Wednesday 18 February 2015

An Innocent Lent

Last year was the first Lent that I really had to think about how best to explain the story of Easter to Culturebaby. It's a tricky one. Given that we adults struggle to fathom the mystery of salvation, I'm not sure a two year old can be expected to either. Furthermore, Culturebaby is an innocent. The sight of Pooh Bear, Piglet and pals lined up on the naughty step just makes me love my little lady more, particularly when she explains that Pooh scratched Piglet and he has to do two minutes and there'll be no television for him. Even though we have a naughty step and a marble jar to help Culturebaby take time out when she's being frantic or difficult, and reward spontaneous loveliness, toddlers are ultimately still impulsive in their reactions and they are entirely beautiful and good. It is therefore much more helpful, I believe, to talk to them about kindness and how to treat people, and tell stories about the unconditional love of God - even when we make mistakes. 

I've found that a rather lovely and accessible way to introduce the crucial ideas around infinite love and care, sacrifice and salvation is the simple parable of The Lost Sheep. Culturebaby loves imaginary play and little models. She also seems to be developing rather a theatrical penchant for acting stories out. With this in mind last year I created a simple play landscape for the lost sheep to venture across on his own, complete with perils for his master to overcome in carrying out his recovery. This was so simple to create just from materials and objects we already owned, and was more successful than I could have imagined. After numerous "again!"s and two versions of the tale with slightly different props, Culturebaby began to recount the story herself. We filmed it and watched it back, and I even overheard her acting it out to her soft toys from the other room as she settled down for a nap. The two excellent versions of the parable we use are the lighthearted version from Stories Jesus Told by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This compilation is a current favourite with Culturebaby, who loves the simple moral tales re-told here in accessible form. We also really like the cut-out board book The Lost Sheep, which is slightly closer to the original and equally accessible.

Last year, towards the latter part of Lent, we also created a Resurrection Garden table centrepiece that I'd seen on another blog and loved. The model presents calvary and the tomb; complete with stone blocking the entrance, which can be rolled away to reveal the empty tomb and figurines. This was extremely simple to make and was a helpful way to act out the stages of Holy Week.

Start with a large plant pot base and a smaller ceramic plant pot or piece of pipe turned on its side. Build up earth around the pot into a mound with the top of the plant pot forming a cave-like entrance surrounded by sand or gravel. We created 3 small wooden crosses from branches bound together with thread and placed these on the top of the hill. We then added cress seeds (you can also use grass seed if you have longer) which grew over the course of the week and was a visible symbol of the resurrection. We also added figurines of Mary and a Roman soldier. It was such an effective model that I plan on making it again this year.

We have found two great books in particular to accompany the Easter story. Firstly Usborne's Book of Bible Stories compilation: this is a perennial fixture in our mass survival bag and has been the primary introduction for Culturebaby to some of the iconic characters from the Bible. She loves the format of these Usborne productions with their simple and engaging images and accessible text. We also received as a gift a gorgeous little Easter Bible Storybook board book featuring photographs of toy models acting out the excitement of Jesus' followers as they discover that he is alive. With the repeated phrase 'Jesus is alive', this one really stuck in Culturebaby's consciousness and she was able to take part in the telling of this story again and again.

Inevitably with children involved, imaginations take over and materials take on a life of their own. Culturebaby decided that as Jesus had vacated his tomb and no longer needed it, he wouldn't mind if she moved a homeless Makka Pakka in. It was indeed strikingly reminiscent of the little chap's Night Garden abode and, given Our Lord's general approach to the needy, I'm absolutely certain he would have had a little chuckle and endorsed the project wholeheartedly.

Disclaimer: A few months ago Usborne sent us their Bible Stories, which has been very well loved. It's a must have for mass bags everywhere... We also received the Roman soldier model from Safari Ltd. Their range of accurate figures have been brilliant for so much of our imaginative play over the last year. We highly recommend them. All other materials are our own. We will write shortly about our other Easter and spring activities - we had a lot of fun last year and failed to write much of it up at the time...

Monday 9 February 2015

Food for the Soul: Our 5 a Day Literary Diet

A new year, new resolutions, and my biggest aim for Culturetot is to read more with her alone. It's trickier with a second child to find quality time to sit down peacefully together, have a snuggle, and wade through baskets of books like Culturebaby and I had the luxury of doing. Establishing a routine around storytime before bed has really helped. At 14 months Culturetot expects it, understands what I'm saying when I ask her to choose a story, and has begun to say 'there' and point at her books when a certain title she requires is out of reach. I've noticed that this has a knock-on effect on her general awareness of reading material and we've begun to retreat to her cosy little room, sit on her rug and steal a story moment or two in the quieter parts of our days together.

I no longer set myself up to fail by resolving to change the world fifteen tasks at a time every January. This year I only had a couple of resolutions, and one was to ensure that we read at least five books a day with each of the girls. As Adrienne Rich noted so sagely “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it”. Culturebaby at three is just embarking on her reading journey; stringing together letter sounds, recognising the odd word, retiring to her bed to peruse a pile of Ladybird fairytales. I'm so excited for her. Daily she is discovering new worlds for the first time. She's already besotted with the technicolour wonder of Oz and entranced by the magic of Potter's imagination, but somewhere just out of sight wait Narnia, Middle Earth, Wonderland, Brisingamen; Aslan, Gandalf, five friends in search of mystery, friendly giants, a box of delights... For me, their literary diet is just as crucial as their physical one, with words like vitamins stimulating the brain and bringing with their consumption a fullness of life. For Culturetot this is all just beginning. As she lifts flaps in hot pursuit of Spot, presses buttons to hear lions roar and paws at pages embedded with varied textures, the path ahead seems long but laden with treasures.

I've recently been thoroughly inspired by the stunning writing of the late Kate Gross. Her blog and book Late Fragments, which chart her courageous and dignified battle with terminal cancer, are far from gloomy. Rather they speak into the heart of things: dwelling on what is ultimately important and the beauty of coming full circle to that which first inspired us as children. When all began to fall away; her glittering career, her health and her dreams of the future, Kate writes that she returned to the root of all meaning for her in her final months - her family, her friends, her children and her books. Her love of words, returning to the landscapes of her inner self and regaining her 'enduring melody' through her first love - her ten year old's clarity that literature made her tick - brought her solace and peace. And she has left her sons a treasure map to what truly defined her - her book, and also a bookcase, banded in age brackets, of the works that have been important to her throughout her life. This 'library for life', which she was encouraged by her university Dons to build sits true with me. I'm always more content and more alive when I'm surrounded with my shelves of books. For me they reach across wall-space like a painting depicting my history; a catalogue of my innermost desires and inspiration and where I can return to unlock a host of memories within each binding. Even a glance at their spines has the capacity to ground me and remind me of who I am, and importantly where I ultimately want to be. A Kindle simply won't do. As Kate notes: "Reading is an experience by which we connect ourselves to what we are, to this magnificent, awful life, in which the same grooves are being scored over and over again in different tongues. It is about how you experience humanity." It is one of the most important doors I will ever unlock for my little ladies.

I've been thinking about my tips for instilling a love of books in our little ones right from the start, and without a doubt, for both girls, but Culturetot in particular, the means by which their stories are offered and displayed is extremely significant. For Culturebaby we had a couple of bigger bookshelves, which, if left to their own devices, were either unceremoniously emptied or ignored; and then a scattering of baskets containing a smaller selection of books throughout the house. These generally get better use as they are accessible and good for browsing. For a while, however, I'd been drooling over the ingenius kids' bookcases created by Tidy Books owned by a number of my friends. The concept is simple but brilliant. Toddlers cannot read; they struggle with large bookshelves with books stacked where only the spine can be seen. Aesthetics matter. How the reading material is offered affects young children's choice, suggestion can help their selection, and they most certainly judge a book by its cover. Tidy Book cases are shallow and unlike normal book shelves display a selection of up to 90 books with their front covers facing outwards. A few months ago we were sent one to review for the nursery and I couldn't praise its concept and design more highly. Since Culturetot and I started a quiet reading routine, cuddled on a rug in front of her Tidy Books case - which is a beautiful and central fixture in her bedroom - I have seen her interest in books truly begin. Now when I ask her where her stories are, she points and says 'there'. She toddles over, and selects one after another, browsing with her eyes and chubby little toddler paws. Inevitably such interest and means of display ensures I no longer leave board books festering forgotten in the bottom of a basket. This bookcase requires that I keep an appropriate selection in steady circulation and I can respond better to my baby's interest as she displays clear preferences for certain types of book, or returns to the same cover again and again.

Some of Culturetot's bedtime selection this evening
Recently I read an interesting discussion in a librarian's magazine about the sorts of books that were borrowed most frequently. Suggested reads in forward facing display shelves, books at hand and eye height in the most accessible shelves seemed to play a large influence in patterns. I'd also say that for toddlers the front cover design is rather crucial - something the Tidy Books philosophy recognises. I took the opportunity to ask a few of our favourite children's authors and publishers what they thought about this and they offered some interesting insights. Tamsyn Murray talked about the important balance of capturing a flavour of the book in an eye catching way and doing something a little different; whilst Birgitta Sif shared that for herself as a child it was the intriguing details of front covers balanced with good graphics that drew her to a title. James Mayhew talked about the attraction for young children of specific subject matter, and noted that he prefers the newer unfussy Katie covers with their clear character and theme. Likewise others pointed out that anything with a duck or animal was guaranteed to be a winner with their little ones. The wonderful publisher Child's Play also shared a helpful insight into their front cover design process: "...we always make the covers of our baby books fun and dynamic. We have found that simple designs and contrasting elements are popular. The emotion of the cover is another important factor that mustn’t be overlooked. It’s crucial that the design on the cover accurately conveys what the book is about to the reader, before they’ve even read the title.” Or of course if they are too dinky to do so themselves...

Culturebaby's bedtime selection today
Through observation of Culturetot's preferences as she's been browsing her favourite lit, I'd also recommend that parents have available on their bookshelves for this age a selection of the following: touchy-feely books with textures; books with flaps to open; noisy titles with a range of buttons; books containing photographs of other children and images of animals; high contrasts and bold art; titles containing repetition, rhyming or musical text; books with elements to manipulate (such as parts to slide and move); word books containing photographs of items a baby needs to learn; and tiny books for little hands to handle with ease. Combined with an attractive and accessible means of display there is little more my little Culturetot needs in her nursery. Her bookcase has been the best gift we've given her to date.

Disclaimer: Our TidyBooks bookcase was sent to us by this fab eco friendly and responsible business, to test in advance of an honest review. We love it and as always all views are very much my own.
If you fancy following some of our 5 a day selections, like our page on Facebook, where we post more regular updates.
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