Thursday 19 December 2013

Toddling around the Christmas Tree

One my favourite things about my childhood Christmas was dressing our tree. My mum was thankfully never one of those ladies who liked to coordinate decorations in smart monochrome, changing the 'theme' each year. Our tree was a happy higgledy piggledy multi-coloured rambling mass of wonderful memories. In fact, in recent years it has become two or even three trees as well as garlands and other decorations. We had old ornaments that had belonged to my great grandmother, handmade items from my childhood, interesting things my parents had collected over the years, and (one of my favourites) favours or decorations from friends' weddings or special moments. I looked forward to unpacking the boxes every year and discovering again these beautiful items and talking about the memories they held. Mum has started to pass some of these down to me for my own tree, and we've also started to gather our own set of meaningful items - from honeymoon and places we've visited, friends' weddings, special occasions, and some gorgeous baubles and decorations that I treat myself to one or two of every year. I've also started to collect a couple of beautiful ornaments each year for the girls, so by the time they start their own trees they will already have a lovely collection.

 This year, with builders still militantly occupying our house, it has meant some advent festivities have so far been rather held to ransom. While we wait until later this week to get our lovely big tree, we've had a little one to bravely fly the flag for a Christmas in a near finished home. It's one of those trees that is alive and in a pot; a guilt-free evergreen. Almost every year we buy one with the best intentions, hoping it will survive. Every year we plant it, it dies... but we keep trying!

I suppose, through the happy coincidence of having a small tree and a toddler this year, Culturebaby and I have actually found rather a lovely use for it that I hadn't originally intended - a festive invitation to play. This idea isn't new and is a well used term amongst Montessori fans, but seeing the enjoyment this particular invitation has created, I thought it was one worth sharing. In fact I'm rather planning on adding it to our list of burgeoning new traditions for the little ones. Culturebaby is really excited about Christmas. She has been loving the stories and carols, learning words and symbols, asking for Jingle Bells and the Snowman theme on repeat (I do indeed look rather silly walking along the street, pushing a double pram and singing 'We're Walking in the Air' while Culturebaby sits in the front seat and pretends to fly, but she demands it nonetheless) and diligently examining the wrapped Christmas presents she has been sent in advance. She therefore leapt at the chance to own, water and decorate her very own tree. This is such a simple activity to set up and has proved very enjoyable to do. Here's how we did it:

1. Set up a sturdy little tree on the floor or low enough down that it can't topple and can be reached by a toddler (there is something magical about using a real tree but an artificial one would do the job nicely too).

2. Select a range of non-breakable ornaments. It is great if you can provide in true Montessori form) a range of textures, temperatures, materials and sounds from metal to wood, fabric, plastic, card, sturdy glass, painted real pine cones etc... 

3. Place these items in a bowl at the foot of the tree ready to be examined and placed on the branches. I've been demonstrating how to hang them and have happily joined in when invited, but Culturebaby has enjoyed going back and back to this herself. I need to plan a little better next year and make sure all the ribbons are easy to hang as some of the decorations are tricky for little paws. I've also found that decorations which can be placed right on the branches are definitely easier for a two year old to manage.

4. Culturebaby has been so self restrained so far that I've also allowed her to put her presents under her tree, and she's enjoyed identifying which are for her and for her sister. I'll have to keep rather an eagle eye on this I imagine!

I'm also hoping that having her own tree will mean that Culturebaby will be less inclined to disassemble our larger one. We shall see shortly... Either way it's been a lovely tactile activity for us to enjoy together, and with a month old baby sister and Culturebaby's current preoccupation with being a big girl (and activities that only she can do and babies aren't allowed to perform), it has hopefully also served to make her feel a little bit extra special at a time when she really needs that.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Classics from the Cradle

When I began this blog, a literary mummy friend of mine suggested that I should write about the BabyLit series by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. What a fabulous sounding idea; classics for babies. Christmas therefore came early for my inner boffin when PGUK sent us not one, but a whole set of these fabulous books to review. They have since been thoroughly tested and approved by Culturebaby, who has been observed on a number of occasions tottering under the weight of a whole stack as she has tried to transport all of them at once for Mummy to read. She's also been caught leafing through them herself and talking about details, reading them to her baby sister, and, the best test, has returned to certain titles over and over again.

The clever idea behind the series is to introduce babies and toddlers to classic literature from the start, with gorgeous illustrations thrown in. The BabyLit website markets these as stylish and fashionable, but I actually think this undersells them. Yes they are beautiful and would grace any bookshelf, yes they are a cool idea and make fabulous gifts, but do I give two hoots whether they make me look like a fashionable parent? No. Am I interested in whether they will help my toddler to foster a love of beautiful illustration and classic literature? Yes.

Here are the many reasons why I think these books are brilliant for my two year old:

1. They are stunning: the illustrations are beautiful and could be easily framed as wall art. The continuity of having the same illustrator, Alison Oliver, means that the various titles are clearly part of a set and if one becomes a favourite, others are also likely to appeal. I think that gorgeous images and intelligent design in children's books is so important. It is, of course, their first introduction to art and use of imagination. These books do this job admirably.

2. The illustrator has cleverly chosen certain palettes and designs that really do evoke the atmosphere of each novel differently and capture its unique essence. Dracula is dark, Wuthering Heights is bleak, Alice in Wonderland and the Jaberwocky are colourful and quirky, Austen is powdery and feminine, Jane Eyre manages to feel Victorian. Before toddlers can understand the stories they will certainly get the flavour of the books from familiarity with the feelings created by these images. It was interesting to watch one of Culturebaby's more sensitive friends actually react in a nervous manner to one of the spookier titles. 

3. Though you don't necessarily need every title in the series you do get something different from each book. Some introduce colours, others numbers, items of dress, sounds, opposites, types of weather etc... Each have a useful educational angle and will teach the toddler something new. Even I had to look up what a Barrette is... Many of the books also introduce the names of characters or places from the Dashwoods and Bennets, to Thornfield Hall and Transylvania.

4. Culturebaby is definitely entering the stage that Montessori called a sensitive period for interest in little things. This manifests itself through her ability to spend ages concentrating on imaginative play with her Happyland characters through to great games of I spy in museums. When it comes to books, she loves finding small details or hidden things. These books are brilliant for engaging this interest. Some, like Anna Karenina, ask the reader to find a specific item, others, such as Pride and Prejudice require counting of items, or spotting a colour (Alice in Wonderland).

5. The series is also lovely for parents. For squishy mummy-brains like mine it is a genuine pleasure to read a children's book that reminds me of novels that I have read and loved. Some of my favourites of the titles in the BabyLit series include a peppering of short quotes, which are both a joy to reminisce over, and a good way to introduce a little one to titbits of prose. I also had to hang my head in shame that I have thus far failed to read a couple of the books in the series, such as Anna Kerenina and Moby Dick. That can only, in my view, be a positive kick in the right direction for me.

6. The books are beautifully made, and a perfect size for little paws. One friend wondered if they really should be board books - perhaps a paper version could be considered too? But I've found that, happily, my toddler isn't yet a member of the miniature school of thought that board books are for babies, and happily reads both. Interestingly, a mummy friend of mine thought that certain titles such as Wuthering Heights and its focus on weather descriptions could be reused in art and lit discussions with her 7 year old. We shall see if this is the case down the line as most certainly these are books that we will keep and treasure.

However, following a baby book club discussion with a number of mummy friends and their little ones, I think it is also important to share here a little of what these books are NOT...

Firstly they are not mini novels. They cleverly use the themes of each to explore ideas and topics, but they are not abridged versions of the books, nor are they children's adaptations of the stories. If this is what you want, you'll need to go for something different. I'd actually suggest that BabyLit look into doing this as a possible associated series for slightly older readers, but at present this is not the intention of these books. Of course, if you know and love the novel in question, the BabyLit books do serve as a useful tool for you to tell the stories to your little one yourself.

Secondly, these are not like the (also wonderful) 'That's not my...' series of baby books. They are very differently designed. Whilst the aforementioned series focus on a very simple item which varies in texture on each page with one simple bold drawing, the BabyLit books are more complex. Whilst one mummy who looked at the series made this comparison and questioned whether they could therefore be equally effective, through testing with my toddler I've concluded that the BabyLit books are more complicated but also more versatile and therefore have a longer lifespan of use. Whilst they might be of interest to younger babies (one friend noted that the Pride and Prejudice she has owned for a while was one of her baby's early favourites) the BabyLit series is perfect for Culturebaby's age - when she has certainly exhausted and moved on from the simpler touchy feely sorts of books.

Here is a snapshot of Culturebaby's three favourites from our new little library, and a taste of what you can expect from each of the titles we received:

Anna Karenina, A Fashion Primer - This is Culturebaby's firm favourite. She often leafs through the pile in search of this specific title, which cleverly capitalises on the toddler's keen interest in what they wear. Culturebaby is currently being rather pernickety about her attire, insisting (to Culturedad's despair) on wearing 'a big dress' every day. A couple of weeks ago she decided to reject everything that didn't feature a cat. This early assertion of independence, though at moments a little frustrating, is her way of controlling her world, and this specific BabyLit title has certainly captured her interest, both through the familiar, and also through new clothing words to learn. 

Alice in Wonderland, A Colour Primer - This is Culturebaby's other current favourite, with its bold images and endless possibilities for associated nursery rhymes and songs. She loves the queen of hearts, and our rendition of Twinkle Twinkle little bat. She doesn't seem to mind that the words are different, and has recently shown rather a penchant for improvisation. She regularly splices various songs together, and a recent composition, betraying her interest in toilet training, has featured the repeated phrase Poo Poo Everywhere to the tune of Wind the Bobbin up. Whilst I'm very much hoping that this little number won't be spontaneously sung in public, I have to applaud the imagination, and books like this (for good or for ill) certainly stimulate that.

Wuthering Heights, A Weather Primer - This title is rather clever in that it depicts the same scene of activity at Wuthering Heights but in different weather conditions. Each page has a quotation from the book and so much potential for discussion, song and learning. Culturebaby seemed to really like this one and it was also a favourite amongst some of the mummies.

The other titles are also fabulous and no doubt will each have their moment in the sun as Culturebaby's interests change and develop. Sherlock Holmes (already a firm favourite) deals with sounds from rustling leaves to creaking stairs. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Dracula each feature counting - of characters and iconic items from the books. Culturebaby is really enjoying learning to count at present and these are perfect as they also each require the spotting of detail. Moby-Dick explores the theme of the ocean, even naming a range of types of fish, and A Christmas Carol (a perfect gift this time of year) deals with colours, as well as symbols of Christmas. I also particularly like the Sense and Sensibility opposites primer with its happy Willoughby and sad Brandon and themes of wealth and poverty, and the Jabberwocky, which is refreshingly different to the others and includes real verses from the poem with brilliantly quirky illustrations.

These books are fabulous and with Christmas coming up would make wonderful pressies for a little one - as would the gorgeous new Pride and Prejudice and Alice in Wonderland playsets that I'm currently drooling over. Right, now I'm off to persuade the team at Gibbs Smith that The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited should be on their production list for 2014...

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Our Jesse Tree Journey

Currently caught between a toddler threatening to drop her daytime nap and a cluster feeding newborn, I fear the next few blog posts may be rather a jigsaw of stolen moments and one fingered typing over a feeding infant.

This Sunday as a whole family of four, we ventured out to one of our first local Christmas fairs. I'm not ashamed to say that I absolutely love Christmas and the first sounds of live carols normally tip me into tears, but this year, seeing my toddler's enthralled face as she watched performances as diverse as the Salvation Army band and a teenage choir, promises to be all the more magical. Christmas feels so meaningful with little ones in the house, and as I think it will be the first one that Culturebaby (now just 2) actually remembers, it seems like an important time to begin to think about creating our own family traditions and memories of Christmas. Culturedad and I each have things that we have valued and enjoyed from our own childhood and it is exciting to piece together our favourites, create hybrids and also start some new traditions of our own.

From my side, as a Catholic, something I love is the extremely rich tradition and visual symbolism - a wonderful mine for Christmas ideas. Did you know, for instance, that the wreaths hanging on our doors represent the eternal nature of God; and when we Deck the Halls with boughs of Holly, we are referencing the crown of thorns? As I mentioned in a previous post about a trip to the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, the plethora of statues and images found in churches have been a great way to start to talk to Culturebaby about baby Jesus and his mum. She finds them really interesting and has begun to spot them in art - for toddlers the familiar seems to catch their eye the most, and what better than Christmas scenes with their animals, bright colours and joyful imagery?

When Culturebaby was baptised last year, her Godmother bought me a truly inspiring book called The Catholic Home by Meredith Gould. I'm afraid I'm not really one for much theological reading, but this book is practical and brilliant. Taking a parent on a journey through the year, it explains festivals and feast days, gives a background to the symbolism and suggests lots of lovely traditions that can be celebrated as a family in the home. One that really leapt out at me was a section about advent and preparing for the true meaning of Christmas. There's a whole range of ideas in the book, but a particularly brilliant one to do with young children is to create your own Jesse tree. At primary school I remember one year us doing just that - as a giant wall display - and I must have found it so interesting that I can still picture it now. Reminded of this by Gould's book, and excited by the fact that this is actually a centuries old family devotion that is recently making a come-back, last year we created our own Jesse tree. It was such an enjoyable thing to do that we are planning to revive it every year and make it a new tradition that we began as a family. This year it will be so much better too as Culturebaby will be able to be really involved in it.

So what is it?

A Jesse Tree, which is hung with ornaments and symbols representing Old Testament people and events, is based on the passage from Isaiah 11:1 "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." and Matthew Chapter 1. Essentially it represents Jesus's family tree. Apparently these days you can buy sets of ready-made ornaments, but we enjoyed creating our tree from a sturdy branch we found in the park near our house and the symbols from objects we found around the house. This was a great way to use Christmas decorations, old bits of playmobil and rattles through to real apples, musical instruments and coloured-in shapes too (it is rather hard to find a technicolour dreamcoat lying around)...

Here's the list of symbols (one to be added each day like an advent calendar) taken from Meredith Gould's book:

December 1st - The World is Created – Globe – Genesis 1:24-28
December 2nd - Adam and Eve – Snake and Apples – Genesis 3:1-24
December 3rd - Noah and the Flood – Rainbow – Genesis 6:11-22; 8:6-12; 9:11-17
December 4th - Abraham – Camel – Genesis 12:1-7:13:2-18; 18:1
December 5th - Sarah – Baby – Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
December 6th - Isaac – Ram – Genesis 22:1-14
December 7th - Jacob – Ladder – Genesis 27:41-28:22
December 8th - Joseph – Multicolored Coat – Genesis 37:1-36
December 9th - Moses – Burning Bush – Exodus 3:1-10
December 10th - Miriam – Tambourine – Exodus 15:19-21
December 11th - Samuel – Lamp – 1 Samuel 3:1-21
December 12th - Jesse – Branch – Isaiah 11:1
December 13th - David – Harp – 1 Samuel 16:14-23
December 14th - Solomon – Crown – 1 Kings 3:3-28
December 15th - Isaiah – Throne – Isaiah 6:1-8
December 16th - Jeremiah – Tablets of Law – Jeremiah 31:31- 34
December 17th - Angels – Angel – Hebrews 1:1-14
December 18th - Malachi – Trumpet – Malachi 3:1-4
December 19th - Zechariah and Elizabeth – Baby - Luke 1:39- 45
December 20th - Mary – Angel – Luke 1:29-35
December 21st - John the Baptist – River – Matthew 3:1-6
December 22nd - Joseph of Nazareth – Hammer/Saw – Matthew 1:18-25
December 23rd - Bethlehem – Star – Matthew 2:1-12
December 24th - Birth of Christ – Crib – Luke 2:1-7

We also tried to bring the experience alive by reading a story about each symbol each day. Some of these were harder than others to find, and we had a good few gaps. We'd love to hear about great children's books covering some of the more obscure passages that you have come across too. There are plenty on Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph and Moses, but Miriam and Malachi are rather lesser known! I imagine this will be a work in progress over a few years...

We'll try to write about our advent journey a little more in the coming weeks, but we'd love it if you fancy joining us in creating a Jesse tree too and sharing your experience of it with us. It is such a fantastic tradition (absolutely not just for Catholics), and so easy and fun to do, that it would be brilliant to revive it in the home once more.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Animal Magnetism: Art Appreciation for Toddlers

In our recent trip to National Gallery, it was clear that yet again Culturebaby was most attracted to the paintings of animals. This has become a real theme in recent months. It is fascinating to watch how toddlers are drawn to the familiar, and now at just two with Culturebaby walking, talking and expressing preferences, I love following her and seeing what catches her eye. In our last post (read it here) I wrote a little about some of the art appreciation resources that seem to work well for Culturebaby's age, including collecting postcards of works that she has loved and using these as flashcards, and having a painting of the week. 

We have also found that a number of national and local museums have worked in really creative ways to capitalise on this interest and help toddlers to explore animal themes in art. A number of these activities could equally be designed by parents, either with a little advance planning, or as an impromptu game of I spy. Some of the best we have recently experienced have included:
  1. The Ashmolean Museum's under 5's Egyptology session last spring, which culminated in a really engaging animal-themed tour of their Egyptian collection. We also had our own impromptu hunt through the British Museum Egyptian galleries for animals we recognised too (read about these here);  
  2. I was really impressed to hear that the V and A, no doubt aware that parts of their collection might be a little tricky for young ones to explore, have produced a number of backpacks to aid children in their explorations. While Culturebump and I were snuggled up in bed having a rest, Culturebaby was transformed into Agent Animal, searching the Japan, China and South Asia Galleries to find 6 animals hiding there. The pack she was given contained audio buttons with animal noises and four fabric sensory jigsaw cubes.
  3.  At the Portland Basin Museum in Ashton-Under-Lyne, we were lucky to stumble across a local artist, Juliette Hamilton, fashioning a horse from willow as part of their War Horse Project, to create Joey from the novel “War Horse” by Michael Morpurgo;
  4.  We were also impressed by a new series of toddler sessions, Tots Tales, aimed at 2-4 year olds at one of our local museums, St Albans Museum. Due to the aforemoaned builder induced exile, we've only made it to one session so far, but Culturebaby was so impressed with it, she has been talking about it ever since. The session started with two cat themed stories and a simple craft session where the Tots made a cat from pre-prepared materials. They were then sent on a trail to find a number of postcards depicting a print of Louis Wain's cat hiding around the museum - culminating with the work itself at the end. Culturebaby and her friend enjoyed this activity so much we had to do it at least twice. They loved helping each other to find the images and equally enjoyed retracing their steps to find them again and again. The power of postcards as prompts for memories really became clear with this exercise. Culturebaby was given a picture of the cat to take away with her and regularly points at it, mentions her friend and the fact they wanted to do the trail again... "more!"
  5.  Finally, one of Culturebaby's favourite places is the fantastic collection of animals gathered by Lionel Rothchild at the Natural History Museum in Tring. I shall rave about this museum properly another day, but it is worth noting that some of these Natural History museums also do brilliant creativity sessions for toddlers to bring the collections alive. Culturebaby and her friend were recently involved in a workshop, tied in with the current exhibition theme of nocturnal animals, to create a fox mask. The session was short and well run, and the crafts were easy enough for a (nearly) two year old to handle. Some of the other upcoming activities are here.

It really is worth keeping an eye out for these sorts of sessions. They have been not only brilliant in engaging Culturebaby with the collections, and providing her with the chance for creativity and her much loved activity of 'finding things', but they also encourage her, and me, to look at items on display in a new way. By focussing on a theme or limited number of items, I've found that we look more at these and notice things we might have passed by in a normal visit.

There is also so much on this theme that you can do at home. There are some really excellent books, perfect for introducing babies and toddlers to art through the theme of animals. Here is our selection of six of the best we have discovered. We'd love to hear about any others you have found inspiring too.
1. Andy Warhol's Colours by Susan Goldman Rubin - this wonderful, colourful American board book, which we discovered online, introduces colours through Warhol's animal art. It is beautifully designed and made, is a perfect size for little fingers, feels shiny and beautiful to touch and has an engaging rhyme throughout. It was one of Culturebaby's first favourite books and came with us everywhere. The minute your baby is out of black and white books, I'd put this top of your to-buy list.

2. One Blue Hippo, An Ancient Egyptian Counting Book by the Metropolitan Museum of Art - Again this was a firm favourite with Culturebaby from a few months old. This inspired book was produced by someone who clearly had their finger on the pulse of the toddler Zeitgeist. One of the very best ways to introduce a toddler to Egyptian collections is through the familiar - animals - and this lovely little book contains photographs from the Met's collection from their iconic one Blue Hippo through cats, cows and horses, up to 10 busy scarab beetles. The fact that we knew this book well in advance of Culturebaby's trip to the British Museum made it so much easier and more exciting for her to point out similar items that had, through this book, become familiar. We picked up our copy from the British Museum shop.

3. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle - This beautifully illustrated book from the much loved author and illustrator Eric Carle takes Franz Marc's Blue Horse I (1911) as its inspiration. Culturebaby went through a phase of reading this over and over again. The book celebrates the freedom of art - that there is no wrong colour, that you don't have to stay within the lines - essentially that children should be able to produce whatever their imagination allows. I love the idea and I love the book. I also discovered a little video of the artist talking about the inspiration for producing it (you can watch this here). He too talks about the importance of introducing both painting and creativity but also museums and art books to young children. As I was writing this post, I had the book out again yesterday and Culturebaby read it four times in a row. This time I noticed that she practically knew it by heart. Is is not only simple but it provides an excellent way of learning animal names and colours.

4. I Spy Animals in Art by Lucy Micklethwait - This is part of a great series of books which take high quality famous paintings and encourage children to spot items along a theme. Containing works from a range of periods and styles, from landscape to portraiture and both Western and some Eastern art, this series could have many lives in a household and is worth investing in. Culturebaby enjoys spotting and naming items in pictures at present and this book is perfect for that, but the high quality images and useful selection of paintings along a theme could be used for project work for older children and even for the aforementioned painting of the week.

5. ABC Damien Hirst - This gorgeous book has just been published and is a work of art in itself. I particularly wanted to get it for Culturebaby because she loved Hirst's exhibition last year at the Tate Modern (see our post about it here). As I wrote at the time, some people see Hirst's work as rather macabre and might question the appropriateness of a children's ABC book containing images of many his iconic works, but I disagree. With some exceptions I find his work uplifting and hopeful, and for Culturebaby it offered a wonderland of bright moving images, live butterflies, bold colours, reflective surfaces and sparkling jewels. For Culturebaby the flies in A Thousand Years 1990 (a life cycle from cow's head, to flies, to fly killer) were merely dynamic and engaging; and the fish, lambs, cows and shark preserved in formaldehyde are (rather serene) characters recognisable from her books rather than images of death. The book isn't all animal themed, but there are a number of striking examples within it.

6. My Art Book: Animals by DK - I found this book last week and I think it has so much potential for the future. It aims to serve as an introduction to art history for young children who love animals but it is also really informative for parents. It covers a number of animal themes, looks at how animals have inspired painters through history and contains ideas for craft projects inspired by this art. It spans art as wide ranging as the Ancient Egyptians' to contemporary sculpture. I just couldn't leave it in the shop...

Friday 1 November 2013

A Cock Amongst the Pigeons

In August, at the beginning of our builder-induced exile, when we had high hopes they were on time and it looked like only a month to go (the gods on Mount Olympus must have been chuckling as they played chess with our fate) we moved to the in-laws in Surrey. It was very hot, I was very pregnant and it seemed like one of the best possible activities was to hang out in cool galleries in London. For the first time Culturebaby and I tagged along with some of her slightly older pals, on a trip to the National Gallery.

Personally, I love the National with its fantastic collection of iconic paintings, but I was interested to see how Culturebaby, a seasoned Tate Modern goer, would react to this much more figurative art and rather more formal atmosphere.

We started with Trafalgar Square, the fountains and fourth plinth. The fourth plinth is a great idea. Situated in the North West corner of the square, and contrasting strongly with the masculine and imperialist imagery elsewhere, the vision was to inject some innovative contemporary artwork into the public realm, and raise debate about the role and nature of contemporary art in our public space. Over the last 7 years this has been rather successful, the most entertaining commission perhaps being Anthony Gormley's One and Other (2009), where for 24 hours a day over 100 days, normal members of the public occupied the plinth. The current resident, unveiled to much debate and instagraming in July, is a giant bright aquamarine Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch. As The Telegraph notes in its review "Fritsch is a feminist whose intention with this sculpture, which stands 50ft away from Nelson atop his phallic column, is to mock male posturing – “She said it’s all to do with a woman’s rendition of a man, or something like that,” reported Boris. So she probably wants us to find it daft." All genuinely interesting for mummies. However, for a toddler who is rather into identifying animals at present, this was just taken at face value as a marvellous London-bus sized bright blue rooster. Culturebaby loved it and spent a while pointing and wandering round the base. And just as in our previous post about Egyptology for little ones (here), again images of animals dominated her attention and stole the show throughout the gallery too. It is fascinating to watch how toddlers are drawn to the familiar, and now with Culturebaby walking and beginning to talk and express preferences, it was wonderful to follow her to particular works to see what caught her eye. A few of her particular favourites were:
  1. Uccello's St George and the Dragon (Horses and dragons)
  2. Uccello's The Battle of San Romano (Horses)
  3. George Stubbs' Whistlejacket (Horse)
  4. Edouard Manet's Woman with a Cat (Cat)
  5. The absolute star - Henri Rousseau's Surprised! (Tiger)
And it wasn't only the animal art that attracted her; she and the other children stopped to examine the animals and images in the mosaic floor that I must have tramped over a hundred times without looking at closely enough. (As I've noted before, I LOVE this about toddlers - how their speed and interests make you stop to examine things you may have become blind to over time and get you to appreciate them anew). Culturebaby is also a big fan of vehicles (especially trains) and loved Claude Monet's The Gare St-Lazare and various images of boats. I've also recently seen a really positive and engaging side to the smells, bells and images of our Catholicism, perhaps taken for granted since my own childhood. Culturebaby enjoys looking at the statues, windows and paintings in churches we attend. Because of these, she's on first name terms with baby Jesus and his mum - and she really recognised them in the art, particularly of the Sainsbury Wing (oldest items in the Gallery).

A highlight of the trip for everyone, however, was definitely when, in front of Rousseau's wonderful painting Surprised! my supermummy friend (who comes up with inspiring educational ideas that I'd fail to think of myself) settled down on the floor with our tribe of children and read Katie's Picture Show by James Mayhew. The title is the first in a brilliant series of illustrated children's books about a girl who explores famous paintings by climbing inside them. Culturebaby is still a little young to fully appreciate these inspired books, but as she looked at the images and gazed at the picture above, she pointed and flicked back through the illustrations again and again, clearly very excited that the picture in the story she was listening to was there in the flesh in front of her. The impromptu storytime gathered rather a rabble of other young gallery goers in addition to our own who also enjoyed this experience of bringing the painting to life. We then went on to search out some of the other works which featured in the book, and it was only afterwards we discovered that the Gallery has also used the books for inspiration and has a Katie trail available for children and downloadable resources you can get in advance of your trip. What an excellent idea.

Fourth Plinth commission, Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch was unveiled on 25 July 2013 in London’s Trafalgar Square - See more at:
The new Fourth Plinth commission, Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch was unveiled on 25 July 2013 in London’s Trafalgar Square - See more at:
Over the past seven years the Fourth Plinth in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square has become home to some of the world’s most innovative artworks. - See more at:

I've heard mixed reviews from parents about their experience of the National Gallery with young children, and likewise our experience had its high and lows. It looks like they are increasingly making a real effort to produce age appropriate events and trails, and with spray-painting art terrorists around I can see why the staff are very vigilant, but we did find that rather than acting as interpreters or behaving in a welcoming manner the room attendants were more like police than anything else. As I and others have pointed out before, toddlers often need to understand and orient themselves in space before they engage with its contents... and yes this may mean some darting around. The gallery wasn't very busy when we first went in, but we were still watched with suspicion and told to keep away from the tempting toddler-height barriers (practically impossible). For the majority of paintings, it is quite clear that a child couldn't anywhere near reach, let alone damage the art. I originally became a lover of art as a result of a collection of prints and art books my mum introduced to me as a baby, as well as regular trips to Manchester's fabulous galleries. We had a picture of the week and a set of postcards I continually sorted through. Many of these were from the National and other such galleries, and I still find it is these iconic images of my childhood that I am most drawn to when I visit the gallery now. Allowing young children to experience and enjoy the space, and recognise the art they are shown at home, is absolutely crucial and I really hope that the gallery will continue to remind itself that, if not for early education first of all, who is this art ultimately for?

As our gallery trip coincided with a fabulously sunny day, we continued our animal theme as we wandered past Wallinger's White Horse outside the British Council, and across St James's Park on our way to the train. I've walked past it so many times, but was delighted to discover that the little children's sandpit to the Buckingham Palace end that is visible from the path, is in fact a rather wonderful little playground. It was clean and seemingly safe (only adults with children can enter), and has a great selection of equipment, including a giant sandpit. This was a really useful find and an ideal place to stop to let little ones run off steam. It even has toilets just for children.

 This trip to the National really made me think about some of the best and most appropriate resources I've come across for toddlers of Culturebaby's age and I thought I'd share some here. First of all I mentioned that my mother collected postcards of the art she or I most liked and we used these at home to discuss and browse through. I have started to do this myself and plan to be much more organised about using them in the coming months. I've noticed that Culturebaby both loves and treats very differently her selection of flash cards than she does books. She seems to like the size of them and the independence they afford her - she can flick through them, sort and line them up, select her favourites and I've recently observed her going through a pack and naming certain elements. Postcards can of course be used in the same way. If you also wanted to buy a ready made art card pack to start your collection we'd recommend Usborne's Famous Paintings Art Cards produced in association with the National Gallery. They have useful facts for parents and Culturebaby has used them from a young age. 

Secondly, as I say, my mum used to have a picture of the week propped up at our dinner table. This was a great idea I fully intend to start as soon as the builders and their barrels of dust leave the building... We talked about the art as we ate and, as I distinctly remember many of these images now, it must have really worked. You can buy packs of posters and images of paintings, but I also find that cut up calendars and some of the big adult art books you can buy from Taschen, Phaidon and others do the job very well. You just need pages that are occupied by one whole image to make this most effective. 

I also wanted to point you in the direction of a brilliant blog series created by Red Ted Art called Kids Get Arty. Every couple of months they research a particular artist and use this as inspiration for a crafty project. They also provide a link to a range of other bloggers' projects along the same lines. It is a mine of wonderful and inspiring ideas and I can't wait to start some of these projects with Culturebaby in the coming months.

Finally, of course, there are many great introductory art books that are perfect for Culturebaby's age - far too many to mention here - and we'll cover a number of these in various future themed posts. Our next, to follow very shortly, will explore this animal magnetism for little gallery goers...

Thursday 17 October 2013

Baby Book Club: Gems for the future

There have been some really interesting articles turning up on my twitter feed recently on the value of reading to children. This has prompted me to catch up on a belated post on a few absolute gems we have been sent to review by the wonderful Blue Apple books. I believe that a good collection of children's books takes time to build, and the beautiful titles we have been sent are just the sort of books that we will grow into and treasure. Every one is a work of art, with stunning illustrations and innovative content.

Culturebaby was recently two, and quite a bit older than the last time I wrote a Baby Book Club post. Something I'm really pleased we began a long time ago is her bedtime story routine, which is now well and truly established and loved by us all. It gives us the chance for real calm and quality time, allows her to wind down after her bath, and she really enjoys the opportunity to browse through a basket of books (which we rotate regularly) and select exactly what she wants. Many of her first words and experiences have related to things we have read in books - from obsessions with scooters and blackberry picking, to her grasp of colours and patterns. One of her first 'sentences' was rather amusingly "Sit there, book me"! Bossy already, she knows what she wants (or doesn't want) to read, but I love how excited she gets about certain stories and how their themes become her points of reference.

It is therefore so sad to read that Children's bedtime stories are currently on the wane and only 13% of parents read to their kids at night every day (with 4% surveyed saying their children own no books at all). Author Neil Gaiman gave a really interesting recent lecture, excerpts of which were published in last Tuesday's Guardian, about how he believes our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming. He highlighted the importance of fiction as the 'gateway drug to reading' and path to learning new words and thinking new thoughts. He talks about the crucial choice for a child in what they want to read - and therefore the value of having lots of books around (yes mother, Enid Blyton really was ok), the role of fiction in building empathy, and the ever increasing role of literacy in social mobility, independence and freedom. Likewise, I rather like the "bang for your book" pun in Graeme Paton's much more utilitarian article in the Telegraph (2010), where he cites research that 500 books in a household could buy you 3 extra years in education, and up to £200k more in lifetime earnings. A bargain really... Future earnings are, however, not a primary motivator for me in introducing books to my little lady (and I imagine most parents) - reading is about joy, freedom and opening up new and lifechanging worlds for her. My friend and author of the popular blog Being a Mummy captures this so well in this recent post. She quotes the much loved author Roald Dahl as he rhymes: “So, please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookcase on the wall.” And on it we would certainly showcase these five wonderful titles:

Red Cat Blue Cat by Jenni Desmond - I love love love this book, and at a recent Baby Book Club with our pals, the children were really drawn to it too. Of the five titles, I'd also say that this is most suitable for Culturebaby's age. This stunningly illustrated book is an amusing tale about the jealousy between our eponymous heroes when they meet and proceed to try to become more like the other. Of course the moral of the story is that friendship can enable us to learn from others and grow to appreciate our own attributes... until of course we then meet yellow cat and it all begins again...

Alphasaurs by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss - My mother has a thing about beautiful ABC books and consequently between us we are amassing rather a lovely collection. This innovative offering, with its clever illustrations, useful facts and flaps to lift is high up my list of favourites and was a real hit with Culturebaby's scientifically minded 5 year old friend. Whilst it is an ABC book, with each dinosaur cleverly crafted from the letter of its name, it is also massively informative and stunningly designed. Frankly it wouldn't be out of place on any arty adult's coffee table.

ABC Doctor and ABC Dentist by Harriet Ziefert and Liz Murphy - This fabulous pair continues our theme of informative ABC books and came highly rated by the mums in our baby book club. With bright collage artwork of children and covering everything from roots to reflex hammers, these books are a great way to reassure a child visiting either surgery, covering the why and how as well as the who and what of a visit.

Flying to Neverland with Peter Pan, by Comden, Green Leigh and Bates - Now from what I gather this stunning book features lyrics from two of the songs in the broadway musical based on J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. I've never seen the musical, but this in no way detracts from the stand-alone beauty of this gorgeously illustrated book, which also serves as a really good introduction to the classic tale for younger children. As Albert Einstein said "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales". Here's a perfect addition to that collection...

Monday 19 August 2013

Splashes of colour amongst those dark satanic mills

Culturebaby and I are currently in exile, due to the compulsory building work everyone seems to inflict on themselves a couple of months before giving birth. Last week we were up north, and as the weather was rather grotty on Tuesday, we thought we'd take the opportunity to retrace some of my own toddler steps and investigate Oldham Art Gallery, rechristened GalleryOldham.
Oldham, let's face it, isn't a tourist hotspot and is rather a depressing place these days; but it does have an interesting history and rather a distinguished list of former residents from Brian Cox, Inspiral Carpets, Philip Schofield and Mark Owen, to artist Helen Bradley, at least two famous suffragettes, and the Artful Dodger from the 1960s classic musical of Oliver! For fellow lovers of the mighty chip, Oldham is perhaps a worthy place for pilgrimage - Britain's first fish and chip shop was situated in Oldham's own Tommyfield Market. It was also a major mill town of the industrial revolution and the cotton spinning capital of the world, and in the 1900 general election Winston Churchill began his political career here. 
  As a result, Oldham has a fascinating collection of local history and also some great art. Its art gallery is cleverly housed above its central library, it is free and extremely accessible and relaxed. I can remember visiting the old gallery often as a child, and I recall that they had a pretty decent collection of watercolours and Victorian art - including some Pre-Raphaelites (due presumably to its prosperous past as a major player in the industrial revolution), and I was disappointed to find that much of this was not currently in display. However, we were delighted to discover that there were actually some really creative spaces for children, a couple of really good exhibitions and a plethora of opportunities for toddlers to engage with the collections.
I read somewhere recently that, when entering a new gallery space, toddlers often need the chance to dart around, explore and orient themselves before they start to examine the contents, and this is certainly the case for Culturebaby. Some galleries are better than others at handling this, and I was really impressed to find how relaxed, safe and accessible a space Gallery Oldham is. Culturebaby started by having a wonderful time walking along grills on the floor, running through corridors and looking out of the windows to the panoramic views beyond. She then took the time to really engage with some of the collections on display, including leading CultureGrandad around to various items that caught her eye.

As a child one of my favourite books was Rodney Peppe's The Mice Who Lived in a Shoe. Peppe is a model maker and author of over 80 children's books, and I was delighted to find this book and the wonderful model boot I remember returning to again and again on the back pages as part of a really exciting and impressively large exhibition of Peppe's work. The exhibition includes books, models, videos, toys and automata from throughout his career and to our joy included a number of mechanical toys with the express invitation "Please Touch". What a welcome sign for children in a gallery space! These were at the perfect height for Culturebaby and she loved turning various handles to make cogs whirl and birds dance. There was also a great creative area for slightly older children (or toddlers in the mood to concentrate), with materials to produce artwork, an invitation take part in a thumbprint circus, and wooden toys and models to handle.

The Death of Cleopatra
Just beyond this gallery I was really pleased to see on display a painting I loved as a child, with some inventive interpretation material for children. Right in front of this huge painting of Collier's The Death of Cleopatra, little viewers were invited to touch and identify a number of textures and materials visible in the painting. Next to this they were also encouraged to work out and place on a map of the ancient world symbols of a number of everyday items invented by each of the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Who knew the Romans invented socks and the Ancient Egyptians, marshmallows? There were also worksheets for writing one's name in hieroglyphics and other puzzles. I was really impressed with how this painting was made so accessible and alive to young viewers, and found myself wishing some of our London Galleries did more of this themselves.

Culturebaby then moved on to the local history areas, housing a number of interactive displays. Everywhere we turned there was an opportunity for sensory experiences or the chance to draw or colour. There was a display of stuffed owls (Oldham's symbol) with the chance to listen to a variety of owl calls and, for slightly older children, an owl activity bag. Another highlight was a reconstruction of an old Pharmacy, complete with parcels to handle and draws to open, each containing details of various herbs and products (with real smells).

We also discovered a great collection of inspiring artwork by schoolchildren and an exhibition of work by Oldham artist, Brian Clarke, who attributes his love of architecture first to his love of cotton mills. Some of his images, especially a series of aeroplanes were excellent for toddler counting practice - with different numbers of similar images on 4 or 5 canvases.

We finished off our visit in the library below, and just as we found in the galleries, the children's spaces were really well thought out. Far from housing just books, these spaces had giant trays of Lego and Duplo, buckets of toys, miniature tables and chairs and even bookcases with tunnels inside. Of course, this meant that Culturebaby didn't actually read anything on this occasion, but she had a wonderful time exploring the space!

We were really impressed to find what GalleryOldham have done and how lovely, bright and welcoming their space is for little ones. The only sadness was that there were not enough Culturebabies using the space - just a handful. Hopefully this was a blip, but if you are reading this and live anywhere near, we'd really recommend a visit. We were certainly pleasantly surprised to be reminded that there's still plenty of colour to be found between those dark mills, TKMaxx and the Metrolink building site.
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