Wednesday 27 August 2014

Picture Book Party Summer Blog Tour 2014

We love Walker books and have received some wonderful titles to review this year such as Hooray for Bread, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and The Mouse Who Ate the Moon. All are firm favourites in our household. We were therefore really excited to be one of the five bloggers hosting this year's Picture Book Party.

There is little more crucial for one's sanity whilst juggling an adventurous nine month old near-walker and a recalcitrant toilet trainer than a likeminded set of friends. I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by some brilliant and creative mummies who humour even our maddest moments and accompany us regularly on our escapades down the cultural rabbit hole. One type of activity we love, now swiftly becoming a tradition, are our holiday 'baby' book clubs. These little parties have been rather a revelation. This year, between stories and surrounded by balloons, we sat sipping coffee as our rabble of 7 to 0 year olds played happily together or at the very least side by side. As we surveyed the lack of carnage, it dawned on us that we were in fact sitting and sipping coffee and had been for several minutes. No policing, separating, negotiating; and meanwhile the naughty step withered away with neglect. It seems there is something about a book-themed party, peppered with sit-down moments for stories and the consumption of yummy themed treats, that brings a real sense of calm. In short, the children seemed to play better together. Perhaps all play dates should have a story in the middle?

 Given that we were heading off on holiday a day after our exciting literary parcel arrived, our prep for the party had to be pretty quick. We unwrapped our scrumptious box and pulled out book after beautiful book, balloons, tasty snacks and activity sheets. We kept our party simple. We read, we ate, we played, we danced, we read some more. By the end we had covered all the books and everyone had a favourite. Since then this fabulous illustrated quintet has toured the Lake District and Scotland with us and has been read and re-read.

We began our party by reading Bob Graham's Vanilla Ice Cream and indulging in a little ourselves. Endorsed by Amnesty International for its message that everyone should be able to enjoy life, freedom and safety, this inventive book of few words works best when the illustrations are discussed in depth with a child. It has really grown on us with a few readings. The message is both simple and huge. A small sparrow, looking up from the crumbs in the dirt in an Indian truck stop is rewarded with an adventure. Taking a risk for a taste of rice, he is whisked away by a lorry and ends up on a voyage across stormy seas and, in turn, through a series of such fleeting moments he gifts one unsuspecting toddler her first taste of ice cream.

We then opened Birgitta Sif's Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance and the children were completely gripped by this stunning tale. It was as if this beautifully illustrated book was written for Culturebaby; who loves to dance... anywhere, with anyone. It's a book I hope will get a crucial message across long before I'll ever need it. Frances Dean has a passion. She adores dancing. Inspired by nature and with the wind in her hair, she dances with the birds when no-one is around. However, when she's in public she's shy, she struggles to dance and eventually she forgets how. Then one day she comes across a younger girl with a gift of song and is so moved by the beautiful music that she struggles to sleep. If only she too could share her dance with others. With the help of her friends in nature she rediscovers her courage and movement; and in turn sets a multitude of toes tapping...

Next, two gorgeous tales of friendship. Firstly The Zebra Who Ran Too Fast by Jenni Desmond; a heartwarming book about the turbulence of friendship amongst a group of animals in Africa - the attraction of likemindedness, the trickiness as well as the ultimate importance of difference and how we need each other in all our differing shapes, sizes and skills. We are already fans of Jenni Desmond's work - Red Cat Blue Cat is another great celebration of friendship, emulation and variety.

Then, the adorable tale of Bruno and Titch by Sheena Dempsey. Titch, the bargain basement guinea pig is waiting and waiting for his forever home until Bruno, his very own big person, comes along at last. Bruno is a little intense at first and Titch prefers a simple life, but he becomes afraid when Bruno seems to be rather too engaged elsewhere. Does he still want Titch? Will he be sent back? Of course Bruno is busy pouring his love and creativity into producing something truly wonderful for his best friend.

Finally, we finished with Herve Tullet's extremely clever and whimsical book about authorship and creativity Help We Need A Title. The older children loved this book with its quirky illustrations and humorous concept, but I was surprised to find that 2 year old Culturebaby also finds its content hillarious. A number of colourful characters, as yet unprepared with a story for us, are surprised by the appearance of a reader. They peer out of the pages and attempt to entertain us, but find that what they really require is the author. We are then introduced to Herve, who shows us how a story can be created. A catalyst for any child to begin to create their own tales, and understand the role of the author, Help We Need a Title is just brilliant.

The children interspersed these story sessions with some serious playing and eating. The summer favourite, the 'pretend picnic' was set up and attended by a range of ages, and the older children made duplo constructions to rival Bruno's Guinea Pig palace. We found we didn't even need the activity sheets we were sent, the play was spontaneous, peaceful and creative. We love our baby book club and would highly recommend it as a great way to spend a couple of hours with friends of all ages.

I'm not sure it is possible to host a more creative party than Zoe over at Play By the Book, so head over there for some great activities to bring these stories alive at home. I particularly love their patio door picture book idea and will be trying out the freezer-less ice-cream. As we are currently on holiday and as parents with toddlers will know, holidays require some well planned, small and portable activities to keep our little people content at various points in the day. If you are as insane as us and part of this involves three days of 'glamping' (and sleep deprivation) in the Scottish Highlands with no electricity, you too might be be glad of a few first-aid busy bags along with your selection of holiday books. I thought we'd share a few activities inspired by the themes of our summer picture books that you can create easily for younger children on the go.

1. To accompany Vanilla Ice Cream, why not have a miniature picnic? Or make your own small world suitable for a range of furry friends like Titch? I've found that one of the most creative ways that Culturebaby uses the inspiration she gains from books is through her love for small-world play. My most successful DIY activity of the summer was the creation of a summer sensory basket for her to investigate. This uses a green felt base and fabric climbing flowers strung with battery powered fairy lights (NB. I always supervise) and contains a small picnic basket of felt and wooden fruit and vegetables and small tea set. I made a flowerbed of brown felt and provided felt and jewelled flowers for her to arrange, added some of Safari's brilliant Safariology life-cycle models of bugs, a little metal bucket to collect items, a few characters and other summery garden things. She loved this so much that she's played with it every day, so we packed up the picnic basket with a selection of the items and brought them with us. 
Another great trick is to utilise what you find in your accommodation to make your own cafe or kitchen (or indeed treasure basket for your baby). Declaring that today I was to be poorly in bed, and using a set of small blocks we brought with us as makeshift food and a plethera of pots, pans and wooden utensils, Culturebaby and Culturetot served up a lovely (fortunately) imaginary breakfast of pasta and milk with fruit.

2. There are so many ways to celebrate Tullet's Help We Need a Title and inspire simple storytelling and illustration. I try to take paper and crayons wherever we go, but I've found that one of our top toys for both Culturetot and Culturebaby this holiday is none other than the humble pastry brush. This poor little chap doesn't get to see much baking, but he is out and out the favourite item in Culturetot's treasure basket so he had to come with us. He's been rather in demand by both little ladies. When I enquired what Culturebaby was doing using the brush on the wall of our chalet, she declared, swirling away, that she was painting Van Gogh's Starry Night. We also packed one of our latest star charity shop finds - a flat-pack magnetic theatre. Pop on The Lonely Goatherd and away she goes. This is a great way for Culturebaby to act out her imagination when she is still developing how to draw figuratively.

We've also been playing in castles a lot this holiday. Wray Castle on the shores of Lake Windermere has been set up as a toddler's wonderland of tower building and dressing up. With children rampaging around the place dressed as knights and maidens, this is an essential visit for any family going to the Lake District. Culturebaby, ever the modern woman, donned the best dress she could find, quickly took control of the play castle and declared that no knights were allowed, only princesses. Clearly an unsuspecting seven year old, who marched in declaring that he was coming to rescue her, hadn't quite anticipated this toddler brand of feminism. Indeed she was not Rapunzel and did not require saving thank you.

3. To accompany The Zebra Who Ran Too Fast, one of our great finds for Culturebaby's first year was our pack of DK's touchy-feely flash cards. These are brilliant for popping in the bag and are just as useful for a 2-3 year old learning to read as a baby learning to speak. They are wonderfully tactile and both girls love handling them. You could also try using these alongside Saint-Saƫn's Carnival of the Animals, or more simply listen along to the tracks and act out the different animals for your children to guess, or alternatively all become the parading animals. This is just as exciting for Culturetot and is a really accessible introduction to one of the most wonderful pieces of classical music for children.

4. Finally, I've found that the most important piece of portable paraphernalia is our pocket ballet kit. One tutu, several coloured juggling scarves, an optional wand and ballet slippers and a Spotify playlist. Hours of entertainment for Culturebaby; the girl who loves to dance and dance and dance...

We've even found some ducks and the odd sparrow to inspire us. And on the theme of birds here's an easy portable numeracy busy-bag. Culturebaby loves these little duck erasers. It's been a fun way to start to introduce numerals alongside quantities.

Discaimer: All the books featured were sent to me as review copies by Walker Books, as part of the Picture Book Party blog tour. The Safariology models were kindly provided by Asobi Toys.

Monday 18 August 2014

A Colourful Summer

This summer we went to the innovative and educational 'Making Colour' exhibition at the National Gallery. It is apparently part of their 'National Gallery Inspires' programme of exhibitions, which aims to take a fresh view of their paintings alongside special loans, and features world-leading research by Gallery experts. The draw in particular for us and our rabble of ten 0-8 year olds, was the theme of colour, which was refreshingly presented in both art historical and scientific terms. From 8 month old Culturetot, for whom the dark rooms with their glowing (at times backlit) exhibits were clearly captivating, through the toddlers who are learning about shades and colour mixing, to our science-mad seven year old, and arty eight year old, there was something to interest every child. There was also an excellent, well thought out, guide for the older children full of facts and activities to complete. For the younger children we printed and laminated a set of images from the National Gallery website in advance and sent them on an I-Spy of works through the rooms. This is such a perennially simple and successful activity for our two and three year olds that we use it every time we go to an exhibition at present.


Following a short introduction to the colour wheel and the concept of complementary colours (indeed Renoir knew exactly what he was doing when he painted a yellow boat on dazzling blue water), together our intrepid time travellers journeyed through a set of rooms which each celebrated and unpacked the history of a single colour. First blue: once enormously expensive due the difficulties of producing the paint from natural minerals - Lapis Lazuli was transported from mines in far away Afghanistan - it was consequently used sparingly and to designate importance. Culturetot in particular was mesmerised by the backlit glowing deep blue mineral on display. Finally someone discovered how to make blue artificially and artists such as the impressionists were able to use it with abandon. Then Green, a colour vulnerable to fading over time - that is why trees in old paintings can seem blue. And why do faces of icons often appear green? Apparently artists often used it beneath pink to achieve just the right shade, now visible as the top layer has worn away. Then yellow, wildly in fashion in the 16th Century, and Orange - created using a poison. Red: I remember cochineal food colouring. Traditionally this consists of thousands upon thousands of crushed insects. What scrumptious facts for our older children. Purple: luxury and all the rage with the Victorians. Then finally gold and silver; some real, some in fact just yellow paint.

The exhibition was both aesthetically successful and fascinating. The children all really enjoyed it and I'd highly recommend it as a valuable learning experience. One warning though (and PLEASE PLEASE do not let this put you off going, I'm just arming you in advance) but visiting the National Gallery with children is not at times for the feint hearted. In this exhibition, we were disappointed to find that some of the clientele was extremely stuffy. Whilst actually talking about the art, we were shushed by older women who clearly considered it their prerogative to ponder the exhibition in utter silence, and very inappropriately a guard actually interrupted my friend who was (ironically) reading the childrens' guide to her young and impeccably behaved brood to ask her to keep the noise down. Now squealing toddlers can irritate me as much as the next person and our children are not perfect angels, they are mobile and enthusiastic, they need to ask questions, they want to have fun, but - as I was reminded as I emerged from the gallery with silent steam emerging from my ears - they were actually on pretty good form that day and all left brimming with facts and favourite paintings. So, somewhat conflicted, I went to talk to the desk. I'm not a complainer and I'm from the hardier stock of museum goers, but even I felt shaken by the experience. Happily I ended up speaking to a member of the education team, who appeared mortified by the feedback. I was surprised to learn that this was in fact primarily an exhibition intended for young people, and where families were supposed to be welcomed. When I suggested that perhaps they institute a number of 'quiet' sessions and 'noisier' sessions throughout the day so disgruntled oldies can view the art in silence while the potential curators of tomorrow actually get a respectful look in elsewhere, this was rejected on the grounds that this exhibition is supposed to be a place families can feel welcome, all the time, full stop. I'm hoping my feedback made it back to the front line though. With a brilliant education team (which the gallery appear to have), but objectionable guards who didn't appear to have read the 'families welcome' memo, I honestly think some parents in our shoes could have been put off forever. So, should this ever happen to you, please don't be. Keep going. It's worth it for the moments your two year old says her favourite thing is to get on a train to London to look at paintings, or identifies with delight a familiar print framed on a wall that she wishes "to jump into".

Alongside the exhibition, the wonderful Usborne books (in collaboration with the National Gallery) have brought out an original and fascinating children's Art Book about Colour. Like the exhibition, and so unlike so many other art books for children, this title is captivating and can be read from cover to cover. Brimming with scientific and historical facts, and packed full of famous as well as less well known images, it explores 15000 years of colour in art. What do colours mean? How are they made? Why do some colour combinations work better than others? How have artists achieved optical illusions and interesting effects using colour? Though the culturebabies are still a little young for some of the content, the images are wonderful, and I learnt a huge amount from the book which I could then begin to relay to them in simple form. I'd recommend this book any day as an extremely valuable addition to a child's art library. Another gorgeous book dealing with colour is Prestel's large and high quality The Great Art Treasure Hunt: I Spy, Red, Yellow, Blue by Doris Kutschbach. This clever and simply stunning book has been a resident on our breakfast table on numerous occasions. Taking one painting per double spread, it offers a number of items and/or colours to spot in a large spectrum of styles and themes of art and is really effective propped up on the table as a prompt for conversation and focus - particularly during the trickier dinner episodes with my reluctant eater of a toddler. It's one of the most useful books we own on art for children. There's also a handful of other great books we have discovered on colour in art. A great board book for younger children is Baby Einstein Van Gogh's World of Colour by Julie Aigner-Clark. It cleverly introduces each of six main colours to children through six of Van Gogh's works, complete with simple questions for them to consider and short quotations from the artist. Likewise, I Spy Colours in Art, is part of a series we particularly love, which makes a game of finding items and themes through great artworks. Other winners for toddlers are Eric Carle's The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Susan Goldman Rubin's Andy Warhol's Colors (both reviewed here) anWow Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood. 
Over the last year we have done a number of simple and fun activities and experiments on the theme of colour, primarily using home-made busy bags or equipment. Here are a dozen of the best:

1. Colour Sorting with pairs of coloured images and felt rectangles:

(I also did another busy bag version with pairs of coloured shapes cut from felt - two each of triangle, square and circle in each of six colours, which can also be used for creating patterns and images). These simple packs were perfect for 18 months to two years.

2. Colour Sorting Busy Box:

This activity was created from a range of materials from each of six colours, with a felt rectangle base mat of each colour. I used felt shapes, feathers, buttons, pipe cleaners, pompoms of various sizes and coloured wooden clothes pegs. These were all then packed up and contained within a small portable box. This was of most interest to Culturebaby between 21 and 30 months.

3. Colour and Shape Pairing Button Box:

These have been played with from 21 months, when I created them, and they still interest Culturebaby.

4. Learning about colour mixing with food colours:

This was our first simple lesson about colour mixing. We read the book Posey Paints a Princess by Harriet Ziefert and then we took food colours in the three primary colours. We had fun changing the colour of the water with a pipette and then experimented to create other colours by mixing these. There are some great, and more complex follow on activities out there on the internet which we will use in the future.

5. Colour Gradation Paint Swatch and Peg Sorting Activity: 

I covered this in more detail in this post: This activity is perfect from around 2 and a half when a toddler knows all their colours and needs to move on to shades. It is also a great way to practice fine motor skills.

6. Colour Palette Matching using Tate Paintings:

This game was created using this brilliant Tate quiz: Print the clues, laminate, and there you have a great ready-made activity for colour palette and shade matching for slightly older children. This worked well for 3 to 8 year olds, but is great fun for adults too.

7. We're Going on a Colour Hunt (we're going to catch a green one...):

This simple activity involved collecting a specified number of items of a certain colour from around the house - good for numeracy and observation skills. You can go on to create a colour corner or display with the items and do nature versions.

8. Colour Matching Ribbons and Playdoh Activity:

We created this for a 16 month old as part of the Summer Love Books Exchange and you can see this activity here.

9. Introducing Watercolours:

My Dad is a great watercolour painter. I was always in awe of his ability to capture gorgeous little details of landscape in his sketchbook when I was a child. A few weeks ago he gave Culturebaby her first watercolour lesson. She loved exploring the effect of water on the paint and concentrated really well.

10. Playing with Colour:

We love colourful wooden toys, especially traditional stackers, pegs, beads and nesting toys. Great for a whole range of necessary toddler fine motor and cognitive skills.

11. Pom Pom tweezering, fine motor practice:

12. Threading colourful beads:

And of course you can never beat a trip to see some colourful and exciting art in the flesh, and even better when this can be handled or the toddler is invited to be part of the creative process as we were at the Royal Academy's Sensing Spaces Exhibition. We loved Matisse and we'll be going to see Mondrian and Malevich shortly as part of our continuing exploration of colour and shape. We'll report back...

Gallery Oldham
Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy
Kusama at Tate Modern

Disclaimer: We were sent copies of The Great Art Treasure Hunt, Posey Paints a Princess and The Usborne Art Book About Colour for review purposes. All opinions are entirely my own. 

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