Saved by a Writer from the Past, or How I Learned to Love Widsith the Poet

Whenever I write a new story, I often seem to reach a point where inspiration dries up and I get stuck. It’s almost as if a voice in my head says over and over again, ‘Why are you writing this rubbish? And what makes you think you’re any good at writing stories anyway?’ I like to think it’s an essential part of the creative process, the temporary triumph of the self-doubt that surrounds any attempt to create something. Get through this, I tell myself, and everything will be fine. But that doesn’t always make it any easier to deal with.

The dreaded moment came early with Winter of the Wolves, my latest Flashback. I had already written two Flashbacks – Revolt Against the Romans, the story of Caractacus’s rebellion in first-century Roman Britain, and Attack of the Vikings, a tale of action and adventure set in the west of Scotland in the Viking Age. I also had a good idea for the new book. It was going to be about the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, seen through the eyes of a young boy, an orphan who is taken in by a chief of the Angles. I was keen to make the Beowulf story part of the plot too. I’m a huge fan of the poem, and I wanted to come up with a suggestion for how it might have been brought to these shores.

As usual I did plenty of research and came up with an outline. I wrote a decent chapter one, moved on to chapter two… and then found myself grinding to a halt. The words stopped coming, the characters wouldn’t speak or do anything interesting, the story refused to come to life. But I didn’t panic. I’d been in the same position many times before, and so I tried the things that have helped in the past – taking a break, reading my notes again, thinking about the characters from a different angle. Doing more research also sometimes helps – it might be that I haven’t immersed myself in the period enough.

That’s what did the trick this time. With Beowulf in mind, I looked up lots of other Anglo-Saxon poetry, and came across a poem I’d forgotten about. In The Traveller’s Song we meet Widsith, an Anglo-Saxon poet of the sixth century, and he tells us of all the royal courts he’s visited, and the important kings and chiefs and warriors he has impressed with his poems and songs. Widsith is a great character – he’s vain and boastful, and the poem reads like a glorious promotional leaflet aimed at getting him more work. At any rate, it really spoke to me across the centuries, perhaps because I’m a freelance writer too. I’ve certainly met a few writers like Widsith, and I have a feeling he never got stuck.

So I put Widsith into my story as an old blind scop – that’s the Anglo-Saxon word for a poet – who becomes a friend and mentor to my central character, Oslaf. Poets were greatly respected in early Anglo-Saxon culture, as praise-singers for warrior chiefs, but also as guardians of the tribe’s history. Widsith quickly became a very important figure in Oslaf’s story, and to a large extent the plot only works because of him. While I was writing the story I kind of felt that Widsith was looking after me too. It was almost as if I had a co-writer  I could turn to – ‘What do you think of this bit, Widsith?’ I put a quote from his poem at the beginning of the book, but really his name should be on the title page as well.

The rest of the story came fairly easily after that, although for me that means inching ahead at a rate of about 500 words a day. But you get a feel for how well a story is 9781472953780.jpgprogressing, and I knew this one was going to be all right. I’m not usually boastful about  what I do, but I’ve decided to emulate Widsith and say that I think Winter of the Wolves is one of the best stories I’ve written. I certainly enjoyed writing it enormously, and I think the cover (by Illustrator Rob Ball) is brilliant. If you want to find out more about Widsith there’s an excellent Wikipedia article about his poem. I’m thinking of starting a Widsith Fan Club – after all, I really do owe him a favour!

 

Tony Bradman is an award-winning author who has been involved in children’s books for 35 years. His latest novel, Winter of the Wolves, is out now!

Beautifully Bilingual

I am lucky enough to have grown up within a large extended family rich in language and culture. My father was born in Portsmouth, Southsea with a ‘traditional’ mother and father in the sense that they sat down every Sunday for a roast lunch and forced my dad to attend church even though they never actually went themselves! My mother was born in Nairobi, Kenya and came to England where she met my dad at university and the story goes (as my dad likes to tell it) that my mum was something of a mysterious Indian beauty amongst the students and by the time my dad realised she wasn’t a rich, Hindu princess, they had already married!

My sister and I spent a lot of our school holidays either at my Nanima’s house playing with my cousins or at an Indian wedding, which seem to happen every other week! Hindu weddings are beautiful! Full of music, colour and dancing. And whilst I loved every minute of it, I barely understood anything that was happening as it was all spoken in Hindi, Guajarati or Urdu. As my Nanima also barely spoke any English and my mum herself spoke five different languages, it was decided that I should attend Saturday school and learn to speak, read and write Gujarati. I suddenly found myself in a new environment where I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying or read the workbooks or make friends, as most of the other children either spoke to each other in Gujarati or Hindi. I went home to my parents so upset to be out of my comfort zone that after a few meagre weeks, I eventually quit – something I continue to look back on regretfully.

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(Me (in the blue dress) and my beautifully bilingual family at my sisters English/Hindu wedding)

When I give training about teaching children with English with an additional language, I like teachers to experience first-hand what it is like for children new to English by asking them to follow simple instructions given in another language. The feedback is always ‘enlightening’. Imagine yourself in a new country, where you don’t know the spoken or the written language, the culture, the routines, the traditions. How would you navigate? How would you know where the toilets are? Or how to ask for help? This is what it is like for all children with EAL. On top of that, they would be dealing with getting used to having left their old familiar school, home, friends and possible family members – that’s a lot for any adult to deal with, let alone a child.

My advice to teachers is this: do your research! If you know you are about to have a new pupil, try and meet them and their parents beforehand (home visits are great for this). However, as we all know, sometimes you don’t have time to do this and a child suddenly appears in your class first thing Monday morning with no warning or information. So, make the time! Arrange to meet parents as soon as possible, consider that they might need an interpreter too. Find out basic information about the child; how do you pronounce their name? How much English do they understand? What do they like doing? Do they have any dietary requirements? Where are they from? (In Thailand, the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body and so you should never touch their heads and in some Asian, African and Latin American countries it is deemed disrespectful to look a member of authority such as a teacher, in the eyes). Are they religious? How do you say key survival words or phrases such as toilet, lunch, home, sit, stand, coat on etc?

It is also important to make sure that children with EAL aren’t categorised as being in a low ability group or SEN group (although it is useful to find out from parents if they are concerned about their child’s development or speech in their home language). Many teachers can often mistake a child with EAL’s ‘silent’ phase as being SEN when actually they are simply watching, listening and observing.

An aspect of planning that I often see in schools is where teachers differentiate for ‘SEN/EAL’ – that’s not to say that you might use similar resources e.g. visual aids, but for many children with SEN they need lessons that are broken down in manageable steps and need to take in consideration sensory and physical needs. When working with children that are new to English, you should be thinking about pre-teaching key vocabulary in the form of games and fun activities, repetition, gestures, buddying up with another child or adult that may be able to translate.

My mum was one of the first EAL consultants in Croydon and she would go into schools and support teachers through training, observations and in-class support. Unfortunately today, due to our ever increasing cuts in all things related to the public sector, specialist consultants are few and far between. The feedback I often get from NQTs is that supporting children with EAL is barely covered in teacher training despite this being an area that the majority of new teachers struggle with.

I wanted to create a resource for Early Years teachers that was easy to access and not too ‘wordy’, understanding that teachers’ time is limited. I always loved the ‘50 Fantastic Ideas’ series because it let me dip in and out for new ideas and the activities were usually easy to resource and fun to do. So, I decided to write 50 Fantastic Ideas for Children with EAL. I tried to design the games and activities so that you would use them not as a stand-alone intervention for children with EAL because, as we all know, our time is stretched, but instead you can use them with a whole class or in small groups with children that might need encouragement to build relationships, to enhance their speech, to help with 9781472952639.jpgconfidence and to develop respect and knowledge of other cultures and customs. I recently hosted a network meeting for teachers in Southwark on how to support children with EAL in the class. Afterwards, one of the EYFS consultants said it was one of the highest attended meetings they had held which proves that it continues to be an area where even the most experienced teachers want help in. I hope that my book goes a little towards easing this need.

 

Natasha Wood has worked in the Early Years for nine years and has built a great breadth of knowledge in child development and play. Her latest book, 50 Fantastic Ideas for Children with EAL, is out now!

Why the Golden Horsemen Came Riding

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Baghdad and the Middle East except that an author there had written the 1001 Nights, or the Arabian Nights as my Year 4 teacher used to call it. It’s a wonderful anthology of fairytales that has filled the heads of many a child with the notion of flying carpets, thieves hidden in wooden barrels, genies and magic lamps. I received the Bancroft Classics edition for my eighth birthday, which I re-read endlessly. No author was credited with the work on the front cover but I hardly noticed. I devoured the Sinbad films on telly too, especially the Ray Harryhousen versions which had incredible special effects. But of the real Baghdad, I remained mostly ignorant.

In my teenage years, the Middle East started to feature on the news, but nearly always shown in a bad light. Uprisings and terror attacks flickered across the television screens. News reports showed tanks lumbering across deserts, flat-roofed houses being blown up, grim-faced youths hijacking planes. Not surprisingly I never connected those images with the magical lands of ‘Open Sesame’ and delicious lakoum.

Fast forward a few decades and I am doing an author visit at a school in Bradford where I lived for over ten years. Most of the children were of Pakistani and Indian origin. It was a warm day and we were eating our lunch out in the playground. We got to talking about our most cherished wishes. One boy said in a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

It turned out the boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. It brought images of a magical Middle East flooding back into my head. Not the clichéd magic of genies and flying carpets, but the enchantment of real life still tied to the land and the seasons.

I started reading up on life in Middle Eastern countries, now and in the past and I fell for its charm all over again. Baghdad especially drew my interest. Based around the ‘beyt al Hikma’, meaning ‘house of knowledge’, a world-famous library built in the 9th century, it established itself as a world leader in the arts, science and innovation.

As I started sharing my discoveries in my talks to schools, I learnt that most children, even those of Muslim heritage, were unaware of Baghdad’s glorious heyday, of its massive contribution to the worlds of science, mathematics, medicine, poetry and translation. Without its scholars and their mentors, including the powerful caliphs who built the libraries and schools, much of the writings of the ancient world would now be lost forever.

9781472955999.jpgToday the Golden Age of Islam is part of the National Curriculum in KS2. It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the real history of a culture we in the West so often overlook. My book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was written to accompany the subject. Like my other works for Bloomsbury Education, it’s a rollicking adventure but it is also packed with information and insight into the culture and the period. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is bestselling historical fiction author Saviour Pirotta’s latest novel. Out now!

How Our School Implemented a Growth Mindset

The snowflake generation is a phrase that was mentioned to me over coffee by a friend recently, ‘a generation that just melts,’ they said, ‘any sign of a problem and they are done’. When I was introducing growth mindset to the school, it was at the time this would have perfectly described a large group of children. The mere mention of writing a report brought a few to tears, an open-ended maths problem increased the need to empty the bladder for lots.

Before I began the process, I noticed groups of children who wanted the success instantly and the concept of hard work or grit was completely alien. However, I also knew a couple of displays about how the brain worked wasn’t going to resonate with these deep-seated thoughts, and it wasn’t just the pupils. The concept of accepting that something is hard and it’s ok, the very nature of resilience and working positively to achieve something was also not embedded in the thoughts of the staff.

Many colleagues ask me how to get this ethos in a school – the answer is it takes work and relentlessness; you have to continually lead it and model it and never let it go! As a team we worked hard on mistakes and learning from them. In assembly we looked at mistakes, identifying them and learning from them.

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All adults around the school made mistakes and didn’t giggle or try to cover them up– instead they celebrated them and made them a teaching point. Even our office staff were encouraged to identify them and talk about them in front of the children! In each classroom, a mistake mountain was introduced; a place to celebrate mistakes. There was a massive shift in language from all the adults; they were enthusiastic about identifying their mistakes and very keen to show them off!

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In the beginning, children were incredibly dubious to have their mistake displayed for others to learn from. They were very possessive over the eraser, the thought of not having one made some of them come out in a nervous sweat. After a few weeks of this particular growth mindset thread, they were not worried and wanted to identify mistakes rather than cover them up! The curriculum is child-led in the main which allows for investigation and more importantly, mistakes. We are continually giving children the opportunity to make them and learn from them, and this in turn builds their resilience.

Writing is the area people talk to me about the most, an area which requires resilience by the bucketload! Once children are established with the concept of mistake making, it makes it easier to embed a marking policy.

The marking policy means that all mistakes are identified and we don’t shy away from it – we face it. Every one is picked up and children are given time to learn from this – this is important learning time and is valued by everyone. In the younger year groups, no backwards k is let go or the odd escapee capital letter in a sentence, they are highlighted in yellow and children are expected to amend it.Blog 3

As a school, the children and adults identified the attributes of a learning hero – everyone loves a superhero cape! The main points were perseverance, hard work and after this period of transition – mistakes! The children really think now that learning from your mistakes makes you a learning hero. This is impact and should be celebrated. Every half term a group of learning heroes are nominated by staff and children. We also nominate adults, children need to know that just because you can drive a car doesn’t mean you stop making mistakes – we all do it and they need to see all people around them learning from them.

Anyone who can identify a mistake and learn from it is a hero in my eyes! Give our children the tools to do it!

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As a HT I make mistakes every day – I share most of them with my team and learn from most of them – be an ambassador for it. I made the mistake of forgetting my rollers were in when I stopped for petrol on the way home from a school WW2 dress up day! We all make them – embrace it. Happy mistake making!

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Nikki Willis is a Headteacher and lead on Teaching and Learning. She is also an Early Years teacher and a trainer for Brentwood Collaborative Partnership schools. Her latest book Growth Mindset is out now. Follow her on Twitter at @chooselearning and Instagram Hellolearning.

 

Poetry in Unexpected Places

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 2016, there was a collective gasp from the literary establishment. While some critics leapt to the defence of the Nobel committee’s decision, others devoted reams of newsprint to the inevitable question: ‘Can song lyrics be poetry?’

Back in 2008, the renowned poet Simon Armitage had spoken for many when he confidently asserted that ‘songwriters are not poets’, going on to say that ‘songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted clichés and mixed metaphors’ (and this was in an article in which he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. Rather than saying that songs were bad per se, he was suggesting that we take them on their own merits).

It is true to say that few children are exposed to much of what many people would consider true ‘poetry’. ‘Poetry’ can so often be seen as something ‘difficult’, and certainly when I was at school a number of teachers analysed the joy out of it, so that what should have been an enriching experience became a dull one. Syllabuses these days focus less on dead white males than they used to, but nonetheless the notion of ‘poetry’ has, in some circles at least, retained that rather elitist veneer.

But what children are exposed to are songs and rhymes, ranging from skipping rhymes in the playground to the latest rap lyrics (and it is worth noting that Seamus Heaney, himself studied on many school courses, praised the ‘verbal energy’ of rap artist Eminem). Take one of the playground rhymes I learned as a child (chanted while throwing balls against a wall):

‘Please, Miss, my mother, Miss,
Forgot to tell you this, Miss,
That I, Miss, won’t, Miss,
Be in school tomorrow, Miss’.

Doggerel? Perhaps. And yet there’s a lot to learn from it. That repeated use of ‘Miss’, providing the verse with its rhythm. The ‘this, Miss’ – two rhyming words jostling against each other within a line, marking both a rhythmic change and one in the rhyme structure. Or how about the skipping rhyme:

‘On the mountain stands a lady,
Who she is I do not know.
All she wants is gold and silver
All she wants is a nice young man.
All right, [girl’s name], I’ll tell your mother,
Kissing [boy’s name] round the corner!
How many kisses did she give him?
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…’

Not much poetry in there, you might think, and it’s true it wouldn’t win any prizes (not least because of the appalling sexism of ‘all she wants is a nice young man’, although in its defence we also sang ‘all he wants is a nice young girl’ on the few occasions when the boys joined in).  And yet the words have a strong beat, and the abrupt change in rhythm in the fourth line is one worth noting.

Or take the lyrics from Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by Your Grace’. I can’t pretend I know much about rap music – my main exposure comes from one of the characters in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty who is an aspiring rapper, and his lyrics are very clever (perhaps unsurprising given that they’re in fact written by a prize-winning novelist whose brother is himself a rapper). But here’s Stormzy with some blinding half-rhymes in Blinded by Your Grace:

On the main stage runnin’ ’round topless
I phone Flipz and I tell him that we got this
This is God’s plan, they can never stop this
Like wait right there, could you stop my verse?
You saved this kid and I’m not your first
It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth
But oh my God what a God I serve

Can we not, when learning poetry, note this and learn from this too? The ‘topless’ juxtaposed with ‘got this’ and ‘stop this’ in the next lines? That repeated use of ‘God’ that punctuates the final line that I’ve quoted?

Whether or not such examples are ‘poetry’, is, for me, something of a moot point. Rather than arguing over genre divisions, perhaps we are better off seeing the potential for poetic learning in so much of the ‘verbal energy’, to use Heaney’s phrase, which surrounds us on an everyday basis. Maybe what we should be doing is using children’s lived experiences – through songs, through rap, through rhymes – as a springboard from which to discover other uses of language (while at the same time not falling into the trap of making value judgements about which linguistics usages are ‘better’).

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Bob Dylan famously dithered over accepting the Nobel prize, in part because of his own doubts about whether he deserved it. Perhaps this could be summed up by the oft-quoted (and presumably anonymous) lines ‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

But maybe all of us, even young children, can say the same.

‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

Precisely.

 

Elli Woollard is a writer of picture books, young fiction and poetry. Her new poetry book for younger children, Perfectly Peculiar Pets, publishes on 21st March 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

 

Resilience Or ‘Bouncebackability’

I have been lucky enough to take the wonderful journey involved in writing a children’s non-fiction book in the areas of wellbeing and emotional health, several times. What I absolutely love about this process is the distillation of all I have researched and learnt over the years into a simply worded text (supported by illustrations). What’s Going On In My Head?, a book about positive mental health for young children, made me embark upon another such journey. I had to consider everything I knew about maintaining mental health – a key component of which is resilience – and put it into simple words.

Resilience is a word that’s been bandied about for a while now with the general understanding that it is one’s ability to deal with and ‘bounce back’ from life’s negative events. There is a fair amount of certainty that it is a good thing and it is so good in fact, we can’t have too much of it. However, even though the term is on most people’s radar, how to increase our resilience is a little more elusive. My book aims to make it less elusive so children can start thinking about and addressing the issues relevant to developing resilience.

In the book I have covered many of the well-known components that contribute to resilience, such as….

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…but I also made a few further reflections relating to resilience that I think are a little less obvious. They are as follows.

Self esteem

I was there at the start of the ‘self-esteem’ movement in schools. I remember running INSET training on the stuff in the early days of the national Curriculum. I would say most people’s understanding was quite primitive back then and more or less amounted to, ‘we must praise the children more.’ We have certainly moved on but I still think there is room for further fine tuning.

I think we focus too much on the positive. Yes, you heard right! I think that genuine self-worth comes from not only enjoying and celebrating our strengths and achievements, but also from the complete acceptance that there are things we are not naturally talented at. It doesn’t mean we can’t practise and get better at those things, but there will always be others who excel in some areas with considerably less effort. (It makes sense therefore that if we have become good at something through exceptional effort, this is indeed praiseworthy). We need children to know that being less than great at some things is absolutely fine.

Emotional literacy

I could go on about emotional literacy for hours. In fact, I do! But a message about emotions that I think we are often being too indirect about or not delivering at all, is that we really do need to stop believing the unrealistic idea that we are meant to be happy all of the time. It’s partly advert and social media culture that promotes this idea. We need to help children understand that negative emotions are to be expected, and as long as we are mentally healthy, they will soon be replaced by another equally transient emotion. Humans experience a huge range of emotions – both comfortable and uncomfortable – and this is how it is meant to be. Negative emotions need to be fully acknowledged, validated and accepted so we can then move on and develop healthy coping strategies for when we are experiencing them.

Coping strategies – rumination

 Rumination – a thought that is bothering us by going round and round in our heads, and our ability to prevent or moderate it can have a huge impact on our mental health. There is no doubt that some people are afflicted with a tendency to ruminate more than others. 9781472959232 (1).jpgHelping children, especially the more anxious ones, to recognise 1) what rumination is, 2) when they are doing it, and 3) what they can do to ‘park’ it, can help maintain positive mental health. What’s Going On Inside My Head? explores all these messages and what’s more, it says it in ‘Kidspeak’!

 

Molly Potter has taught in both mainstream and specialist provision primary schools as well as being a county PSHE advisor. Her new book, What’s Going On Inside My Head?publishes on 21st February 2019 and is available to pre-order now.

Re-Booting Rainbows

An interviewer once asked Roald Dahl: “How is it, when you’re writing for eight-year-olds, you can catch and hold their attention so completely?” Roald looked surprised at the question. “I am eight-years-old,” he explained.

Or whatever age was called for, apparently.

This ability to adjust so readily to a specific target-group is as handy for a children’s author as it is for a class teacher. After all, whatever our chosen destination, we’ll be arriving there alone if we don’t begin where the kids are.

Not that I envisaged any such problem with my story Rainbow Boots. I’d just been re-reading the Brer Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris and was keen to write a ‘trickster’ story of my own. Already, in fact, an idea was forming in my mind. It would be about a kid called Denzil who’s so desperate to share in the latest craze for fancy, rainbow-coloured leisure boots that he’s prepared to lie, to cheat and even to con his best friend Nadeem to get hold of a pair. Clearly, a task for my long-ago top-junior persona if ever there was one!

What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot as it turned out. Because, for some reason, my long-ago top-junior persona kept slipping the name of Len Shackleton into my mind. Len who, do you ask? Exactly! I’d barely given Len a thought since my fledgling days as a football fan. I’d read at a sitting his autobiography The Crown Prince of Soccer– a great title for a book about a player who was as famous for his jokes, on and off the pitch, as he was for his football skills. It was Len who back-heeled a penalty kick into the corner of the net having sent the goalie the wrong way. It was Len who often used a corner flag to make a return pass to himself and leave an opponent bamboozled. It was Len who once brought a match to a complete stop by putting his foot on the ball while he pretended to check his watch and comb his hair before he casually took a shot at goal (he scored, of course).

Now there was a trickster to reckon with!

Not that Len’s antics impressed everyone. Despite his brilliance, he won only five international caps for his country because “England play at Wembley not The London Palladium” as one of the England selectors snorted.

All lovely stuff for a story, yes. Pity it wasn’t the story I was trying to write. This was about a fashion victim not a celebrity soccer player. Having got all my ducks in a row – the characters, the primary school setting, the pace and shape of the story-line – the last thing I needed was a show-off like Len Shackleton kicking my tale into touch.

Wait, though.

Suddenly, out of the blue, another of Len’s flicks-and-tricks popped into my head. It was a routine trick so eye-catching it became one of his trademarks. When he left the dressing room after a match, he often entertained the fans who were waiting for his autograph by dropping a coin onto his instep, flicking it from one foot to the other, keepsie-upsie style, and finished off by flipping it into the top pocket of his club blazer. What a climax that would make! And what a way to point up the difference between a pair of boots that were strictly for decoration and those that were made for playing.

Hmm…

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Which is how, with a bit of careful re-writing on my part, a Len Shackleton figure,  under a different name, makes a guest appearance in Rainbow Boots after all. For me, it’s a reminder of how mysterious and unpredictable the writing process is. We should never forget that forward planning is fine up to a point. But we must always allow for an enlivening change of direction – not least if it springs from our own childhood experience. Wily old Roald didn’t need a reminder about this. He seems to have known it deep in his bones!

 

Chris Powling’s has written more than sixty books for children, and his new book Rainbow Boots publishes on 7th February.

 

Dads Play: The Importance of Engaging Dads in the Early Years

What did you get for Christmas, Dad? Socks? Or a share in your child’s Lego stash?

I painstakingly searched for something not to do with a PS4 for my nephew and found someone who makes traditional card games using modern themes such as fantasy or mindmaps at a local fair in the Upper Norwood Library Hub.

On presenting them to my nephew, thinking I would get a tick from my sister, he looked about for a companion to play the game. The females in the group looked studiously elsewhere and all eyes fell on his grown-up cousin who rose to the card challenge.  (Mum, its complicated. We have to look online for instructions!)  But they managed without Google and soon, they were engaged in the game with deep enthusiasm.

Observing from afar, I noted the differing approach from young and older males (12 and 31) playing together. It reminded me of why I wrote a book about this. It’s definitely beneficial for children to have engaged dads but the benefits of their granddads, uncles and cousins is also important. The way males play together is interesting. There is less talk and a more competitive edge. Men get involved in the activity as partners. They also want to reference it within their repertoire of “great games” or the ones they grew up with and were part of their nostalgic life journey. I noted when our boys were playing together, when young Rory got stuck, he was given time to solve the problem.

Women play differently. We teach, give instructions, oversee, add language, narrate more and support more quickly. The balance of both means that a child is helped to develop positive attitudes and all sorts of skills such as higher order problem-solving skills so necessary for life. These include:

  • Attention Skills
  • Concentration
  • Perseverance
  • Confidence

Dads and men bring different perspectives and expectations to women on a range of issues. They are interested in different things and therefore will enrich children’s skills and knowledge by broadening their horizons. Whether it is film and television programmes, books and activities or just dad jokes, dads can open up wider opportunities, extend language and contribute to deeper conversations whether about building, cars or sport.

In my day job at LEYF,  we are very keen to engage with dads and have noticed that we are much more successful if we suggest games and home learning activities that reflect dads’ interests.

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For nurseries and schools, utilising formal programmes like Teens and Toddlers, having male apprentices and staff members, and hosting activities for fathers and male family members are all very important for engaging young boys.

However, as I learned over Christmas, it’s more likely to be successful for everyone when there is a shared interest and a warm environment where together we all nurture and value the boys’ time together.

 

June O’Sullivan‘s latest book, 50 Fantastic Ideas for Engaging Dads, is out now!

A Sense of Place: Young Children, Resilience and Climate Justice

“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”- David Attenborough 2018.

Whatever your beliefs, you cannot escape the issue of climate change.  Scientists all over the world agree that this is the greatest disaster facing life on earth. Our mortgages, bank accounts, university educations and insurance policies will not protect us. Personally I flip between anger and the urge to campaign, and the temptation to bury my feelings with mind numbing distractions. I feel fortunate to have young children and nature in my life  –  both of which are huge incentives to stay awake and practice resilience to face the future – whatever it might hold.

I often talk to teachers and carers of young children about how to share this most pressing concern with young children. They are not responsible for climate change and yet it is their generation that will deal with the consequences if we cannot find a way to halt global warming and mitigate its effects on their chances of survival.

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Whether our children become scientists, philosophers or politicians of the future, is it our job as teachers and carers to raise them with the capacity to respond to these central questions:

  • What is it to be human and alive on this planet right now?
  • What is needed of us? How can we lead purposeful lives and leave a legacy of more good than harm?
  • How do we share our journey with young children with courage and fortitude?

Slowing down and shifting perspective

Our increasingly materialistic, technologically-driven busy-ness gives plenty to distract ourselves and our children from reflecting on these central questions.

But simply stepping outside under the sky, feeling the wind or the warmth of the sun on my cheeks and drawing breath can open up space in my mind to think differently.

Nature is my daily resource and it’s accessible wherever I am to support a shift in perspective when needed. Whether it’s stretching my eyes to change the view, tuning into bird song to shift receptivity, finding a sit spot to calm my mind, or going on a ‘no destination’ mindful walk to order my thoughts.

Nature gives children a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional environment in which to develop physical resilience and lay down the neural pathways for lifelong learning.

Children need time to ‘do nothing’ – to daydream as well as to explore their own ‘unadulterated’ lines of enquiry (or play) without interruptions and timetables getting in the way. We can take our cue from Nature’s rhythms, night and day and the changing seasons and weather.  Without electronic white noise, children can experience what quiet feels like and develop their capacity for greater attention. In the absence of bright neon and screen lights they can experience the restfulness of natural light and dark, or the magic of fire light or stars.

Finding the ways to share the hard stuff

When children are very young, we don’t want to overburden them with the troubles of the world. It would be like dumping too much grit on a bed of new seedlings. They need the right amount of water, sunshine and shelter to develop strong roots. But they also do not need to be wrapped in cotton wool. They need gradual exposure with much care, attention and support. Our job is to notice what they need and when.

Outdoors, children will encounter the hard stuff of life – cold, heat, discomfort, impermanence and change, and most likely at some point the death of a bird animal or insect. They will learn through observation, experience and gentle guidance of an adult companion about scarcity and abundance and about impermanence and the joy of sharing and caring.

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Responding to children’s questions with honesty and integrity is important. But mostly we need to listen well. We need to listen to what they themselves are expressing through what Magaluzzi calls ‘the 100 of languages of children’, and be prepared to receive what they communicate. They will tell us when they are ready to hear more.

What can we do about it?

It is through our behaviour that children absorb the values of the culture in which they are born. We can show appreciation for the gifts of nature that sustain our lives. We can learn the names of plants and animals; we can explore the properties and gifts of the earth and air around us. We can develop empathy and alleviate suffering through kindness and fairness. Outdoors children recognise their interdependence with plants, animals, minerals and ether. We can grow food with them, we can harvest water, and we can recycle and save energy.

As teachers and carers we are advocates for young children and their future on earth. The way in which we practice this advocacy will vary according to what feels right for each person. Some will campaign for and against policy locally or nationally, others will focus on teaching children, talking to parents and carers. Most importantly we need to keep learning ourselves, and developing our own resilience practice.

And me? What do I do? When I am outdoors I find it easier to let go of overwhelming feelings of fear, loss, grief and suffering. These difficulties don’t go away but somehow the vastness of the sky and the sea, the rootedness of trees shift my perspective. Outside I often feel smaller but also part of something bigger and eternally changing – a universal dance of light, air, space, ether and life! I draw strength from it.

We owe it to ourselves and young children to advocate for sustainable human life on earth however we can.

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With thanks and with gratitude to our teachers  and companions in life and in work – those that help us find resilience to stand with the challenges that life present us.

 

Annie Davy was Head of Early Years in Oxfordshire where she led an award-winning service for 12 years and is founder and director of several community-based projects. Annie’s book A Sense of Place publishes on 7th February.

All of the images are credited to Schnell Photography.

 

Introducing Bloomsbury Early Years

I have been thinking about ‘blooming’ a lot lately. My friend gave me a succulent two years ago, after she landed a part-time teaching job, as a thank you for my support. I managed to take cuttings and now have four, ready for a small rockery area in my garden. This means I’ve not only had the initial joy of receiving a gift and enjoying it when it was first in my home, but after a patient pause and a little bit of work, the joy of it blooming into several little plants. Here they are!

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Bloomsbury Early Years is an exciting and blooming product. The Little Books series has helped numerous Early Years practitioners since they were first published. And now, after a patient pause and a lot of work, the activities from the Little Books are blooming into a library resource that is online and keeps growing, and highly relevant in today’s Early Years settings.

Bloomsbury Early Years is a digital library resource for Early Years practitioners. Its activities are organised by the seven Areas of Learning of the EYFS and can be filtered by age range or type of activity to find the most appropriate activities for your children. The authors are all experienced practitioners who have developed activities across the breadth of the EYFS.

The Early Years Foundation Stage has four guiding, overarching principles: the unique child, positive relationships, enabling environments and children developing and learning in different ways and at different rates. The next steps of learning for each child should be meaningfully based on the child’s own ‘child-initiated’ learning and around their interests. We know practitioners are great at weaving themes so that they encompass children’s fascinations. In the last three weeks of the Summer term, I saw settings where the teacher had digitally photoshopped pictures of a fairy in the classroom outdoor area to ignite the imagination of her class, and another where an Early Years team had constructed a beach (complete with parasols and deckchairs) in their outdoor area – amazing!

When I first stepped into a Reception classroom, as a PPA teacher, I had only a few weeks of background reading and cramming to help me (oh, and the single day I had spent in Reception in my ITT!). In hindsight, I would have been really helped by Bloomsbury Early Years. If I knew that ‘Jayden’ loved outdoor learning and needed to find something that would help him to develop his understanding of number, then I could have found something here. Or if ‘Hannah’s’ understanding of People and Communities would be really enriched by a cooking experience because her family had told me that she spent some of the holidays baking with her aunt. It is in these everyday moments where Bloomsbury Early Years can really help planning learning to specific needs of children, using that personal knowledge of that unique child and linking it with their learning.

And we know this resource can’t stay still, so we are busy finding more great ideas to add to the site throughout the year so that it can grow more and help you, in your setting and in your classroom, to bloom into the best practitioners you can be this school year.

At the moment (Autumn 2018), if you subscribe to Bloomsbury Early Years (whether you are a childminder or a preschool or a nursery or a school), you will receive a free pack of 10 great picture books worth £69.90!

Heather Sargeant is the Digital Projects Assistant for Bloomsbury Early Years.

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