The Curious and the Thoughtful

Londoners are spoiled for choice for things to do with our primary school-aged children. Really, we are. Once in a while though, everyone gets into a rut. I do. But you’ve got to try and find a light and climb out.

Last Thursday, after a fairly family-focused few weeks (read: exhausted, burned out, could not see the cherubs in my children), I had the unexpected pleasure of a preview tour of the Adventures in Moominland exhibition now on at the Southbank Centre. Followed up by a slightly boozy lunch with a dear friend, it was a somewhat perfect midweek afternoon (but it’s not that kind of blog post) and just the light to get me out of my rut.

20161215_123902-1You’ll need to book in advance and the cost is between £13.50 and £16.50. The recommended age is 7+. You’ll understand why if you go. To walk through these rooms is like being a child on a movie set. You’ll be asked to move around, to look, to listen, to crouch, duck, and peek. You’ll want to touch everything, but you really should not. It looks like it’s been put there just for you to discover. And it has. Appreciate that it takes an army of people to guide the small groups through and tidy up after each of them, restoring each of the several rooms (I lost count) back to its pristine state. If your child likes to run about and doesn’t really care for listening, please skip this event. And if you cannot go for the session without reaching for your mobile phone, please spare the others on the tour. One of our tour members was typing on her mobile the entire way through and it was really, really distracting. Please be considerate of others when you go. Hopefully, someone in your group will be a Moomin enthusiast and you can watch a grown-up gush with excitement over finding a ruby in a suitcase. It’s marvellous.

Now to the important bit. It’s absolutely magical. Having dined on other magical fare in the last few years (Efteling, Disneyland Paris, the Alps) I didn’t expect to be wow-ed by a museum exhibition. But I was.

I’m a latecomer to the Moomin tribe, having discovered a few of the illustrated paperbacks at the library when my children were toddlers. We fell in love with the language (for who wouldn’t love to read words like ‘Tooticky’ and ‘Snorkmaiden’ with your toddler) and the lovely strangeness of the worlds depicted in Jansson’s stories. If you haven’t been to Moominland, wait no more! Get yourself to a library and introduce yourself.

As my toddlers became children (and I regained time and energy to read again) I picked up Tove Jansson’s Summer Book, which she wrote later in life. I fell in love with this little book, a portrait of grandmother and granddaughter castaways, coexisting somewhere off the coast of Finland. Perhaps its the lack of a mother in the book (she’s died recently, thus bringing the pair in the book together) which appeals to me so much. Apart from introducing me to life in the Scandinavian archipelago, a scattering group of rocky outcrops which are only habitable during certain times of the year (how exciting), my heart wanted to know deeply about this relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter.

Reading of their adventures with the cats, the boats, the weird neighbours, just being bored, I wondered about my own relationship with my grandmothers, strange beings whom I didn’t know very well, but whom I admired and respected deeply. They were tricky ladies–one probably just far too exhausted from raising ten children of her own to bother too much with her childrens’ offspring, but nevertheless taught me important lessons about how to endure and live, about how to be quiet. But in a very good way. The other, who smiled mischievously, and who claimed both Indian (“East”/South Asian) and Arawak ancestry, always seemed a little too attached to an odd collection of things and ideas, including how dark we children should not be allowed to become or how beautiful our long hair was. I tried as an adult to put myself in both of their shoes, as women growing up in very male-dominated, colonial societies where markers of ethnicity mattered and when being a woman meant proper hard work. I wondered as I was reading The Summer Book about whether I’d ever get to have adventures with my own grandchild (I’m an old mother, I’ve recently been told). I hope so. We’d be stranded in the Caribbean archipelago, though.

Anyway, back to the story. Moomin. The magic of Moomin. Tove Jansson has given us so much in her stories, in her sharing of her life with us through them and her drawings. Worlds to explore, the space and silence in them to let our minds wander back to thoughts of our own lives, the memories we are making for our old age.

I’ll remember Tove Jansson’s glasses, the p772691bf529714fdb2fde80d120af800hoto of her swimming outside wearing a floral garland next to the actual floral garland: the very picture of thoughtful decadence, of living (I’ve found a copy of it on someone’s Pinterest page). But it’s the self-portrait in one of the rooms that’s stuck with me after last Thursday. Our tour guide described it as lovely. In its bold strokes of pencil, I saw the wearing of life on a face, tired yet robust and still full of fight. Because I’ve been feeling exactly that myself, I think I was equally relieved to find the one of her swimming and carefree.

Adventures in Moominland is there, at the Southbank Centre, until April 23rd, the world of Moominland, cast in beautiful, sensual imagery and in three-dimensions. After that, you can find it in the books.

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Oh, Just the School Starting Age Issue. . .

Excerpted from the University of Cambridge article “School Starting Age: the Evidence“:

“Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.”

In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously

– David Whitebread

130924-back-to-school

“Back to School”. Homepage banner image by Woodley Wonderworks via Flickr Credit: Nick Page from Flickr.

In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. However, the UK’s Department of Education states clearly that compulsory school age is five.  Children born in the summer months, like mine, spend the entire first year at school in Reception class before they reach compulsory school age. Yes, she will be playing. But she will also start her journey in formal learning, in a formal setting, learning phonics and arithmetic, even ICT.

Am I happy about this? Not particularly, no. I am much happier to have her at home singing her ABCs, visiting the playground, playing with her sister, and freely using her imagination. At least, we have secured the consent of her school to allow her to attend part-time during the Reception year.

I have witnessed the Herculean efforts of the campaigners who head the Summer-born Campaign, giving advice to parents with similar concerns about deferring or delaying admission for their child to primary school. They do this day and night, answering queries that Local Authorities and the Department of Education will not. They help parents to exercise their rights under the law, to wait until their child is five to start formal education, in the Reception year. These parents are successful sometimes, but sadly, some–even those whose children were prematurely born or have developmental issues–are flatly and discompassionately denied. One can only guess that bureaucratic expediency is chosen over the welfare of these children. Or else what?

In our case, we are simply concerned that, but for a few weeks, our daughter would have started her journey in formal education next year. So we lose an entire year at home. We have been reassured by anecdotal evidence that she will cope, and because she’s bright and self-motivated, she will “do well.” Our response is, “Yes, that’s great. We agree. But we wanted that to start when she’s actually of compulsory school age.”

charlie and lola too small for school

Read by Pre-School Platinum of YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8fdu9PMgNo

There is a universe of common sense in the Charlie and Lola book, I am Too Absolutely Small to Go to School. In it, Charlie asks four-year old Lola, “Don’t you want to read words?” and Lola answers “I don’t need to read words and I’ve got all my books in my head. If I can’t remember, I can just make them up.” Lola eventually consents to go off to school, but on her terms. And the school depicted in Charlie and Lola is hardly one of ‘schooliforms’ and rules and formal lessons.

We understand that not all children have the supportive, loving and stimulating homes they so very much deserve, and that this is behind the impetus of the current government to consider the start of formal education at an even earlier age. But is starting formal education in the tender ages going to be the answer to Britain’s social problems? Because it does seem as if recent gestures by Education ministers are aimed at curing social problems rather than reforming the Education system.

And clearly, the research presented by Cambridge, states that the start of formal education, to promote educational goals, needs to go in the OTHER direction.

So here we are, stuck in a malfunctioning politico-educational system in which academics, educators, and parent-led groups are becoming advocates for childrens’ rights and doing battle against Education policy makers and politicians who can’t see the forest for the trees. As a reminder, the government’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that there is an “obligation to ensure that the child’s best interests are appropriately integrated and consistently applied in every action taken by a public institution.”

The Research and Political Action

“A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including Whitebread, published in the Daily Telegraph  (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).

We were curious about where the UK stands in relation to the rest of Europe on this matter and, indeed, how these children are faring in comparison with ours.  Compulsory ages for the start of school throughout Europe from the National Foundation for Educational Research’s web site:

4

Northern Ireland

5

Cyprus, England, Malta, Scotland, Wales

6

Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey

7

Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania , Poland, Serbia, Sweden

So have you seen now that the countries who start later have the best results from education?

Let’s use research—-our own and that of the experts–to help determine Education policy that’s in our childrens’ best interest. Let’s leave the anecdotal evidence to the chat boards.

Please read David Whitebread’s original article here.

In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four.  A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph  (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being). – See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence#sthash.MpcyBeRB.dpuf
Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest. – See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence#sthash.MpcyBeRB.dpuf
Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest. – See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence#sthash.MpcyBeRB.dpuf

Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.

In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously

David Whitebread

– See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence#sthash.MpcyBeRB.dpuf

A Little Moomin Lovin’

Cherry-picking from the Guardian’s Culture section this morning reminded us of one of our favourite library finds.

moomin and the little ghost

Tove Jansson was born in Helsingfors, Finland, in 1914. Her mother was a caricaturist who designed 165 of Finland’s stamps and her father was a sculptor. She studied painting in Finland, Sweden and France, and subsequently became a book illustrator. Her extraordinary illustrative style is seen as a design classic the world over. Originally written in Swedish, the Moomintroll books have been translated into 34 languages and adapted for television, film, radio and opera. Tove Jansson lived alone on a small island in the gulf of Finland, where most of her books were written. She died in 2001. (from Amazon.co.uk)

. . . just remembering the joy of reading words like ‘Moomintroll’ and ‘Moominmama’ with my children.  And this one was useful as well since Moomin and his pal Snorkmaiden had to conquer their fear of ghosts during their holiday at the lighthouse–we’ve had discussions of crocodiles and monsters under the bed, so Moomin became a handly little hero for us.

Besides that, the illustrations are so very funny and endearing, odd but in a good way, as the Scandinavian imagination seems to produce. It’s good that trolls can be endearing, surely.

We were sad when Moomin finally went back to the library’s shelves and are searching for his further adventures!

Sadly, Chae Strathie did not choose any Moomin books in her “Top Ten Utterly Zingbobulous Nonsense Words in Childrens’ Books” list, but she found plenty of other goodies.

Off to Tend to His Workshop

MarquezI wept this morning upon reading that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. I cannot explain why except to say that this man’s writing and life captured many essential things for me. Throughout my life, in the Americas and now in Europe, he has travelled with me, living on my bookshelves and in my thoughts. A constant. They have carved a space in the world for old-fashioned things like play and dreaming. Unlike any other writer, for me, Gabo’s writing resonates with uncompromising truth and expresses the true rhythms of life and history in the Americas in its so-called ‘magical realist’ style. To me, it just seemed like reality.

Rest in peace, Gabo. I will visit you often among the shelves.

 

Learning patience, Showing patience

Some thoughts on this and on I’m Small and Other Verses, by Lilian Moore and Jill McElmurry (Illustrator) – Walker Books, London

I can be ridiculously impatient. I find hours inside a single minute. Even waiting for toast. I resent queuing; I shop online. I stare down the little green man in the box at the road crossing. Better yet, I walk a different way to avoid him and so I can walk at my own pace.

But now I am raising children and, finally, learning patience. I think. I can’t get away with just doing things now that they’re getting older, I mean. I have to show them the right way and be a good. . . gulp. . . role model for them.

We’re in the toddler and pre-school stages at home. Of course, this is when children begin their march to independence and more things, they insist, must be done “all by myself.” They brush their teeth. A little. . . They put on their clothes. All of them. They feed themselves. And their clothing. And you just have to sit back and let them. You have to give up your need to get it done quickly and without making an unholy mess. Well, at least I think so. I’ve known some parents to continue doing things for their children well into adulthood. Quite famously, a 30-something work acquaintance who still lived with her mother ate a packed lunch every day, made by her mother, which contained grapes, peeled and halved. But this is probably a bit extreme for an example.

As a parent, letting go can be a little difficult, but it’s all good when you realise that you’re helping them become competent human beings. And, really, I never peeled their grapes. Or cut them in half. Gasp!

Back to topic. I’ve had to create a space for patience in my life. It’s not about me anymore, after all. Not now. It’s about showing and teaching the right ways, being unselfish with all of those moments I could maximise or not interfering with someone figuring out how to get on her tippy toes to get on and off the tricycle. She might fall, I whisper to myself, but stop at rushing over for fear that she will fall. The grass is soft underneath. Within the day, she has done it. And I get to feel proud because I was patient.

Tonight, we read poetry at bedtime. We are learning together to have patience with words and concepts. To act out phrases in a poem, to look forward to our favourite parts without skipping over everything else to get there. It’s hard. They’re excited by their favourite things. I get that. But I want my children to have the patience and desire to admire and appreciate a work of art, to take a walk or complete a project just for the pleasure of it. I do have patience with these important things, and so does my husband. And we are trying to temper our various shows of impatience with the trivial things. . . to set a good example.

i'm smallWe borrowed I’m Small and Other Verses from the library. This is our first book of contemporary poetry. It’s good. The images are simple, but rich. Thematically, the poems belong to Autumn / Winter and favourite early childhood objects–peanut butter, a snowsuit, sand, finger paints. Some rhyme, others do not; they are written from the child’s point of view–very important as this is allows your child to connect directly with the poems. The illustrations are charming and a little whimsical, encouraging you to read the visual images alongside the words without overwhelming the words. They show how one can be patient and restrained, yet keep your own personality.

The title poem, for example, is illustrated beautifully–a young girl sits on a tree swing with her dog. It’s a windy, Autumn day. She tells us that the trees are tall so they can resist the strong wind. And that the walls of her house are strong enough too. But there’s a logical concession at the end:

text from i'm smalThe cadence in the poem allows you to unwrap the images when reading aloud. And it’s fun to play with the shapes in the poem, too–the tall trees, the strong wind, the wind tickling the tummies of the tall trees. . . you get the idea.

It was the perfect way to end a day we spent out at the park, picking up pine cones, playing in the grass, learning to ride the tricycle and the scooter, making new friends and playing an impromptu game of leapfrog or ‘find the box of raisins’. A day which ended with my fearless daughter confessing that she was frightened of going to sleep because a wolf was going to eat her (Little Red Riding Hood can be overenthusiastically told). We talked about the little girl in “I’m Small” and how brave she was: Why she decided that it was better to hold on tight and enjoy the swing on a windy day rather than go inside. Why my daughter could figure out a way to make the wolf go away (she will throw water at said wolf) rather than winge about it. Why I decided to brave the variable British spring weather to enjoy a day out rather than stay inside.

For my two-year old who likes to point to things that she knows–especially if they belong to her–the last poem in the collection is her favourite. Growing, from I'm small

The illustration is the one on the cover, the little girl standing on a book to reach the mirror and finding that today she is finally tall enough to see her nose. And my littlest one shouts “nose,” even before I begin reading the poem. She gets it, too, in her way. Now we just have to keep it up.

Now for the precipitous ending. Parents like me are fighting an uphill battle. There is so much out there to seduce our children into short-term gratification. Our visual culture beckons wonderful and colourful things to gobble up. Why bother picking up a pencil to write or draw something yourself when you can watch other people do it endlessly on tele? Why create when you can consume so easily? Creating is hard, after all. Consuming. . .not so hard at all.

A Twist of Real Estate

The UK’s literary heritage is one of its greatest attractions. I love walking in and around London or wherever I am, imagining the way it might have looked to the writer, what inspiration was derived. . . I get really geekified and happy inside.

We’ve done the romantic day out to Stratford-upon-Avon, had a beer in the pub where Shakespeare met his mates. It was, to be perfectly honest, way too tourist-trappish for my liking. I like my history a little less polished, a little more DaVinci Code-esque.

I’ve driven through Purfleet, in Essex, on my way to the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes (excellent day out with the girls), stopping to look around and reminding myself of those chapters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which the Count visits London, sheltering in the earth there by day. And whenever I see ‘Gravesend’ on a map or road sign, I can’t help but think of the first chapter of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

P1010155 One of my favourite outings was with my then-boyfriend, now-husband on a quest/trek for the old Wollstonecraft – Shelley family graves in St. Pancras Old Church yard. I’m a monstrous Mary Shelley fan, and I wished to visit the place of her inspiration. I had read that she visited her mother’s grave often, just to talk. Our search wasn’t easy. We sneaked our way through a few construction barriers as the new station was under construction and no one we asked had ever heard of it. But we found it (sort of. . . the bodies had been moved to Bournemouth and the entire cemetary emptied of its souls to build the new train links). Anyhow, photo snapped and experience accomplished.

I’ve walked the streets of Bath, thinking a little of Austen, but more of my 7 1/2 month protruding belly and how nice it would feel when I finally made it out of the sweltering July heat and into the mineral spa for a nice swim. But I could make the connection between the fine city with its beautiful architecture and Austen’s accounts of balls and beaus.

But then some encounters just leave you with the taste of grey in your mouth. Yesterday, we took the train into London for our little one’s hospital appointment. Something in the Metro caught my eye. A word about Oliver Twist. OOH. BUT, the writers of this illustrious rag wished to inform that the site of the workhouse upon which Dickens based Oliver Twist was now a mega mansion which has sold for millions. And I thought. . . How sad. That building, inside of which horrible things happened, but where beauty emerged–who doesn’t love the victory of ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’–is gone. And I thought about how stupidly ordinary this mega mansion would be despite the posh fixings and super-luxurious rooms against the history of one of the greatest novels .. . EVER.

Sigh. I am an unabashed antagonist of progress sometimes. Especially about things like this. And as yesterday was World Book day, I thought about how sad it was that this paper (and the Daily Mail) chose to report a story about a GREAT book as this kind of money-focused real estate “scoop” rather than find a story that could just celebrate a book.

And really this means a third layer of sadness: that this is what WE want to read and know and experience. Say it ain’t so.