Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fifteen Creative Ideas to Try During Holidays

In Australia schools have shut down for the end of term 1 Easter vacation.  It's Autumn in Australia and I'm on holidays too, so I thought I'd repeat a post from the June holidays in 2013. Parents who have children to care for might try some of the fifteen easy activities. All are fun, simple and can be done at home. Of course, while it's a post about holiday activities any of the ideas can also be used at other times.

For many parents holidays mean more hours to fill each day with activities that will keep your children occupied, stimulated and happy. I've written a number of posts in the past about things to do in the holidays with kids (here) and simple travel games to fill the time on trips with your children (here). There is also an excellent post on Planning With Kids that offers '10 Activities to Do With Kids at Home'.

I thought I'd offer my top 15 activities that can work inside and outside, in pretty much any type of weather. My criteria for choosing them are that the activities should:
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Involve using their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested
Books with a difference

1. Pick some special books they haven't seen - try to borrow or buy at least 2 books for each child that you think they'll enjoy. Op shops, book exchanges and libraries are the place to start. See my post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here. Take your children with you to the op shop or library to choose them.

2. Books as a creative stimulus - While the shear joy of the book is usually enough, sometimes books can stimulate many wonderful creative activities. For example:


After reading Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things are" go outside and dramatise it. Let one child be Max and let others take turns at being the wild things. Make a boat out of bits of wood, or even have a go at making one out of a large cardboard box (or several).

After reading Jeannie Baker's book "Where the Forest Meets the Sea" (a book about the Daintree Rainforest in which all the pictures are collage) encourage them to make a collage out of natural materials (and maybe some wool, straws etc to supplement) in response to Baker's pictures. Or read a second book and have them use collage in response.

After reading Graeme Base's "The Waterhole" get them to paint the waterhole (they can draw the animals, cut them out and paste them around the waterhole).

3. Dramatisation - Dramatisation is an excellent way to respond to a book. If you have a dress-up box all the better. Let your children either re-tell the story through dramatisation or improvise. Get involved to help set the pattern for turn taking etc. I play a mean wolf, and an even better Grandma!

Writing

4. Diaries and journals - Introduce older children to diaries or holiday journals. Make this fun, not a school activity. If they just want to make it a scrapbook by pasting in tickets, leaves they collect, food wrappers etc, then let them. But you can also show them how to create a travel diary.

5. A holiday blog - Tech savvy mums and dads might encourage their children to write online. Why not set up a family blog that can be read by friends and relatives (even if only for two weeks). You could use this as part of a trip away, or just use it at home. Older children could set up the blog themselves and all family members could contribute. Let them have access to a digital camera and a scanner and the sky is the limit. See my recent post on 'Children as bloggers' (here).

6. Start a family joke or riddle book - give them some jokes as models ("Knock, knock", "Why did the centipede cross the road"....)

Craft

7. Structured Craft ideas - simple beadwork, noodle craft, mask making, making plaster moulds (and painting them), anything for young children that requires paper tearing, gluing, glitter, stickers.

8. Unstructured creative craft - Stock up when you go to the supermarket with simple materials like paper plates (good for masks), brown paper bags, sticky tape, glue, cotton balls, tooth picks, paper cupcake holders, straws (cutting up and threading), noodles (for threading).

Creative Play

I've written a number of previous posts on play (here) but planning for play is important. While you can say to your children go outside and 'play', doing some simple planning at times will lead to more stimulating play times.

9. Dress-up box - If you don't have one take the kids to an Op shop to start one. You might even pick up some gems like old helmets, hats, belts (you can cut them down), handbags etc.

10. Water play - This is hard in cold weather, but maybe you could make bath-time special for littlies with extra bubbles, different stuff to take into it . In warmer weather give them a bucket of water and some things to scoop, sieve etc - obviously only UNDER SUPERVISION.

11. Play dough - You can buy cheap coloured modelling clay but home-made playdough works well. My wife 'Carmen's can't fail' recipe is 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 cup of plain flour, 0.5 cup of cooking salt, 2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar, 1 cup of water, colouring. Mix together and put in a saucepan on medium heat until it binds together, stirring all the time. Fold together by hand. If you keep it in a sealed plastic bag it will last for ages in or outside the fridge.

There are endless things to do with play dough. Try to move beyond just cutting out shapes (which kids still love). Encourage them to make a house, a farmyard, a bed, and an aquarium. Use some plastic animals with the play dough or small plastic people. If you don't mind tossing the play dough out you can let them use sticks, plants etc to make simple dioramas. Kids will create complex stories as they manipulate the play dough.

The blanket cubby!
12. Build a cubby house - No not with wood, just use a table, some chairs, wardrobes (hitch the blankets into the top of the doors, some pegs and sheets and blankets. By draping them over other objects you should be able to create a special space (about 2x2 metres is enough for three small kids). Try to get at least 1.5 metres of height. Have the kids 'help' and then get them to collect some special things to have in the cubby. Use a toy box for a table, some cushions to sit on. I always let my grandchildren have my cheap transistor radio from my shed (lots of fun). Girls might like a tea set; boys will collect animals and toys, both will like books. If you're up to it, climb in as well and read some stories. They'll like the edges tucked in to cut out light so you might need a torch. I've seen a cubby of this kind amuse kids for half a day. Then of course for the adventurous you can share some snack food as well. You can even build a cubby inside! See my post on cubbies (here).

Above: Jacob in a 'house' that he made (with help) from a box we saved

Indoor and back yard fun

13. Treasure hunts - Write the clues on paper using words and pictures depending on ages and make the treasure worthwhile (chocolate, a coupon for an ice cream in the kitchen etc). For something a little more challenging why not try a map with grid references (see picture opposite).

14. Cooking - Kids love cooking with their mothers or fathers. Do simple stuff. Nicole (Planning With Kids) has lots of great ideas for cooking with kids on her site. Don't forget to make it a language activity as well by getting them to follow the recipes.

15. Insect scavenger hunt - Try an insect scavenger hunt (one of my grandchildren's favourite activities). You'll be surprised just how many you can find. You'll to be careful turning rocks over and digging around, but even in Australia it's low risk if you supervise. Place a pile of bricks in a damp place and then let the kids help you to uncover them a few days later - watch the critters scurry. We always enjoy a good snail race afterwards!

A few basics hints
  • Have a strategy for the holidays - map out a timetable (post it on the wall) and try to plan a few significant events and think through the general structure of each day.
  • If you have younger children still at home, being joined by school kids on holidays, try to think about how you will cope with all their interests and think about varying daily routines a little.
  • Pace yourself - don't use all your best ideas in the first few days (you'll wear them and yourself out and you'll struggle to keep up the variation later).
  • Expect bad weather - think about some ideas that will work in rainy weather as well. It's called the "Law of Holidays" - expect lots of wet weather and a day or two of sick kids.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

22 Great Non-fiction Books for Boys (& Girls)

This isn't my first post about the importance of non-fiction books (see some more links at the end of the post) for boys as readers. Some young readers find non-fiction more engaging than fiction. So finding good non-fiction is worth the effort if you want some boys to read. In an earlier post I talk about this at length (HERE). This post is simply a quick review of some good books published in the last year or so, it isn't meant to be comprehensive. I have arranged the examples I offer of varied types of non-fiction roughly in order of difficulty and age interest. It goes without saying that there are girls too for whom non-fiction is also more engaging.

'Bilby Secrets' Edel Wignel, illustrated by Mark Jackson

This is a delightful non-fiction picture book that teaches us in narrative form about the life of the wonderful bilby, an Australian marsupial. It traces the events of a typical day for mother and baby, and the perils of native and feral animals as the baby Bilby tries to survive life in the Australian landscape. Edel Wignel's story keeps the reader interested, while Mark Jackson's brightly coloured illustrations add drama and detail to this piece of discovery learning in narrative form. Children aged 2-6 will love this book. It is also a great book for classroom-based units and learning. 



'Tom the Outback Mailman' by Kristin Weidenbach and illustrated by Timothy Ide (Lothian)

'Tom the Outback Mailman' by Kristin Weidenbach and illustrated by Timothy Ide won the Eve Pownall prize for information books. This delightful true story of a great Australian character is based on Weidenbach's story of Tom Kruse who was the driver of the Marree-to-Birdsville mail. Once a fortnight for twenty years Tom loaded his Leyland Badger truck and drove 1,000 km across perilous territory on little more than a dusty dangerous rutted track. His job was to deliver mail and provisions to arguably the most isolated residents in the world. Tom was a great Australian character who lived in the middle decades of last century

The book is a version for younger children (aged 5-8 years) that Weidenbach has adapted into a delightful picture book for young readers. It offers just a small slice of the events of Tom's life. When floods cut the Birdsville Track, the station residents run out of supplies and worse still, the Birdsville Hotel runs out of beer! It takes Tom’s ingenuity to beat the floodwaters and get the mail and the beer through. Timothy Ide provides wonderfully detailed watercolour illustrations that add to what is already a compelling narrative account.

'Children's Quick and Easy Cookbook' by Angela Wilkes and published by DK Publishing.  

The Children's Quick and Easy Cookbook has 60 simple recipes that children will enjoy. The recipes are easy enough for most children to use, and are mostly suitable for the whole family. It contains a mix of healthy snacks, full meals, and delicious treats and sweets. The meal recipes include pita pockets, falafel, pizzas, Turkish meatballs, tacos, Thai satay kebabs, lemon fish sticks, filled crepes, chicken curry and rice. There are also many wonderful sweets including simple baked bomb Alaska, Tiramisu, parfaits, carrot cake, cookies and many more.  

The book also outlines cooking techniques, good food hygiene, kitchen safety, and step-by-step instructions. Full colour photographs are used throughout the book.

'The Lego Ideas Book' by Daniel Lipkowitz and published by DK Publishing 

If you have a box of Lego pieces resulting from your purchase of dozens of Lego sets, then you need this book. The book has 500 ideas for how you can make new things out of your box of Lego pieces. The book has six themed chapters—transportation, buildings, space, medieval history, adventure, and useful things to make. Each section has templates for models and ideas for how you might create your own. The book has 200 pages of tips and advice, illustrations and ideas.  It is well illustrated and beautifully designed. This book will keep children aged 7 to 70 years busy for hours.

'How Machines Work: The Interactive Guide to Simple Machines and Mechanisms' by Nick Arnold & Allan Sanders, published by Quarto Children's Books and distributed in Australia by Walker Books.

This book is a unique interactive guide to understanding simple machines and mechanisms. It introduces basic physics both in words and through models that the reader manipulates. It has 9 double-page spreads that introduce the reader to a key mechanical principle that you then put into practice by building one or more working models. The text and illustrations offer an easy to understand description of the mechanical principle and how to make a model that demonstrates it. This hands-on approach makes it easy to understand how these principles work and how they can be applied to everyday objects, such as cars, bicycles cranes and seesaws. Everything that you need is within, or attached to the book. The concept is brilliant

'Locomotive', written and illustrated by Brian Floca (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2013).

Floca is the author and illustrator of many books for children, including three Robert F. Sibert Honour Books: 'Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11', 'Lightship', and 'Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring', written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan.

'Locomotive' is the story a family’s journey across America in 1869 on the newly completed transcontinental railroad. The star of the story is the steam engine, but a mother and her two children and all those who keep the train moving are essential extras as it races down the Californian coast.

For the true enthusiast of trains the author gives us plenty of technical information about 19th-century railroading. This is not surprising, as Floca seems to have aimed at a very broad audience. Some will be pulled along by rhythm of the story, others will love the train details, and some will revel in the sense of history (even in the very typefaces used). Floca uses free verse and as you'd expect plays with words and sound to great effect. 

The technical craft and book design are both brilliant, as Floca uses every device to good effect to engage readers in this exciting journey by an incredible piece of 19th century technology.

Even the way he uses his pictures provides a cinematic style that is hard to create, but which adds to the richness of the text. The detail in the illustrations is superb; it is as much draftsmanship as it is fine illustration.

'Locomotive' won the 2014 Caldecott Medal.

'Kubla Khan: Emperor of Everything' by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Robert Byrd

Kubla Khan is not well known and has often been mentioned historically only indirectly or in passing. Who was the man who Coleridge described in his famous poem 'Kubla Kahn'? This is the presumed grandson of Genghis Khan who reputedly built the imperial city of Beijing, and fathered a hundred or more children. History and legend suggest that he ruled over the greatest empire of the time, and that it was more advanced than previous civilisations in science, art and technology. The narrative text is engaging and should hold the interest of young readers, and Robert Byrd beautifully illustrates the book. Readers aged 7-9 years will enjoy this 42 page illustrated book.

'Simpson and his Donkey' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACs). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight-month siege of this isolated beachhead, a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Frané Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have strength of colour that is not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.
 
'Usborne Complete Book of Art Ideas' by Fiona Watt and published by Usborne

The Usborne Art book has almost 300 pages of original ideas for painting, drawing and making collage. This fantastic book is ideal for children of varied (and minimal) artistic ability. It is also suitable for just about any age (but it's ideal for 7-12 year olds). The book will help children to explore varied artistic forms and materials, including chalk, pencil, paint and watercolour. It offers ideas that require the use of a wide variety of artistic techniques, including painting, drawing, sticking, ink, ripping, rubbing, smudging and colouring. Each of the many ideas is illustrated with very easy to follow step-by-step instructions. The book also offers tips on brushwork, mixing colours, thinning and thickening paint, how to shade and add patterns, using oil pastels, acrylics and more. 

'I Was Only Nineteen' by John Schumann and illustrated by Craig Smith (Allen & Unwin)

John Schumann wrote an unforgettable song 'I Was Only 19' in 1983 with the band Redgum. It had the memorable refrain 'God help me, I was only 19'. The lyrics of this well-known Australian song have been brought to life in a children's picture book illustrated by the widely acclaimed Australian illustrator Craig Smith. The words are used exactly as in the song. With Craig Smith's wonderful watercolour and line drawings they are a moving reminder of the Vietnam War. This was a war that was fought in different ways to the previous great wars and had less universal support than previous conflicts in which Australia and other nations had fought. This was a war that for many didn't seem 'quite real', and our servicemen still carry the physical and mental scars. The book is a moving insight into a war fought by young men who knew little about the country in which they fought and why they were there. It would be an ideal book to share with children aged 6-12 years as we approach ANZAC Day in Australia on April 25th.

'Tales of the Greek Heroes' by Green Roger Lancelyn (Penguin, 2009)

The beautiful land of Greece is haunted by more than three thousand years of legend and history. In this gripping retelling of the Heroic Age, you'll meet the mighty Poseiden, God of the Sea; Zeus, the King of Heaven and Earth; Hades, Lord of the Dead; Artemis the Huntress; Aphrodite, Immortal Lady of Beauty and Love; and many more mortals and gods. Their adventures are some of the oldest and most famous stories in the world.

This collection of well-known Greek myths will be enjoyed by readers aged 11+

'A Tale of Troy' by Lancelyn Roger Green (Penguin, 2012)

This book is a companion to 'Tales of the Greek Heroes'.

Step back into the Heroic Age with the story of Helen and the judgement of Paris; of the gathering of the heroes and the siege of Troy; of Achilles and his vulnerable heel. And join Odysseus, the last of the heroes – famous for his wisdom and cunning – on his thrilling adventures as he makes the long journey home to Greece.

Once again, perfect reading for children aged 11+

'Tales of Ancient Egypt' by Lancelyn Green Roger (Penguin, 2011)

In this thrilling collection of the great myths, you'll encounter Amen-Ra, who created all the creatures in the world; Iris, searching the waters for her dead husband, Osiris; the Bennu bird and the Book of Thoth. But there are also tales told purely for pleasure, about treasure and adventure – and even the first ever story of Cinderella.

Ages 10+ will love this collection





'Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles. America’s First Black Paratroopers' (Candlewick Press, 2013)


This is a true story that has been a long time coming. It tells in a fair but powerful way of the racism that has often existed in armed forces around the world. Americans may well have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but few would know of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion - the Triple Nickle. These were the first US black paratroopers. They showed that black soldiers could do anything their white counterparts could do. The text and over 100 carefully labelled photographs in this 150 page book offer us an insight into how some brave and persistent African American men paved the way for others to be a full part of the US armed forces.

Tanya Lee Stone (author of 'Almost Astronauts') has done extensive research to tell her true story for readers of all ages. Boys in particular will love reading and looking at the historic photos. The work took Stone almost 10 years and the meticulous care and passion shows in this wonderful book. This amazing story will challenge all readers irrespective of age, race or ethnicity. The book recently won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. It is a very worthy winner.

'The Dangerous Book for Boys' by Conn Iggulden & Hal Iggulden (Harper Collins)

As they say, this book is an 'oldie' but a 'goodie'. It offers a range of ideas for making and doing things. For example, how to make the greatest paper plane in the world, building a tree house, all about dinosaurs, making a G0-cart, how to go fishing, juggling, all about Australian snakes, skimming stones and so on. This isn't a simple book (about grade 4-5 standard) but the content will help boys to 'stretch' themselves. It is also a great book for boys to read and 'do' with an adult. I've reviewed it in more detail here.

'You Can Draw Anything' by Kim Gamble

Kim Gamble is a well-known illustrator of Australian picture books. In this very accessible book he shows you how to draw just about anything you want to. Most how-to-draw books are either simple and recipe like or far too complex. The book offers principles and guidance for drawing many objects, including varied animals, people (bodies and faces), and landscapes including perspectives. He also offers techniques for shading and colouring. He intersperses the many diagrams and drawings with stories, jokes and examples that make the approach lots of fun, engaging and effective. It is ideal for children aged 7-10 years.

'Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea' by Stephanie Owen Reeder
This is a story about the courage of 16-year-old Grace Bussell. The year is 1876, when a steam ship, the 'Georgette', runs aground near Margaret River in Western Australia. On shore an ordinary 16 year-old girl sees the unfolding drama and heads off on horseback with the family servant Sam Isaacs to try to help the stranded passengers. Grace and Sam head into the water with their horses and rescue many people. Using eyewitness accounts and other historical documents as well as some slight embellishment to fill in details to sustain the narrative, Stephanie Reeder brings this true story to life.  This wonderful story is an excellent follow on from Stephanie Reeder's previous book, 'Lost! A True Tale From the Bush'. This previous story was also a true story. It told the story of 3 children who became lost on their way home in 1864 and spent eight days alone. It was shortlisted in the 2010 CBCA children's literature awards.  
'The Boy from Bowral' by Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen is known primarily as an illustrator but he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. His most recent book as writer and illustrator is 'The Boy from Bowral' which tells the biographical story of Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman who is the greatest cricketer of all time. Bradman is seen as a legend in any cricket playing nation and Ingpen provides a lucidly written and historically accurate picture of Bradman's early life in Bowral, his rise to prominence as a cricketer, and his sporting career. The images are drawings based primarily on existing photographs, so the keen cricket fan (like me) will feel that they recognise some of them. The cover (which wraps around to the back) is a wonderful sequence of images that appear like a series of video frames that capture the classic Bradman cover drive. I loved this book and any cricket following child or adult will also enjoy it.

'Neurology: The Amazing Central Nervous System' by April Chloe Terrazas (Crazy Brainz, 2013)

Neurology explores the complexities of the Central Nervous System, beginning with the different sections (lobes) of the brain, continuing to the spinal cord and concluding with the structure and function of the neuron. Readers will learn how to pronounce key terms like Cerebellum, Occipital Lobe and Sensorimotor Cortex. They will also discover the functions of the Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia and the Hippocampus! The book will also help them to understand the way the brain is organised - Forebrain, Midbrain, Hindbrain... and much more. 

The book has wonderful images that will engage them and color-coded text will reinforce lots of new learning. A great book for boys who love science and fancy themselves as brain surgeons! This is a book that will appeal to boys (and girls) of all ages.

'Into the Unknown' by Stewart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty

This wonderful hard cover book from tells the story of 14 famous journeys throughout history, including 'Pytheas the Greek Sails to the Arctic Circle in 340BC', 'Admiral Zheng He Crosses the Indian Ocean in 1405-07', 'Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon in 1969', 'Marco Polo Rides the Silk Road to China in 1271-74' and many more.

Each story has multiple drawings, maps and a giant fold out cross-section. Boys will read and look through this book for hours. You will also enjoy reading this exciting book to boys. There are many other 'cross-section' books by Stephen Biesty and others (here), including 'Egypt in Cross Section', 'Castles' and 'Rome'.

'Movie Maker' by Tim Grabham, Suridh Hassan, Dave Reeve and Clare Richards

'Movie Maker' is another wonderful resource from Walker Books designed for primary school aged children (7-12 years). It is a kit that contains ideas for making movies, and a handbook that shows you how armed simply with a video camera, you can make movies. The handbook talks about techniques like storyboarding, production, equipment, sound and lighting, design, special effects, how to vary camera shots and so on. It also includes some very cute aids such as a binocular mask, an adjustable frame, sample story boards, character props (e.g. glasses, moustache) and even authentic theatre tickets. All it doesn't include is the popcorn.


'The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists' by Sean Connolly

I wanted this book as soon as I saw it.  Well, as soon as I saw the title!  The book is all about igniting interest in science. Sean Connolly achieves this with lively, hands-on activities that suggest excitement and "danger". Simple experiments that pop, ooze, surprise and teach will delight boys and girls in upper primary. He also leads the reader through the history of science, and uses simple experiments to demonstrate key scientific principles.

The reader can rediscover the wheel and axle with the ancient Sumerians, or perform an astounding experiment demonstrating the theory of angular momentum. Children can build a simple telescope like Galileo's and find the four moons he discovered orbiting Jupiter.  They can experiment safely with electricity and avoid the more risky approach of Ben Franklin with his Lightning experiment. They will also learn how to re-create the Hadron Collider in a microwave with marshmallows, calculator, and a ruler to demonstrate the speed of light. Or they might simply crush a can using Stephenson's steam can experiment. This is a wonderful book for children aged 9-12 years.

Related Posts

'Meet the Author: Mark Greenwood & Frané Lessac' HERE
'Author & Illustrator Focus: Robert Ingpen HERE
'Getting Boys into Books Through Non-Fiction' HERE
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' HERE

Monday, April 7, 2014

How Can a Child Learn to Write in 30 Minutes?

The title of this post might seem outrageous, and was certainly designed to get your attention, but I want to suggest that in one sense it's true! Let me explain. While the groundwork for the creation of young writers takes years, the point of take-off can occur in as a little as 30 minutes. This post is an illustration of how this can occur. In fact, in this single post you will see how one five year-old goes from a non-reader with some early knowledge of sounds to a reader and writer in one week.

The example is drawn from recent observations of one of my grandchildren, but I have seen it many times in classrooms throughout my teaching and research career.

Evie is five and has just commenced formal schooling in Australia in Kindergarten (Grade 1 in most countries). She had attended two years of preschool (for 2 half days per week as a three year old, and then three days per week as a four year old). She had been read to before school, mostly at bedtime, had begun to play sound, writing and matching games on an iPad as a 4 year old, and she liked completing some basic pre-reading booklets. She had also shown interest when she saw her brother (three years older than her) being taught to read at home, and recently she had been asking him to read to her.

When she started Kindergarten just eight weeks ago her teacher had begun introducing letters and their sounds and as reading and writing exercises. After about seven weeks the teacher had introduced about 15 sounds (2-3 per week), all single consonants and vowels. With each one Evie had to complete an activity sheet that required her to copy the letter, write (copy) a word, and then draw a picture (see an example below).

Above: One of Evie's School Worksheets

Like many preschool children Evie also enjoys drawing and likes to embellish them at times with numbers, sometimes letters and print-like scribble. However, she had not tried to write words or represent meaning with more than scribble or drawings. The only exception to this was the copying of the single words that matched the letters that her teacher had been systematically teaching.

Last weekend her grandmother was doing some creative oral story making using Lego as part of the process (this is a common strategy we have used in the past, see my recent post HERE). They were acting out a shopping episode, with Evie acting as the customer. As she came and asked for items (which were Lego shop items with food pictures on them) her grandmother said to her, 'You need a list.' To which Evie replied, Yes'! And she began to do some text-like scribble on paper and handed it to her grandmother in exchange for the 'goods'.

Because her grandmother had seen her school workbook she said, 'Why don't you write some words on the paper?' Evie grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 'egg' and 'fish' on the paper (two of her school words), which matched two of the Lego pieces. She exclaimed, 'I didn't know I could do that'! Her grandmother praised her, showed her grandfather (me) and we told her how clever she was.

Above: Evie's first two words written from memory

She dropped the game, got more paper and proceeded to try her hand at more writing. At first she was using her store of words that she had seen at school, writing each from memory without her school book. Within about 30 minutes Evie had written many words and then began to push the boundaries as she extended her writing from school words, to new words, then phrases, sentences and finally short stories.


I explained to her that she needed to have spaces between words and showed her how to use finger spaces between them. We provided more paper, her grandmother gave her a blank book, and she was away. Before the hour was out Evie had achieved the following milestones:

Step 1 - She had written her first words from memory (above)
Step 2 - She begun to string known words together from memory with loose associations (see above larger text)
Step 3 - She began to try to write words that she didn't know (see her attempt at 'bowl' and 'horse' below).

Above: Evie's first 'invented' spellings for 'bowl' & 'horse'

When she wrote the above words she said, 'I wrote some new words Grandad. Do you know what they are?' I answered, 'Yes, bowl and horse'. Pointing to the second word she asked, 'Does this really say horse'? I answered, 'Well I could tell that you meant them to be horse and bowl, even though there are some letters missing'. I showed her the missing letters, and then she moved on to her next piece of writing.

Step 4 - She sat down with her new blank book and tried to string together a number of words in the form of a simple sentence, trying to spell the unknown words using her limited knowledge of phonics.

Above: 'My pet dog is the best'

Step 5 - She repeated the text and experiments with images and other textual forms. Attempting multimodal texts already.

 
Step 6 - Her sentences become more complex, and her satisfaction is obvious! She shares her work.


Step 7 - She tries further experimentation with tough words and concepts. Her next text is much more complex in syntax, vocabulary and meaning. It has been written just one hour after she wrote her first words from memory and without assistance!

Above: A story with greater complexity

Step 8 - The next morning with her mother's help and advice on some words, she made herself a book and began to write her first 'novel' - 'My Cat'! 

In the week since this series of events Evie also decided, with new confidence, that it was time to start reading herself at night. When she asked today could she read herself in bed, her mother gave her one of the Level 1 Ladybird 'Read it Yourself' books. The video below shows a snippet of her reading 'The Little Red Hen' largely unaided without having tried to read the book before.




Summing Up

This post hasn't set out to offer a recipe for how you can teach your child to write in 30 minutes. Rather, what I have tried to do is show an example of how fast progress can be for young readers and writers, if they have had rich literacy experiences in the preschool years, and when we seize on key teachable moments. In the day-to-day life of the home and school we need to look for opportunities to 'prod' children forward to take risks as learners. Once children do take such risks and experience success and encouragement, progress can be quite remarkable.

Friday, March 28, 2014

LEGO Education StoryStarter: Creative New Language & Literacy Tool

Readers of this blog will know that I've written often about the benefits of play (HERE) and the role that story has in learning and life (HERE).

Play stimulates creativity and learning, language use, integration of many forms of learning, development of interpersonal skills, problem solving, collaboration with others, interest, engagement and challenge.

So I was more than a little bit interested when I heard that LEGO had developed a new product designed to use their materials as a tool for language and literacy. The new product is called StoryStarter (see materials below) and uses LEGO play as a basis and foundation for speaking, listening, reading and writing and it is linked to school curricula.



Above: My Duck!
In many ways the concept that underpins the program is demonstrated in an excellent marketing tool that they have used to promote the product. Six pieces of LEGO and the challenge to make a duck, show it to others, talk about it, take a photo of it, share it and so on. The new program offers 24 project-based activities that require its use to create, share, discuss, write about, photograph and share. Even the 6 pieces I used to make my duck could be used in countless ways to create a duck. I had great fun with my staff making ducks! This alone demonstrates the creative potential that LEGO has.

StoryStarter is designed for grades 2 – 6 and provides a fun and innovative way of teaching literacy, communication and collaboration skills to students. It is specifically designed to align with key curriculum documents in the countries where it has been released. LEGO has conducted its own internal research and has also commissioned Dr David Whitebread from Cambridge University to do further research (see more below). The product was released in Australia just this week (24th March). It was first introduced in the USA and Russia in 2012 and will be adapted for release in 10 other countries in the near future.  StoryStarter consists of 1,144 LEGO bricks and a number of LEGO plates with which students can work together, to build their own story in several sequences – the beginning, middle and ending (perhaps more than one). Once built these story sequences are input into the StoryVisualiser software, which uses images and words to tell and publish the story.

How it works

Step 1 - The children use project-based activities (24 topics in all) that relate to Australian Curriculum Achievement Standards. They work together to plan a sequence of story events manipulating Lego pieces as part of the story making.

Step 2 - They create scenes and images.

Step 3 - They use the Lego StoryVisualiser software by uploading their images and photos into the program to create a unique text by dragging and dropping.

Step 4 - Share the stories with others.

The StoryStarter kit costs $234.95 AUD (depending on what you include) and will be well received by children and teachers. A great feature of the kit appears to be the StoryVisualiser software that can be used on computers or via a special app for iPads. The software or app makes it easy for children to combine words and images. The app can be downloaded free from iTunes but you need a unique password provided when you purchase the product to use it. StoryVisualiser has a variety of layout templates that are applicable with varied written genres (narrative form, comic format, factual or fictional texts and so on). I can see some schools wanting more than one of these so that classes don't have to wait too long between topics.



StoryStarter has a positive impact on the way students interact and collaborate. As students work in teams to create their story sequences, they have to navigate team work to complete their task in an open, non-judgemental environment. LEGO's internal research suggests that StoryStarter helps the students learn about teamwork. I haven't seen the full research yet, but I hope to do a more detailed assessment in a future post. The developers and teachers who have trialled the product suggest that because there is no one judging them, StoryStarter helps students who are shy or struggle with reading and writing to take an active part.

As part of the release a number of teachers have been using the product. Cheryl Bellamy, Year 3 teacher at Hercules Road State School in Queensland, started using the innovative new LEGO Education StoryStarter learning tool at the beginning of the 2014 school year. She commented on the impact it has had on her students:

"What’s really interesting is how StoryStarter brings out the student interactions with one another. Walking around during the lesson you can certainly tell who the leaders are, making sure their group stays on task, as well as the ones who are more likely to sit back and let the others do the work"

As well, she found that:

"StoryStarter has really helped the students with their storytelling and verbalising narratives. When we started the students would describe their scenes with only two to three words, but in just a few months this has expanded to three to four sentences. It’s helping them to get used to writing more complex sentences."

Some Early Research Findings

David Whitebread, Senior Lecturer in Psychology & Education at University of Cambridge Faculty of Education has been doing his own research on the materials. He describes 5 clear areas in which StoryStarter offers unique educational support for children’s storytelling and related learning skills:

1. Identifying the main ideas in a text. A basic skill in developing narrative or story-telling skills is the ability to identify the main points or ideas in a text. StoryStarter supports early development of these skills, as it requires children to identify a number of key moments in a story and to represent them concretely in the medium of LEGO bricks.

2. Providing a concrete narrative structure. In order to tell or write a story well you need to keep a lot of information in your head, about what has previously been said, what will happen later, and so on, while you are saying or writing each part. As StoryStarter involves the construction of a concrete 3-D representation of the story, this provides an external memory aid which supports children’s ability to plan the structure of their story, to reflect upon it and to modify it until it is well structured and provides a clear narrative, with a beginning, a problem and a resolution.

3. Expressing ideas in different media. As using StoryStarter to construct narratives involves children in representing their ideas in various different media (i.e. in oral narrative or discussion, in 2-D drawings, in 3-D LEGO bricks, in 2-D photographs, through speech bubbles, in writing, and in a story book format combining pictures and text) it supports children’s developing expressive abilities, their metacognitive understandings of the roles of different modes of expression, their ability to think through ideas in their heads, and to make effective use of a repertoire of representational tools when tackling challenging tasks.

4. Language and thinking. Children’s metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities are key determinants of success at school and as learners. These abilities involve being aware of their own abilities, developing a repertoire of mental strategies for problem solving, and effectively using these mental resources when faced with novel tasks. Learning to use language to think and to reason is supported by these abilities. StoryStarter encourages children to talk about and justify their ideas, to listen to others’ ideas, and to work towards agreed solutions.

5. Play and learning. A playful approach has been shown to lead to more creative problem solving in a variety of areas of learning, including storytelling and writing. Learning to write stories using StoryStarter has several playful aspects to which children are very positively disposed, including the use of LEGO bricks and computer-based technologies. It enables a degree of hands-on, flexible and playful enactment of parts of the story, which is known to support the development of imagination and creativity, alongside social learning about human motivations, relationships and so on.

Note: I have received no incentives or benefits to write this post. The research referred to above is yet to be fully assessed as is the product but early indications are that this will be a very useful aid to learning. I hope to do a further post in the future once I have had a chance to assess the product more fully. I was able to interview Lisbeth Hattens, Educational Manager of LEGO based in Denmark, who offered some additional insights and information on the product and its development.