Monday 21 July 2014

Illustrious Birthdays (and a Giveaway)

Don't worry, it's the angle, Peppa's snout is not in jeopardy...
We celebrated a couple of significant birthdays in our household yesterday. One of Culturebaby's favourite things is having a regular *she clarifies in case we didn't know* 'pretend' birthday. If they are lucky, her soft toys get a turn too. Yesterday, however, was different. As readers will know, my attempts at domesticity in the form of baking are far and few between, and whilst a few months ago you witnessed shocking scenes of actual bread-making in celebration of literary prowess, the culinary arts are not really my bag. However, nothing short of the best would do for our illustrious pair, so I donned my metaphorical apron, scooped up our soggy bananas, and a tutu-clad Culturebaby and I made a cake. We really enjoyed it.... and, I'm informed (in what I hope wasn't solely a show of sympathetic support from Culturedad) it tasted good. Hurrah!

Peppa and George feature in many of our projects. Here they are enjoying Matisse.
jacket image for Peppa Pig: The Big Tale of Little Peppa - large versionA good friend of mine will no doubt chortle when she reads that her campaign to ensure I recognised the educational merits of introducing a tiny pink pig named Peppa to my two year old was rather a successful one. Shortly after, my champion charity shopping mother acquired a soft toy and series of Peppa books, gave them to Culturebaby, and the victory was sealed. I've since become rather a fan of these endearing picture books, which simply but cleverly address every manner of toddler quandry and new experience in an encouraging way. Peppa is, of course, the stereotypical pre-schooler, and for all her swimming, recycling and artistic experimentation, she likes nothing more than jumping in muddy puddles. We went to see a touring musical performance featuring our porcine friend this year and Culturebaby was gripped throughout. Peppa and George are here to stay.

Culturebaby was therefore delighted to receive an advance copy of a new title The Big Tale of Little Peppa, published a few days ago, to celebrate 10 years of Peppa Pig's conquest of family homes across the land. Peppa, now of course a 'big girl', is faced with a baby picture of her and her friend Suzy Sheep. She insists that it cannot be her; she was never a baby. Consequently, her parents take her on a wonderful journey of enlightenment; showing her (and us) something of her earliest days - including the advent of George and his Dinosaur. Grrrr! This nostalgic book also provides a great opportunity to unearth the baby pictures to share with your own toddler. Culturebaby, for one, likes little more than examining old photographs of herself and her pals.

We also decided to utilise the cake, given my baking attempts occur with the approximate frequency of sightings of Halley's comet, to celebrate another children's literary hero. As readers will know, for the first time in 50 years the text of Dick Bruna's classic Miffy series has undergone a revamp for today's tots by award winning poet Tony Mitton. In February we were lucky enough to meet Miffy at a star-studded launch of the first tranche of new titles (see here) and we have just received the next four wonderful titles to enjoy this summer. With her penchant for birthday celebrations, one of these - the new Miffy's Birthday - was always going to be a winner. Miffy's day is simple but joy-filled - family, friends, a special dinner and some thoughtful little gifts. No mortgage-creating, fully catered, underwater soft-play trampolining bonanza for 70. This is old school and heart-warming. The book even features the arrival of Miffy's iconic teddy bear, which my creative Dad turned into a home-made wooden jigsaw for me as a child. Miffy and I go way back...

But where was Miffy's cake? Given that we were celebrating Miffy's real (re-)Birthday a cake really was necessary. We got to work. Miffy clearly appreciated it, whilst Peppa couldn't keep her snout out of the tin...

My mother's banana cake is the stuff of legend amongst my old school friends. I gather the original recipe came from an old blender pamphlet, but it is frankly better than its humble origins. The blender was long ago consigned to the dump, but the scrap of paper remains. If you and your little ones fancy replicating Peppa and Miffy's birthday cake here are the simple instructions, which even I failed to mess up, complete with banana stains dating to antiquity:


To celebrate Peppa's 10th birthday we are excited to be running our very first giveaway. The lovely people at Ladybird have offered a copy of The Big Tale of Little Peppa to three of our UK based readers. Do enter using the simple Rafflecopter below, and please share the love with other Peppa fans you know.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Tiny Ballerina

If it were possible, Culturebaby would eat, sleep, play and attend nursery in a tutu. Since beginning ballet lessons a few months ago she has completely fallen in love. Her heart belongs to her ballet slippers and full participation is mandatory. I've cooked a roast in a tutu, Culturetot is expected to perform her own solo 'dance' across the floor at our weekly lessons and even Daddy features in the daily routine of So Long Farewell, in which our very own Gretel must be carried upstairs at the coda. 

With our tiny ballerina in mind, I've been scouring the shelves for quality picture books on the topic. I was  delighted to discover that the inspirational author and illustrator of the Katie series of art books, James Mayhew, has created Ella Bella, a lovable little ballerina who is drawn into a series of famous ballets by an enchanted musical box. Culturebaby immediately related to the little heroine, who loves her ballet lessons so much that she ultimately becomes part of the dance, aiding the characters in their quest for their happy ever after. We have two of the books in the series, and I suspect we may have to invest in the others as Culturebaby regularly opens the front covers and wistfully (or craftily) identifies the images of the books in the series that she does not yet own. The series is beautifully illustrated using techniques reminiscent of screen-printed books from the 40s and 50s, giving it a vintage flavour; and James Mayhew's knowledge of music and fascination with theatrical design, which he has studied, ensure the quality and value of these books.

Culturebaby was lucky to receive, from James, his stunning take on Cinderella based on Sergei Prokofiev's ballet. Appropriately Ella Bella loses a ballet shoe on her journey to her lesson and is invited to select a new pair from a beautiful trunk. The tale of Cinderella then becomes the theme of her ballet class, where the children dance to Prokofiev's creation. After class and alone on the stage Ella opens the musical box and, as she dances, the fairies of the four seasons whirl around her, accompanied by and the fairy godmother herself. Ella provides a pair of dancing slippers for Cinderella from Madame Rosa's chest and accompanies her to the ball. As midnight strikes and Cinderella dashes from the palace leaving her shoe behind, Ella helps guide the prince to his true love.

In another title we happily stumbled across recently, Ella is introduced to Tchaikovsky's famous classical ballet Swan Lake, and again she is drawn into the enchantment. She finds herself amongst a flight of beautiful swans where she helps Odette, the swan princess, to break a sorcerer's curse that morphs her daily into a swan - keeping her from her true love. It seems that they have almost succeeded in uniting the lovers when the sorcerer arrives to the ball with his ravishing daughter Odile, dressed as a black swan and masquerading as Odette. Foolishly the prince is deceived, promises his love to Odile, and Odette flees. Culturebaby finds this section all rather nerve-wracking, so happily the author has opted for a more joyful ending amongst the plethora of possible options this ballet has featured over the years. I fear a dying swan may be rather too tragic for a toddler. She has plenty of time to explore the darker elements of this tale in future years or indeed dream of playing the prized dual roles of Odile and Odette which are traditionally performed by the same prima ballerina. Appropriately, we are told, the original idea for Swan Lake grew out of a children's ballet called The Lake of Swans, which Tchaikovsky wrote for his niece and nephew to perform at home. It was later turned into a 4 act ballet for the famous Russian Bolshoi and gained huge success only after his death. No pressure Cultureuncle...

Just like Mayhew's Katie series, another favourite in our household, these books are a wonderful, accessible, introduction to the stories of the famous ballets; allowing little ones to believe that they too can leap into the dance and become part of the magic. We've developed a lovely bedtime routine with these tales, which has really captured Culturebaby's imagination. Whilst we read the stories and as the musical box begins to play in the books, we listen to the real music of the ballet in the background. Once we finish the book we then snuggle up and view a couple of clips of famous companies performing scenes from the ballet using You Tube. I've been amazed at how well, once she knows the story, Culturebaby is able to concentrate on, and discuss, these. Watching her enthusiasm is frankly good for my soul. She dances all day, and she can't tear herself away from her ballet lessons; peering round the curtain to observe the 'big girl' class as long as she is allowed. I've heard that there is a shortened annual production by the ENB entitled My First Ballet designed for young children that will shortly be announcing next spring's season. What a wonderful idea. I can't wait to take her.

“Swan Lake is hundreds of years old and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, go back to ancient times – to the magic of China and the very oldest Greek stories. This is the magic that I was part of, with The Royal Ballet. Night after night I was transformed in my dressing room from an ordinary person into a princess who would experience good and evil. My world on stage inside the magic of these wonderful stories was not too different from the world of Ella Bella ballerina you can read about here. James Mayhew, through the eyes of a child, reveals the exciting sense of possibility that children see and understand – and sadly grown-ups lose. These books can inspire all those children who dream of entering this world. They certainly take them into a magical realm. And who knows, like me, they might stay in there for years.”

Disclaimer: We were sent Ella Bella Ballerina and Cinderella for review purposes. All views are as always our own. We love these books.

Friday 4 July 2014

Inspiring Finds: Not a Stick

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the perfect book launches itself instinctively into your path at just the right time. I keep meaning to record these literary gems when they do, so here is this week's little treasure - purchased for a hefy 5p from our local library's bargain bin. Culturebaby is a big fan of imaginative play and some of her favourite props at the moment are sticks. In recent days the humble stick has been transformed into kites and umbrellas, has slain dragons, swept floors, prepared cinderella for the ball, caught fish and featured in ballets. Initially I was a little nervous about my enthusiastic daughter wielding a stick in public... until I saw what she was actually doing. Of course it wasn't a stick at all.

So when we opened Antoinette Portis' clever little book Not A Stick for the first time Culturebaby immediately related to it and loved it. By the third reading she was completing every line. A little pig is consistently told to be careful with that stick, look where he is going with that stick, don't trip on that stick, be careful where you point that stick, and each time he insists it is NOT a stick. With beautiful illustrations, we the readers are invited to glimpse what is really going on in his imagination. Indeed the stick is not as it seems. Pig is leading a band, lifting weights. He is Van Gogh, Lancelot, Buffalo Bill... He's the tamer of dragons, the hunter of sharks. This book is a wonderful accompaniment to Julia Donaldson's Stick Man, another current favourite. Taken from his wife and children as he goes for a jog, Stick Man is of course not a stick at all, but why can nobody see it? He isn't a boomerang, an arm, a sword, a Pooh stick; he doesn't want to be chased by dogs or form part of a nest, and he certainly isn't firewood! Will he ever make it home to the family tree?
Here's a great printable to accompany Not a Stick, and a very simple activity we'll be trying in the next few days will be to collect sticks from nature and use them as the basis for creating our own pictures.

One of Culturebaby's Montessori trays this week has also been particularly appropriate. I dug out a vintage set of Construct-o-Straws from my mother's toy hoarde and it is proving to be rather a winner. As well as providing great practice for fine motor skills, this set has been transformed into crowns, houses and simply used as wands. You can easily create a similar activity with straws and playdoh or even try pipecleaners and a collender.


As a mother of girls, I found that this brilliant little advert really affected me:


My daughters are beautiful, but they are so much more than that. If Culturebaby wants to wear tutus whilst pretending to mow the lawn, climb trees and play with trucks I'm happy. I will tell her every day she is loved and that she can be who she wants to be. I want to allow my girls to be free to experiment with nature, build dams, climb trees and let their imaginations run wild. At this magical age a stick is rarely a stick, a box is rarely a box, and toddler's dreams are fragile, beautiful and in need of nurturing. Never was a custodian's job so crucial.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things: Treasure Baskets For Babies

Hands down, one of the best, most versatile and educational toys our girls have owned from around 5 months to a year have been their home-made treaure baskets. Culturetot will play with the contents of hers for up to an hour at times. She has favourite items and discards others, but I've seen her examine almost everything over the last few weeks. She's now beginning to explore how one item can affect another through banging them together, using one to move another, and putting one thing inside another. She's also starting to move herself to reach objects that have escaped her grasp. The lovely thing about this toy this time around is that the girls can also play with it together. I hear Culturebaby telling Culturetot about the contents. This is great for her language development too, and for their relationship.
The theory goes that a baby's first playground should give them flexibility to move and explore, observe the action, sounds and conversation elsewhere in the room and practice using their muscles. They are also sensorial explorers, taking in information and learning through an exploration of all the senses and through handling objects of a range of materials. 

Treasure baskets are a perfect way to present a baby, who isn't yet very mobile, with a playground of scintillating objects to discover and explore that can be rolled, sucked, posted, scrunched, shaken, banged and squished. The ideal basket will contain everyday and interesting objects from around the home and from nature. You don't need to buy anything new. Through testing with both girls we have discovered that the best sorts of basket are round, open and relatively flat so that the baby is able to see many of the objects available, whilst there are still a few surprises to uncover below.

First treasure baskets (we will explore others later) should contain a range of natural textures and very little plastic as much of this feels the same and presents little challenge or variety. Look for a range of temperatures from warm to cold; things that make a noise; a range of textures from rough to smooth, shiny to matt; organic and natural materials; a range of colours, shapes, weights and even scents; solid and squashy materials. Obviously nothing too small, toxic, fragile or a choking hazard. Plus I always supervise...

Try to get each of the following in there somewhere: metals, natural items such as stone, shell, organic material, textiles and leather, very sturdy glass, mirrored material, bells, shakers, wood, paper and rubber. 50 objects is a good number to start with. You can keep changing and refreshing items as they become less interesting to the baby.

Here are Culturebaby and Culturetot's first baskets:




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