Thursday 17 December 2015

Never Poles Apart: Popper, Penguins and the Persistence of Friendship...

The last few months were rather more Penguin themed than one might normally expect for a British summer, with Culture Uncle travelling half a world away to the Falkland Islands where, other than a whale skeleton and swathes of sand and snow, the majority of his pictures included a plethora of penguins in a variety of picturesque poses. Apparently they are also rather smelly, a fact that in no way seems to have deterred Mr Popper and his long suffering wife in a delightful new musical we were invited to sample at London's Cadogan Hall.

Mr Popper is singleminded in his Polar obsessions. He reads everything he can get his hands on, delights in learning facts and corresponding with current pioneers of arctic exploration. Then one day his cosy home in an English backwater is turned upside down by the arrival of a new pet, a gift from one of his explorer contacts; a genuine penguin. He christens his new lodger Captain Cook, and proceeds to introduce his (semi) lead trained pet to the neighbourhood.

Picture Courtesy of Cadogan Hall
This heartwarming story has a number of emotional twists and turns as his penguin gets sick - it transpires out of loneliness for his own kind... A mate and eight other miniature penguins follow and the Poppers find themselves letting the outside in to keep their brood as happy and at home as they can. Ultimately, the penguins must be occupied and find fame as a talented and spectacular attraction, before, as is always the case, the call of the wild finally beckons them home. But what will Mr Popper do without his friends? 

The danger of a show aimed at younger children is that it either becomes pantomimesque (I'm afraid I'm not a fan) or overly simplistic. Happily Mr Popper's Penguins lapsed into neither of these. The story was engaging and fast moving yet intelligent (with real facts about the arctic), the songs were both fun and had good parts and harmonies, the penguins were brought to life by clever puppetry. There were sadder moments in the story when I could see the audience was visibly moved. It was sweet, heartwarming and the children really enjoyed it (as did we). 

Culturebaby continued to sing the theme days after and talked about the show, so when I set up their seasonal Christmas play tray we included a family of penguins to play in the snow. These scenes are so simple to create and effective for imaginative play. I include a small Christmas tree for them to dress with miniature decorations; wooden and felt snowflakes, stars, reindeer, bells, and other items to collect, count and sort; themed clips for fine motor practice and various characters and models to bring to life.


We've also been re-acquainting ourselves with some of the loveliest Penguin themed literature in our collection. It appears that the titans of children's writing and illustration have also decided that the penguin shall be typecast as loyal and unusual companion and we have been reading a trio of heartstring-tugging tales of belonging and friendship.

First - Polly Dunbar's Penguin, a simple yet profound tale about the importance of patience and effort in the labours of love. Ben receives a present of an unusual pet penguin and his efforts to engage and entertain seem to go entirely unrewarded; Penguin remains silent... that is until Ben lands in trouble and his companion finds a voice. Every effort was worthwhile, and none of it was forgotten. For parents, this adorable tale also speaks to the patience of waiting for a toddler to find their true voice, and the unparalleled joy of that first "I love you Mummy".

Next, the classic Lost and Found from Oliver Jeffers. This time a boy finds a Penguin at his door, who looks sad and begins to follow him around. Unsure what else to do, the boy decides that the best solution is to return the little chap to his native South Pole. Together they voyage across land and sea; the boy tells stories and the penguin listens. Finally as they reach their destination and the boy deposits his charge, both realise that the true goal was the journey and their bond. Companionship was the solution all along and they return home united.

Finally, one of our favourite author and illustrators, Petr Horacek, has produced a new and stunningly beautiful book Blue Penguin about the sadness, challenge and joy of finding a place to belong and the journey towards being both accepted and comfortable in ones own skin. Penguin feels like a penguin and acts like a penguin but he is blue. " "'re not like us" said the other penguins and they wandered away." Poor blue penguin was lonely and sad and he dreamt at night that a beautiful white whale would come and rescue him. He sang and sang, and slowly another penguin heard and came closer and closer. She begged blue penguin to teach her this beautiful song, which was so magical that it captivated the other penguins too. Finally when the whale arrived to answer the call, Penguin finally realised that he was valued and accepted and no longer needed to be rescued. He was loved for who he was. Petr's Penguins are so extremely cute and his signature use of colour is luminescent and beautifully bold. Culturebaby wanted this book again and again. It is definitely my favourite of his (many fabulous) works to date and carries a crucial message for our little people about tolerance and the value of authenticity.

Mr Popper's Penguins is currently on tour (at the Lowry in Salford until January and then on to Kingston) - dates can be found here.

Disclaimer: We were invited along to Cadogan Hall to review the new musical Mr Popper's Penguins. We were also given a copy of Peter Horacek's Blue Penguin by the fabulous Walker Books for review purposes. This new book was published in November. All other materials are our own.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Montessori Moment: 5 Simple DIY letter and Number Games

From around 3 Culturebaby became really interested in letters and we began to learn to read simple words. At just four she has plunged headfirst into her sensitive period for writing (currently any time she can get hold of a pen and paper... or cloudy bus window) and numbers. She wants to count everything and, rather surprisingly, chose maths worksheets over bedtime stories last night. Over the last year, I've developed a few resources to help bring the alphabet alive, and I've recently started to add some number games. I thought I'd share five simple to produce ones here.

1.Letter Games with Movable Alphabet

We have a retro set of wooden Galt letter stencils and these serve as a versatile 'movable alphabet'. Montessori schools often use sandpaper letters for their sensory/tactile qualities, but I find the slightly rough wood does a similar job. We have lower and upper case (with the exception of a h lost somewhere in the 1980s... I've replaced...) and with many thanks to our wonderful Suzuki violin lessons where Culturebaby was encouraged to line up A - G and then play a game to work out which had been swapped whilst her back was turned, this became a game she has asked to play again and again. It has helped her to not only recognise A - G in upper and lower case and reorder in any scenario, but we've also used it to build up the rest of the alphabet. She likes to spot when letters within a case have been reordered and to spot mixed up cases. Culturebaby also enjoys trying to fill a basket with the letters she can identify. I must confess, this fascination with such simple games was a complete surprise, but we've run with it...

2. Writing in Sand

This is such a simple one. Take a tray of sand or salt, give the child a letter, and encourage them to practice drawing it into the sand. I've seen this also written about very successfully with washable markers or flat marbles on a non-breakable mirror. This photograph is the aftermath of one of these trays, when Culturebaby decided to try imprinting some of the letters to create patterns.
 3. Letter and Item Matching and Ordering Game

This basket was fun to make. I gathered a set of Melissa and Doug coloured lower case letters and matched each one to a well known item - making sure I used easily recognisable things or small models and added these all to a basket. I used a basket divided into five to make the game simpler so that each set of letters could be worked out separately if desired.

I first created this when Culturebaby was around three and it served as an enjoyable game we could do together. Now I've just got it back out and suspect she will be able to do most of it alone.

4. Number Sequence Games - Given the success of the letter sequencing and reorganisation games we have applied the same principle to numbers. During the house move I uncovered a brilliant Galt puzzle from the 1970s where numbers 0 - 9 are each created from the number of components that their numeral represents. Both girls love this jigsaw and work on it together. Culturetot gets as excited as Culturebaby at the prospect of hiding whilst the numbers are rearranged. Any set of movable numerals will do for the second part of this activity.

5. Festive Counting and Addition game

I'm always on the look out for interesting sets of mini identical items that can serve as counters and was pleased to see that Christmas is the great provider. I've created a counting and addition basket from a set of 24 advent pegs and a selection of 24 miniature mushrooms and a set of tiny bells. Culturebaby can either simply play a game of counting the correct numbers of items into the central box as indicated by a changing number clip. Or we will work together to add one number of mushrooms to another number of bells and find the clip together with the corresponding total. I find that working together on tactile and sorting games such as this helps her to remember what she is learning and she goes on to use the materials to sort and play as much as she likes. 


Wednesday 2 December 2015

Guest Post: Poppies and Puddles at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Social media can be an absolute joy. It helps me to stay in touch with friends and colleagues from far away, see their beautiful children as they grow, feel somewhat part of their lives despite distance. It also helps uncover the shared interests, passion and beliefs of the fascinating people I'm lucky to have contact with. This is the second of a series of guest blog posts from some brilliant, inventive and creative mummies in my life. Rachel is an ex-colleague and is now a teacher in the glorious North. Here she writes about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and ponders the differences in how her little girl and boy experience art - and particularly how this outdoor context works so well for her three year old boy.

I am fascinated by research that attempts to understand the difference between boys and girls brains and crucially, how we can use this understanding to help their education and learning. Some of this stems from my teacher training - wanting to understand how to make lessons engaging for all the students, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or background. But mostly it’s because I have a son and a daughter and I am endlessly fascinated by how two children, who have seemingly had the same upbringing, influences and experiences can be so different. Most of the research would agree that this is because male and female brains develop at different rates. The part of the brain that covers things like reading, writing, memory and language (the hippocampus) develops quicker in female brains. Boys brains develop quicker for spatial awareness (the cerebral cortex) whichmeans they learn best through movement and experiences. And people are generally agreed that girls are wired to sit still for longer. Obviously there will always be exceptions to the rule, but as parents it helps immensely if, when we are getting frustrated by a child’s inability to do what we expect them to do, we can understand how it’s our approach that needs to change, not the child.

Art is a prime example of this. As the mother of a 5 year old girl and a 3 year old boy, I’ve had to adapt to how I introduce my children to cultural experiences that will interest and excite them. When my daughter was barely weeks old, we started visiting galleries and exhibitions. We attended the fabulous toddler sessions at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, coloured in at The Lowry and visited an eclectic array of shows. When my son was born I wanted to treat him to the same opportunities as my daughter. My son is curious, articulate and insightful. But he does not sit still. He can convey his thoughts in a fantastically adept manner, but every thought he has is delivered at 90 miles an hour. So I had to rethink my approach.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park (, hands down, the best place in the world for my son to experience a range of artists and designers. So when I heard that the iconic ‘Wave’ poppies would be visiting, it was another great reason to head over to Bretton and check them out. The YSP is outdoors. This, in a nutshell, is what makes it so fantastic. There are no shushing members of staff, noannoyingly flimsy barriers wrapped around a priceless work of art. And as every parent across the land will testify, any whinging or crying from children seems much easier to deal with when you are in the open air. Plus there are no queues, ever.

The Sculpture Park is spread over 500 acres of beautiful countryside and woodland. A visit to the park is just as much about splashing in muddy puddles as it is about innovative sculpture. We went during half term, and even though the site was much busier than usual, the sheer amount of space meant that once you get through the visitor reception area, you feel as if you can enjoy every acre at your own pace.

My son’s pace is, as I mentioned, 90 miles an hour. We collected a map from reception to help us choose the most suitable walk and he careered off into the distance, running towards the first poppies – this way’ sign he saw. My daughter followed on at a more gentle speed, carefully studying the map to check we were on track for our destination.

My son was particularly taken with the sculptures that he could touch or hide behind. The children spent a few minutes playing hide and seek in Anthony Caro’ enormous metal creation – Promenade – with its various nooks and crannies to explore. He loved the Lego-like design of Sol LeWitt’s brick sculpture – entitled 123454321.

However, half the fun of YSP is that the art is scattered across acres and acres of countryside. Each time we return, we discover new pieces hidden amongst the trees. Even the trees themselves are beautiful. There were a lot of muddy puddles to splash in, and as we visited in the Autumn Half Term, piles of leaves to kick. As we approached the poppies, which are beautifully displayed on a bridge so they can be seen across the park, my children were more interested in collecting acorns than seeing the once in a lifetime ‘Wave’ - artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper’s sweeping arch of ceramic poppy heads designed to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of war, currently touring the UK.

He made music with the tuning fork sculptures we passed as we returned to the Visitor Centre – Caroline Locke’s The Frequency of Trees, and weaved in and out of JonathanBorofsky’s enormous Molecule Man 1+1+1. At the time, I wondered if he would take anything away from the visit, having careered round the site, pausing only to eat a cheese sandwich. But he still speaks of some of the sculptures and reminisces about our visit when he sees a poppy.

As we left, the advert for one of the visiting exhibitions read ‘Art Makes Children Powerful’. I guess time will tell if that goes for my two. What I do know is that the differences between my son and daughter will continue to surprise me every day. It’s up to their parents and those who influence their lives to nurture this individuality and give them both experiences they will remember for years to come.

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