Monday, 16 July 2012

Holiday fun

My 7 year old came, quite literally, bouncing into our bedroom this morning, with excitement at the prospect of going on her school trip today. They're both off to a farm for some end of term fun, and it got me thinking about the learning that takes place outside the classroom.

We often think that these trips are just a fun day out to treat the kids at the end of a long and busy school year. They'll get to feed the goats and lambs, hold the chicks and stroke the guinea pigs, and hopefully have a play in the park if the rain holds off. When I stopped to consider it though, I realised there's a lot more to a school trip than just fun and games. I bet there's plenty of children there today who've never held a chick and stopped to consider where it comes from, and heard about the life cycle of a hen. Seeing a lamb up close and feeding it from a bottle raises questions about mammals and how they feed their young, and why sheep can't always feed more than one lamb themselves. The adventure playground and climbing frame is great exercise and can be a confidence builder for the less adventurous as they strive to keep up with their peers.

So let's continue these experiences in the school holidays. Days out, holidays, even playing in the garden are all opportunities to teach our kids something new. On a walk in the woods point out the variety of plants and see how many you can identify. (Or find out later, as we often do, as I'm useless at plant identification and have been known to take a photograph and bring it home to show my husband.) Listen to hear the sounds of different birds, and spot insects. Search in rockpools on the beach for creatures and seaweed, or talk about how fishing towns and villages along the coast have changed. The Newbiggin Maritime Museum is one of my recent discoveries - as well as being right on one of my favourite beaches in the northeast it also offers craft activities for children, a lovely cafe and interactive displays which teach about the history of Newbiggin-by-the-sea. This is just one of many great places like this around the coast.

If you're going away on holiday this year take the opportunity to sample different local foods. And not just abroad too. Here in the northeast we have stotties and pease pudding. In the midlands pork pies and stilton cheese both hail from Melton Mowbray, and yummy traditional bakewell tarts can be found in Bakewell in Derbyshire. And if you go down to Cornwall this summer don't forget to try the Cornish pasty and talk to your children about the history of mining and how the pasty was a complete meal that could be taken down the mine and eaten easily without cutlery and that stayed warm for hours.

Learning doesn't end with the school term, and while reading and practising academics in the holidays are useful, we must never underestimate the learning that takes place when we're just playing out and having fun.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Charity begins at home....

.... and with teaching our children about it. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how we respond to suffering in others, and how we care for people we don't even know. It's very easy to give them a pound to put in the box on a non-uniform day in school to raise money for a charity that they won't even remember the name of tomorrow, but it's much harder to teach them what it means to need the help of that charity.

I've started volunteering with a local food bank recently - we give food parcels to local families who are in real need, and I've been thrilled with the response from parents at my daughter's school who have donated food for the project. I'm always amazed at how generous people are, and the fact that it's being left in the school porch, where the children pass through every day, will hopefully mean that the kids take note of this very practical way that we can help people in need, on our doorstep.

We're taking our children to India this summer and we've tried to talk to them about the poverty we'll see while we're there, and the fact that there will be children we will meet who don't have enough to eat either, or even any toys. This second thing seems to have caught their imagination and they've started coming up with ideas of small toys and gifts that we can take to give to children that we meet - pens, bouncy balls, balloons. While I'm not sure how much difference a bouncy ball will make to an Indian child living in poverty, I'm hoping that the act of giving and thinking of others will have an effect on our children that lasts until they are adults and can make a more significant difference, by how they chose to live their lives.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Coping with disappointment

My 5 year old, who is at the end of her first year at school, has been very quiet this evening. The problem is that, in her own words, she has "worked really hard all year but didn't get the award for best work". The award, note, not an award. There is only one award given out in each year group for the child who produces the best work, and all the other children will be disappointed.

Unfortunately, such disappointments are a part of life. As adults we try our best in job interviews, but employers can't appoint all applicants, no matter how much effort and aptitude they display. How many of us felt the pain of unrequited love as a teenager when we failed, despite our best efforts, to win the heart of a gorgeous god/goddess and watched them fall for our friend instead? And after all Andy Murray's hard work and training, he still failed to lift the winner's cup at Wimbledon. That's life; there's often only one "winner", and my daughter, at the tender age of 5, feels like a "loser".

Cuddles, banana and chocolate cake, and lots of praise and reassurance have been my tactics. Acknowledging her feelings and allowing her to feel upset, while at the same time attempting to boost her confidence by pointing out the good school report she received, the positive comments from her teacher, and the great work she's done this year. Awards day in school happens once a year, but she knows that her and her sister get the awards for the best children in the world, from me, every day.

Friday, 6 July 2012

How much to say?

Whilst listening to the news on the radio recently, my 7 year old asked me what the word murder meant. It was one of those moments where you wonder how much to say and how far this conversation will go. And, as usual, I was surprised when it wasn't the definition of murder that interested her, but rather the subsequent discussion on mental illness. She found it difficult to grasp the concept of mental illness, and I'm not sure how far my attempts to explain how being mentally ill can affect a person's behaviour, were grasped by her.

How far do we go when our children ask us these questions? While we want to preserve their innocence for as long as possible, we have to accept that we live in the real world and they will hear things and see things that we don't necessarily want them to, and before we think they are ready. When they don't have the vocabulary or maturity to fully comprehend something as difficult as murder or mental illness it's tempting to shy away from the subject completely, but I believe that we have a responsibility to address the issues that our children ask about. Our knowledge of our own children and how much they can deal with will dictate how far we go with an explanation, but to dismiss their questions entirely does them a disservice and runs the risk that they will stop asking us altogether.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Boys and Reading

The National Literacy Trust has this week published a report showing evidence that boys are falling behind girls when it comes to reading. Carried out by the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Boys’ Reading Commission (now there's a mouthful!), the report states that at age eleven 20% of boys are failing to reach the expected level in reading, compared with only 12% of girls. The Commission also found that boys are more likely to want to watch TV than read a book and that they struggle to find books that interest them.

So why are boys not turned on by reading? And what can we do to help? I think this starts very early on at home, before children even start school. The gender stereotypes that we all claim to try and do away with nevertheless take hold, and parents find themselves playing lots of active games with their boys, claiming they have lots of energy and need to be on the go. Girls on the other hand are encouraged to be gentle and love doing “crafty things”. Even by the time they get to toddlers I can see a preference in many of the boys for racing round the room and playing on the cars and bikes, while the girls come over to the “messy lady” (that’s me) and sit quietly to glue and stick and draw. They’re encouraged to try writing their name and identify the shapes and colours and letters that I have out on the table. Maybe I’m guilty myself, of subconsciously making more effort to welcome and encourage the girls, thinking they’ll get more out of it, and allowing the boys to be boys, and run off their energy. The National Literacy Trust also found that boys are less likely to be given books as presents, and that role models in schools are more likely to be female (either staff who teach reading or volunteers who come in and help with reading).

Boys may not want to sit quietly for hours and read a book – some do of course, and we must be careful of making generalisations - but we can encourage our boys; our own children and the boys that we know, by praising them when they do spend some time, even 5 minutes, reading. We can make sure there’s a wide choice of reading material to choose from: comics, adventure books, non-fiction books, books linked to their favourite TV programmes, even sticker books. We can ensure they get positive messages about reading from men – grandfathers, fathers, uncles and friends of the family can be asked to talk to them about their favourite books and what they like reading. So often reading is seen as uncool for boys, so to get a positive message from a man about reading is very powerful, for both boys and girls.

A last word from me: Make books fun. Having the time to read a book, either together or alone should be a treat and something we enjoy, not a chore. Being passionate and enthusiastic about reading is vital to your child’s learning, so don’t be afraid to dance around the room when reciting a favourite poem or put on silly voices for different characters – if they see you engaged and enjoying yourself, they will be too.