Friday, 27 January 2017

I'm very excited to share today that my poem Thirty Seven Degrees will be published tomorrow, the 29th of January, on the excellent Ink, Sweat and Tears site. Ink, Sweat and Tears is an online poetry and prose webzine edited by the talented writer Helen Ivory. I am delighted that this poem, first work shopped at the wonderful Ty Newydd writing centre in Wales found its first home here.

Thirty Seven Degrees is a poem about birth. It began life in response to a workshop prompt on memory. First came the space, our bedroom and then slowly the details emerged. The poem evolved from those humble beginnings as most writing does. In honour of it's real beginning at the home birth of my youngest daughter, Lotta, I'm sharing some pictures today of that special time.

Just born

So beautiful

Sleeping in the sling

Big sister's turn to carry

Bathtime with Papa

A loving big brother

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Poetry with Kids

Poetry books on the breakfast table

Yes, another stack of books. This time poetry books for younger readers. One thing that's partly true with homeschooling is that you tend to share your own interests with your children, as all parents do. As a poet myself, I have always enjoyed sharing poetry with my children. Poetry and verse are also popular in Waldorf styled early years education which was a strong influence on us when we were starting out as homeschoolers. 

Books like Elsa Beskow's Around the Year are wonderful if you're looking to bring a seasonal, rhythm to your life. There is a poem for each month as well as the classics The Hours and The Days of the Week and the illustrations reproduce Beskow's magical world of elves and fairies, summer and winter characters as well as some beautifully simple domestic scenes.
Another beautiful collection of rhymes for catching the seasons is Shirley Hughes' Out and About through the Year. In Hughes simple, evocative style, the poems not only have a childlike voice but they really capture the life of small children and their carers. The experiences these poems talk of were really easy for my children to relate to. Another of her books, The Nursery Collection* is also a great favourite of ours and we often gift it to small children we know. Again I absolutely love how close Hughes gets to what life with small kids is really like and when reading her books and poems, not only do the children recognise themselves, I also recognise the life we're living together and feel reassured. 

The great Shirley Hughes

As well as poems which tell the story of their daily life, my children also enjoy the classic rhymes of Mother Goose. Richard Scarry's version is illustrated in his style and has been a firm favourite here ever since it was first gifted to my oldest daughter. 

An absolute classic

A bit of silliness is also very popular and writers such as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake have been happy to provide it. Bananas in my Ears is a favoured collection as well as Mr Magnolia. Hearing our children shout 'I can't hear you, I've got bananas in my ears' over breakfast has led to a lot of hilarity, and the recording I have of my husband and son reading Mr Magnolia together is very precious, who would have thought there were so many words that rhymed with boot! Reading this kind of rhyme has also led to a lot of great language play among the children with whole meals passing in rhyming play often with words like poo and trump but it's all good stuff if it gets them playing with words in my opinion. 

Great fun!

Of course as someone whose passionate about poetry I didn't stop there. We were lucky to be gifted a beautiful treasury of poetry by a very dear friend when our daughter was young. With it's liberal use of gold and beautiful illustrations it has been much thumbed and is so popular that I couldn't put my hands on it when I sat down to write this post so no photo and I'm afraid no reference as I can't remember the details off the top of my head. Another beautiful anthology that I would highly recommend is the Barefoot Book of Classic Poems. It's a beautiful book and I'm so glad we bought it. We went secondhand as new it was quite expensive at the time. It's a beautifully illustrated collection and feels like one of those really special books we all remember from childhood.

The richly illustrated Barefoot Books Collection
One of my favourites Blake's The Tiger

Since then we continue to add to our poetry collection as and when we see things we like. Emily Dickinson, Gillian Clarke, the list is growing. There is so much great poetry out there to share with children and in doing so I really believe we are sharing something with our children that has the potential to nourish them their whole lives. As Carol Ann Duffy says in her introduction to the Barefoot Collection, "the best of poetry is memorable". It "offers us moments in language which preserve or celebrate, explore or elegise, transform or enhance our human joys and sadnesses". And it stays with us long after we read it, returning to us like an echo or a touchstone throughout our lives.

Beautiful illustrations and rich language make for a gripping read

If you have any poetry books you've really enjoyed with your children please leave details in the comments, I'd love to get some new recommendations.

* This books as well as Out and About is not always easy to find though you can usually get your hands on a second hand copy either through amazon or Abe books. Alternatively ten books were published which together reproduce the sections of this book, you can also find them if you search for Shirley Huges The Nursery Collection. Or why not try the library.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Five things - Stacks of Books

Our house is full of books.

There are piles of them everywhere; on bookcases and coffee tables, beside our beds and under them, on our desks and on the floor. We love books and I love having a home surrounded by them. They offer us a world of infinite possibility. We can immerse ourselves in worlds full of wizards (Harry Potter of course and Earthsea), the life and times of Shakespeare (1599) or that of a Roman Gladiator (Horrible Histories, You wouldn't want to be a Roman Gladiator).

We can laugh ourselves silly at the strange things we all might wish for and later regret (Five Children and It) or the antics of animals (James Herriot - makes for a brilliant audiobook). We can be brought to tears over Welsh Sheep (Gillian Clarke's collected works) or feel like jetting to New York and walking her streets (Frank O'Hara's) or be reduced to giggles reading about a strange case of hysteria (Carol Ann Duffy's). A good book is a marvellous thing that takes us on a journey and fills us with delight.

Back to the stacks, there are now so many of them that we have big plans for new book housing this year. Once we've finished decorating... hum let's hope we manage to get through that quicker than last the time, at least before more of these wonderful friends find there way here. 


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Letting our Kids experiment in the Kitchen

Whether it's play dough bake off, making the Christmas biscuits or a cake to take to pony club our children really enjoy baking and experimenting with it. At their science club yesterday they made pancakes. The principle was the following, give them one egg and tell them to beat it. Provide a vast array of flours, liquids, sugars and various other ingredients (cordial, hazlenut paste, food colouring...) let them explore adding different things to the eggs before cooking their mix and seeing whether it's edible*. 

As you can imagine they had a wonderful time. And its something they often ask to do at home too. Maya had a stage of following her own recipes. There were many flat cakes with the texture of pancakes as they often didn't rise as much as she planned. And there was a pastry phase where she made her pastry 'au pif' as the French say by just adding and mixing till she was happy. Sometimes this led to difficult to eat messes and other times to delicious discoveries like her cinnamon pastry base.

A younger Maya making a tart

I admit these experiments haven't always been my favourite moments. They tend to involve a lot of mess in the kitchen and the results aren't always that tasty. However, they give the children such joy in discovery and a sense of accomplishment when things do work that it's hard to resist saying yes. And they're learning through experimentation which is really positive. 

This is also an opportunity to learn something about how they are as learners. While our eldest needed to be left to it and allowed to experiment freely and with little or no constraint, our middle child always preferred having a recipe and a little leeway within that recipe. Perhaps this was due to tasting all his sister's pancake cakes or reflective of the fact he doesn't always like the unpredictable. 

Lotta's chocolate cake with grated butter

Our youngest daughter has just discovered the joy of her own recipes. She comes to me with a piece of paper on which she's written all the letters she knows and then proceeds to read me her recipe. She is not as independent as her older sister was, she likes me to be right next to her but she is definitely in charge. As I am able to influence quantities and make a few useful suggestions her cakes turn out pretty well on the whole. Sometimes we have to be inventive. With the above cake I realised part way through we hadn't put any butter in and that the cake was probably not going to be that great without it. So we grated it into the mix. It worked beautifully as did the crushed walnuts she decided to scatter through. 

A happy Lotta eating some of her mix

They also change and evolve through this process. Once she could read, Maya was happy to follow recipes because she could still make the cake by herself. She still likes to invent new flavour combinations and decorations but she's decided if she wants a tasty cake it's probably best to at least use a recipe for guidelines.  

A few tips for baking with kids

  • If they're following their own recipe, let go of the expectation that the result will be beautiful or even tasty, it might be but there's no guarantee.
  • The first rule of baking in our kitchen is push up your sleeves, wash your hands and find an apron.
  • Using a stool to help your child be at the right height is a great help.
  • If they're are inventing their recipe, it's useful to begin by discussing what kind of cake your child wants to make. I find this helps them think through their recipe and helps me suggest what order they might like to mix things in. (I can also sneak a look at a recipe to have an idea of quantities)
  • In terms of quantities don't be too stingy unless you have very small baking pans. A small amount of mix in a too big tin makes for a very sad, flat little cake.
  • Be prepared to be as involved or not as the child wants. In our experience with Maya, our being too involved took all the fun out of it for her to the point she would abandon her cake.
  • If you're feeling especially organised, how about preparing an ingredients tray with everything they can use ready for them. You might want to put eggs, flour, milk, butter but also things like cocoa, chocolate or chocolate chips, banana (it helps with rising), baking powder and any other fun things you have to hand (cranberries, nuts, chocolate stars or hundreds and thousands).
  • For a child who prefers to use a recipe there can still be choice. For example, Noah loves making apple cake, one thing he can change is the size of the apples, and whether they're in chunks or slices. It doesn't seem like much but it changes how they look a lot.
  • Prepare yourself beforehand that even if they do help with the tidying up, you will probably end up doing a fair share of it. In our case, when they help with the washing up for example that usually means I end up having to clean the spillage all over the floor!        

* A handy tip from Tristan our science club leader. Pancake mix is great for experimentation because it doesn't need to rise. As long as you use egg as the base and some flour and some liquid, you are pretty much guaranteed the pancake will cook and be edible. How tasty is will be is variable however, some of the ones made with chickpea flour yesterday were not my favourites!