Playing by the Book

Are you genuinely allowing your child to learn through play?

Throughout my blogs I like to suggest activities for parents to try in order to help them show their children how books and reading can be fun. Remember that little word show that I used.

I took some time the other day to peruse some of the many colourful blogs which light up my WordPress feed when one particular one held my attention.

Its title was Why I Don’t Like Play Based Learning posted by Happiness is Here.

It was a bold statement. It was intriguing. I thought the blog was honest, well written and challenging. I loved it.

However they cited an activity designed to encourage reading so I felt I needed to respond.

I couldn’t argue the sentiment; the article was spot on when it pointed out that the popular so called play based learning is usually led by adults and not children. Yet above all it was the fact that the word play was being used to describe adult led activities which had initiated the writer’s concern. This made me question some things. Are there set rules for what play is or isn’t? Can’t play be anything that the participant finds enjoyable? If so, if the child is a willing participant in an adult led activity and enjoys it, is that not considered a form of playing? Is it true that play by definition can never be directed and where does that leave me and my fun book related activities? I think I may be guilty of using the phrase learning through play from time to time.

My understanding of the article was that they too feel that, what I call fun learning activities have their place but they also made the valid point that a distinction should be made between whether the activities are child led or adult led. Child led play is an entertaining and enjoyable way in which the child chooses to occupy themselves opposed to a planned activity an adult has instructed them to do. The difference is that there’s an intention or ultimate goal behind the playful and fun activity created by the adult whereas child led play has no expectations or set path; it’s about learning through exploration and it hasn’t been pre-planned; there’s no wrong of right way to play, it’s the result of a child responding to their immediate environment.

So why is this free unstructured play so important and how can it be incorporated into encouraging reading?

More and more parents want to teach their children how to question and think for themselves and for me reading is one such powerful tool which can enable this process of brain development to bloom naturally. Ironically what some people aren’t aware of is that one of the best ways to help children think for themselves is to leave them to do as they please and omit all the good intentioned controlling measures, expectations and structures the adult has planned.

Play Drawing on Books

To implement child led story making and reading activities this would involve leaving your child in a safe environment which includes piles of assorted books on a blanket, magazines positioned in various places within the immediate area as well as a choice of other objects, toys and activities made available. No instructions should be provided except to make sure the child is aware that you’re there if they need you and that they can do whatever they like as long as it’s enjoyable to them and not harmful to themselves or others. Although the books are the main focus, it’s important that there are alternative options to books. This can be magnetic letters, posters, puppets, toy animals, paper and pencils etc to encourage imaginary or role play. The idea is that you’re making the tools available but the choice of how, what and for how long they use them for is up to them.

Play Standing on Books

This will be a difficult concept for many of you to grasp as it means letting go of some deeply ingrained social expectations. Why? Because the results could be anything ranging from the child conventionally reading or looking through the books, completely ignoring the books and pursuing another activity, building book towers, playing shops or schools with the books, bending the books to scribbling on the books and cutting out the pictures and sticking them on their bedroom walls (gasp). Some would call this unruly, irresponsible or even lazy parenting as for many it’s a giant leap away from the controlling, structured and over protective world we live in.

Play Sleeping and Sitting on Books

So how does this approach benefit the child? If you can manage to resist interfering, make no judgements and keep calm at the results your child will have achieved an independent new understanding of the world, through trial and error where their actions have come from a sheer desire or curiosity to learn and discover. A room filled with books and other activities where they’re given free reign takes the fear out of having to read so by leaving them to their own devices they no longer feel threatened by the expectation to read and soon find the fun in books and the chances are that their natural curiosity will take over and lead them to pick up a book one day and want to work out what the words mean.

Play Books on Your Head

For me the title play based learning suggests learning which incorporates the concepts of play into the foundations of the activity so I don’t see an issue with using the word play as such as it’s not actually defining play itself. I do on the other hand think we should be more mindful that as important as these fun learning activities are they are still showing or even dictating to your child what and how to do something. So if I were to label it, perhaps I would call it directed or guided play learning or if you really wanted to omit the word play, directed fun learning. If you want a child to learn for themselves, provide the tools and the environment and then just let them be, it’s as easy as that. The hardest part will be letting go of your control because if you’re governed by time or you’re seeking a certain result which you perceive to be right then child led play isn’t the approach for you. Although if you do try it, you might find it’s not just your child who feels liberated.

To learn more the following blog I found provides an excellent explanation of child-led play: The Adult Role in Child-led Play – How to Become a Learning Ally by Nature Play.

The Evils of Flashcards


I remember my mum waving flashcards in front of my face as a child. I think they were probably considered one of the “how to be a good parent” tools of the 70’s. Parenting trends are a bit like the articles I see instructing us on what we should and shouldn’t be eating; they change according to the advertiser’s needs – sorry I mean the latest research. It seems advice changes so frequently that unbeknown to us we’re probably all in a constant state of confusion about everything as nobody really knows what they should or shouldn’t be doing for the best. It appears it’s no different when it comes to finding ways of supporting and encouraging our children to read when often the information available can be just as conflicting.

I don’t really think flashcards are an evil reading tool, I don’t feel traumatised by my experience of them as a child either or that they impaired my reading skills in any way but some have proposed a number of convincing arguments to the contrary.

Let’s get critical.

The biggest criticism of flashcards is that they limit interpretation. As they lead the reader towards the association of a single picture with a single word they are not allowing for variance of a word such as the type of dog, car or colour for instance. This suggests flashcards are only teaching a child how to associate a word with a picture through sight opposed to understanding it and learning to read.
Another criticism is that as the words on flashcards are out of context they serve to introduce an unnecessary additional layer in the steps required to interpret and understand a word when it is in context. In everyday terms this means they guide the reader into taking the long route to learning.

Hail praise to all flashcards.

On the other hand retaining a number of words by sight (reading them as seen, opposed to sounding them out) is considered a good thing because it allows for smoother, more continuous reading which gives the brain more time to think about meaning and comprehension.

In addition for those who have a dominant visual memory flashcards can act as an added aid for imprinting the word formation in the reader’s mind through the use of colour, shape and images.

As parents, it is our natural instinct to want to do the right thing for our children (whatever that may be) and if taken verbatim, it is contradictory advice like this which can feed the innate panic mechanism within us . However if you’re searching the internet for the “right thing to do” or solely relying on small scientific studies to appease your fears you are missing a vital ingredient; and that is to trust your own judgement.

Many articles are only one person’s opinion and many of the studies have only been conducted on a minuscule percentage of the population where their sole purpose is to uncover a similarity within differences in order to neatly file any traits or habits under one category. It never does any harm to question if a study is truly looking for the ultimate answer that we seek or if the researchers are merely looking for the answer that they think it is?

That’s not to say that all the information we find is nonsense but it does mean that the information that may be right for one person may not be right for the next. So when it comes to helping your own children to read, don’t limit yourself to one isolated method or be afraid to explore new methods and techniques but discover the options and give yourself a break. Listen to your gut feeling as to which methods you think are best suited to your child.

Further links on the topic of flashcards:

Ditch the books and flashcards! You can’t teach a baby how to read, claim experts – Mail Online.

Sight Words Flashcards and Tips for Early Reading – School Sparks.

Teaching with Flashcards? – Flashcards Guru.

(Don’t Make Me Say the F-Word) Flashcard-Free Vocabulary – Cochlear Implant Online.

Picture Book Craft: Everyone is Carrot Rating

Wanted Ralfy Rabbit Book Burglar 2

WANTED! Ralfy Rabbit Book Burglar by children’s author and illustrator Emily MacKenzie (published by Bloomsbury Publishing 2015) has been awarded a googolflex carrot rating in our household. We got the idea from Ralfy himself who loves reading and gives every book he reads a special carrot rating. So I thought perhaps by spreading more of Ralfy’s carrots around, his love of reading could become infectious and encourage many more children to read.

So please follow the instructions to print out your own Little Book of Carrot Ratings to help make bedtime reading even more fun.

Step 1: First you will need some carrots… a maximum of five per book rating. Here are twenty four on one page so print onto card as many times as needed.

Carrots x24

Step 2: Next cut out the carrots individually and put blu tac on the back of each one so they can stick to the score cards.

Carrots Cut

Step 3: Cut one piece of A4 orange card in half to make the front and back covers for your book.

Step 4: Print out the following two carrot score cards. Cut out and stick onto card of any colour. You need one score card for every book being rated so this image can be printed multiple times as required. The score card has room for the title of the book, a space to draw a picture about the book and a maximum of five carrots.

Carrot Rating Sheet x2

Step 5: For the book cover, print the following image onto a sheet of paper and stick one onto one half of the A4 orange card. (I’ve included two cover images as I needed one per child).

Carrot Book Cover

Step 6: Punch a hole at the top left hand corner of the front and back covers and any carrot score cards. Use a split pin or treasury tag to attach them together so it is easy to undo and insert a new carrot rating at any time.

Little Book of Carrot Ratings

Now your Little Book of Carrot Ratings is complete and ready to help you rate your books from 1-5 carrots. Five being the most delicious! The carrot scores can easily be removed and changed at any time and enough carrot score cards can be added until the novelty wears off.

It’s very simple to do. Have fun!

PB Craft Ralfy Rabbit

CLICK TO BUY Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar



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10 Quick Reading Activities for Children.

Back by popular demand, this time I’ve put together some quick and simple activities to encourage reading and aid spelling. There are so many opportunities throughout the day to help our children to read and so many little ways to make it fun. Whether it’s adapting a familiar game, going on a treasure hunt or baking some edible letters, these activities don’t have to be time consuming and can easily be incorporated into any little person’s life.

1. Eat Your Words

Follow a simple biscuit recipe and use letter cutters to make words. We were making some cheesy biscuits for a party, so instead of making them round as we usually would, we cut out letter shapes so the boys could make words with them once they were baked. They asked how to spell words, they read each others and it became a game of who can come up with the silliest words.

Quick Reading Eat Your Words

2. Secret Messages.

Finding a secret message always brings a smile to my boys faces. It’s a way for me to say I’m thinking of them even when they’re not with me. I don’t do it every day because I tend to leave it for special purposes, like a birthday, a treat or letting them know about a special day out or a fun activity together. I find if it’s something they are going to look forward to doing or having they are more likely to read the note (which is the main purpose of the notes after all). They would be less inclined to read a note telling them to clean their room!

Quick Reading Secret Messages

3. What Am I?

A quick printable activity. The children must read five clue words to come up with the answer to “what am I?”.

Quick Reading What Am I

4. Street Names.

This one is easy to play when you’re out and about walking to the shops or on a long car journey. Get your children used to reading new words and names by spotting the different street names. Who can be the first to spot a lane? What are we walking along? Is it a street or a close?

Quick Reading Street Names

5. Read a Recipe.

Children love to help with stirring and sieving and licking the bowl! Ask them to read out the recipe to you as you follow the steps together.

Quick Reading Recipe

6. Playdoh Printing.

Use plastic cutters to make letter imprints in playdoh. Build letters into words and words into short sentences to aid reading and spelling.

Quick Reading Playdoh Letters

7. Rhyming Dominoes.

Another quick printable for a twist on the traditional dominoes game. Cut out the domino tiles and split between all players. Try and match each word with a rhyming word.

Quick Reading Rhyming Dominoes 1

Quick Reading Rhyming Dominoes 2

8. Lego Letter Race.

Choose a simple word. It’s a race to see who can make the word with Lego the fastest. Each player uses a large flat Lego tile to display their word.

Quick Reading Lego Letters

9. Scrabble Swap.

For this activity we used junior scrabble tiles but if you don’t have any to hand it’s just as easy to type and print out some letters onto card but make sure there are plenty of vowels in the mix.

Quick Reading Scrabble Swap

10. Follow the Clues.

The promise of treasure at the end of the clues is enough to get any reluctant reader to at least try and work them out! Hand them the first clue and make sure the second clue is where the first clue tells them to go and so on until they discover the last clue and need to find the promised treasure. You can copy and print the clues below or use your own to send them on an adventure round the house.

Quick Reading Follow the Clues 1

Quick Reading Follow the Clues 2

Words are everywhere, look around and point them out as children will naturally be curious to read something if it looks interesting to them.

What are your favourite reading activities?

Creating Stories using Art and Play: Part 1 – Sand Stories

Sand Stories Pinterest

One way to encourage reading is to inspire a love of storytelling. Enjoyment of stories stems from not only reading them but listening to them being read, watching them being acted out and above all creating your own stories. Making up stories isn’t just about sitting down with a pen and paper and writing down any words that come to mind. To make up a good story it helps to have a visually creative mind so you are effectively watching the story unfold with the images you conjure up inside your head. However to imagine something visually doesn’t come easily to everyone so sometimes the use of a visual tool is what’s needed to prompt the creative visualisation inside.

A few weeks ago we saw these amazing sand sculptures at Sand World in Weymouth, Dorset. A couple of my favourites (as pictured above) were Alice in Wonderland by Daniel Doyle and The Gruffalo, Wild Thing plus other characters by Andy Lee. As we had no plans to go to the beach this half term I decided to have some fun with the kids today and bring the beach to us instead. So armed with our little play table of sand, numerous stones, driftwood, shells, two little boy’s lolly sticks (minus the devoured ice cream) and yet more stones we had previously stowed in our pockets from beach days gone by, we set about making our own sand stories.

Below: Preparation underway.

Sand Story Making

Below: Sea monster lurking amidst the waves.

Sand Stories Sea 3

Below: Snap-a-tron and Rock Monster fly to the moon.

Sand Stories Snapotron 3

Below: Turtle aliens invade.

Sand Stories Turtle 3

Ok, so ours are not quite as impressive as the ones we saw at Sand World in Weymouth but by creating these pictures the kids were able to develop an original story in their own minds. It was a gradual process. We didn’t have any pre-prepared ideas, we just started making funny creatures, then built a scene around them and slowly the story started to unfold. The children began to talk about their characters, what they did and how they behaved, whether the story took place at night or daytime, at sea or on land. We told our stories verbally between us but if you wanted to take it to the next level any pictures created can serve as a fun writing prompt too.

This was very simple to do and so much fun!

Creating Stories using Art and Play: PART 2 – Stories in Shadow.

Creating Stories using Art and Play: PART 3 – Paintbrush Plays.

Step Away From the Books!

Boy Climbing TreeImage courtesy of Prawny at

Promoting reading and insisting parents should take every opportunity to get their child to read to them is all very well when we have a child who is willing and able but what happens when our child flatly refuses to try and the more we persevere the more their inventive diversion tactics frustrate us rather than entertain us? We ignore that growing grimace of course as we instruct our curt demands over the blubbering tears and our patience teeters dangerously close to being non-existent. Then we hit that ultimate test. The wailing; the incessant banshee wail that both grates on our ears and pounds at our heart as we’re left feeling like the cruellest parent that ever lived!

There are very few parents who cannot identify with this scenario at some point. It may not necessarily be related to reading but if it is something like reading it can be particularly hard when we are constantly being bombarded with information on how important it is for our child’s development and future success. Letting our children down is probably right up there as one of our greatest fears as parents. So what’s the answer, keep going no matter what, get stricter with our regime and get firmer with our expectations?

Oh no! Step away from the books! Do something completely different. Ironically cutting out the expectation to read can be the first step towards a love of reading.

It may sound like a contradiction but having a break from something which causes anxiety can be a way of recharging the batteries and learning how to look at things from a different perspective. The school holidays are the perfect excuse to do just this. Take away the pressure, forget about the targets and lay off with the demands, get outside and focus on having some good old fashioned fun. We don’t usually have to go very far, maybe a nearby beach or playground, a wood or field or even our own back garden is bursting with opportunity for adventure and exploration. But what does this have to do with reading? The key is experience.

My husband and I had a good reminder of this over the Easter weekend. We were in the front garden trying to salvage our previously drastic approach to gardening (ripping everything out to start over again) by installing some new fencing and pretty flowers. Our two boys were happily cycling round in circles from the front to back garden. Later I go in to make dinner, husband starts painting fence and boys continue their circuit – or so I thought! I call for dinner. No response. I call for dinner again. I can hear some chattering in the garden and my eldest comes bounding in with the biggest grin on his face followed by a slightly pale looking stunned father clutching his phone and handing me a photo to look at. OMG!

The photo was of my eldest at the top of the tallest fir tree in our garden which is about 25 foot tall! I flashed him a glance so my brain could compute that he was actually in one piece. Realising all arms and legs were still attached naturally my next concern was how he got past all the spiders nesting inside the tree (and maybe even a few zombies) then as I slowly relaxed I heard a WOW drift from my mouth.

“Feel how hot my hands are mum. It’s really brown in the middle mum. I climbed up the spine as the branches were thicker there. I could see right across the field mum.”

What happened here was that he hadn’t just read about someone else climbing a tree, instead he had felt what it was like to climb it, the strength it took and what it looked like on the inside and how far he could see from that height. No amount of reading can replace personal experience but personal experience can encourage reading. How? Because experience is how we find out where our interests lie and an interest in what you’re reading is paramount for it to remain enjoyable. Find out what excites them, what makes them feel proud, what keeps them motivated, what gives them a sense of achievement. Sometimes we need a reason to read and only then can we appreciate what merits it can hold for us. It may be as simple as finding a book about trees, the best trees to climb, being a lumberjack or the science behind why our hands get hot when climbing.

So let’s rewind this scenario and pretend it was me who found him up the tree. Can I honestly say the result would have been the same – I’d like to think so but probably not – it’s more likely that panic would have turned me into a caterwauling maniac! Not unlike the frightened wailing banshee child struggling to read!