Thursday, 9 July 2015

Into the Labyrinth

I must admit that it came as rather a surprise quite how captivated my three year old has become with the colourful literary world of Greek myths. It began with the chance find of a copy of Usborne's brilliant young reading series' The Minotaur as she browsed the library shelves. Her nursery teachers reported that she had commandeered the Montessori red maze to set up her own Cretan structure, and she drew maze after maze at any opportunity for weeks. When we could renew this book no longer, and following a trip for her jabs when she was promised a treat for being brave, aptly she chose her own copy of this aged tale of courage.

We also discovered rather quickly that there was a host of other well written, captivatingly illustrated, early reader editions of tales from Greek mythology. These have been read and read again in recent months and few other picture books have, at the prospect of being returned to the library, led to such consternation. We've started to spot favourite characters everywhere - perching above fountains, decorating the facades of buildings and nestled between other ornaments in stately homes. I've been reminded what an essential symbolic vocabulary these ancient tales provide, granting access to much of our taken-for-granted but innate understanding of the world. For we are all ultimately the cultural descendents of the ancient Greeks, and no child should be without an understanding of these fascinating tales. With Culturebaby's latest obsession - Narnia - again it is so clear that C.S. Lewis and many of his ingenious literary friends rooted their tales in both biblical and mythical worlds. Her toy Narnian centaur often travels with us...

With perfect timing, we spotted the British Museum's Defining Beauty exhibition was open, and we headed over on a day when extra Greek-themed activities had been put on for pre-schoolers. I wasn't sure whether this sort of (rather quiet and academic) exhibition would work for her, but rather than focus on the theme we chose to go on a hunt for some of our favourite characters and this worked extremely well; keeping her interested and focused throughout. We were delighted to find the holy grails of both Gorgon and Minotaur, met Athena and Zeus (who have numerous cameo appearances in our stories), and spotted centaurs and heroes Theseus and Perseus. We even sat and quietly read one of her favourite stories about the winged horse Pegasus in front of a particularly interesting statue of Athena, the goddess who helped Bellerophon to catch him and go on to defeat the ferocious Chimera. Following the exhibition we joined activities to create a Grecian figure (Culturebaby inevitably made a minotaur instead), and make our own black and red pottery designs. Whilst this exhibition closed last weekend, this sort of character hunt can be done in any good Greek gallery. The Ashmolean and British Museum permanent collections are particularly good, and of course Greek-revival designs are everywhere!

On a recent trip to Hampshire, for instance, we discovered an unexpected little treasure trove of Greek revival imagery at The National Trust's Hinton Ampner. We had a great time meandering through the rooms counting sphinxes, centaurs and greek Gods. Next I think we will try this lovely little activity from ArtHistoryMom  - an I-spy Greek-influenced architecture hunt.

The most loved of Culture-baby's books on the theme to date have been, first from Usborne, The Minotaur by Punter and Cavallini and Perseus and the Gorgon by Sims and Bursi (these are the two absolute favourites), The Story of Pegasus by Susanna Davidson and Simona Bursi, The Wooden Horse by Punter and Pincelli, The Amazing Adventures of Ulysses by Webb and Amery, Jason and the Golden Fleece by Zeff and Cartwright, Stories of Magical Animals by Watson and Price and a very simple edition of King Midas and the Gold by Frith and Sanfillipo. She's also starting to really enjoy the Greek Beasts and Heroes series by Lucy Coats and Anthony Lewis which each follow Atticus the Storyteller who shares an assortment of short tales as he travels across Greece. Likewise Hopscotch Myths' Icarus The Boy Who Flew by Wade and Lopez, Orchard Books First Greek Myths The Secret of Pandora's Box by Pirotta and Lewis, and finally Julia Green's Sephy's Story - a modern telling of Pandora's tale and why (because of naughty Pluto) we have six months of summer and six months of winter - were all great picture books.

I'd also very much recommend Usborne's brilliant Sticker Dressing Series - Greek Myths, which has served as a great joint activity and opportunity for conversation about myth and history. On the theme of the Labyrinth, she's also really enjoyed a quirky wordless book Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman where a boy gets lost in a museum and finds himself in a series of mazes, uncovering secrets and himself becoming part of the, perhaps often ignored, exhibits.

We'd love to hear about your favourite Greek myth editions for little people too, activities to bring them alive and your discoveries of favorite mythical characters lurking in nooks and crannies across the world...

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Mini Miro: modern dance, tuff tables and fuzzy felt

Today we have a guest post on exploring the artist Miro from my wonderful friend, homeschooling supermum, parent of four, maths tutor and producer of one of Culturebaby's most kindred little souls...

Back in April, Culturebaby was busy and couldn't make the annual Family Weekend at Sadler's Wells Theatre, so Museum Mummy very kindly offered the tickets to us in return for a guest blog on the event. The main attraction of the weekend was the dance show, Constelaciones (Constellations), inspired by the collection of pieces by Spanish painter, Joan Miro, and performed by dance troupe, Arcaladanza. On Easter Saturday, my husband and I got on the train with two of our daughters, aged 2 and a half and 2 months respectively. Baby was safely stowed in the sling and CultureBuddy was excited to watch the trains rushing by as we ventured into the Big Smoke for what promised to be a colourful dance extravaganza, offering delight in equal measure to children and adults. 

On arrival, we discovered an array of imaginative activities arranged for families in the atrium above the main foyer. Baby snoozed with Daddy, while CultureBuddy and I explored…..we found a giant fuzzy felt wall and all the materials you could desire for making your own fuzzy felt pictures. After we constructed a blue-haired beauty, complete with red dress, we went on to draw a wish for a wish balloon to be stuck on a giant cloud, which over the course of the afternoon became covered with blue-white bubbles of aspiration. CultureBuddy's wish was instantly granted, much to her gratification, as she had wished for her balloon to join the cloud. 

Last, but not least, CultureBuddy donned an artist's shirt and hat and set to work with her paintbrush using a palette of movements to control a dancer. Each mini-artist was given three lolly sticks, marked 'low', 'smooth' and 'high' and placed them on the colours on the palette, which in turn denoted different movements for the dancer, including 'slide', 'throw' and, my personal favourite, 'gloopy'. Using her paintbrush to point at the different colours on the palette, CultureBuddy watched with glee as the dancer followed her commands.

At last, it was time for the main feature - the show. We entered the darkened theatre and took our seats. Slowly, the audience hushed and the curtains rose. White smoke began to gently fill the stage. Two dancers entered, barely visible in the dark, each holding a flashlight, throwing beams of light into the house via the medium of the smoke. They approached an array of what looked like small black tubs on rails and held their torch over each individual tub. As they did so, the tubs became illuminated, one at a time. The dancers were pouring light from their torches into the stage lighting, which had been lowered down onto the floor for them! The optical illusion was enchanting and younger members of the audience would have been forgiven for believing that the laws of physics had changed and luminescence could flow like water. 

So began the magic of the show. It was made up of a number of short pieces, all light hearted and beautifully playful, building on the iconic shapes and colours of Miro's paintings. Dancers competed with over-sized blue balls, which they sat on, rolled and chased each other with. Every so often, a man on a bicycle rode across the stage, with brilliant small lights suddenly appearing in his hands. The costumes were often an integral part of the show and used to full effect: at one point, the dancers lay inside hollow tubes of black fabric, creating the Miro's famous black lines and moving them to music; artists strode on wearing huge bulbous suits, which they unzipped to release black bean bags, one at a time and then in a flurry, finally arranging them in rows, stepping stone style across the stage. CultureBuddy's favourite was a wonderful dress which extended in a V-shape above the dancer's head. It was illuminated with a multitude of twinkling stars and changed colour as the dancer rotated on the spot. The whole show was highly enjoyable and charmed all of us, excepting always baby, who fed and then slept throughout the show.

At home, I wanted to build on the experience of the show and also involve my two older children: we are a home educating family and as we grow, I am finding that enlisting the older children in helping to create something for their younger sibling is a fun way of us learning all together. We looked at photos of Miro's Constellation paintings online and the children found two videos on you-tube for CultureBuddy, bringing Miro's work to life through animation. The children then helped me to assemble a Miro themed tuff table, using colourful plastic shapes and connecting them together with ready-mixed paint, straight from the bottle. Culturebuddy experimented with squirting copious amounts of paint onto the table herself and using paint scrapers to make her own patterns and colours. Under the direction of her siblings, she was able to sort the plastic shapes into separate pots for triangles, circles and squares. 

Finally, all the children had a go at re-producing one of Miro's works with the book, Sticker Art Shapes: Joan Miro, which is ideal for young children. On one side, there is a picture of an original Miro masterpiece and on the opposite page, a copy with several elements missing, which the child finds on their sticker sheet and puts into the correct position.

We had a lot of fun before, during and after the show, and this blog comes with a big thank you to CultureBaby for allowing us along for the ride.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Baby Book Club: Around the World

On a sunny day a few weeks ago, when we had a group of Culturebaby's older friends visiting, I finally got round to setting up an outdoor tactile geography activity for them to explore together. I've been planning this one ever since I found a lovely laminated cloth map amongst the rolls of fabric in a haberdasher's shop and discovered that Safari Toobs do a couple of brilliant sets of landmark models. It was really satisfying to watch the children work together to discover where the buildings and historic landmarks should be situated and then cluster them together in the correct locations on the map. We even cracked open the fossils and animals to add them into the mix and played games; encouraging the children to stand in warm spots, cold climates and locate oceans and mountains. 
Culturebaby is beginning to understand the concept of a map and has started to sketch out mazes and routes in a spatial way. This sort of activity seemed to work well for her to explore basic geographical ideas. She clearly enjoyed it enough that when another friend visited later in the day, she got the activity back out for him to see too. She's also a big fan of miniature world play and these models have also really helped her to become familiar with the names and construction of iconic buildings and we also used the map to talk about family members who are currently elsewhere in the world.
Since I've had children, I've also become more aware of not only the authors and illustrators but also the publishers of the books we read and love. Finding a great new publisher is like discovering the taste for a new cuisine which - Boom! - becomes an instant favourite and you want to savour more on the menu. We've recently been treated to a fabulous pair: Gecko Press and Minedition - each of which specialise in bringing books from around the world, published in other languages and countries, to an English speaking audience in the UK. It feels like such a treat to be able to experience literature that children elsewhere are growing up with daily, and being privy to the iconic images of their childhoods - from Switzerland and Italy, to New Zealand and Hong Kong - that otherwise we might never have the chance to do. Ultimately I hope to use these (already much thumbed) titles to talk about their places of origin too.

Culturetot, as any followers of our #5litaday bedtime selections will know, is a very big fan of her pair of board books from Minedition: Squares by Japanese author and illustrator Yusuke Yonezu and Peekaboo by Italian artist Giuliano Ferri. Squares is a stunningly crafted die-cut book in bold colours. It introduces the concept of shape and explores squares and rectangles in everyday life through surprise transformations of a simple form to an object on every page. Four squares become a window, two rectangles become candles... or pencils. It's a beautiful design. The sort of thing you'd find in the Tate bookshop.

Likewise, Ferri's Peekaboo is an exquisitely illustrated and predominantly wordless board book for the youngest child. Culturetot loves the game of peekaboo and was delighted to discover a book with a whole host of cheeky little animals, eyes covered ready to play her favoured game. With flaps as paws, used to uncover faces throughout and a surprise mirror at the coda, this book has been selected most days and it certainly appears to have a good deal of mileage left. It is also a great book for Culturebaby to 'read' to her sister. I wasn't surprised to discover that author Ferri works with young people with disabilities, using animation and comic theatre as therapy.

Another original title which arrived this week, and which both girls have enjoyed in equal measure, is the quirky Help! The Wolf is Coming! from French pair Ramadier and Bourgeau. Culturebaby adores anything smacking of the fairytale; she loves the simple tales of Red Riding Hood and chums and she relishes any opportunity to be scared by a sly old fox or a hungry wolf - so long as they are firmly put in their place by the end. This interesting title is an interactive book in which a wolf is in hot pursuit and the reader needs to follow the instructions (tip the book, shake, quick turn the page...) to lose the sinister little chap. Combining play and the joint pleasure of enjoying a book with others, this title has certainly landed in the 'again, again!' category for both girls.

Finally, two titles for slightly older readers. Firstly brand new title The Paradise Bird.  From Swiss author and illustrator Marcus Pfister, comes a sweet story celebrating the joy in life and the delight that can come when we open our minds to a colourful influence from outside our own experience. The ravens are bored. Not much happens and they struggle to feel motivated. Then into their monochrome world crashes a comedian; a technicolour paradise bird, who makes them laugh, dance, sing and embrace their own croaky language. It's rather a heartwarming idea, and a useful lesson in being open minded and learning from those who may seem different to us.

Then from Austrian author Heinz Janisch is a really unusual offering. Janisch has been awarded, amongst others, the Austrian State Prize for Poetry, and here he teams up with celebrated German illustrator Wolf Erlbruch to produce a volume of 21 (extremely) short stories The King and the Sea. Culturebaby and I read it together and she certainly enjoyed some of the extracts, but I can see why this picture book is aimed at 8+. Its messages are deep and profound. It could easily benefit an adult audience just as much as the older child. In each tiny tale, the king attempts to rule over an element of nature and is unable to overcome each with their powerful diversity. The rain continues to fall, the clouds to move, and the sea fails to heed the orders of a Canute-like crown-bearing human. This little king sees his limits and learns from nature - from the trees to the sky. He understands that the trumpet must be used not ordered to deliver its sound and the pencil must be handled to produce great value. It's an original book that is rather reminiscent of The Little Prince. One to ponder and re-read.

Disclaimer: The books mentioned and the Safari Toobs were sent to us, on request, for review purposes. The map was our own purchase. Similar material can be found in fabric shops and market stalls. All the titles are available for purchase in the UK.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Little Miss Austen

Culturebaby is deeply enamoured of 'big' dresses. The more brightly coloured, floral and impractical the better. I've decided to fly the white flag over this potential war and over the winter I purchased a range of thermal vests, confiscated the most ridiculous summer attire and handed over the keys to the kingdom of Wardrobe. She'll only be three for the blink of an eye and, who knows, she may be the next Westwood. I shall not stifle the frill. 

Unsurprisingly, Culturebaby saw a kindred clan in the giggle of Bennet sisters and happily plunged headlong into their world earlier than I might have expected. Thanks goes of course to the ingenious Babylit series, of which the Pride and Prejudice playset and counting primer is a favourite. We also received a new quirky satire on the popular classic Goodnight Moon which developed the story further than its basic characters and components featured in the Babylit series.
Goodnight Mr. Darcy Goodnight Mr Darcy is an endearing little rhyme, with words and images adapted from the original but featuring a night at the Netherfield Ball, with its love, laughter, music and awkward family faux pas. Whilst purists may think it a tad silly, this little volume in no way takes itself seriously and we really love it. In the last couple of weeks, this pair of titles have been requested rather a lot, so I decided it was high time for a spot of Regency time travel. We listened to the beautiful sound track of the latest film of Pride and Prejudice, danced to the jolly rhythms of the Meryton Ball (hundreds of times and counting), acted out the story with the Babylit playset and watched the opening scenes from the film.

We also looked at the sorts of dresses Lizzie and Jane might have worn in the early 19th Century in our sumptuous Taschen Fashion encyclopaedia and we used the photographs as inspiration to create a few simple costumes for my vintage dolls using material, lace and ribbon off-cuts. Even Pooh Bear and his pal Bobo, have been spotted sporting high waistlines.

Taking the opportunity to spend some quality time with my 3 year old Culturebaby alone, we spent a glorious 'big girl' sunny day exploring the fabulous fashion and jewellery collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, hunting out Georgian attire and reclining by their child-friendly outdoor pool (one of London's best kept sunny day secret retreats). 

We've also been constructing our own little dress museum at home, using the gorgeous fold out title from Big Picture Press Shirts, Skirts and Shoes illustrated by Sanna Mander. Whilst this volume only covers the last 100 years or so, it is a work of art; folding out to over two metres and forming the perfect museum backdrop. We've spent some extremely happy creative sessions discussing our favourite designs and again emulating these styles for dolls with simple (no sew) off-cuts of fabric, ribbons and a few items I've had since I was a child. We've explored the Edwardian, the '20s and the '50s and 60's. Simple and so much fun...

Finally, we've sought out the Georgians on their own turf with a couple of historic house trips. Dunham Massey is a beautiful property near Manchester with some of the best gardens ever for exploring. At present it is set up as a World War One hospital (recalling its use a century ago) and is worth a trip to experience the 'ghost' nurses who get on with their care of wounded soldiers, unaffected by their 21st Century observers. We also visited the Pemberley of BBC drama fame; Lyme Park. Whilst there is no longer a larger than life statue of Colin Firth hauling himself out of the garden pond, there is a gorgeous nursery in which children are able to explore and play with beautiful old toys, a school room complete with activities, and a stage with a range of dressing-up costumes for all the family. We brought home one of Usborne's brilliant sticker dolly dressing books: Fashion Long Ago, and we've been clothing a millennia of characters ever since. I hadn't realised exploring a classic with such young children through the medium of fashion history and music could be so rewarding and ultimately accessible for them. We will certainly do more of this in the future.

Disclaimer: We received copies of Baby Lit's Pride and Prejudice Playset and Goodnight Mr Darcy, and Big Picture Press' Skirts, Shirts and Shoes for review purposes. All other materials are our own.
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