Educational fun and games for rainy autumn days

With autumn rolling in we have the odd sunny day where it’s great to get outdoors and enjoy a brisk walk amongst the falling leaves, but most of the time in the U.K. it’s rainy, miserable and cold. It’s really easy to pop on a movie and snuggle up, but very quickly this becomes boring …. and it’s far too early to crack out the Christmas movies so this is where board games and puzzles really come in handy.

I’m a parent to a four year old so it’s impossible to look anywhere in our house without finding toys, Arlo has some treasured favourites which he drags everywhere… I have to prise his hands open when he’s asleep to put his cars safely away, and now that he has started school I find that he is a lot more independent and gets. Really involved with inventing make believe play scenarios with characters and action figures, and I recently realised that I miss playing together the way we used to.

I decided to order some family friendly games and toys for rainy days in collaboration with Very which we could play with together and review. Arlo already has his kids Amazon fire tablet and lots of fun (and educational) apps and accessories, and we also like to curl up and watch movies together too, but we do not want to rely too heavily on screen time even though we are fans of technology in this house so I’ve put together a list of some our favourite STEM toys for kids and creative toys for kids to share with you all:

Connect 4 £12.99

This is a really simple game to play in pairs (or two teams) and one I remember vividly from childhood myself. The idea is that you have to create a line of four in a vertical drop board using red or yellow tokens. This is an ideal introduction to strategy for little ones and is the kind of game you can play repeatedly and never get bored of…. We tend to end up playing “best of three” when someone wins twice in a row and then it escalates from there.

Kerplunk £16.99

One of Arlo’s favourite things to build is a marble run so I thought we could try out Kerplunk together too, this is another strategic thinking game which stretches those problem solving skills. You have to carefully pull out sticks and avoid dropping any marbles – this requires concentration and focus, excellent hand eye co-ordination and of course is great for practising counting and recognising more/less than – all disguised as fun!

Magformers £24.99

Magformers are the perfect example of STEM construction toys. Using simple polygons which attach with magnets to build all manner of things. This introduction kit includes an adjustable wheel base which can be used to create different types of vehicles. This is something Arlo can play with independently, but I like to get involved and then we set up our own Formula 1 racecourse in the living room complete with a starting ramp (my chopping board propped up on the sofa) to race our models and decide who’s the fastest. Inevitably this can get quite involved and competitive so it’s the perfect rainy day activity.

Learning Resources – gears gears gears! £34.99

Construction is one of Arlo’s schemas and so I’m keen to work and build on that, and training as a design and technology teacher means I’m fascinated with toys such as this open ended robot kit. I think it’s important to give children access to technology and to also develop problem solving skills. This kit comes with a guide to create a gear robot which gets you used to the resources and then you can go wild with creativity as the kit includes eyes and tracks and all sorts of fun extras for budding engineers to explore.

Dinosaur Drawing £15.99

Arlo has always been obsessed with dinosaurs and we also love our arts and crafts in this house. I have a huge stash of materials and supplies which I like to keep safely out of reach to avoid complete chaos but I like to make sure Arlo has independent access to something creative – this little kit from Melissa and Doug is perfect, because it’s a wipe clean dry erase board and booklet complete with dinosaurs and it’s all contained in a neat little carry kit. I’ve left it up to Arlo to take responsibility for it and he takes great care to pack it all away neatly after playing. This is something we have taken out with us for car and train journeys and have used in restaurants too.

Switch and Go £13.99

This V tech range of switch and go toys are hands down one of my favourites purposely because they are so robust. Each dinosaur transforms neatly in to its own vehicle, they all have an LCD screen which lights up and make noises which are tolerable for parents. We can race the vehicles, create lands for the dinosaurs and just let imaginations run wild. These are the toys which Arlo always wants to carry around with him and they get bashed around and dropped from heights as our stairs become a volcano that dinosaurs have to escape from (don’t try this at home) and every dinosaur we have from this range is still in tip-top condition.

Snail World 12.99

If you follow us on Instagram then you’ll know that Arlo managed to keep a pet snail hidden in a jam jar his bedroom this summer for two weeks before I discovered it. He loves bugs and creatures and so I couldn’t resist picking up this snail world kit from my living world. This is going to allow us to set up a snail habitat at home and safely explore and investigate his favourite creatures. I’m going to create all sorts of different activities around this – so it’s not just about being responsible of taking care of his snails daily, we will be able to try observational drawing and constructing snails from play doh etc

360 cross RC £24.99

Of course not everything we do has to be educational, sometimes we just like to have fun and these little remote controlled cars are high octane adventure. We have an open plan downstairs and these little cars keep him running around downstairs and having loads of fun…. He pulls the cushions off the sofas and makes obstacles and jumps to invent new tricks – and when we do get a break from the rain we can take this to the park for a run around because they work on all sorts of terrains.

It’s been fun reviewing all of these toys and certainly kept us busy, we hope we’ve managed to create some rainy day activity inspiration – it’s not too early to start creating those all important Christmas wish lists to send off to Santa too.

Toys provided by Very for the purposes of review

Visiting the Confetti Fields

This blog is going to be full of pictures, and I’m not even going to apologise for it.

The confetti fields have become some what of an Instagram sensation of recent years because of course it’s so beautiful everyone wants to get themselves the perfect new profile picture (including me). I first visited with Arlo’s as a baby and the sight of the vast spread of Delphiniums in all sorts of colours overwhelmed me. I wasn’t prepared, but of Course baby Arlo had 2/3 spare outfits in the bag and so we had a little photo shoot in the glorious sunshine.

If you’ve never heard of the Confetti fields, they’re owned by The Real Flower Petal confetti Company which is based in Wick, just past Pershore (a village worth visiting on its own merit) in the Midlands. The company makes wedding confetti from Delphinium Flowers which is of course a fabulous environmentally friendly product and as a side hustle, which has become a viral social media sensation, the company began opening up its fields for visitors to capture the flowers in full bloom just before the harvest.

This of course occurs for a short time and varies year to year based on weather conditions. Now this not so secret place has become a number one spot for photo opportunities and so when tickets are released they sell out fast – at this time of writing there are opportunities to visit but please check the website.

So the practical things to consider when visiting: this place is a field and as such is bumpy and muddy in places so you need to be prepared for this. Pack sturdy shoes, try a baby carrier if you want to walk down through the flowers as a pram won’t fit. The company provides portaloos and has a small pop up cafe which sells cake, ice cream and coffee’s – I strongly suggest bringing a picnic and a blanket to make the most of your time here. Arlo managed to find a fab spot to rest and enjoy his chocolate brownie.

The delphiniums really are the star of the show and as we visited on opening weekend we were met with an array of colour, you can see the potential in these flowers to bloom even brighter over the next few weeks of summer with buds waiting to burst all over. This year however we spotted a wildflower meadow as we arrived which was worth pausing to explore and photograph. If you’re planning on posting your pictures to Instagram then the best place to find the best hashtags is Catherine’s article here from her blog, The Growing Family. Get all these beautiful photographs out for the world to see.

This year due to social distancing restrictions the tickets were checked by the team upon entrance to the car park, which was a really efficient way to manage things and avoiding any long queues just to get in to the field. We had an arrival time and it was suggested to spend two hours at the fields to help maintain number levels and make it fair for everyone. This was plenty of time to walk in and around the fields twice and zig zag off the beaten paths too.

At various vantage spots around the fields props have been carefully placed, from haybales to the lookout tower and a vintage tractor and bus, there’s so many views to capture it’s impossible. In fact I put my phone away for half an hour just to enjoy myself and the atmosphere.

We played hide and seek together and raced along the back straight of the field where we met the team members working hard and driving back and forth to pick flowers and load them on to the wagon for sale at the exit. Everyone we met working seemed happy, and how could you not be surrounded by such beauty?

Arlo is a lover of nature and constantly outdoors, so he was in his element and I snapped away capturing him enjoying himself, and we watched from a distance as professional photographers set up shoots with models and extravagant costumes. (I think he was convinced that the fairies were real).

One thing I did do was pack a magnifying glass, an egg box and a scavenger hunt resource for him to play with – and he literally lay down in the ditches to greet all creatures great and small – he didn’t stay clean for long but I didn’t mind as he was having a great time. If you’re planning to visit to get some pictures then it’s worth considering what kinds of things will keep the kids busy and enjoying the day as we spotted a lot of disgruntled kids on our walk around.

As we left the field I chose to purchase two bouquets, one for us at home and one for nanny – Arlo wanted to carry the gift proudly but the bunch was bigger than him – at £10 these are extremely reasonably priced, cut fresh and hand tied by a team working at out in the middle of the fields all day.

On our way back to the car we decided to head over to the wildflower meadow and Arlo ran off miles ahead. He was most impressed with the ladybirds and bees in this area, not to mention that this field had the “whole rainbow of colours.”

The confetti fields are only open until 4th July this year so head over to their website to book

Play time online

Arlo is getting to the stage now where he’s interested in games and competition. He’s always claiming he’s the winner, it’s always a race to brush your teeth the fastest or climb up to top of a hill first, and so I began to introduce games to him at Christmas. One of our absolute favourites is crocodile dentist – I had this as a little girl and it’s so much fun.

A relatively simple context, you crank own the jaws of a plastic crocodile and take it in turns to press down his teeth, and the game ends when someone presses the wrong tooth and his jaws snap shut. This concept absolutely delights Arlo and we often play this a dozen times in a row. Taking turns is one thing which I think is especially useful to learn for when he approaches “big school” in September.

We have also started to play snakes and ladders. I pulled out an old set from the loft and he enjoys counting the dots on the dice and stepping his counter across the corresponding squares. Just recently he has begun to plan ahead and try to “cheat” and miss the snakes heads and skip straight to a ladder. Obviously I call him out and try to have a fair game, but inside I’m marvelling at how the cogs in his brain are working at problem solving.

To me games aren’t just about passing the time, or to pull out on a rainy day when you’re bored they’re helping him learn through positive interaction. I started thinking about some of my favourite games and how technology was also introduced to me through games as a child. Back when I was Arlo’s age I remember there being one computer introduced at nursery and we would take it in turns to play with a painting app where the mouse would trail blaze a series of stars across the screen in technicolour.

This sent me down a nostalgic trip down memory Lane as I recalled using Encarta to research my homework and playing minesweeper on the first ever desktop computer we owned at home and so of course I had to search online for the game. Then I had to mooch through the website to see what else I could find to play with.

Arlo gets to use a computer at nursery and I’m told he sits nicely with his peers, takes it in turn to select games and that he gets quite involved with immersive concepts and so I’ve been looking to find some simple games which we can play online together too, we don’t have a games console at home and so I needed things we could play from my phone together. It’s been great to find this free online catalogue of simple games to play together whilst on a U.K. staycation – I’m often reluctant to bring board games out with us and risk losing the pieces but we have played several online games together this week.

One of the first games I came across was pipe mania – this fits in with the things he’s learning about at the moment with construction, we organise all sorts of play based activities with water tables in the garden too, and using a game together for short amounts of time compliments this. As a parent I feel it’s important to introduce small amounts of screen time in a constructive way so that Arlo understands how user interfaces work, but I don’t want to get any expensive games consoles or anything like that at this stage.

Pipe Mania from plays.org is a relatively simple place to begin – again a really simple concept game strategy, where you find a grid filled with pipes which need to be connected to allow the water to flow through. I’ve played this with Arlo as it’s a relatively simple game concept, to play you simply tap the pipes arranged on the grid and they rotate in to place – once they are all connected you press the play button and watch the water flow. Then points rack up with a pinging audio giving positive feedback and taking you on to a more challenging level.

This website has a whole host of games you can browse through to find something to play and the best thing is that they’re all free. There’s no apps to install or hidden charges, simply scroll through the games and tap through to play. Each game comes with a brief description and detailed instructions although the concepts are relatively simple and as you progress through levels you pick up the game play techniques as you go along. I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying the “snake” games myself which remind me of the first ever mobile phone I had. I didn’t think they made games like this anymore so it’s been a pleasure to find a new twist on some retro classics.

Making it count

This is a collaborative blog post

Our year of home schooling is complete and whilst we’re all looking forward to a summer of fun with a roadmap out of lockdown it’s great to pause to reflect on what a year it’s been. There’s lots of things we have learnt over the last twelve months and some things we are going to change in our lifestyle forever.

I have shared lots of fun activities we tried over lockdown, including messy play inspiration, tuff tray set ups and weekly themes for longer projects. Having a pre-schooler at home 24/7 meant we had to come up with innovative ways to keep him occupied. I was one of those parents who was adamant my child wouldn’t use technology but I have changed my mind.

The are some really great resources out there when it comes to helping little ones learn through the use of technology, and calculators.org is one of them. A completely free online collection of educational games which is entirely ad free.

This website has a huge variety of interactive games, with a specific section for pre-schoolers which is great to support little ones on their learning journey. One thing we are currently working on is telling the time. We have a real clock, a wooden clock and a little watch, so we aren’t just relying on technology but it really is a useful aid.

The great thing about interactive games like this is that there’s audible feedback – so when you get the answer right. There’s three different levels of difficulty within this game. With whole hours, quarters and five minute intervals, and you can also switch languages within this game too, so if you’re multilingual then this is great.

The entire library of games has a really simple star rating to show how difficult games are and so you can really easily navigate to a game which is suitable for your child. There aren’t just maths related games either. This find the letter game has two modes – “fun” where there are no scores or timer and then “competitive mode” where there’s points for each answer and a 60 second timer.

This arcade style of game I think is a great way to introduce technology to little ones. Arlo is almost four and I have noticed how he can navigate through games with simple user interfaces independently with growing confidence – The positive effects of technology on early childhood education can be very beneficial. Educational and instructional practices, such as games and applications that improve cognitive skills, are among these benefits.

How to incorporate the senses in to sensory play.

This is a sponsored blog post

I am extremely passionate about learning through play. I share all sorts of activities we do at home and most of the time it looks like complete chaos, but there’s method behind the madness. I try to incorporate opportunities to learn in to everything we do, in such a subtle way that Arlo doesn’t realise he’s learning new life lessons.

I often get asked about how I manage to engage him for long periods of time with one activity but the truth is that he has a maximum ten minute attention span, and so my trick is to not throw everything in all at once. I try to build up an activity I’m creating. I use aspects of play from the senses to guide me in setting up something which will last for longer than it takes to clean up.

I often share colourful pictures and craft projects we have completed together and one common theme is colour. So we’ve usually got the visual aspect of “invitations to play” covered. I save all sorts of bits and bobs and try to stick to seasonal and festival themes through the year and having a craft stash is the first step to creating engaging play set ups. Never throw anything away – plastic toys seem to have a bit of a bad reputation in the play communities but we look after ours and constantly wash and re-use them. I also provide “real” tools for Arlo to use in play – usually kitchen utensils.

1. Sight

Babies see in black and white – did you know that it’s not until about five months when babies can see the full colour spectrum? Somewhere around 4-6 months old babies begin to develop hand – eye co-ordination. The first time a baby reaches out to touch something they can see is a huge milestone and a precursor to weaning.

Toys such as stacking blocks, cups and rings are fabulous to play with at this stage and I purchased bright sets with rainbow colours and we still use these now. We used to have daily themes and literally wear and eat and play with one colour or texture all day. I use food colouring and paint to brighten everything up however It’s not just about being colourful. Sometimes you can go for a shiny or a natural theme which is just as inviting.

By combining efforts to incorporate the other senses in to play I add new experiences and an additional dimension to play. A tuff tray covered in brown paper to apply paint to a huge canvas was fun – the plan was to learn about how to make secondary colours from primary colours with this one. Adding in pine cones and bamboo sticks as well as paint brushes gave Arlo the chance to experiment with mark making and paint mixing in new ways. Appealing to his touch sense as well as just being visual.

Our drinks mixing station activity began life like this. As we have been doing lots of mixing activities recently Arlo enjoyed approaching the bottles of colourful water and trying to make the yellow turn green by adding blue. He didn’t know at first glance that I’d also been considering the other senses and that his drinks were “real” and this led us on to a careful drinks sampling exploration.

2. Taste

Arlo is almost four and so we play with all sorts now that he has gone past the “putting everything in to his mouth” stage. This is entirely normal for babies and so all of the different activities we share will need to be adapted for younger ones to avoid any choking risks with younger ones and I always supervise play and keep a count of small objects too.

When Arlo was little “food safe” resources were often used. Adding jelly to his high chair tray as a play resource just before we began weaning was a great way for him to be introduced to food items and his high chair. I’d give him a spoon to hold too. Cereals and spaghetti were fun to use and adding food colouring to yoghurt to use as paint worked wonders for us.

Something as simple as providing the fruit garnishes in our potion station was a great way to discuss the differences between sweet and sour. Comparing oranges and berries to lemons and limes was a great discussion point but it began with the colour differentiation and the sight before we eventually used touch to explore too.

3. Scent

The way things smell is very closely linked to taste – it was when Arlo noticed that the coloured drinks in the potions had a smell and were slightly sticky. With encouragement from me that these were real and okay to drink he figured out each colour was a different drinks flavour. He went around each cup sniffing and trying to guess which flavour was which – I’d used food colouring to try and disguise the flavours – so the orange flavour drink was blue. He found this hilarious because it was a trick and a totally new experience.

We have been experimenting with scent from the early stages too. Letting him wave around a bunch of fresh lavender or mint as a six month old in the high chair was fun enough for him. More recently I’ve adding essential oils and fragrances to play dough. When I made a cinnamon dough he said it “smells like Christmas” and he compares the smell of mint to toothpaste. It’s great when the scent isn’t immediately obvious but then through play the aromas emerge and create a new sensation.

I often find adding a new layer or dimension to a Play activity based on the senses helps to prolong the interaction. I often get asked how I manage to keep Arlo interested for longer than five minutes and this is how. As soon as he mentioned the minty toothpaste smell he linked teeth to dinosaurs and so out came some Dino cookie cutters to use and this added an extra ten mins or so to the activity.

4. Touch

I love creating play activities which are touch safe. There’s so many situations where you have to tell a child “no” that it’s hard to help them build up enough confidence to explore and problem solve. Of course we need boundaries and have to know not to touch hot water or ovens or to leave a tap running but sometimes children need to know why rules are in place and also have a change to use their problem solving skills to try and create solutions.

Lots of household objects are often “off limits” but if you create a safe environment to explore and supervise play then anything is possible with items you already have around the house. Arlo was obsessed with clothes pegs and so one afternoon I gave him a bunch attached to a mug tree and it was his job to try and pinch them off – really challenging those fine motor skills and then trying to also peg them back on. He also liked the sounds of my bracelets as they clinked on the metal and so we added in a ring toss type game with the mug tree too.

I use tuff trays, the mud kitchen outdoors, trays for dough and big tubs when we are using really slimey stuff indoors now. Learning things like the difference between hot and cold is a great life lesson and so we often use ice and warm water to melt things and demonstrate the difference and meaning of the two words.

Placing smaller bowls and cups inside a bigger environment works well for us. Arlo knows he can pour and mix and do all sorts within the boundaries of the tray. A great place to begin exploring paints and messy play is the bath tub for a quick clean up if you aren’t quite ready for the chaos of a tuff tray – then you can literally shower everything away and wash off in the same place.

Being able to touch things is a great way to help babies to explore food when weaning – smushing up fruits and covering faces with porridge is great fun and also a way to acquaint ourselves with new textures. Touch is also important as a pre-Curser to writing – learning to grasp tools and exercise all the muscles in their hands is great preparation for holding a pencil and so play for us is always very hands on. I always provide “tools” to interact with our play trays in different ways. Our drinks station had squeezey bottles, pipettes and cups to pour things. I keep our equipment in storage boxes and so often Arlo will approach a play activity and then run to fetch the tools he thinks he might need.

Whenever we use dough, I begin with one colour which is usually scented and one or two tools. Arlo will sit nicely and want to touch it and squish it, make marks with the rolling pin I have provided but his interest would wain within about ten minutes when he was younger. This is normal and a great time to introduce another layer – another colour dough or a new tool. Depending on his moods and interests on that day I might add a toy animal for him to make them stomp through the Dough and leave footprints behind. This example was a snowman building set and I added glitter and peppermint scent to the dough along with a tinker tray.

Tinker trays are a selection of bits and bobs which require a lot of extra investigation. It’s a little more of a grown up version of a sensory basket, and I like to save all sorts of bits and bobs to use. I will try to provide resources which fit a theme – little wooden trinkets, beads and buttons, Pipe cleaners etc. These tinker trays are great to explore on their own – you can play by sorting things by shape, size and colour. I also use these a lot with play dough, at almost four he will methodically explore the bits and add features like eyes, wings and legs to shapes to bring them to life.

A small selection of our art materials live in our accessible craft area at all times along with the usual PVA glue, and a big box of our recycled loo rolls and cardboard – so whenever Arlo says he wants to make something totally random like a peacock or a snowflake we can rummage through together and find the bits we need. I tend to rotate this around with the seasons so I’m about to swap in a lot of pastel colours for Spring.

5. Sound

It seems obvious to say “talk to your babies” and in some respects this has backfired on me because Arlo really is a chatter box. When he was tiny and I was at home on maternity leave I would literally narrate my entire day to him and I noticed pretty early on that he recognised my voice and would react to noisy toys with delight. We read books together and so a lot of our inspiration comes from rhythms and rhymes in stories. You can usually hear us before you see us.

Rattles and squeaky toys were fun back in the baby days. Almost every toy makes a noise but it’s fun trying to invent your own too. A saucepan and a wooden spoon can provide hours of entertainment, as can adding rice to a sealed bottle to make a shaker. If you use a transparent bottle then you can add in colours or if you use a shaker with a fabric lid you could use scented rice (layering the senses remember!) – I created a rainbow of sensory bottles for Arlo when he was tiny using coloured rice and feathers in sealed bottles so he could compare the weight and sounds when shaking the bottles. Notice that the bottle contents are also different colours too. Arlo’s favourite toys as a one year old were those which made the biggest bangs.

Now he’s older I like to try and interact with Arlo to discuss things as he plays – I will add things like a cardboard tube from a kitchen roll to a tray of rice or chick peas – he will pour the hard pieces down and listen to the rattling, cover each end and shake to make a noise. He loves the raspberry sound a squeezey bottle makes when it’s running out of air, or holding a cup under water to listen to the bubbles pop to the surface and just being as loud as he possibly can be. As he brings his toy animals in to play I will ask “why’s that” or “where’s he going” “what’s he doing”

The challenge now is to try and think of ways to incorporate all of the senses in to your play activities, they’re probably already present, but if you think about this before you set something up then you’re going to provide an enriched learning experience.

It’s just as important for adults to talk care if their senses – for advice and information check out Auris Ear Care

The books I used to read as a child and why they are problematic.

I am a self confessed book worm.

I always have been and always will be. Now that I am a parent there is nothing more delightful than sharing some of my most favourite stories with Arlo. For me it’s a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and for Arlo he’s discovering new worlds for the very first time. Tomorrow is World book day, it’s not just a chance for parents to play top trumps with costumes, but an opportunity to invoke a love of literature in our children.

When our favourite stories create problems

This year there’s some discussion around problematic language and representation in books by Dr Seuss on social media. This has led to some stories now being removed from sale. I think it’s very important to make sure that we strive for equality and not hold on to stories based on a nostalgic view of things we remember from childhood. Last year I wrote about some of our favourite children’s books for an online publication and whilst I was researching I discovered that some of my favourite stories had also been edited and/or withdrawn from circulation. This was a learning curve for me, the action that publishers have been taking in some instances is somewhat refreshing and reassuring.

We read together every evening before bed, and the stories we reach for most often are those which I still treasure from my childhood. I have so many books with little inscriptions from my mother written in the top corner of the covers – “happy 3rd Birthday Lavania – July 1990” – I can delve in to a world created by Shirley Hughes, which are full of relatable stories and poems. “Things I like” is probably the one I would recommend to anyone as an introduction, as it’s a collection full of things which a toddler will experience. Not all books from our childhood have been “cancelled” – if you still have old copies, and you can check the date of printing in most books, you can then compare newer versions and see if you can spot any changes.

At the end of a day

We can sit together and read a poem about splashing in puddles or about leaves on trees which then helps us discuss things we have experienced ourselves that day. It reinforces learning experiences and we sit and pore over the pages together looking at all the little details. I read the words and Arlo explores the pictures. We point out things from the illustrations and we discuss them – from the colour of wellies matching our real life boots, to spotting little birds and insects dotted around the pages. We can count flowers and work on colour recognition and have an immersive and interactive story time. There’s not a single detail which goes unnoticed by my three year old.

This is why it’s so important that the illustrations are representative.

Continuing down the nostalgic childhood path, I must mention Janet and Allan Ahlberg. There are so many books of theirs which I could mention, Peepo, Each Peach Pear Plum and Funnybones – but the most popular on our shelf has to be “the Jolly Christmas Postman” This is probably one of the most innovative children’s books of all time and the work gone in to designing this is incredible.

In a world before iPads were invented this book captured my imagination and kept me busy for hours – a simple story following a postman’s journey delivering letters, with every other page featuring a real envelope containing surprise gifts for the reader to open and explore. The attention to detail is second to none and even now as an adult reading this book with Arlo I find things which I’ve never noticed before. It’s truly magical and one to put in the Christmas Eve box to treasure forever.

Books aid discussions

Another of my favourite books is by Nick Butterworth, and for a similar reason. His Percy the Park Keeper book has beautiful illustrations of animals and a series of fold out pages which open to reveal important story elements. This book is a firm favourite of Arlo’s right now because we spend so much time in parks and it’s so familiar to him. This book is a good one to aid discussions about changing of seasons and weather, not to mention all of the different woodland creatures.

We love books which have rhythm and rhyme, you’re probably all familiar with Michael Rosen and “We’re going on a bear Hunt” this is like a rite of passage for all children and it’s super easy to get kids motivated on the last stretch of an outdoor walk when their little legs are tired by chanting the rhyme – a great first introduction to this wonderfully eccentric poet is “freckly feet and itchy knees” – it’s a lovely little book and another one to help inspire interaction between parents and babies. I pulled this one out of the shelf recently and noticed that different skin colours were represented. The only problem with this book is it might be a bit too energetic before bedtime, at least it is when we read it out loud together and act it all out – It’s interesting that as I was researching for this blog I found a tweet by Michael Rosen:

The Anti-Semitic Works of Dickens and Shakespeare

A very interesting point for discussion, Charles Dickens is celebrated as an author, and a genius – but it is well documented that he expressed attitudes which were problematic – anti Semitic and racist – the most obvious example to reference is his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. “The novel refers to Fagin 257 times in the first 38 chapters as “the Jew”, while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned.” In revised editions Charles Dickens toned down his portrayal but the debate rages on long after his death as the character has often been been portrayed as a caricature / stereotype in film. Just like the character Shylock created by Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice.

We can’t possibly “cancel” Dickens and Shakespeare (although some publishers have removed this play from anthologies for younger children). These books and stories exist as a social commentary of the time in which they were written. These writers are considered to be literary geniuses. To pretend they never existed in an attempt to erase the past rather than confront the reality, however uncomfortable that may be would be ridding us all of the opportunity to grow and learn through discussion. We don’t know much about Shakespeare and his mysterious life but we do know that Dickens was strongly opposed to slavery but does this absolve his problematic works? We need to talk about this.

This isn’t just about words – illustrations alongside text in children’s books are designed to help encourage independent reading. It takes a special skill to create a book for children, who without knowing it can sit and listen to a story being read out loud by their parents and follow the story by pouring over the pictures and when they get a little older, by following text with their fingers. Good children’s books for toddlers have simple sentences and repetitive sounds, as a grown up now I have a repertoire of voices and sounds which I didn’t know I was capable of creating – it’s so much fun for Arlo he doesn’t even realise he’s learning. This is why it’s so important for the books we read to be representative. Children absorb so much, so it’s important that we analyse the images and content of stories to see if there’s anything problematic. This isn’t about cancel culture or jumping on a social media bandwagon, but about discussion.

A picture speaks a thousand words

I must mention Rupert Bear, which was originally a comic strip – my mum had the annuals every year as a Christmas gift when she was a child and we have kept up the tradition here. I’ve noticed with these books how they offer something to children of different ages. Each comic strip is accompanied by a rhyming couplet which perfectly represents the story, and so I can read these with Arlo and flick through the pictures to tell the story, but on the same page there’s also a full descriptive paragraph for each scene – these books provide different experiences to readers of different ages. A great example of how to engage children and teach them to love stories. However there are problems.

Rupert however was originally a brown bear. Created by Mary Tourtel in 1920 to be published in the Daily Express. It was however apparently cheaper to print a white bear, so this much loved character has also been a victim of whitewashing. There have been two Rupert Annuals from 1946/47 which are considered too racially insensitive to be republished. The language in several stories has since been edited – for example words like “coon” have had to be removed. The portrayal of the character Koko in the above example is just not acceptable.

I think Hamish McColl’s Paddington is probably the more popular bear about town these days, (perhaps because he’s been bought to life by Hollywood?) Rupert Bear stories have that “quintessentially British” feel about them and are just as delightful to read. There’s something wonderful about following a protagonist which is an animal, and children often find comfort in having soft toys which they recognise from their most loved books but have you ever paused to consider that Paddington is an illegal immigrant? Arriving from “darkest Peru” without an identity or a recognisable past. Michael Bond’s books (written in the fifties at a time when Britain was beginning to become more diverse) teach us to “please look after this bear” – it’s interesting to think about what things were like back when these stories were originally published in the fifties and what the subliminal messaging behind the apparently simple story is when we put this in to context.

It’s not just about racism

I have to pause here and give mention to Richard Scarry here, “Mr Frumble’s worst day ever” was given to me when my little sister was born so that I didn’t feel left out and the story follows Mr Frumble (another anthropomorphic animal – this time a pig) and a day of misfortunate escapades. It’s a really funny book and again there is a lot going on in all of the illustrations to create talking points for discussion. I have older editions of these books, which aren’t quite so politically correct these days but it’s reassuring to know that many of these books have been edited to reflect social changes so that the stories and illustrations are still relevant for children today. Alan Taylor put together this image which shows some progressive changes which have been made so that outdated gender stereotypes are not perpetuated through the books we use to educate our children. Women don’t exist just to cook breakfast and push babies in prams.”

Let’s talk about Enid

As I got older I delved in to the world of Enid Blyton and began reading independently, the Famous Five and Mallory Towers captured my imagination, in fact I was determined to follow in the steps of Darrell Rivers – I always wanted to go to an all girls school and be a prefect. My favourite was always “the Magic Far Away Tree” – a group of children discover an array of different worlds which appear as they climb a tall tree. It’s actually quite odd trying to explain it in words, the land of Topsy Turvy is a place the children discover where everyone walks on their hands, and then there’s the land of “do as you please” – each story has some sort of moral lesson, the children get in to trouble and have to help each other to make everything right.

The problem is that in some stories the “baddies” perpetuate racial stereotypes, Noddy being the most prolific example and for all of the female empowerment in the Mallory Towers series, there’s a constant gender issues when it comes to the Famous Five series where our favourite tomboy character George is often “mansplained” by her male cousins and Anne is constantly being treated as a doormat by them too. When I read these books I thought George was an inspiration. Girls can do anything and be just as good as boys.

Many of Blyton’s book’s were written over eighty years ago and have attracted critical backlash for various reasons over the years. As an adult I can read back some of these books and see why, but as a child I was blissfully unaware of the controversy, and I think I took more positives than negatives away from the stories – thankfully there have been many updates to Enid Blytons work to make the stories more appropriate for a modern audience. I feel really strongly about utilising books as resources to introduce discussions about racism, classism and gender stereotypes.

I grew up

As I grew older and went to secondary school I actually volunteered to help in the library and used to take home new books every evening. I used to have a torch to continue reading after lights were turned off to get to the end of a story, I slept with so many books under my pillow I had a crick in my neck. I would take the books from the reading list and read them over and over again.

My thirst for new texts meant that my teachers would recommend their own childhood favourites to me, Mr Jones lent me his copy of Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery which were challenging for me at the time, but are two books I always remember being fascinated by, and then along came Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I would have so many questions and found it fascinating that people could have different interpretations to the same story.

Our English teachers (by the time we got to our GCSE’s) would help explain the context stories were written in, both historically and politically and suddenly things would have eye opening different meanings when you’re learning to navigate the world as a teenager. We spent a term pouring over To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and I think this is one of the most important books for anyone to read, and more relevant than ever even now.

Books are important.

Whenever I read a new book I write my name in the cover and then when I’m finished I leave them for someone new to find. Arlo and I have also done the same and have hidden his books in the park and participated in book exchanges to share our love of literature.

I could talk about the time I went to a book store at midnight when I was a student to buy the last ever Harry Potter book as soon as it was released, and how disappointed I was to see JK Rowling apparently support a transphobic tweet, but that would require another thousand words, and I haven’t got time for that because I do still need to make a costume for tomorrow.

I’ll finish with a quote from one favourite book of mine which I think explains exactly how I feel about reading – there’s nothing more important than inspiring a love of book’s with your children. Being able to read means that children can then open their minds, enhance language skills and express thoughts and ideas better. I’m pleased to see Dr. Seuss are committed to action when it comes to representation. None of us ever stop learning and growing.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”— Dr. Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”

Melting rainbows – a baking soda and vinegar activity

This is a really fun project for budding scientists – when you mix baking soda and vinegar a chemical reaction occurs which creates bubbles. This is fun all on its own but when you involve colours things take on a new direction. I’ve previously written about how Arlo’s schema penchant is for transformation and so setting up little science experiments for him to explore is so much fun.

You will need:

  • Ice cube tray
  • Food colouring
  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar
  • A tray
  • A beaker
  • Pipettes

I began by mixing up food colouring and water in an ice cube tray and letting this freeze overnight. I ended up leaving these in the freezer for a while and pulling them out on a quiet afternoon when we needed something to do

The set up was simple – I simply poured baking soda on to a tray and scattered the ice cubes over randomly, and then popped a small amount of vinegar in to a beaker with a pipette. I’ve found that when I only provide a small amount Arlo knows to use it sparingly and takes his time to approach the play task.

Then it was simply a case of supervising the play – as soon as the liquid touched the powder it began to fizz and so Arlo was super interested. He started trying out dripping the vinegar on different colours and then at different angles to see what the difference would be.

As the ice began to melt he wanted to move around the cubes to mix different colours and

Also realised that more powder created better bubbles and so he asked for a spoon to scoop the powder from the edges on to his favourite colour cubes. When the vinegar in his beaker ran out he used the pipette to squeeze up liquid back from the tray and re-use it.

A really simple but effective tray play idea, I always keep baking soda and vinegar in my play resources cupboard and it’s fun trying to think of new ways to play. Our colour reveal in a cupcake tray was another success.

Mixing potions tray activity – and discovering schemas in play

This was an interesting play set up, I’m so used to having to pretend that shaving foam ice creams are delicious – I wanted to put Arlo’s mixology skills to the test for real. I’ve been reading about schemas recently and figuring out that Arlo seems to have a penchant for transforming things and so I wanted to build on this through our play. It’s not often I can even set up a tray to surprise him because he always wants to get involved with mixing doughs and slimes to set up. In fact I decided to give this activity a go after I found him putting random bits of food in to our drinks at the dining table.

Messy play isn’t just about creating a distraction to do the laundry or filling in the time between meals and then clearing it all up before bedtime – providing children who have a natural interest in mixing things with an open ended activity gives them the opportunity to explore and interact using their imagination. When you take a step back and observe how they play you can learn a lot and then create activities to introduce new concepts and ideas which they will want to engage with. There’s method behind the madness.

You will need:

  • A selection of fruit juices
  • Soda water
  • Fruit garnishes
  • Food colouring
  • Ice
  • A range of cups and glasses
  • Pipettes
  • Squeezey bottles
  • A big tray with high sides

Mum hack: I didn’t want to overload with sugar and so I watered down our fruit juices

I set up the tray with everything ready for Arlo to explore – bowls of fruit, various juices spread out and a little cup of paper straws too – plus his pippettes and squeezy bottles which he is familiar with. I didn’t tell him the drinks were “real” at first and so as expected he dived right in and started mixing me up a drink. He was happy to role play and gave me a delightful blue concoction to sample… I usually pretend to take a sip or taste of his mud pies and shaving foam ice creams and so he found it hilarious when I gulped a blue potion straight down.

This was a complete game changer – as soon as he realised that the drinks were real a totally new approach was decided upon. He slowly went round the tray sampling the different flavours, describing and comparing flavours as if he was a critic for the Times. I found this fascinating to watch and really enjoyed interacting with him as he found words to describe and explain the flavours to me…. “spicy” is the word he used to describe soda water.

Of course there was still mess involved which is why I use a tray with such high sides for indoor play – but this activity really highlighted to me just how Arlo’s thought and decision making processes work. He was a lot more careful and deliberate with his mixing from this point. Arlo’s natural urge to “transform” things means he’s like a little scientist always wanting to learn as much as he can about a new things – he is not afraid to test things out to see how they work and then find new tools and resources to experiment. I think we have come to the conclusion that peas and carrots don’t belong in our drinks which means that this is a success.

We really enjoyed this doing this together and there was nothing left to drink at the end of it. Now I know about schemas I can look back and understand why some of our play activities haven’t kept him occupied for as long. I’m going to adapt some of our existing resources and come back to previous projects with a new approach to see how we can plan to learn some new concepts, and also keep an eye out on his little experiments and let these inspire it activities….. I’m going to have to do something with bubbles soon because he poured an entire bottle in the sink earlier today.

How to dye chickpeas for messy play.

I often use rice and chick peas for indoor play activities. They provide the sensory fun element of play but as dry ingredients the clean up process isn’t as daunting as it is with slime.

You will need:

  • Chick peas
  • Poster paint
  • Vinegar
  • A pint glass
  • Sandwich bags

My process for dying the peas is very simple, and I use the same process for rice too. I pop a sandwich bag inside a large glass and then fill it about 1/3 full with peas. Then I squeeze in some paint and add a small splash of vinegar. Then I pick up the bag and scrunch it to disperse the colour around the peas, making sure they’re all evenly covered.

I tend to leave the bags open on the kitchen. side with the peas spread out as much as possible, giving them a scrunch every time I walk past to prevent them sticking together and they do dry fairly quickly. If you’re making a big batch you can spread them out on a tray. I like to prepare a few colours at a time and keep them stored separately in air dry containers to arrange some themed play trays – green for farm land and blue for the ocean etc.

Every so often it’s fun to play with colour and so the first activity we set up with these chick peas was a simple pouring and scooping game. I often use a transparent under bed storage tub for indoor play on a large scale which is about 8 inches deep and it’s great – the peas can be poured at height making a rattling noise. You can use scoops, funnels and all sorts to inspire play and this is more than enough on its own.

We do like to re-use our dry messy play ingredients for as long as we can. My black Halloween chick peas have been with us for three years and are still going strong. Once these neon chickpeas were all mixed together Arlo said they reminded him of a chameleon and so this inspired a whole new game. Arlo went to fetch his toy chameleon and so I went to fetch his favourite book and printed off a colouring sheet from Twinkl at the same time.

I love it when we can link our play to a story and this was a real success. We sat together at the table reading the book and every time a different animal was mentioned Arlo charged through the house looking for his miniature toy creatures, and proceeded to hide them in the sensory bin. While he was doing this I hid the colouring sheet under the transparent base and so when we eventually got to the end of the book I told him the chameleon had camouflaged and so he had to scrape and scoop the chickpeas away to reveal the picture.

He was delighted to eventually reveal the chameleon and then he spent quite a while covering the picture up with chickpeas to match the book cover illustration and decorating his features – pointing out his curly tail and boogely eyes. I sat back happy to see him utilising those fine motor skills and sorting out the colours and counting to himself independently. This gave me another idea and so I fetched a ice cube tray from the kitchen cupboards. Entirely led by Arlo we discovered another way to play with our chickpeas – counting and sorting them out in to the compartments of the tray. He’s getting quite confident now and so I’ve been showing him very basic addition, counting out four and then saying “let’s add one” and asking “how many did we make?” – I don’t sit down with the intention of encouraging reading, writing and counting but when you play like this, there’s often ways you can incorporate learning without even realising.

So there we have it – from one batch of chickpeas we have created a variety of different activities and every single time we do this we uncover more ways to play taking inspiration from different colours and themes. We have been playing with neon and glow in the dark colours this last month as part of our “light and dark” theme and I’ll be uploading more activities very soon. Check out how we used neon paints outdoors here