Category Archives: Literacy

Invitation to Play: Winter Writing

This activity was inspired by this Rainbow Salt Tray from Learning4Kids, which is something we will definitely try out at some point.  Our version was much less labour-intensive but we did love it, and it did look pretty and wintry in silver and white.  It consisted of salt on a foil tray, with some magnetic letters to copy if desired.


This was designed to keep N busy for a little while, so I sat down with two silver foil trays sprinkled liberally with salt and started drawing in the salt.


Within seconds, she was at my shoulder asking, “can I have a turn” – and she had fun mark making in the salt, brilliant sensory play and pre-writing skills!

She copied my design, then had a go at writing a few letters, before drawing pictures of her own:




Our Reading List (favourite children’s books)

If I had to pick the single activity I get most excited about, it is watching the children’s emerging reading skills, and the new worlds that open up to them as their literacy and understanding develop. Sharing books with them is nothing short of magical.  And it opens up all kinds of conversations we wouldn’t otherwise have, as well as developing all kinds of thought processes, reasoning skills, emotional understanding…the thing about reading is, well, it’s so diverse.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor is it a “10 favourite books of all time” type of list, the idea of which paralyses me (how to choose from so many amazing, clever, imaginative, informative, enchanting books, and what of the books I haven’t even encountered?).  It is simply a list of the books we are enjoying together at the moment.  This is not advertising (the publishers of these books don’t know I exist); it is just me and my children enjoying books.

L (aged 5 years 2 months):

  1. The BFG by Roald Dahl

This is a book that has really caught L’s imagination.  I would go so far as to say it is his favourite.  I am amazed he isn’t scared by the child-eating giants, but he isn’t.  So, what does L love about this book?  I think it has a bit of everything – the humour of “whizzpoppers” couldn’t fail to appeal to a five year old boy, the excitement of the secret Giant country.  The idea of mixing dreams appeals to the scientist in him, who loves to know how things work.  The rescue element and the small child who saves the day, the triumph of the small, kind giant over the larger, bullying ones appeals to his sense of justice. he also loves the made up language since he is just starting to explore word-play. Despite the child-eating, this isn’t a bloodthirsty book, it is at all times funny, imaginative, clever…can you tell I like it too?  Roald Dahl’s imagination does it for me.  And the fresh-ness of his books thirty years after their writing – they are like no others.  I love the way the BFG takes Sophie seriously, and her sensitivity to his feelings.  It is a charming story even for grown ups.

2. Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon

L and I agree to disagree on this one.  To him, they are hilarious books, and the early reader ones he can read himself without too much effort, which is just about the only thing I like them for.  To me, Henry is rude, selfish, hurts other people, does dangerous things, and not only gets away with it but is rewarded.

I don’t think L is going to become Henry by reading these books, but I do question the way they present Henry’s behaviour as funny and fun, do not explore the impact on other people and the consequences of the behaviour.  And also the way things L is currently positive about (reading, school, fruit and vegetables) are presented negatively.  The relationship between henry and his parents also bothers me, in that there is no love or respect shown, just exasperation on his parents’ part and disobedience on Henry’s.  Some may say I’m taking it all too seriously, I reserve the right not to agree!  L is enjoying these books and often asks for them, and whilst I wouldn’t ban them I do try to encourage other books instead, and hope his Horrid Henry phase will be short lived.

3. You’re a Bad Man Mr Gum by Andy Stanton

We both love this.  And will definitely be buying the rest of the series.  It has humour we can enjoy together, and we both laughed out loud.  This book has a very quirky sort of humour but it is incredibly clever and well, hilarious.  The language in the book is challenging, and introduced L to metaphors and similes, some of which are really abstract – Mr Gum’s carpet, for example, is “the colour of unhappiness”.  but mostly I liked the fact that this is a completely different style of book to anything L has read before.  It isn’t dumbed down, and i think it will appeal to him for years.

4. The I Wonder Why collection

For a boy who is full of questions, these are perfect.  We have made good use of “why do leaves change colour in autumn” recently, and the question and answer format of these books has stimulated L’s curiosity even further.  I like books that give children credit for some intelligence, and don’t shy away from concepts that are difficult to explain.  Even N (3) has got something out of the explanations even if she doesn’t understand them fully – yet I think an 8 or 9 year old would get something out of these books too.

5. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Politically correct they are not, but we love a bit of Enid Blyton.

6. Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

I don’t often say it, but this is a boys’ book.  It must be.  L and his dad love it, and although I feel disloyal to Roald Dahl when I say this, I find it boring.  Personally I don’t see in it the imagination and humour I love so much in Dahl’s books – I see only long, detailed descriptions of car engines.  Perhaps it is the relationship between Danny and his dad that makes the book so appealing to L?  Isn’t this the kind of parent every little boy would love to have (one who can give unlimited, undivided time and attention, one who thinks up crazy and amazing experiments and activities, one who can live up to their hero-worship?) – perhaps it is the dream-fulfillment of a small boy being able to drive a car and save the day?  Or the excitement of sneaking around in the woods at night doing something forbidden?  Whatever it is, it lit a spark in L, and for that I love it.

7. Stig of the Dump by CIive King

A confession – I haven’t read this!  However, L has, with Daddy – and he loves it.  According to L “Stig is a boy like me and he lives in a rubbish dump and he has a friend called Barney” – the idea of having a secret friend who lives a different and exciting life seems to appeal to L.  Another adventure story, which we love, and one that was instrumental in L beginning to enjoy chapter books, so we think this is a winner.

8. The Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia (Orpheus Books)

A collection of 20 information books, from which L absorbs information like a sponge.  There are so many children’s encyclopedias out there but I love these for the following reasons:

They are concise and age appropriate without dumbing things down.  Some of the information is complex, but it is accessible and interesting, with illustrations that add a lot to the explanations.

They are comprehensive, with a good general and varied overview of the world.

They are reasonable in cost, and are often on offer.

But my biggest reason – L loves them, and they have been a fantastic introduction to non-fiction books, and really broadened his reading horizons.  This is another set he will use for years and I am sure his sisters will after him.

9. .Fright Forest – Elf Girl and Raven Boy by Marcus Sedgwick

This adventure story has gripped us all – so much that I borrowed it to read in bed one night, and N came to sit quietly in her bedroom doorway to listen to L’s story, until invited to join in.  The illustrations remind me of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they make the book even more engaging.  There is a mystery about Elf Girl and Raven Boy (not least because we never discover their real names, or where they came from) – and we are all intrigued by the fact that they live in the forest.

Elf Girl and Raven Boy are brave, loyal, good, and quirky.  I love the fact that a tiny girl and a slightly odd boy with a rat for a friend can be heroes and heroines.  And I love the friendship between them.  The characters in this book are never one-dimensional, and the story is gripping.  A favourite!

N (aged 3 years 1 month)

1. Rainbow Magic Series by Daisy Meadows

i think N likes the idea of these as much as the books themselves, possibly more, but if you ask her what her favourite story is this is what she will tell you.  I think they are a bit cynically marketed, and no great works of literature, but they work – little girls love ’em.  Read one and you’ve read them all – crisis in fairyland, two little girls help the fairies to avert disaster.  But they are harmless, and anything children enjoy reading as long as it’s not overtly damaging is fine by me.

2. The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

Now these are just lovely.  One of those bestselling children’s stories where the hype is justified.  We love everything about them – the rhymes, the clever and humorous story, the beautiful illustrations.  Both L and N knew these off by heart before the age of two, and still enjoy them now.  Even baby F loves the pictures and the rhyme, and listens quietly.  Children of different ages can enjoy together, which is always a plus.  There are also other wonderful Julia Donaldson books including A Squash and a Squeeze, Room on the Broom, and Charlie Cook’s Favourite  Book – we love them all but The Gruffalo is still our all-time favourite.

3. Just Imagine – by Pippa Goodhart and NIck Sharrat

This is a book that N was sent for her birthday, and has been read over and over already.  It really stimulates her imagination (the book invites the reader to imagine a world of different realities) and there is so much to talk about in the detailed illustrations.  I think it will also be a lovely starting point for role play and storytelling too.

4. Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem

Lovely, charming stories that I remember nostalgically from my own childhood about the adventures of Wilfred the mouse.  They are so sweet and the illustrations really make the books prefect.  I think they inspire a love of nature, and  I still love to imagine a whole world of teeny little mice drinking from acorn teacups.  They fit beautifully with the changing-seasons crafts and activities we have been doing at home too.  These are on my must-have list for any little child, particularly one like N who adores animals.

5. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss

The most famous Dr Seuss is a firm favourite with N.  She finds the naughty cat and his sidekicks, Thing 1 and Thing 2, hilarious.  The language and rhyme is great, and there are simple words (cat, hat) that N can begin to read herself, and she loves having an active role in reading the story.  But the language is also advanced enough to extend her vocabulary and keep her interest.  DIssection aside, it is fun, and engaging.
F, aged 7 months

1. That’s Not My… by Usborne Books

These board books tick all the baby boxes – bold illustrations, texture on each page, durable (chewable) pages that little hands can handle, the perfect size, and lots of repetition.  The textures make reading a sensory experience, and engage her well.  She loves the repetition and knows what to expect.

2. Pretty Baby / Cheeky Baby

Now, I can’t find these online even on Amazon, but I think this may be a link to second hand sellers.  If these are out of print, I can’t think why because they are great.  maybe it is the sexism of having a “cheeky” boy book and a “pretty” girl book, which hasn’t bothered my children since my boy has been pretty and my girls cheeky – I have read both with either gender.

F loves looking under the flaps to find the baby, and the mirror on the last page in which she can see the cheeky or pretty baby (“it’s you!”) delights her.


3. I’ll See You in the Morning by Mike Jolley

This beautiful, touching book made me cry the first time we read it.  It is basically an extended goodnight to a little baby, with reassurance  that a parent is nearby and everything is cosy and safe.  It has been a bedtime favourite and a part of the bedtime routine, with soft and calming pictures.

4. The “Amazing Baby” Books

Perfect even for the tiniest baby, these books have a theme for everyone – starting from baby faces, and a black and white book, and moving on to lullabies, clap and sing, and “my mummy” / “my daddy”, this is a brilliant series which really taps into what babies like and want in a picture book.  Hours of entertainment.

N.B.  it’s also worth mentioning that all three have loved listening to longer stories as babies, even before they could understand the story – this is particularly true of rhyming stories like the Julia Donaldson ones.

As I said, this isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m sure it will grow with us!


Flat Stanley Goes on Holiday

We have been reading Flat Stanley together.  I chose it as a wind-down after school activity, because it is a book that is not too simple for L, yet N can still understand and follow the story.  Both love it, and appreciate the humour.

In the book, there is a part where Stanley goes to visit his friend in America, and to save money he is posted in an envelope instead of going on a plane (being flat and all).  He even takes a sandwich with him.  So we decided to play a game based around that idea, and also have fun learning about different parts of the country, giving L and N some idea of geography, history and culture (in a fun and arty way of course).

Yesterday, we made our own Flat Stanleys.  I asked L and N to copy the picture of Stanley from the cover of the book.  I wanted them to observe the shapes and colours and have a go at drawing what they saw.  I was impressed with their Stanleys.  A few weeks ago, L would have been overwhelmed by the idea and told me he couldn’t do it.  he would probably have got upset because he couldn’t make Stanley look exactly like the picture on the book.  But his creativity and confidence has increased so much that he didn’t bat an eyelid.  N, on the other hand, seems to have learnt from L, and was very careful and observant in drawing what she saw (including the v neck of Stanley’s jumper).  Here is what they drew:

Stanley on the book cover

N’s Stanley

L’s (unfinished) Stanley – he added hair and coloured in the clothes

We cut out and laminated our Stanleys, and the children wrote their names on the back (N traced a highlighter outline of hers, which I much prefer to joining dots).

We wrote letters to go with our Stanleys – L thought through what he could write, and wrote it independently.  N traced sentences and picked out the word “Stanley”.

Today, we out Stanley and his letters in an envelope and put him in the post – he is off on holiday.  His first stop is Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Guernsey.  When he comes back from holiday, we will mark on a map where he has been, and learn a bit about Guernsey.  I’ll then get on people’s nerves include friends and family in our game, by sending Stanley to visit.

Watch this space for Stanley’s adventures!




Dealing With Feelings

Today, we looked at a book I had picked up in a charity shop, called How Do You Feel? It is a beautifully simple book introducing feelings, and some situations that might evoke them, and a very useful basis for discussion.  I feel it is worth a blog post, as I definitely understand my children better for our conversations around it.

First of all, we read the book through.  Then we went back through the pages and talked about the different emotions.  L and N practised expressing the feeling in front of a mirror, and to each other, and I took photos of them to print out and use again.  I could see the difference in their ages and understanding here – N had difficulty in labelling some more complicated secondary emotions (proud, shy), and with these feelings her faces all looked the same, which I wouldn’t have known without trying this.  L had no trouble at all.

N’s Happy Face

L being shy

L makes a sad face

N’s crying, sad face

L looking “proud”

Jumping up and down to show “excited”

Running away, being “scared”

Tired and Sleepy N


I think next we might play this as a game of charades, acting out different feelings while the others guess which one.  It seems to me that the feelings N had difficulty with are the ones we don’t talk about as much, and hopefully making a conscious effort to label them for her and with her will help her recognise them and understand the terms.  I think we could also talk about degrees of feeling – really sad as opposed to a bit sad, and for L introduce some more descriptive terms and synonyms.

We talked about the things that make us happy, sad, angry, proud, etc – and I learnt the following things that I didn’t already know about my children:

  • Both L and N denied ever feeling shy, and saw it as a negative emotion, the opposite of brave.  “I’m not shy because I’m a big boy” – L; “I’m not shy, I’m friendly” – N.
  • Writing makes N cross – “because the letters won’t go right, and I go like this…” (bangs table) – I hadn’t realised she was feeling frustrated by trying to form letters, something she voluntarily practises a lot.
  • “When someone hurts me I don’t feel sad, I feel angry” – L

We focused on angry feelings in particular (my ulterior motive for all of this was to deal with some lashing out that has been happening) and made a list of things we can do when we are angry, apart from hitting.  They came up with all of the following for themselves, which I was surprised and impressed by:

  • Tell a grown up
  • Ask for help
  • Stamp my foot
  • Say “no” and “don’t do that to me” in a loud voice
  • Go and find someone else to play with
  • Say “I’m angry”
  • Cuddle a toy dog (this is N’s toy dog who goes pretty much everywhere)

It did surprise me that such young children already had these resources and coping strategies, and hopefully just need to be reminded and encouraged to use them (as we all do!).

We used the aforementioned dog, and a kangaroo to act out a “fighting” type scenario and the possible outcomes.  L and N both really enjoyed this and it was clearly something they related to.  I started the game – with one toy pushing the other, and L finished it in two ways: –

  1. The second toy hits back, they fight, and the teacher sits them both on the naughty chair
  2. the second toy tells a grown up and asks for help, the first toy goes to the naughty chair and the second finds someone else to play with.

I really like the fact that he worked out for himself the benefits of not hitting back, and hope that this game might help it stick in their minds, especially if we repeat the role play regularly, and prompt them to remember.

We did try role playing the scenario involving people, but it led to some enthusiastic pushing, a bit of crying and a real-life illustration of the above…

This has definitely inspired me to make a concerted effort to talk about feelings beyond happy/sad, and reminded me that since they are going to experience complicated feelings, they need to be given the language and tools to express them, and healthy ways of managing them.  We will definitely be doing more of this.

L is for Letters

Children love learning.  That, to me, is a fact.  Human beings, after all, are designed to learn new skills, absord information…otherwise we would all still be lying on our backs chewing our hands.  Children were learning long before schools and exams were invented.

What children are not designed to do is sit at a desk and learn useless information by rote.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach them, or more accurately, help them to learn.

N proved this theory this morning by asking to play with letters, when given free choice of activity at home.  So out came the plastic letters, one of my favourites because they can be used in so many different ways at different levels.

N started out by proudly finding the first letter of her name, then found the others easily as I asked her to pass them to me.

She immediately asked to find our family’s names, and spontaneously thought up other words beginning with the same letter – “L is for L** and Lion, and F is for F*****, Fish and Fridge”…

This led to N thinking up her own way of using the letters, one I hadn’t thought of before, and wish I could take credit for.  She began to pick out letters for objects around the room, and place the appropriate letter on the different objects:

b for book

h for highchair

c for cushion

m for “monty” and a very good try at d for “daisy”, N’s dogs.

As you  can see, there were mistakes along the way, and I decided to prompt her to self correct some (“is that a d?  Which way does its tummy point?”), but leave phonetically accurate “mistakes” such as “k for cupboard”, with a comment such as “yes, cupboard does start with a c sound” – since identifying the sound at the beginning of the word is the important thing at this stage and i didn’t want to undermine her confidence and enthusiasm with too many corrections.  Her enthusiasm lasted, and she had a go at sounding out some simple, phonetic three letter words – cat, dog, leg, log…and very proudly told her Grandad that she can read when he called round!

And just to prove that she is a normal child 9and i am a normal parent), she is now watching Peppa Pig while I type this!

Dream Jars for Roald Dahl Day

In an ideal world, this wold have been last thursday which was Roald Dahl Day.  There will be plenty more opportunities to celebrate l’s favourite author coming up, with Dahl’s birthday on 28th September along with the 30th birthday of the BFG himself.  But this rainy sunday, I still wanted to make the most of this week’s opportunity, as well as tailoring our play to L, who spends most of the week in school and so less play time at home.

There are so many amazing creative ideas around these books that i wished I had made this a theme for a birthday party.  But I settled on this fantastic and fun science activity of making a dream jar based on a home made lava lamp idea.  And sure enough, my little scientist was just as captivated by the science behind it as he was with the BFG story.

First, we mixed water with food colouring and filled as many jars and bottles as we could find, three quaters full of the coloured water.  If I had been more organised, we would have had a wider range of colours, but we still managed to create a green phizzwizard, a pleasant orange coloured dream with no name, and a scary black trogglehumper.

mixing our colours

Next, we added a glug of oil to each jar (in the instructions I read this was all measured, but we didn’t bother and it didn’t matter).   L, predictably, asked why the oil floated, and so I did my best to explain relative density to him whilst N busied herself  adding glittery “dream dust” and sparkly stars to the jars.  She was very careful in choosing her colours of glitter, deciding which went best with which water, which was a nice colour or a scary colour etc etc.

then came the exc iting bit, which was to add salt to the jars.  The salt forms a bubble with the oil which sinks to the bottom of the jar, then rises again as the salt dissolves.  here are some of the results:

L’s reaction to all of this was pure joy.  The last time I saw him so excited was when we went on a plane to visit Grandma and Grandpa.  I wish I’d been able to capture his wonder on camera, but the cry of “Wow, Mummy, it’s amazing, it’s magic!” will definitely stay with me!  This makes me think he is ready for a science kit.

he was inspired by thisd, and the link with his all time favourite story, to make a BFG dream trumpet, designed by his very own self.  This really pleased me, since he is so hesitant to be independently creative, since he fears getting things wrong, and I have really been trying to develop his confidence and creative side recently.  So when he decided “we need a tube, and a cone to stick together” then that’s what we did!

L’s enthusiasm was spilling over, and the hardest part for me was containing his exuberance as he acted out the dream-catching scene from the film of the BFG, leaping of furniture, chasing N around the room, blowing dreams enthusiastically at all of us!  he did blow dreams very gently to baby F, who also seemed to enjoy wtaching the light shine through our dream jars when we lined them up on the table with a lamp behind them.  L very thoughtfully mixed a princess dream for N, and blew it into her room ready for bedtime.

All this fun did mean that we didn’t have time to make the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory play dough that I am desperate to make I think the children would love.  but L did tell me that he wants to play Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next, leaving a convenient opening for Dahl’s birthday in a couple of weeks’ time!