically get from the few readers of a series known generically as 'I Hate Fridays' by Rachel Flynn' (Penguin 1990 –1997). The readers are always girls who’s eyes shine with fun and brightness – they are clued in to Rachel’s acute, dry humour and familiar school characters. (These five black and white books may be my best work).

Update: As I write this, I just received a notification that a recent book has a nice review in the NY Times (Heather Fell In the Water by Doug MacLeod, Allen & Unwin). That ranks!

6. Does the work of illustration get easier, or harder as your reputation grows and your list of great works lengthens?

I think it gets easier to make judgements and decisions. I've had enough success to gain self-confidence. Not enough to think I've got it all worked out.

7. What's the most unusual request that you ever had for an illustrating assignment?

The first that comes to mind would be What a Week! (by Robyn Ryan, Playworks). Requiring the child hero to be using a specific walking aid, and with some specific body movements characteristic of his condition. Another would be the requirement to picture the direct language describing child sexual abuse in Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept (by Jay Sanders, Upload Publishing).

Perhaps the first drafts for the 'Toocool' series (by Phil Kettle, Black Dog Books), in which Toocool's sporting rivals were all in his imagination - drawn by anthropomorphizing the brick wall etc. Sad to say, this approach was abandoned.

Another would be the video clip for 'The Lonely Goth' by Mick Thomas. The task involving planning, and timing, a series of images to accompany the song. I loved this task.

However, the task of animating the song 'Insy Winsy Spider' for the TV show Here's Humphrey - all in one day. This task broke me mentally and also broke my enjoyment of animation.

8. Can you tell us a little bit about your new picture book, Where Are You, Banana?

'The dog, Banana' has that familiar doggy curiosity that has him lost, then found by Roddy - but hopelessly at the bottom of a road works (footpath) hole. Some quick thinking, and savvy use of toys, makes the rescue possible. It is a child size drama- no less moving for that. Using this book, the relationship between Roddy and Banana is bought even further to life - if you choose - by utilising a QR code to go to web narrations (audio) to listen while reading along with the story. This is an interesting use of groovy new technology, highlighting the warmth and liveliness of the narrators. Very exciting.

9. Do you have many new projects on the drawing board?

No, not many in number. The years of abundant production in educational publishing are finished.

However, there are some nice projects happening. Some favourites are:

• A picture book based on the Vietnam War.
• A self-authored picture-book about a cat, on the theme of vanity.
• Another is a venture into self-publishing – 'Doctor Frankenstein's Other Monster' (by Nigel Gray, CSI-Books) - because I use the book in school visits, plus it is a vehicle to develop an enhanced fixed layout EPUB ebook. The iBook version of this is just about ready to go.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How Creative Play Helps Learning in Surprising Places

First the context for this post on play

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Imperial War Museum at Duxford near Cambridge in England.  I went with four of my grandchildren as well as my daughter and my wife. As a lover of planes I was excited to have the chance to visit this wonderful former WWI and WWII air base with many large hangars filled with over two hundred aircraft, as well as tanks, military vehicles and boats. The museum was opened in 2007 and has so many iconic aircraft, including the legendary Spitfire, Lancaster, Harrier and the fastest passenger plane ever, the joint British/French Concorde. But this is NOT a post about military weaponry!

The thing that impressed me most about the museum was the way the whole site was planned to involve children in learning. It does this using varied methods, including play. The result was that in our party of 7 people, two 60ish year-old adults, a 36 year old mother, three girls aged 2, 6 & 8, and a 10 year old boy all had a wonderful time and learned many things.

The use of play in learning

The main purpose of this post is to highlight how this exhibit used play so brilliantly. I was surprised just how much play was used. For example, IWM Duxford has one of the best playgrounds that I've ever seen. A playground for fun, but also a place to learn. The Air and Space building also uses a wide range of interactive mechanical, automated and scientific apparatus that teach children about aeronautics and basic physics. All the while children use these they are having great fun with many complex apparatus. It was obvious that the designers of this place understood the role of play in learning. Play was as important for my grandson as it was for three of my granddaughters aged 6, 8 and 2. For each of them play was instrumental to how they enjoyed and learned from the experience. What's more there were just as many adults enjoying the same scientific apparatus and having great fun.

Above: A basic experiment in air pressure

The Playground

The playground just inside the entrance had just two items, a replica plane and a control tower connected by a simple acoustic telephone. This was the ultimate piece of playground equipment. Its setting next to the runway offered the opportunity for one of my granddaughters to pretend she was the flight controller, giving directions to her sister who was the pilot.  At one stage a WWI Tiger Moth took off on the runway as she called instructions to her sister waiting on her own take off.

While this was all going on, my 2-year granddaughter was exploring every bit of the plane at a running pace. She was walking the balance beam to cross the open bomb window with safety net below, she ran to try her hand at the controls, the rear gunners station, she slid down the wings on the slippery dip and explored the numerous interactive pieces of equipment spread throughout the plane.  At one stage she ran breathlessly past me and when I asked, "Are you having a good time" she called out:

'This is the best fun ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, in every way'.

This playground was more than a place to run around and enjoy the usual slides and climbing ropes.  This was a place to explore an aircraft on the edge of a famous runway before going inside to enjoy looking at planes and being involved in other interactive displays. Provision of knowledge was mixed with physical activity, kinaesthetic experience of parts of an aircraft modelled on the Spitfire and Lancaster bomber, and lots of fun!

Interactive Learning

Above: Sitting in the cockpit the pilot can speak to the control tower
The key for a good museum to work for children would seem to be a preparedness to do a number of basic things:

1. Have an understanding of what people of all ages find interesting.
2. Using varied methods for learning, including observation of iconic objects, provision of information in spoken and written word, image (picture, video, computer programs etc), discovery learning, use of sound, and the situating of learning in exciting contexts.
3. Providing evocative objects and places.
4. Offering opportunities for play, experimentation, hands on experiences and

Above: A great moment! As my granddaughters were communicating tower to pilot, a real Tiger Moth flew overhead
The experience of visiting IWM Duxford demonstrated for me why I stress so much on this blog that play, exploration, discovery, experimentation and firsthand experience are so vital for learning. It was a wonderful learning experience for all of our family members, and a lot of fun!

Other Posts on Play & Discovery Learning

Posts on play HERE
Firsthand experience HERE
Creativity posts HERE

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Library in a Telephone Box: British Ingenuity!

Readers of this blog know how much I like libraries, so when I saw this library I had to share it with you.

I'm staying near Little Shelford outside Cambridge in the United Kingdom at the moment and have been impressed by what must be one of the world's smallest libraries. When the local council in this small town found that the famous British red telephone box was no longer needed, they asked local residents for suggestions concerning its use. A retired school teacher, Mary Palazzo, decided that it would be the perfect way to start a community library.  She's the closest thing to the librarian which of course we know all libraries need!

“The parish council asked for suggestions for what to do with the phone box and I had seen that a mini-lending library was working in Somerset and thought it would be great to try here.”
Mrs Palazzo sought the help of members of the Little Shelford book club to set it up. One resident added shelves to the phone box and many began to gather books. The books are organized in a number of broad categories to make it easier to find what you want.

Library Rules
The library has a set of simple rules posted inside the box and requests for particular books are left on post-it notes. Town members are encouraged to take a book to read and to leave one in its place. The telephone box contains adult and children's books, including some wonderful picture books.

The library is aimed at Little Shelford’s 700 residents. Mrs Palazzo has found some books are more popular, with mystery and detective stories being the most popular. After two years it is still going strong.

The project is one of a number of similar projects that have been started by local citizens in small villages across the United Kingdom that have red telephone boxes that are no longer viable as a public phone service in the age of the cell phone.

HT: Thanks to my daughter who spotted the Phone Booth library while she was staying in Cambridge and mentioned it on her blog.