Thinking Outside the Crayon Box

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There is a fabulous children’s picture book by Drew Daywalt called ‘The Day the Crayons Quit’. In it, a little boy opens his crayon box one day to be confronted with a series of letters from his crayons. Each colour has bared its feelings about the way in which the little boy chooses to colour with it – blue, his favourite colour, is happy but tired and worn out; pink is discontent through lack of use, and so on. It’s a charming and innovative tale, that culminates with the young boy creating a picture where colour conventions are cast aside. Who says the sky has to be blue?

I love this book for the way it encourages children to challenge accepted norms. When we sat down to colour together the other day I was delighted that my daughter declared her intention to create her very own tribute to the book. The resulting picture (above) turned accepted colour wisdom on its head. She relished the challenge of resisting learned habits, carefully and deliberately selecting unusual colours for each part of her picture. It was a pleasure to observe her creativity in action. I could almost touch the freedom of expression as it burst forth onto the page before her.

She was invigorated. I swelled with pride.

Learning to view things from a different angle is a complex skill, but Daywalt’s book has distilled the idea to a beautifully simplistic level. With this new clarity I feel empowered to guide my kids into innovative thought patterns in all areas of their lives. I think I’ll term it ‘Thinking Outside the Crayon Box’, and break out the colour-sticks whenever we’re feeling stuck in a rut of convention.

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The Art of Pasta

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In a whizz-bang-flash the latest school year came to a close here yesterday.

WhereDidThatGo?!!

The year in which my girl started formal school, and my boy eased gently into full-time nursery. The year in which I remembered what ‘me’ time feels like. But all that was put on hold when the school herded the kids out for the last time yesterday, and Ella bounded into the room at 7am this morning with the curious early-energy that is so mysteriously lacking on school days. The summer holidays have well and truly landed.

I need a large, strong, hot, black coffee.

There. Much better.

Now. How to fill this expanse of time ahead of us? When I’m around I tend to indulge the children on the first few days of holidays. They are endlessly enthusiastic and in dire need of adjusting their stimulation radar to accommodate the slower pace of non-school life. I like to ease them in gently. An arty activity felt right, but I couldn’t face the paints, not on Day One.

Flushed with the success of replenishing my pasta stocks the other day, I had an different idea to satisfy their creative appetites. Pasta Art.

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I couldn’t quite cope with bursting open multiple tubs, so we applied the KISS principle and worked only with Torti (little spiral pasta shapes that are short and versatile enough to be collectively arranged into a variety of easy shapes). I filled a bowl with Torti and arranged us around it, strategically placing myself between the children to minimise any risk of competitive conflict erupting (it happens).

Let the Pasta Art fest begin!

We started with a face, a tree and a star. Nice neutral shapes that are simple to create. Then the inevitable stereotypes that I’ve tried Oh-So-Hard to prevent in my kids crept in:

Ella – ‘Let’s make a girl!’

Joe – ‘No, a car!’

So we made both …

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The opportunities with this activity are endless. When you consider the diversity of pasta shapes available it’s possible for even young kids to be quite intricately creative. If the mood is upon them.

We fiddled and made pictures, shapes and words for about half an hour before crunching alerted me to the fact that Joe was getting bored and had started eating the uncooked shapes. The clean-up is quick and easy, especially if you give each child a tray to work on. You can even create a guessing game where one child starts a pasta-make, and the others have to try to imagine what it will be. Like Pictionary without the cards and pens.

I love the holidays. Juggling work and childcare is always a challenge, but taking the school-run-rush out of the mix somehow seems to bring an air of calm to the house that is the perfect environment for wild imaginations to thrive.

Once the Pasta Art session was complete the children were dispatched for free play while I made lunch. My Mummy ears remained vigilant for sounds of trouble about the house, but were instead assaulted only with the sounds of collaborative industry. Together the children made a pirate boat from the living room chairs, and amused themselves with walking the plank and fighting sea monsters. I smiled to myself – it so often seems to me that creative endeavours stimulate the imagination in more ways than one. The Pasta Art session was half an hour well spent.

Girls can’t play with cars …

© TheBusyBrain (Stopped by Curiosity), via Wikimedia Commons

© TheBusyBrain (Stopped by Curiosity), via Wikimedia Commons

 

… in the same way as boys do. I have decided that this is one of life’s Universal Truths.

 

Here’s how a car-play session goes between Joe and Daddy:

Joe: Brrrrrrrmmm. BrrrrrRRRRMMMMM!!

Daddy: Brrrrrmmm. Rrrrmmmmm. BRRRRRUUUUMMMM!

Joe: ‘Again, again!’

Beams and nods. And repeat. Many times.

 

Now.  Here’s how a car-play session goes between Joe and Me:

Joe: Brrrrrrrmmm. BrrrrrRRRRMMMMM!!

Me: Brrrrrmmm. Rrrrmmmmm. BRRRRRUUUUMMMM!

Joe: ‘Not like THAT Mummy!’

Smashes cars together in frustration. Stomps off in a huff. (Joe, not me. Most of the time.)

 

Eh?

 

As a relatively self-aware Mum I know that I find it easier to relate to what are traditionally considered to be ‘Girl’ games. In the early days I used to try and encourage Joe to make a garage for his cars, and tuck them into bed. Naivety doesn’t even come close. In my simplistic mind it had worked for Ella so surely it was worth a try, right?

At some point it registered that Joe is a BOY. So I watched him playing with Daddy. And I made mental notes. And I tried very very hard to man-up my car-play:

  • I practiced my ‘BBRRRRRUUUUMMM’ in the shower. To amused looks from my other half.
  • I Googled ‘playing with toy cars’. Have you ever done this? Fascinating. And in some cases a bit, well, weird!
  • I watched Toy Story. Again.
  • I even crept into my boy’s room during school-time to have a play on my own in a desperate attempt to jettison any remaining awkwardness around all things mechanical.
  • I made myself available for motor-mania at every opportunity.

Things have improved without a doubt, but there is no getting away from it – Daddy-car-play is still preferable to Mummy-car-massacre in his eyes. Sigh. If Daddy’s not around then my pathetic attempts will generally suffice. Under sufferance, and amid much eye-rolling and fist-clenching from my boy. He’s very patient.

I used to think it was just me, but this weekend an impromptu session of Mum-therapy showed me I’m far from alone.

Dropping Joe off at a friend’s house for a birthday party I was corralled into joining the other Mums in their garden for a glass of the red stuff. Imagine. Relaxing on a Saturday afternoon instead of chipping ice off the freezer or getting tooled-up to do battle with the oven-spray. You know, they really had to twist my arm.

The party was in honour of a little pal of Joe’s who has just turned three (my boy is three-and-a-half). In a perfect reflection of text-book-preschoolers the group, which numbered four, spent a happy time largely ignoring each other. Until one decided it was time to play on the ride-on tractor. At which point cherry-picking, caterpillar-hunting, and random digging were simultaneously abandoned and the little men swarmed around the vehicular honey-pot in a mass of grubby knees and pointy-elbows.

We Mummy-guests offered objective support from a distance in our bubble of relief while the resident Mum exercised her parental muscles to resolve the conflict with a lesson in sharing and a fair degree of small-boy-lifting and re-siting (who needs kettlebells?). Re-filling her wine glass we did the empathy thing and then collectively reflected on boys and their toys.

To a woman we have all experienced the car-play scenario above. Many many many times. And it seems impossible to resolve, despite our best creative attempts.

I’m sure there are Mums out there whose car-play is to the satisfaction of their young male offspring. but now I know I’m not entirely alone I don’t feel so bad. I do my best. In car-play with my boy, in character-play with my girl. And every single time I do anything remotely child-related. That’s what being a parent is about after all. No instructions, no rule book. Just a terrifying fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ride where the only thing you can do with any certainty is – your best. The odd cry of ‘Vive la différence!’ works too.

And so does the odd glass of red.

 

What’s In the Box?

© Husky, via Wikimedia Commons

Pebbles make a certain sound when they are rattled in a cardboard box.  It’s different from the sound rice makes.  And pasta spirals make a pleasant but light clatter when they are shaken.  Would you know the difference relying only on your ears?

This is a great game for young kids of all ages, and once again is inspired by my resourceful little girl.

Take a cardboard box.  Any box will do, as long as you can close it.  Smaller is better so the children can hold it in their hands and manipulate it easily.

Then take it in turns to put different things in the box.  The one who chooses the contents gently shakes it and the other person has to guess what’s inside.  So simple, but an incredibly addictive and fun game.

Things we found to put in and bamboozle each other with included:

  • A walnut – one that the squirrels had missed!
  • Blades of grass – dry produces a subtly different sound from wet
  • Small stones
  • Twigs – one, or several
  • Pasta
  • Dried rice
  • Cotton wool – this was particularly sneaky of my girl, who was delighted by my failure to guess!
  • A sock
  • Scrunched up pieces of paper
  • A lego brick

The sensory aspect of this game really tests the brain’s ability to associate sounds with shapes, and different materials.  The children loved it.  We will play again.  I have to find a new box first though …. Ella’s experiment with water produced a great splishy-splashy sound when shaken, but reduced the box to a grey mush in minutes.  Nice!

Do Squirrels Like Sweets?

© Paul Whippey (Own work) – via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s philosophical question – Do Squirrels like sweets?  Okay, so this may be a bit heavy for a Sunday afternoon, but bear with me …

I was sitting doing some peaceful colouring at the kitchen table with my 2.5 year old son, when a red blur streaked past the window arresting the attention of us both.  We looked up the garden.  Nothing there.  We peered around the wall.  Nope, nothing there either.  Joe scratched his head.  He wondered if it was the deer we saw yesterday, lazily chewing dandelion stalks up the field until Joe gave a friendly but loud shout of “Hello Deer!”, and scared the poor creature half to death.  It bounced its way back into the forest in a blink.  Joe cried.

With his interest piqued again today, and keen to make amends to the terrified deer, my boy was not to be deterred from his quest to find the red streak.  So, rainbow picture abandoned, we embarked on a tour of the garden and land.  Minutes later, whilst he and I were knee deep investigating a particularly large molehill, Ella appeared breathlessly from the terrace full of excitement about the red squirrel she had just encountered en route to the front of the house.  From her account of the meeting the unfortunate squirrel was apparently subjected to an equally loud exclamation of some form, and set off for cover in a similar manner to the deer.  In any event, mystery solved.

“It’s a squirrel Joe!  A Squirrel!” she cried.

Joe didn’t look convinced.

“We need to make it a bed a give it some food,” announced my girl, ever the homemaker.

“Can’t me chase it?” asked Joe.

“No, that will scare it,” counselled Ella.

“Oh,” said Joe, beaten.

I left them to it, Ella marshalling Joe into finding grass and leaves for a soft bed, and collecting freshly fallen walnuts from around the two trees that annually shed their crop on our field.  In the early years here we used to collect, dry, store and eat them.  Then we realised that each year the crop was so large we were ending up with a growing (and wasteful) stockpile, so we now only harvest a few kilos each year, and leave the rest to the wildlife.  This keeps the squirrels very busy, and the children entertained.  But that was 12 months ago now, and they have forgotten all over again.

I supplied bowls for water, and shelled walnuts “in case the little squirrels don’t have sharp enough teeth, Mummy.”

All thoughts of the deer forgotten, they worked industriously, and both finally appeared in the kitchen, cheeks glowing with the freshness of the wet autumn day and muddy wellies tracking their progress across the floor.

“Come and look!” said Ella.  So I did.  I found a delightful little haven nestled between two planters.

“The squirrels in our garden are very lucky,” I said.  They beamed.

“I think they need sweets, to give them energy,” attempted Ella.  Nothing to do at all with the fact that this would necessitate breaking open the candy tub, from which she and her patient little brother would surely deserve a treat for being SO nice to the squirrels.  It was nearly lunchtime.

“No,” I said, decisively.  “Squirrels don’t like sweeties.”

“How do you know Mummy?” was the reply ….

Well, actually I don’t.  And I’m not likely to find out anytime soon, as the lunchtime deadline held fast, despite the hard-done-to protestations.

But her question did get me thinking …..!

Bows and Arrows

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As a budget conscious parent I’m always on the lookout for fun things to do with the children that don’t cost anything. The natural world has a lot to offer, and as we mooched about the site on a recent camping trip, an idea presented itself ….

We were collecting twigs for a campfire, and as we scanned the sun-bleached grass for suitable tinder wood my mind began to play tricks – were the twigs lying randomly on the ground, or was there an order to their arrangement?

After going slightly cross-eyed, I vaguely recalled reading ages ago of some psychological research around the idea that the brain seeks to find familiar shapes out of random forms – it’s one of the reasons why cloud watching works so well.

In seeking order from the twig-collection my brain was finding apparent pathways, and it struck me we could make a simple treasure trail.

So we arranged arrows every few paces on the ground, in a meandering path around the site, and the children had great fun following it (well, Joe, 2, tried to dismantle it, but was eventually dissuaded from his task with the lure of a mid-afternoon snack!).

Not satisfied with just a trail, my daughter decided that it must lead to some treasure.  So we hunted for precious things that would make suitable booty.  A pale flat stone, a feather and a perfect blade of yellow hay caught her imagination.  A stray red strand of thin plastic, which I think was originally a tie for a bin bag, made the perfect ribbon and bow for our parcel.

Trail and treasure complete, we had a fun hour hiding, tracing, and discovering … a game that was repeated with multiple changes of route and secret hiding places for the treasure.

Clouds, Illusions I Recall …

© Oslovite (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

As the kangaroo morphed into a whale the giggling got the better of us.  What had started as a mist had now turned into Moby Dick, and was threatening to swallow the house.  The children screamed in delight ……

We were cloud watching, lying in a row on the grass in the front garden.  I’m certain the passing neighbour thought we were quite bonkers.

Keep a close eye on the heavens and watch for moisture-laden blue-sky days where clouds start to form.  The stories that grow as the clouds take form can be as fantastic and as wild as your imagination.  The story can happily end there, or these tales of the tallest kind can be later recalled and blown once more into shape:

  • With card, glue and some cotton wool you can recreate your cloud shapes on the kitchen table
  • White pastels smudged onto blue card can bring out the artist in a child of any age
  • For older children the stories can be retold, written out, and illustrations created to make your very own story book – if you bind it through holes with string you can add to it another day when the skies come alive with stories once more