Sunday 30 December 2012

Olympic intentions?

With the dark nights closing in and maternity leave becoming a distant memory, I thought I'd take the opportunity to reminisce about the halcyon days of the summer by catching up on a few belated posts.

One of the, rather unexpected, highlights of the summer for me was the Olympics. Culturedad is a huge fan, and with a winning combo of strategic and lucky bidding, we managed to get a handful of events. I'm no sportswoman. In fact, whilst at school, I managed to bribe my singing teacher to continually fix my singing lesson in the middle of triple games. When forced to participate in sports, it is fair to say my experiences were rather off-putting. Doing the high-jump at sports day having never done it before was a low point (metaphorical as well as actual) and the scary event of long distance running round a park in Moss Side was enough to scar me for life. I was regularly found panting behind the asthma people at the back of the pack, fearing for my life as I hurdled over discarded syringes in my gym knickers.

Therefore, no one was more surprised than me that this summer I got rather into the Olympics. There were two highlights in particular. Firstly, I managed to leave my bottle-rejecting baby snoozing away for a much needed evening out at the rehearsal for the opening ceremony. This was fantastic and I felt so lucky to have seen it in the flesh. The opening scene with the potted history of the industrial revolution was utterly spectacular. Secondly, we managed to take Culturebaby, strapped to my front and kitted out in her adorable Team GB vest, to an early evening basketball semi-final. We didn't know how she'd find this experience, but were really pleasantly surprised. She seemed to find the crowds, music, and movement really stimulating and despite the time, she stayed wide awake watching the action.

My personal tale of sporting woe does have a happy ending. I found my niche at university. Little and loud, I started coxing a college VIII and loved it. I'm determined that Culturebaby will have the opportunity for a better experience of sport than I did and hopefully find something she enjoys rather earlier than her athletically challenged mother! Fortunately she has two factors in her favour - her father's genes and an autumn birthday, and Culturedad's enthusiasm has certainly been infectious and encouraged me to start early with her. We've been going to swimming lessons since Culturebaby was a few months old and I couldn't recommend them more highly. Our swimming school consists of a small group of mums in a pool that is part of a hotel. The pool is warmer and smaller than the local leisure centre, and we are the only ones in there. Two terms on, Culturebaby is getting really confident. She can go under water happily, holds on to the side of the pool, splashes her legs and arms, can retrieve floating toys and can swim on a float holding just my hands. It is great to see how much she enjoys it, and it has been wonderful for my own confidence handling her in the water.

I've recently been sent a rather heartwarming book to review called The Art of Roughhousing by DeBenedet and Cohen. The premise of the book is essentially that every child needs rowdy, physical, interactive play (termed roughhousing). The authors make the claim that good old fashioned horseplay makes children more intelligent, emotionally intelligent and likeable, and more physcially fit and joyful. Apparently physical play releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus (vital to higher learning, memory, language and logic). Physical play with others also teaches strategy, creativity and brain flexibility (learning how to react to unfamiliar situations), how to control strong emotions and take turns, how to hold back when dealing with a weaker opponent and how to act in an altruistic way (letting others win), and trust others physically. It is also a great way to bond with your child. Whilst I can see that some readers may wonder why they need an instruction manual on physical games to play with their child (surely the joy of this activity is all about spontaneous play?), for others it could give much needed confidence and encouragement to cuddle and play with a child in an increasingly 'safety first' society. For others, it could provide a mine of ideas on actual games to play. I like it. As a mother, it encourages me to think about an area that might be traditionally in the realm of fatherhood. It's also an aesthetically pleasing book - the sort you want to pick up.

We've just returned from a walk around the grounds of Cliveden. It's a wonderful National Trust site with Thames-side river walks, hills, water gardens, woods and formal gardens. Culturebaby has been walking for a month or so now and all she wants to do is walk! It's been pretty grotty, soggy, weather over Christmas but today was better and we wrapped up and ventured out with our toddler rucksack carrier for a stroll. If you too have a fledgling walker, I'd really recommend this sort of activity. She's so happy in the outdoors, happy to fall over, happy to take her time, happy to stop and examine textures on anything that takes her interest, happy to be carried when she's tired. And consequently we too get exercise, spend time in the fresh air, have time to talk and also look closely at things we may otherwise have marched swiftly past. It reminds me that exercise doesn't have to involve a hockey stick or running shoes, it can just as happily involve puddles, wellies and beautiful landscapes - and usually a very content toddler.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Baby Book Club

Children's books are wonderful. Many are joyful, funny, moral and beautiful. Some are works of art in their own right. Having a baby is a perfect excuse to dip back into childhood favourites and share them with my little one. In addition to the rediscovery of treasured copies from my childhood, the champion charity shopping mother has been on the rampage across the north, leaving empty shelves in her wake. She has amassed a spectacular collection for Culturebaby to read over the next few years. It is clear that she's teetering on the edge of addiction but it's one I'll support any day. There's so much amazing stuff out there for babies, both classic and new, that there is always something wonderful to discover. So it truly felt like Christmas the day another package of books from the lovely people at Macmillan publishing arrived at our door for us to review.

I always try to include a little in my posts on the value of a topic, and books seem pretty self explanatory. That said, I've come across some interesting little bits of research recently that are worth sharing. Firstly, I was pleased to see that my mighty bookshelves were vindicated by this interesting post by Michael Rosen highlighting evidence that the single factor of a home having 500 books in it gives children an extra 3 years of education, independent of their parents' education, occupation and class. If you have books around you, you might not only read them but browse, discuss them, debate the topics as a family and so on...

Secondly, I read in a lovely book on childhood education by Dr Jenn Berman called Superbaby, that in addition to being a great way to bond with your child and foster a lifelong love of reading, opening a world of creativity and imagination, and producing a better attention span and memory and better listening, reading and writing skills; reading just three picture books each week has been shown to increase vocabulary by 15-40%. Of course she goes further and recommends three a day... This book also has some good advice for how to read with your baby and tips on activities to help them grow to love literature.

Then today, in the new Montessori book Learning Together by Kathi Hughes, I was reminded of the fact that understanding far exceeds spoken language for a long time, and furthermore that research shows the importance of fathers modeling interest in books as well as mothers - there is apparently a clear link between how often a father reads to an infant in the first year and his child's interest in books later.

Finally, and worryingly, a recent survey has shown that 2/3 of people do not read to their babies. The survey, carried out on more than 500 parents of babies by ICM and the Fatherhood Institute on behalf of the charity Booktrust, found that 64% of parents were not reading with their babies at seven months, and that 57% did not own a single book until they received their pack of free titles from Booktrust's Bookstart programme. We've seen with Culturebaby that it's never too early to start. She loves books and plays with them alongside her toys. We were surprised at how young she was when she started to turn pages and look through books alone too. She crawls over to her book baskets and helps herself to one (or ten) that she fancies. This has at times led to chaos in the library (when she transferred the entire contents of one box to another and then to the floor), but I'm sure they'll forgive such a cute vandal... For some great very first books for babies in black and white see my earlier post here.

So on to our bag of literary goodies; what a lovely selection! They were, however, not all for babies so we recruited a number of little helpers to review the books with us. I'm a firm believer that building a great childrens' library takes time, so of course, we'll be hanging on to these for the future...
Here's what we thought:
  1. For baby: Poppy Cat Whoosh by Lara Jones - This lovely board book is part of a range of (noisy) additions to the popular Poppy Cat series, which has sold over a million worldwide. I hadn't realised this, but its author and illustrator Lara Jones died in 2010. She was an artist, whose wish was to recreate in her illustrations the magic and joy of being a child and to capture the essence of a child’s delight in discovering new experiences. Given the popularity of the Poppy Cat brand, it is clear that she was successful, and it was interesting to hear older children of 5 or 6 talk about how appealing the illustrations were and how much they liked the 'childlike' drawings. Culturebaby currently has rather a penchant for pressing buttons and so she was delighted with this bright and joyful boardbook with its button producing an old-school plane sound...
  2. For the 18 month year old: Beep Beep by Samantha Meredith - This magnet book was an absolute hit with Culturebaby's toddler friend, so much so he asked for it the next time he came to visit. The pages are bright with lots to discuss and observe, a story runs throughout alongside facts, questions and puzzles, there are two large fold-out play scenes and six large magnets. I hadn't quite realised how vehicle mad toddler boys can be and this was completely perfect for him. It was, however, also a favourite with the six year old, for whom the questions and things to spot were very engaging. She declared it a nine out of ten, losing highest honours only because the back page in our copy really needed to be magnetic too. You can't argue with that...
  3. For supervised toddlers: My Big Book of Ghosts by Kate Daubney and Maggie Bateson and Funny Faces in the Jungle by Jannie Ho are both fun and brilliantly engineered pop up books that will appeal to a range of ages. With rather appropriate timing for the season, My Big Book of Ghosts follows the everyday life of a (rather cute) family of ghosts. There is a mouse to spot on every page and a range of pop-ups and moving mechanisms that left Culturebaby laughing and squealing with delight - especially where the ghosts disappear from the bus (much to the surprise of other passengers). Similarly, Funny Faces in the Jungle becomes a clever set of masks complete with pop-up surprises. Culturebaby loved it when I peered through the eyes of the animals, replicated their noises and operated their jaws. Again the book can be enjoyed on several levels - the older children thought it was great for their own imaginative play. However, beware little paws - our noisy frog has lost his tongue!
  4. For the child in us all: I am absolutely in love with the artist Matteo Pericoli's London for Children and refuse to accept it's just for kids. It's a must for any London lover's coffee table. The author walked 40 miles from Hammersmith Bridge to Greenwich on each side of the Thames. It took him two weeks and more than 6000 photographs. The result was two sets of 12 metre long drawings, which he has adapted and condensed (to a smaller stretch of the Thames) and coloured in beautiful and vibrant tones for children. The resulting book is, in fact, two books (back to back) and is filled with this amazing artwork, alongside interesting facts about the buildings and sites along the way. Pericoli has really captured the essence of London - the river is very much the heart, playground and viewing platform for London - and his tour of the banks is perfect for families to go and observe first hand. It is the sort of book which could be taken on a day out, examined before or after a trip or would breathe life into a history project for school kids. I found it hard to decide which age this book would most appeal to and concluded 7-11 perhaps, but I called in our six year old friend with a penchant for history and she loved it. In fact, she sat on the sofa and read most of it there and then, picking out interestings facts and sharing them with us. And then I called in Culture Grandad, who loves sketching and painting himself. He found it just as gripping. I literally can't wait to share this beautiful little work of art with Culturebaby. Children or no children, go and get a copy...

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Happy Birthday Dear Zoo!

We are big fans of Rod Campbell's books in our house, so we were delighted to be invited by the lovely people at Pan Macmillan to Dear Zoo's 30th Birthday party at the end of August. We were treated to a live performance of the book (complete with zookeeper), activities for the kids, and most excitingly, a chance to meet and question Rod Campbell himself.

Rod used to be a scientist, and still has the rather unassuming demeanor of one. In his late thirties, he made a dramatic career change to pursue his interests as an artist. Soon after Dear Zoo was born... (What a lesson in following your dreams!) He told us that back then, there were no really interactive books and so his lift-the-flap designs were both educational and very original. He talked about the importance of repetition on books, and putting features such as flaps in for a clear purpose not just for a gimmick. His philosophy has clearly worked. 30 years on, kids still love his simple and endearing images and characters, and Dear Zoo alone has sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Not only do most of Culturebaby's little buddies have a copy of the book too, but several of them count it amongst their favourites. We asked Rod whether Dear Zoo is his favourite amongst the books he has written. He said: "That’s a very good question. If I was to ask you which of your children you prefer, of course you wouldn’t be able to answer that and I feel the same about my books. I am obviously very attached to all of them but the last book you have written is always a special one." We actually agree. His latest book is the rather fabulous Spin and Say, which we review below.

 Anyway, we were so excited about meeting Rod, and receiving a parcel of his books from Pan Macmillan to review, that we invited our local friends to a themed Dear Zoo birthday tea party. Culturebaby's buddies dressed up, the older children took part in Dear Zoo themed activities and we tested out and discussed Rod's books (including some we've had in our collection for a while), compared our favourites, ate cake, and a couple of Culturebaby's (very happy) buddies won signed copies of Dear Zoo. We had a fantastic afternoon, concluded that, in fact, there is nothing cuter than an 11 month old in a lion outfit, and got some great thoughts from other mummies on the books...

First of all we had a selection of books from the Dear Zoo family. It emerged that there are many many things our little tea party attendees love about this classic lift-the-flap board book, in which a zoo sends the reader presents of a number of inappropriate pets (hidden behind baskets and boxes) and finally ending with a puppy. Simply described by one mother as "a brilliant, brilliant book", another said that it cleverly "uses all the things that children like: repetition, lifting flaps, lovely colours, great illustrations and simplicity" (the noisy and touch-and-feel versions also add textures and sounds to this list). Another mum said "I like the idea that children can connect certain behavioural qualities with each animal". A few months ago, Culturebaby clearly wanted something more than just touchy feely and board books, so we introduced Dear Zoo and other lift the flap books. She loved them and can regularly be found selecting them herself from her book baskets and investigating them alone as well as reading them with me. She is also really starting to recognise the characters in other contexts such as museums and in film clips. We were therefore very excited to meet the other members of the Dear Zoo family:

  1. A noisy version - This is great, the sounds are very realistic and the book is the classic lift-the-flap version. There are some additional games and questions at the back, which were a hit with the mums and slightly older children. One mum said that the sounds transform the book into an activity - matching animals and learning noises - and is fantastic for reluctant listeners. It's also clever that the animals are not in the same order as in the book, making matching more of a challenge. One word of warning: the pages are thinner. This means it is a little trickier for babies. Can we have a sturdy board book version next please?
  2. Touch-and-feel Dear Zoo - this is a new addition, and we think a very welcome one. We discussed that what the book loses with the flaps, it gains in appeal for younger babies who need textures and cannot yet manage flaps. It is also a brilliant introduction to the classic book. One mum noted: "Of the Dear Zoo books, this was my 11 month old's first choice - the textures added a new element to keep his attention for longer." Culturebaby is also a big fan of this book. Her favourite is the ingenious hole in the lion's mouth. She finds it hilarious when I either stick my finger through it as a lion's tongue, or snap up her fingers from behind the page. It's a brilliant addition  - as are the sticky frog's toes!
  3. Dear Zoo Animal Shapes pram book - this is a lovely bright little pram book, which has cut out shapes for all the animals in the classic book, making it easier for babies to flick through them.
  4. The Dear Zoo Activity Book - A mum with older children described this as a brilliant idea, building on the book to provide a range of fab activities for pre-schoolers and upwards. The children from age 2 to 4 had great fun with the similar activity sheets we had for the day. You can download these here.
  5. Dear Zoo Little Library - this miniature set was in our goody bag from the 30th birthday party and has been a favourite with Culturebaby ever since, who is really into tiny books at the moment as they are easy to hold, flick through and transport. This lovely set has a much wider range of animals, covering pets and wild animals as well as colours and counting in the same appealing simple and colourful style... (though Culturebaby does get confused that the little colour book has no flaps - we caught her pawing at the pages in search of them!) One mum noted that a set like this would be great for 'reading' to dolls...We have yet to encounter the bizarre world of teddy bears' picnics...

"Yes, yes", you say, "we have and love Dear Zoo. Tell me something new..."

Fortunately, Rod's been pretty busy over the last thirty years. Here's our pick of 5 other great Campbell books:
  1. Buster's Farm - We LOVE this book; it has it all! Touchy feely bits and flaps to discover as a little boy named Buster takes us on a trip round a farm. Culturebaby regularly goes for this book first. Not only does this book teach babies what they will see on a visit, but it also gives directions (encouraging movement) and asks simple questions. I'm told there is also a wonderful Zoo version, and also further titles in the Buster series.
  2. Noisy Farm - This recent lift-the-flap book by Campbell was a real hit with the mums. They loved how the children were able to predict both what is hidden behind the flap but also, from the clue, what might be waiting on the next page. We concluded that this was a fantastic book that can be used over and over as developmental needs change - from identification of animals, through to hide and seek, then counting. One mum said her son squealed with delight when he found the dog hidden on each page.
  3. Oh Dear! - First published in 1983, Oh Dear! is a classic in its own right, and a favourite in several of our guests' households. One mum said that her kids love to look through this themselves, anticipate and make the animal noises and shout out 'Oh Dear!'.
  4. Farm 123 - We found this great book a few months ago as part of a set with a beautiful wallchart. It is a lovely first counting book as some of the animals are to be discovered behind flaps, providing an activity whilst the child is counting. We already use this book as it is also a very good introduction to farm animals and has lots to touch and find.
  5. Finally, Rod's latest production: Spin and Say - This original take on a first words book provides a central wheel with arrow, which can be spun by a baby, and contains a selection of themes such as counting, colours and noises. The babies were intrigued by the dial, and it is clear that this book could be used across various ages. One mum chose this as her absolute favourite of the selection.
Phew. That'll do. Rod -We salute you! We look forward to what you have up your sleeve next. For anyone looking for a lasting pressie for a baby or thinking of having a themed party; look no further... we'd highly recommend the dear old zoo.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Culturebaby's Adventures in Museum Land

If you love museums, there is nothing quite like South Kensington. With the V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum all on one street, passing through a (decorative) looking glass and returning weeks later has never seemed more possible.

A couple of weeks ago, a happy little band of children, babies and some of my oldest friends braved the Olympic traffic and navigated the tube system with our prams to spend a few wonderful hours in museum land. Crazy you say? Well, in fact, this Olympic effect seems to have much to recommend it... Firstly, The Tube wasn't actually that crowded (a welcome surprise); secondly, the museum wasn't quite as hectic as normally expected for summer holidays; and finally, we encountered London in a cheery mood with lots of people ready to help us up and down steps with our convoy of prams. That said, (digression for soapbox moment):

Dear TfL, with so many children visiting South Ken, you really ought to put some lifts and ramps in. It's ridiculous to see so many parents stuggling with pushchairs, not to mention the impact this has on disabled museum-goers. Thanks. (End of soapbox moment)

This time, our expedition had one main goal - to see the Dinosaurs, but, as it was a beautiful sunny day, we began by enjoying one of London's lesser known child-friendly parks: the courtyard at the V&A. With a shallow large central pool which children are welcome to paddle in, lawns and a little cafe, it is a haven from the bustle of London. With toddlers in soggy (rapidly expanding), nappies and cute kids in sunhats wading around hand in hand, the courtyard harbours rather an appropriate fin de siecle air of jolity and festival.

With lunch eaten and Culturebaby rested, we headed into the Natural History Museum. These corridors are so well trodden by me that there is possibly a Museum Mummy footprint to be found somewhere amongst the fossils, but with Culturebaby it provided a whole new and refreshing experience. When you know somewhere well, you often find you no longer look hard at it, and through toddlers eyes I saw the place again for the first time. The most surprising and welcome discovery was how much there was to touch and feel - so important for babies. We had entered through the Exhibition Road entrance, which has babychanging and a place to stow prams, but also provides a slightly quieter and more meandering route through to the dinosaurs. We stopped for a while in the Lasting Impressions Gallery. This great little area provides the opportunity for anyone to touch, feel and examine a range of impressive fossils. Culturebaby often gets frustrated when she sees something exciting and can't feel it. This area was perfect for her. She spent a while touching each item, and was also thoroughly interested in what her older buddies were doing. She always wants to play with what the older children play with and here she notably copied them as they examined the items. The 4 year olds also really responsed well to the invitation to work out the age of the Bezoar Goat from its horn ridges, count tree rings etc... calling to each other excitedly as they shared their discoveries with each other.

At ten months, Culturebaby is clearer about what interests her, and I was delighted to find that as we stopped to wait for our friends she was touching and examining the beautifully modelled terracotta wall tiles of the museum over my shoulder. The NHM is stunningly designed to showcase natural flora and forna, both living and extinct, in its decoration and is an absolute work of art and architectural prowess in its own right. It was refreshing to stop and take the time to look at the museum building rather than just its contents.

The dinosaurs were, as ever, very popular. We made our way (slowly) along the high walkway (accessible by lift), carried along by the perenial herd of other curious homo sapiens sapiens, past a number of suspended fossils and exciting animatronics (which really caught Culturebaby's attention), towards the eternally appealing large T-Rex. I have it on good authority that the 'creature' is programmed to respond to the colour red. I have no idea whether the source was pulling my leg, but shuffling along behind our friend's bright red pram, I was very proud of my little explorer as she watched the animatronic model roar towards her without flinching, and babbled away at it with a smile on her face. (NB. For the less adventurous, there is a route round avoiding this particular room.) I've been round this whole section of the museum a number of times, but on this occasion I was really struck by how appealing it was for the children. Of course kids on the whole love dinosaurs, but this wasn't just a room of fossils and models, it also had screens recreating past environments, questions to consider, cartoons to bring the science to life, and most excitingly for us, LOTS to touch and feel. Culturebaby loved the range of textures and shapes of skin, teeth, scales and bones that she was invited to maul. We treated ourselves to a couple of models in the well stocked shop to remember our first encounter with the Cretaceous. Parental geeks beware. The shop has THE best selection of children's science and nature books you could ever hope to buy. Humanity may have missed the dinosaurs by a few million years, but here they present a real danger to the wallet.
Our little party consisted of children from age 4 down to ten months, so I brought a selection of dinosaur books from home for the train journeys and picnic times. It was particularly cute to see the two year old reading to Culturebaby with a series of Roars. Here's a few we'd recommend:
  • For babies, you can't do much better than Usborne's bright and engaging touchy feely books That's Not My Dinosaur and Dinosaurs, both by Watt and Wells. The first is part of the brilliant That's Not My... series where a little mouse introduces babies to a range of popular themes and textures, and the second is the next step up, a slightly more complex book with more to touch on each page, dealing with the concept of opposites. Both aim to develop sensory and language awareness. DK also produce a number of lovely tactile Dinosaur books;
  • There are also a few great Dinosaur pop-up books we found on our bookshelves. Dinosaur Days by Mitter and Snyder is cute, colourful, rhymes, and has feely bits, flaps and pop-up elements. It was the four year old boy's favourite. Another hit was the clever What's in the Prehistoric Forest? Beg, borrow or buy a copy second-hand. It's quirky and beautiful and all the kids loved it;
  • If you want rhymes, there are a couple of gems around. The two year old loved the colourful and fun Stomp, Chomp, Big Roars! Here come the Dinosaurs! by Umansky and Sharratt. Similarly Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus by Mitton and Parker-Rees soon had "Shake, shake, shudder near the sludgy old swamp. The dinosaurs are coming! Get ready to romp!" stuck in my head for hours... Though they are probably for slightly older children, Culturebaby enjoys the rhythm and bright pictures of these too. Similarly, Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Stickland, with a simple rhythm, bold images and a great selection of adjectives, is a perfect exploration of opposites;
  • The two year old selected as her favourite (and has since asked to read again and again) the wonderful series of stories about Harry and the Dinosaurs by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds. This gorgeous series documents the adventures of a little boy and a set of toy dinosaurs he found in the attic. It not only teaches the names of a number of important dino characters, but provides a story for many occasions (first day at school, the dentist etc...) and perhaps most appropriately for our little trip I'd recommend Harry and the Dinosaurs at the Museum, where his little pals meet their own ancestors;
  • Finally Culturebaby's friend also brought a rather exciting looking book back from the shop and it instantly joined our wish list for when she is a little older. As part of a pair with (the also hugely exciting) How the Sphinx got to the Museum, Jessie Hartland's How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum, is a brilliant exploration of the process from palaeontology to display. Just the sort of thing that could lead to a lifetime of scrambling around in the sand...
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