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Posts from the ‘education’ Category

Are they playing?


As we reach the end of another school holiday, I think I’ve had a revelation about my kids.

They’ve had a great week. A couple of play dates and a mini break by the seaside with Gran and Grandad. Neither had much homework to blight their enjoyment and there was still time to play with the puppy. But my perennial niggling concerns about their play habits still lingered on.

I suppose I’m not the only parent to feel their children spend too long on their devices. It’s become pretty much a cliche to yell at them every half hour to turn off the phone/Kindle Fire/X-box. I even spent some time surreptitiously observing what my daughter and her friend got up to during a recent play date at our house.

I found myself inwardly lamenting,’do they actually play??’. I saw them watch a film, show each other stuff on their phones and chat about school/pets. I didn’t expect them to get the soft toys out and re-create a teddy bear’s picnic, or even dip into the bag of barbies. But I couldn’t help recalling the imagination games I used to play at their age. Our dolls and teddies were puritans or royalists during the civil war. When the weather was good, the garden became a stage-set, where we could enjoy a world of endless imaginary possibilities.

Then the realisation struck me. They are playing. It’s just the platform upon which these imaginative endeavours are constructed has changed. I knew then that I had judged these young people too harshly. They had spent an hour on Minecraft, comparing the complex worlds and characters they’d both created.

I’m overjoyed when my son and daughter play Lego games together, because that’s what I did as a child. Therefore, I consider it proper ‘play’. There’s something very tunnel-visioned about this attitude. When my son is building his Sim City or winning his Forza races in order to buy new cars for his virtual garage, that is play for him. Much as previous generations’ idea of play was to be kicking a ball around outside, rather than building Lego or dressing Barbie dolls in a centrally heated bedroom. The concept of ‘normal’ child play is clearly partly a social construct and based upon the resources available to us.

Times change. Where I was forced to create an imaginary world from fairly limited props and materials, modern technologies mean those worlds can be formulated in a far more visual and stimulating way. No wonder our children want to play there. It’s pretty fantastic to be honest.

So I’ve decided to be less judgemental. My childhood experience wasn’t necessarily the perfect one. My daughter created a treasure hunt on Minecraft this morning for her brother. This concept amazes me. I couldn’t do it. And who is to say that because the game is virtual, it is inferior to a treasure hunt around the house and garden? Apart from the opportunity to get some fresh air, I not sure that it is. And as a parent, it’s our job to make sure the kids get out and about on trips anyway. That isn’t really their responsibility.

During the Easter break I’m going to chill. The kids have their own way of playing, occasionally it overlaps with my memories of what it means, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. As long as we keep an eye on the potential dangers and are ensuring balance, I think that’s absolutely fine.



Does second born always mean second place?

imageWe enjoy a bit of quizzing in our house. Monday evenings are a favourite, with University Challenge on BBC2 followed by Only Connect. It remains unspoken, but my husband and I enjoy some friendly rivalry during these shows, privately noting which one of us has faired the best after each episode.

My husband tends to dominate when it comes to straightforward general knowledge test, University Challenge, whereas I inch ahead with my contributions during lateral thinking and wordy puzzler, Only Connect. Recognising this little battle we take part in each week made me consider the way we approach competition in our household. I don’t believe we are hugely competitive as a family, largely because we aren’t particularly interested in competitive sport. But when it comes to brain games, it’s a different matter.

Which made me consider my own childhood. I am a younger child, the second of two daughters. My older sister was very gifted at Maths and Science from a young age. I was more of a dreamer, happy to be out on my bike than indoors reading a book. So when it came to family board games and quizzing, I simply got used to losing. I would lose at Monopoly, Whist and Scrabble on a regular basis.

I don’t recall it bothering me much. I learnt to enjoy the process of the game rather than the outcome. I suppose as we got older and the age gap becomes less of an issue, I must have started to win more, but I don’t recall it. By then, I wouldn’t much have cared. I’d lost my urge to be competitive.

I can see the same scenario emerging with my own children. My son is nearly three years younger than my daughter and I have witnessed his frustration on many occasions when he struggles to compete at Upwords or Pictionary. There are times when it’s quite heartbreaking to witness your second or third born struggle to achieve the same standard as their sibling – consigned to catch-up simply because of their position on the development scale. But does this natural pecking order have to continue into later life?

Of course not. I would tentatively say now that my sister and I are pretty evenly matched in the general knowledge stakes. Even my son is starting to creep up on his big sister in terms of drawing and word skills. But a certain legacy remains. My husband expects to win. He is an older sibling with a three and a half year gap between him and his younger brother. According to my mother-in-law, he was a terrible loser as a child.

By contrast, I’m still quite happy to lose. If we are playing a family game (usually bowling, at which I’m patchy at best), I’m comfortable to let the kids win, giving them extra goes if necessary. But my husband won’t drop his standard to let the kids get ahead. I think this is good. Children have to learn to lose and not have everything rigged in their favour, otherwise life will come as a terrible shock to them.

But I’m fascinated by the legacy created by a childhood of coming last and whether it is simply inevitable for a younger sibling during a large part of their youth. I think this inevitable inequality is a very good reason for siblings to adopt different interests and specialisms. For my sister it was Maths and tech and for me it has been History and English. This helps reduce comparison. But when it comes down to pure competitive spirit, I believe mine is muted and that this may very well be a younger child syndrome.

Whether this holds us back in life, I’m really not sure. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. Those sitting back and waiting to catch up with their siblings/peers may well develop other crucial skills in the meantime, such as greater patience and humility. Although, no one likes to keep losing so it’s worth finding an area you can excel at, given time and practice. For now, we will keep on quizzing and soon enough our children will be beating us hands down. So let’s just hope we can take it with good grace.




Bookish frustrations: The Book Snob

image As an author of crime thrillers and psychological mysteries I am no stranger to the book snob. Certainly in the traditional publishing world, there is a great deal of snobbery directed at the relative  value of the crime genre. It is undoubtedly popular, but is it proper literature?

Of course, I would say yes. Some of our most talented writers have produced work in this genre, from Stephen King to Susan Hill. And I really think that snobbery around crime is beginning to diminish, although I believe it still lingers in the genre of romance. In fact, if you are looking for modern takes on human relationships and the human psyche, they can be found in abundance in the very best of these books.

After a debate I had on Twitter last evening, when a Mumsnet thread had unleashed a stream of vitriol against Orchard Books’ Rainbow  Magic series, I was reminded of the dangers that book snobs can pose to the promotion of literacy. The Rainbow Magic series are fairy stories, fairly generic, very girly but highly popular first independent reads for 6-8 year olds. For a couple of years, my daughter devoured them. So imagine my surprise to find perfectly reputable educational sites calling for this series to become ‘land fill’.

Firstly, I’m uncomfortable with any rallying call for the destruction of books. To me, books are a symbol of freedom of expression and speech. Civilised, open nations, do not censor or destroy books, let alone perfectly harmless and inoffensive ones. The whole notion has unpalatable historical implications. Secondly, I cannot see anything wrong with the Daisy Meadows series. Yes, it’s repetitive, no they won’t be winning any literary prizes, but strangely enough, thousands of children adore the stories and the books have introduced them to a love of reading. Should we really impose our adult constructs of what is proper, worthwhile reading onto our children? Certainly not.

If my son wants to read the instructions to the washing machine I’ll be happy. If he tore his way through the Rainbow Magic series I’d be turning somersaults in the street. When a child develops a love of independent reading, they’ll whip through anything you give them. I know plenty of highly educated, intelligent friends who read all of their Mum/Gran’s Mills and Boon novels as an early reader. I read my Gran’s Georgette Heyers and Jean Plaidy’s. Then we move onto other stuff, it is part and parcel of the great process of becoming a literate adult, every stage has its own joys.

These days, book snobs tend to reside only in the editorial departments of ‘literary’ magazines and on the sofas of the more ‘selective’ book clubs; those who chose their titles by what they think they should be reading rather than what they actually want to.

Let’s not impose this snobbery on our children, because they don’t possess it until we foist it upon them. Kids read what they like, what they enjoy. To take away that freedom is a terrible act. Of course books need to be appropriate for the age range, that goes without saying, but children should be encouraged to read a broad range of books – fiction and non fiction. Just like us adults. Because I read crime and mystery, it doesn’t mean I can’t also read history books or the latest Booker Prize winner. Variety is the spice of life and the key to creating lifelong readers.

Please don’t encourage children to look down their noses at certain types of book, or make them feel inadequate for choosing to read something they enjoy rather than something we feel is more substantial or worthy. You’ll just put them off. Popular doesn’t always mean inferior. The classics are great and have their place, but the language can often be very antiquated and inaccessible to early readers. They’ll get there in their own time. Until then, let’s simply enjoy the wonderful variety of books and quality of authors we’ve got out there, because it’s truly tremendous. And we can only hope that the Book Snob will eventually become a dying breed.


Middle class sport as an exalted gift to the masses is a sentimental myth.


Watching ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King on the Daily Politics today made me sigh. I respect King highly as a financial expert and believe he steered the country very competently through the storm of the recession. However, this is where his expertise should have remained.

King’s latest project is to introduce the sport of cricket to all state schools. Of course, many state schools already offer cricket as part of their sport curriculum, but in the case of this particular project, the focus seemed to be on inner city schools; institutions without perhaps the grounds and space available to offer a full range of sporting activities to pupils.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sport in schools. It is great for  pupils’ physical and mental health, team-building etc. But what I object to is the eulogising rhetoric surrounding certain public school favourites, like rugby and cricket. It was obvious that Mervyn King had lovely memories of playing cricket at his own private school and has gone on to be a lifelong fan of the professional game. However, the skills and qualities he claims the sport nurtures in its players could be happily attributed to just about every other team sport you’d care to mention. His love of the game is clearly deeply personal and heartfelt but hardly more than sentimental conjecture.

I did not play cricket at school. My large Essex comprehensive specialised in football and rugby, both of which the pupils still play fixtures in alongside local private and state institutions. I played hockey and netball. Both perfectly enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing, but I would never claim the experience furnished me with characteristics which aided me in my future relationships or career, and I consider myself reasonably successful in both. Quite the contrary, my skills set was learnt in the classroom and at home. The suggestion that those who spent their youth on the cricket pitch or rugby field have somehow greater resilience, care for others or leadership skills than I myself possess makes me cross and in my personal experience is also quite wrong.

The misunderstanding inherent in the view of Mervyn King and his ilk, is that the state model nowadays robs the majority of children of the undisputed benefits of these more traditional sports. In reality, the state system has already moved ahead. My first experience of cricket was seeing a young classmate in primary school being carried away on a stretcher after being hit full in the face by a hard cricket ball. I’ll always remember the profusion of blood that spurted out of his shattered nose.

My daughter plays soft ball cricket with my husband, who is a fanatical fan of the game. She has a great deal of aptitude for bowling. But it would never cross either of our minds for her to join a club that uses a hard cricket ball. In this day and age, as parents, we simply don’t expose our children to unnecessary risks. We haven’t really done so as a wider society since the early eighties.

What King appeared to have failed to realise, is that state schools have introduced a raft of new sports over the last decade; such as dodgeball, tag rugby and kick rounders in primary schools particularly, which children highly enjoy and minimises the scientifically documented risks from repeated head injury, which doctors are only just beginning to fully understand.

In short, we shouldn’t have any part of our schools’ curriculum dictated by the sentimental reminiscences of retired men, who are harking back to the imagined golden days of their privileged childhoods. This approach would be deeply unscientific, based on anecdote and poorly recalled nostalgia which would have the result of stifling the development of new, exciting and more risk free sports that achieve the same results without endangering our children unnecessarily.

State schools are there to promote the greater good. They need to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few whilst embracing their individualities and catering for all. They are quick to change with the times when medical and scientific evidence is overwhelming. This ethos is the legacy that my schooldays gave to me. In a few years from now, schools within the remit of the local authority will have universally adopted a sporting curriculum that has evolved away from the use of practices which routinely expose a child to injury. Because children don’t really have a choice about the clubs they attend as pre-teens or the prep schools their parents send them to. It is a culture introduced to them from birth. It’s all about what their siblings and peers are doing. How can an eight or nine year old defer? And what mummy and daddy did as a child isn’t always what’s best for our future generations, let alone gran or grandad.

Maybe I should try and instil the progressive spirit my comprehensive school gave to me into some of our more elite institutions, like Mervyn King has set out to do? Well, of course I wouldn’t, because that would be deeply patronising and superior of me. So why do our inner city comprehensives have to put up with it?

My advice would be to return to the area that is your expertise, Mervyn, and leave education to those who properly understand it and have a less sentimental perspective.


For all those with a partner who works at the weekend


There are plenty of us, although down at the local park on a sunny Saturday morning it might not feel like it’s the case. I see Dads everywhere, giving their wives a lie-in whilst they take the kids out to run off some steam, enjoying precious family time denied them by a busy week at work.
But for those of us who are the primary carer of the children and have a spouse who works one or maybe both days of the weekend, it can be tough. Particularly when the kids are small. My husband works on a Saturday and has done since our daughter was a toddler. I am very fortunate to have my parents living close by and when my son was a baby this help was absolutely essential.
I recall a conversation I had with a fellow mum, who had brought up her three children when her husband, a former colleague of myself and my other half, had worked saturdays. She recounted how difficult the children could be on that day, instinctively knowing you were without backup and cut adrift from the usual structures provided by the working and school week. Their house was often in turmoil – toys and mess everywhere – when her husband finally returned in the evening, exhausted himself.
Having spent so long in the economic recession we have learnt to accept the hardships of our working lives, grateful for employment and emphasising the positives in our jobs over the negatives. But if there was anything I could change about our lives it would be this aspect. Not so much for my benefit anymore but for my husband’s. Weekends are the time when Dads get to interact with their family at a more leisurely rate. With 12 hours lost, the homework and chores tend to dominate instead.
As the children get older, it gets easier. No longer does that Saturday seem to stretch out endlessly ahead of you from the moment when you’re first woken up by a lively offspring at the crack of dawn. There are still issues, however. When both of the children are invited to a party or play date you are immediately unsure of how to get them to the right place at the right time single handed. I call upon my parents for help, but I do wonder how others cope.
The reason that I was prompted to write about the subject on this Saturday morning, is that I was reminded of one of the positive legacies of my solo starts to the weekend. Ever since my daughter was tiny, we have always embarked on some kind of creative project to begin the day. This tradition appears to have embedded itself into the culture of our Saturday, long after the requirement to fill an interminable day has dissipated.
Whether it is completing a Lego set or painting a picture, Saturday a.m. is the time we do it. The habit has been firmly instilled. I think this is a lovely tradition but entirely unintentional!
During every weekend now, I do spare a thought for other families in the same boat. Without a doubt it’s hard, but a necessity and one out of which some unexpectedly pleasant habits can grow.

Writing your Christmas cards is an art


Whilst writing my Christmas cards this week, it suddenly struck me that there aren’t many opportunities these days for corresponding with another person by hand.

I rarely write letters any longer. As a teacher, I recall the days when our reports for students were penned by hand. I was quite disappointed when word processed programmes replaced pen and ink. I’ve always felt there was something infinitely more personal in the hand written comment.

Now, I write my books using Word and only rely upon notebooks for plotting and character profiles. So writing a card feels like something of a novelty.

Like most festive traditions, the Christmas card was first commercially produced in 1843, during the Victorian era. The custom has been flourishing ever since. In fact, I’m quite amazed it hasn’t been replaced by a digital alternative. The purchasing of the stamps, ensuring up to date addresses and depositing the envelopes in a local postbox seems reassuringly antiquated as a process.

My children spend a great deal of time perfecting their handwriting at school. I often wonder why so much attention is devoted to the art educationally. Within a few decades, there will surely be diminishing circumstances  in which writing by hand will be required.

Despite busy modern lives, I hope that the Christmas card tradition continues to live on. We may now be in contact with our friends and family on a daily bases through social media but to receive the card, hold it in your hands and run your finger along the indentations created by the script, the effect is far more profound. Long may it continue.

What they really had for breakfast and other little horrors our children love to reveal…

An article in The Telegraph today reminded me of an embarrassing incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago. The piece was a frighteningly accurate account of the chaotic reality of most people’s early morning routine. It put me in mind of when my mother-in-law visited on a Sunday afternoon recently, innocently enquiringly of my daughter what she’d had for breakfast, to which my first born happily replied, ‘dry roasted peanuts’.

There followed a full five minutes of me trying to explain that this hadn’t been breakfast at all but an ill-judged and totally unsanctioned mid morning snack. It sounded weak, although it was pretty much the truth. Our son is a great one for eating in the morning and will have whatever we care to serve him. Shona, on the other hand, doesn’t have an enormous appetite before 11am. Despite being offered a selection of breakfast options that a five star restaurant would be proud of, she often refuses them all, waiting for a couple of hours before feeling the desire for sustenance of any kind. By which time she might graze the cupboards largely unnoticed.

So I began to consider all those awkward situations where our children, in their eternal innocence, reveal our worst habits and cock-ups to the world. Naturally censorious as the pre teens tend to be; hang-overs and lie-ins appear to rate very highly in the long list of crimes that our offspring feel the need to tell their teachers and friends about, usually first thing on a Monday morning.

Swearing, passing wind or topping up a glass of wine are also on that list, along with large underwear and the existence of/methods employed for the removal of, any kind of body hair. Nobody fully warns you about this hazard when you embark upon parenthood.

No aspect of your life will pass without comment or judgement once the little darlings first become capable of speech. Most of the time, we will find this honesty refreshing and adorable. But just occasionally, when our youngest decides to announce to all present that they’ve not brushed their teeth for a week, or eaten a piece of fruit since June, we gaze at our shoes, wishing the ground would swallow us up, desperate to explain that this is Timmy’s idea of a joke but knowing  that there’s really no point.

Now it’s been said, no one is ever going to believe it’s not true…

Has our understanding of courage been highjacked?


When on a trip to London yesterday, my husband and son took a tour up the Orbit tower, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I’m not a great one for heights so my daughter and I ducked into a nearby cafe to await their return. After settling at our table with the drinks, my daughter began indulging in some soul searching. Apparently, they’d had an assembly the week before about ‘courage’. She lamented how she should really have possessed the courage to climb the tower and clearly felt it a personal failure to have ‘wimped out’.

This got me thinking. I immediately told Shona that courage didn’t mean quite the same thing to me as it did to the teacher leading the assembly. She agreed, suggesting  that abseiling off a building might constitute courage to one person and stupidity to another. It has certainly  become fashionable in recent years to encourage youngsters to take part in high adrenaline activities, viewing them as ‘character building’. Indeed, my daughter will be going on her year six residential trip in May, which is an adventure holiday including a ‘leap of faith’ on the final day.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. The kids will love it, just as I enjoyed riding roller coasters and diving from high boards when I was a teenager. But where I become uneasy, is in the redefining of thrill seeking, adrenaline pumping acts as synonymous with courage. Fearlessness is only one aspect of the OED definition of being courageous. It is also about having fortitude, being brave and gallant, even heroic. To me, a courageous act is to stand up for what you believe in even if all those around you disagree. To stick up for someone who is being bullied at the risk of a backlash against yourself is courageous. To make the trip to a war zone in order to provide medical care or assistance to those caught up in the violence  is courageous.

When I hear about those individuals who seek greater and greater artificial thrills by walking tightropes between tall buildings or climbing rock faces without support ropes, I always wonder how those who live with real difficulties view this strange occupation; those who trek for hundreds of miles and embark upon dangerous sea voyages to escape torture and persecution with their young families must marvel at why people would actually seek the stress that those dreadful  situations bring.

The answer, I suspect, is that ordinary life bores some people . They’ve sought out every available activity to stimulate the endorphins and have become addicted to the buzz. This isn’t what courage means to me and I wish we would stop telling our children that it’s what they should aspire to. Courage is the ability to recognise the true value in what we have before us right now. It might take more courage to stand still and face our responsibilities than to rush off in search of the next big thing.

So, I had no intention of forcing my daughter to go to the top of that tower – to face and overcome her fear. Because we all have a different interpretation of being brave. For some people, travelling any distance away from their home requires a courage that others may not fully  appreciate. Who am I to judge what another individual’s capacity for stoicism might be. I’d rather my daughter stood up for her friends when it mattered most and was a person who put their head above the parapet at work to point out an injustice. Because that is what true courage means to me and it is possible to achieve it on either  a small or a large scale.

How do I fulfil my daughter’s voracious appetite for books?


I’m not bragging, my little boy can hardly be persuaded to pick up a book. He’d much rather be on Forza Motorsport or building Lego. If I could divide the book love out between them a bit more evenly then I would. But they are their own people and that’s just the way it is.
My husband and I were both book worms as kids, but I don’t recall being quite so speedy at reading as my daughter seems to be.
We spent every Saturday morning at the library when I was my daughter’s age, in the town where I grew up. I took a pile home with me at lunchtime and then we returned the following week to either renew or exchange. But in these days of constant access to the internet, youngsters know exactly what the next book in a series by their favourite author is. They aren’t prepared to simply take whatever happens to be on the young adult shelves of the local library.
Maybe schools need to be more up to date with the titles they offer. I know of other youngsters in my daughter’s class who have read every title in the entire school library and have been told that anything else they have is too ‘adult’ for them. But let’s face it, when you are a competent reader from a young age, you read whatever you can get your hands on. I read my Gran’s Victoria Holt’s and Georgette Heyer’s from when I was my daughter’s age. I’d worked my way through every single Agatha Christie before I was eleven years old.
I have tried to push my old favourites onto my first born but she often finds them old-fashioned and the prose style laboured. She has a very definite idea of what she likes to read and I want to encourage this passion as much as I can. Luckily, she is perfectly happy to spend her pocket money on books. Otherwise, we would be in trouble.
I trawl the second hand shops whenever I can and so does my mum. We tend to keep her well supplied that way. What would be really great is if the Kindle versions of her favourite titles weren’t quite so expensive. I keep my Kindle price low and my books are adult length. This would give us another option to keep her appetite satisfied.
I suppose if the supply ran dry she might be forced to turn to those old classics that we all read when there was nothing else available. However, there is no ‘nothing else’ these days. There’s always the TV and our various household internet devices. My fear is that if I cut off the supply, she will turn to something else and I really don’t want her to.
The sight of my daughter with her head in those books is a wonderful thing to behold, so I shall just have to keep thinking of ways to keep up.

Want to encourage the creative urge in your kids? Embrace your own.


When I was about three years old and my sister five, our dad, a bank manager who commuted to his London office each day, decided to re-decorate our suburban, three bedroomed semi-detached house in Essex.
In the process of this fairly mundane and entirely unremarkable task, he decided, almost inexplicably, to create a colourful painted mural up the stairs.

At the time, I thought this creation was wonderful, and something that everyone’s dad did. It perhaps took me until I had my own children to realise that it really wasn’t.
I’ve been decorating the upstairs bathroom myself this past week and although I have created murals in my children’s bedrooms at various points, I’m just not brave enough to do it elsewhere in the house. But I wholeheartedly wish I was.

Nothing appeals to children more than the feeling that their world of imagination and fun can spill over into the serious, sterile universe of the grown-ups. I can still remember that picture snaking up the twisting staircase, with perfect clarity. There were green hills, blue skies and white fluffy clouds. I’ve no idea if it was any good in an artistic sense (sorry Dad) but to my younger self this really didn’t matter. It was magical.

My sister is now a rather wonderful artist herself and I write novels. We have both embraced the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to explore your imagination and follow it to wherever it wants to go.

Does this tendency have anything to do with that mural my father painted for us over 35 years ago? Well, I can’t prove it, but I definitely think it might have. In which case, maybe I should really consider making a similar gesture to my own children.
Because how can we expect our offspring to show their creative side if we are never prepared to reveal ours?

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