Archives for February 2011

Converting Food Technology to Family Tea

Jo Lamiri Jo Lamiri | 13:56 UK time, Sunday, 27 February 2011


With Shrove Tuesday looming, it’s a safe bet that Food Technology classes around the country – if your school is lucky enough to have Food Technology as a subject – will be flipping and beating for all they’re worth, then coming home and wielding the pancake pan for the family. 

For eleven years, our daughter Milly would rather do just about anything than cook with me at home. Maybe she saw it as drudgery or maybe she thought her food writer mother would be too hard on her. Then, just a few weeks into the autumn term at her senior school, she was proudly arriving home with squashed fairy cakes, pasta in silky cheese sauce and cheese scones. 

fresh pancakes @ kmit -


Luckily for us, this interest has extended to family meals. Tentatively, I suggested she might like to help me make a chorizo, chicken and chickpea casserole for supper one night. I read out the instructions and she chopped, sautéed and stirred... it was excellent.

And that’s the crux of it. We all need to learn how to cook so that we can feed ourselves, but with many mothers lacking knowledge too, it doesn’t bode well for home cooking in the future. Over-consumption of ready meals and processed foods will also have implications for obesity, not to mention that they cost a lot more than cooking from scratch. The last government recognised this, pledging to teach Food Technology in all secondary schools by 2011, although this may now be under review.

If your children are reluctant to cook with you or lack confidence, praise their efforts and tell them how delicious it is. Encourage them to try new ingredients and invest in cookbooks that don’t just focus on cakes and biscuits. (The Sam Stern books are great for teens – especially boys, who love to see a fellow male wielding the wooden spoon.)

In 2008, the government produced a booklet called Real Meals with 32 different meals that 11 year olds and upwards can try. You might want to suggest your child picks a recipe from here - you can download them for free from the department of education website.

In Food Technology (a friend and I refer to it as ‘being FT’d when your child announces the evening before a class that she needs to take Parmesan, fresh thyme and eggs in tomorrow) the syllabus builds slowly, taking in basic techniques at first to give the children something to build on – and developing their confidence. A good approach at home is to talk to them about what they made at school whether they liked it or not and variations on the theme: pasta sauces, pizza and risotto are all excellent for this. 

It’s also very helpful if your child masters a technique or dish that you find difficult. My own culinary bête noire is pastry – Milly’s is light and flaky, so I was quick to tell her how good it was. 

Another positive effect of Food Technology is that Milly is becoming more interested in food generally and a less fussy eater. There’s still room for choice, though. In a recent Food Technology competition, she opted to make profiteroles, with a trial run at home. An adventurous choice. The ones at home were brilliant; at school she ended up with choux scrambled eggs and her cream wouldn’t whip. Oh dear. But at least she could smile about it. 

Jo Lamiri is the editor of Delia Smith's website and a member of the Guild of Food Writers.


Chance to dance

Alison Allen Alison Allen | 10:03 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011


With programmes such as “Strictly come dancing” and “So you think you can dance”, once again dance is back in the public domain. Dance is on the agenda for every PE department both at primary and secondary school. And Anne Widdecombre commented recently that ballroom dancing should be promoted in schools as well, not just on TV.

BBC School Report tells of how students at one school, Shoreditch Technology College, have been receiving ballroom dancing lessons from dancers at the Walton Clubmoor Community Centre in exchange for sharing their internet skills.

Dance has so many benefits. The obvious one is that it keeps you fit, makes you more aware of your body, is creative and fun. You don’t have to make it your life’s ambition. Like in any sport, it causes your body to release endorphins which stimulate the brain, so it helps with study too.

Students will learn about core stability and the use of their muscles. By working on this, they will be able to cope much better with their muscle weakness (which is caused by their bones growing before their muscles). As they get older, they will become far more aware of their posture too and it also promotes good discipline. 

Even if your child does not keep going with dance, it gives them a very good grounding for any physical activity, as I discovered with my own two children - now teenagers. My son has had comments on his good footwork both in tennis and rugby, which was the result of having done ballet for several years. Dance has also helped my daughter with her gymnastics. In fact, all professional gymnasts have to do ballet to help with muscle tone.

Two graceful ballet dancers performing against black background @ Yuri Arcurs -

The Royal Ballet has an education department which runs outreach programmes. A few years ago, they launched one called Chance To Dance which aims to make dance more accessible. They select children who they feel show promise and give them an opportunity to take dance lessons free of charge and currently work with 20 London schools. Some of these children have gone on to have a career in dance and have even been invited to join the Royal Ballet School and company.

Although girls still dominate in the world of dance, over the last few years I have noticed more boys getting involved in the wake of “Billy Elliot” hitting the West End.  Now in one of the classes I teach, I actually have more boys than girls. The challenge for me as a dance specialist is to channel their energy through dance and enhance the curriculum in a creative way.

Recently the whole exam structure has changed so that dance is now under the education banner. More and more secondary schools are offering “Dance” as a GCSE option. For schools where dance is high on the agenda,  they will often bring in specialist dance teachers and will also ask educational dance companies to come in and perform or give workshops. 

Many schools offer free after-school clubs in dance. Some of these take the form of taster sessions in different forms of dance, such as street dance, lindy hopping, or line dancing. The DanceVote 2010 has been a key player in achieving better funding for youth dance – in 2008 an extra £5.5 million was pledged for dance in the UK. Grade six in ballet and other types of dance qualifies applicants for extra points on UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service) forms and CV’s.

If your child is interested in dance lessons, you can search for classes in your area on the internet or ask other parents for recommendations. Another place to look is the Council for Dance Education and Training. As a dance teacher, I believe that whether I am teaching beginners or more advanced students, the most important thing I can offer them is to nurture and inspire them.

Alison Allen runs a ballet school in South London. 

February half term can be fun!

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 15:45 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011

Comments (1)

February half term isn’t an easy time of year to keep the children entertained, but with a little planning and imagination, it can be fun for all the family.

For years we’ve had a rainy day box full of treasures, that we only bring out when the weather is bad or we are really desperate! It’s a large cardboard box - decorating it was a fun project in itself – and includes craft items, games, jigsaws, puzzles and activities printed from the internet. I adapt the contents every so often, as the children’s interests change. For this half term, my daughter suggested we also make a lucky dip box: we write activities on separate pieces of paper, mix them all up in the box and take turns to pick out something to do.

Craft activities are popular with most children. If you need inspiration, take a look at the CBeebies and CBBC websites. My children also enjoy creating a miniature indoor garden out of craft materials, making and decorating paper aeroplanes, making collages, painting pebbles (choose light ones and varnish when finished) and junk modelling - so keep hold of empty boxes, plastic bottles etc.

child's hand with paper plane @ D Leonis - fotolia

Other indoor activities include a treasure hunt (hide unusual objects around the home or write some simple clues), an indoor picnic or camping (you don’t need a tent – just a sheet over a table, cushions/sleeping bags and torches), a puppet or magic show, a tea party for friends or teddies. When everyone’s exhausted, make popcorn, dim the lights and watch a favourite DVD or film on TV. 

Children of all ages love hands-on science and you can create indoor tornadoes, volcanoes and edible crystals in your kitchen with basic ingredients. Baking is also a good rainy day activity and CBeebies I Can Cook has plenty of recipes that younger children can follow. Play cafes or hold a cake sale when the baking is complete. 

Older children can have fun making their own movie and if you have a computer and some editing software (free with many PCs), they can edit, add music and special effects. Or set them a challenge to go out and photograph 10 unusual or photogenic items in your area (eg a spotty dog, a pink house, a tree in blossom). They can even take part in the amazing Tate Movie project and submit drawings, sound effects, jokes and story line ideas to create a nationwide animated film by children and for children online. 

If you decide to go out and about, take a look at special offers from train operating companies as there are often discounts to various attractions, if you travel by train. The National Trust runs children’s half term activities at many locations - try Enjoy EnglandVisit Scotland or Visit Wales as well as the regional tourist boards, for special offers and activities in your region. Remember, it’s usually cheaper to book tickets online. Also some attractions will accept loyalty points (from supermarkets, for example) or you can find money-off vouchers, if you search online. 

Museums and art galleries often have free events on in the holidays - visit the Culture24 website to find what’s on in your area or pop into your local library. Keep museum visits short and check online or visit the information desk first, to find out what’s on for children. Or discover history on your doorstep with the help of BBC Hands on History. Just click on the map to find activities in your area plus there are ideas for indoor and outdoor family activities and tips on finding out what life used to be like on your high street.

For a cheap day out it’s hard to beat a bicycle ride, if the weather is fine. Check out Sustrans for tips on cycling with children and suitable cycle routes in your area. Going for a walk isn’t usually top of children’s lists of fun activities, but with advance planning you can discover plenty of walks with places of interest en route. For useful tips, log on to the Ramblers Association website. The Woodland Trust recommends some excellent outdoor and indoor nature activities or type in your postcode on BBC Breathing Places and discover places in your area where you can get close to nature.

Closer to home, there’s plenty to do in the garden which can involve children. Even if you don’t have a garden or it’s wet outside, you’ll find ideas for indoor planting and activities.

If all else fails, your children could tidy their rooms. Get past the moans and groans and they’ll have fun emptying cupboards and discovering forgotten toys. Just don’t expect their bedrooms to be tidy at the end of it.

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.


Can you help your child learn to read?

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 07:51 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Learning to read can be stressful for parents and children alike. With so many complicated sounding terms used by educationalists and in the media when discussing reading  - synthetic phonics, analytic phonics, graphemes and phonemes - it's no wonder many parents worry about doing the right thing.

So what does all the jargon actually mean? How much support should you give them at home?  What should you do if your child wants to learn to read before school, and will you interfere with what will be learned in future if you try to help?

I am a trained primary school teacher and a mother of two pre-schoolers, so I feel in a good position to explain some of the more opaque language used and to challenge some of the myths surrounding reading.

Storytime @ Matka Wariaka - Fotolia

Different methods of teaching reading go in and out of fashion.The current trend is for synthetic phonics, whereby children learn the alphabet sounds (phonemes), and most commonly used graphemes (blends or groups of letters, such as tr-, oo, -ight and so on). These are generally learned before tackling any text, with schemes such as Jolly Phonics or Oxford Reading Tree commonly used in reception classes.  

However, a lot of children will still be learning the old-fashioned way of whole-word recognition and analytic phonics (understanding the basic letter-sounds).  If the first sound of the word is recognised, the child can then work out, usually from the illustration and what has gone before in the story, what the new word is.  By repeating stories and phrases, whole words are remembered, avoiding the need to break down a word each time.

My eldest has been very keen on stories and books from an early age, and has largely learned to read by himself. We have always played games like eye-spy and both love making up silly stories, songs and rhymes as well as reading stories together. Without being formally taught, he knows the letters of the alphabet and their sounds (with help from the likes of the CBeebies Alpha Blocks)  and is able to read simple words and short stories. 

I’m not worried about him getting confused when he goes to school – although it’s not the way he’s learned so far, most synthetic phonics programmes are fun as well as being informative, so I don’t think he’ll be bored.  

As a parent, you can make reading fun and accessible for your child. If they are ready and want to read, there is no reason why you shouldn’t help them at home – you don’t need to have expert knowledge, just enthusiasm. Your local library is a great resource, with lots of early reading books as well as stories to share together. With all the talk of cuts to library services, there’s no better time to show how much we need them!  

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Walking to school - a life lesson

Jo Lamiri Jo Lamiri | 20:58 UK time, Sunday, 13 February 2011


Talk to anyone over 30 and they’ll fondly reminisce about how it used to be safe enough to walk or cycle to school. It’s no less safe now. So why are so many parents paranoid about letting little Johnnie make his own way to school? Of England’s 8.3 million schoolchildren, only 2% cycle to school yet there are plenty of benefits in walking or cycling: a bit of fresh air and exercise helps them to wake up and arrive feeling energised and ready to learn

Sadly, it seems to be part of the pervading paranoia that there’s a Bogeyman at every street corner. Last year, a couple in South London, were criticised by their children’s school for letting them cycle to school on pavements in backstreets, via a carefully mapped-out route – a distance of one mile. The nanny state was in full bate. Although many might consider an 8 and a 5 year-old to be a bit young to walk to school on their own, parents should be allowed to make their own decisions.

Girl and boy going to school in rural scenery @ Jacek Chabraszewski -

But just when should you allow your child to make their own way to school? Wrap them in cotton wool and on their first day at secondary school, (when there’s quite enough to fret about) they may be a bag of nerves at the thought of making the journey alone. And, at that age, they’re far too cool to have a parent tagging along... 

The answer is largely one of common sense. If you feel your child is mature enough; if you know that they can cross roads safely (boys under 14 often lack spatial and distance awareness so are more likely to have accidents); if the journey to school is relatively short and preferably, doesn’t involve crossing roads jammed with juggernauts, then you, as a parent, should make an informed decision.

This view is borne out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), which says “children can develop valuable life skills when they are allowed out on their own and given opportunities to experience risks and learn to cope with them. RoSPA believes that life should be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible”.

Our local primary school organises a ‘walk to school’ week, when children are encouraged to walk or cycle rather than be driven – an initiative that Mayor of London Boris Johnson is keen to foster. The PTA also organise a walking bus led by a few parents to encourage children to walk to school. The children collect ribbons as a reward and can plot their starting point on a local map on the school gate. Sustrans offers plenty of advice on walking or cycling to school.

I remember some parents calling me to question when I allowed our then primary-age children to cycle to and from school via the local common – a distance of 1.5 miles. Taking the bus was deemed even more risky yet, because I walked them to the bus stop and saw them on to the bus, it involved nothing more than being seen across the road by a lollipop lady at the other end, then a two-minute walk. As baptisms of fire go, it was barely warm. 

The sense of responsibility and independence it gave our children is paramount. Travelling alone has also made them more streetwise: at the age of 10, our daughter got off the bus a stop early then phoned me as she’d felt uneasy about a man who sat near her. 

You will know when it's the right time for you and your child to bite the bullet. In my experience, giving children some guided independence has led them to respond with enthusiasm – learning some life lessons in the process.   

Jo Lamiri is a freelance writer.

The homework debate

David Shaw David Shaw | 07:41 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011


If the world of education were a pure place, where children compete only against themselves, then I can see a place for homework. It encourages self-discipline; it helps children to work by themselves and discover how to research a subject; how to manage time and it can reinforce lessons learned during the day, through repetition and clarification. In that ideal world, it helps to encourage a work ethic.

In fact the main point of homework, is that it helps your child reinforce what they have done in school and when they are younger, provides a chance for parents to be involved in their learning too. According to the Department for Education, in primary school children should start with one hour’s homework a week in Year 1, building up to half an hour a day by Year 6. By the time they reach secondary school, levels of homework step up from 45 minutes a day in Year 7 to about two and a half hours a day, by sixth form.

Young boy doing homework @ Jacek Chebraszewski - fotolia

Personally, I don't really agree with the whole concept of homework in the early years, on the grounds that once children come home, they should be allowed to play rather than set more work. My basic idea is that children are – or should be – learning new things throughout the day. That tires the brain, leaving less energy for further learning or reinforcement later in the day. Higher up the school different issues come into play, but I'm still not entirely convinced by the arguments, until say Year 9 or 10.

Sometimes children are asked to work on a project at home, to back up the learning happening at school. My son was asked to do one such project at junior school - creating a model of a motte and bailey castle - quite a challenge for a class of 8 year-olds. Inevitably, parents are called upon to help. 

Parents are often under a lot of pressure, so trying to find the time to work on projects can be a big ask. Although these can be viewed as a bonding experience, in which parent and child work together and talk about the project, they still require a huge amount of time and often, a random selection of materials (such as old cereal boxes, coloured paper and toilet rolls), which in reality can be rather overwhelming 

So homework might provide an opportunity for parents to bond and to learn together with their child (that is if they can even do the homework their youngster is set, as in my experience, from around early secondary stage, it often is over my head). Or it might, in an increasingly competitive world, be a way for parents to give their child a helping hand in the rat race.

I think it would be great if, rather than setting homework, more teachers could additionally suggest websites or books or newspaper articles, which children can read if they want to know more and parents need have no concerns about working with their children to explore such extra resources. 

In this way, if children like the subject, they can learn more, but if they have something better to do, then there should be no compulsion to spend more time going over a topic that does not interest them.  

There is no denying it though, that when it comes to the final years of secondary school, there is no way out: homework is key if your child is to succeed in both their GCSEs and A Level/AS Level exams. 

David Shaw is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Better e-safe than sorry - Safer Internet Day

Flora Napier Flora Napier | 04:06 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011


Last week I met up with some old school friends, one evening, for a bit of a (child-free) catch up. Before the waiter had had a chance to politely interrupt us for the third time - on the vague off-chance that we might have glanced at the menu by then – the talk had turned to e-safety

There seems to have been a recent spate of stories circulating about e-safety lapses. These included one about children, in their early teens ‘sexting’ one another. Apparently, sexting is the term for sending indecent texts or images. Although most of us around the table had only heard these stories second-hand, one of the mums, a teacher, confirmed that her school had had to deal with an incident of this nature recently.

computer generation @ Jacek Chabraszewski - fotolia

There has been a small but nagging voice at the back of my mind about internet safety, for some time. My elder two boys spend quite a bit of time each week either on the computer or on their games consoles. Being the ages they are (both under ten) I tend to stay in the room when they’re online, but the conversation with my friends from the other evening has prompted me to take a serious look at what steps I should take, to avoid trouble in the future.

Whatever ages your children are, I personally think, the most important thing we, as parents, can do is keep ourselves informed about where the potential dangers lie. Once in the know, we can decide what action to take, whether it’s blocking unsuitable sites or just sitting down and having a good old-fashioned chat about the issues involved. At the same time it’s also key to get the balance right, between teaching your children to be aware and responsible, and being too alarmist.  

With younger children there are lots practical things parents can do, such as using parental control systems on computers, consoles and mobiles. 

Once children are in their teens, the whole situation can be trickier. With the threat of cyber bullying, vulnerability in chat-rooms and ‘sexting’, some parents might be tempted to take the view that a total clamp down would be the best route: no internet access on computer, consoles or phones. However, this approach could have pitfalls of its own. What teenager wants to be excluded from something all their peers are part of? On top of that, valuable skills that would otherwise be learned through online gaming and socialising - like confidence, communication and ICT skills - could be lost. 

So, is there a way to make a virtue out of the necessity of staying e-safe? Getting a teenage son or daughter to take responsibility for his or her own safety could be a good learning opportunity. A recent report from Ofsted indicates that school children who are shown more trust when using the internet, can understand and manage the risks of new technologies better, than those using ‘locked down’ online systems. In the future, my kids will probably be better placed than me, to keep across all the technological advances and the dangers therein. So I’m hoping that by trusting my children and keeping lines of communication open, without being too intrusive, they’ll know they can turn to me if and when they ever come across situations, which make them feel uncomfortable.

Today, the 8th February is Safer Internet Day organised by Insafe, a Europe-wide network of organisations, to promote “safer and more responsible use of online technology and mobile phones, especially amongst children and young people across the world”. This year the focus is on online gaming and social networking. As well as a wealth of information available on the topic of e-safety online, many schools, libraries and councils can also offer practical help and advice, such as running short courses on the technology. My local council publish an internet safety guide for parents in leaflet form - you may find yours does too. If becoming e-safe seems daunting, a trip to your local library or council offices could be a good way to get started.

Flora Napier works for BBC Learning Scotland.

Strict v. hands off - which parenting style really gets results?

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 01:07 UK time, Sunday, 6 February 2011


So you’ve got yourself one or more children and you need to know how to bring them up. Will having strict study regimes help your kids achieve academically, or should you help them become more self-sufficient, so that they will want to achieve on their own?

Never fear - there are several (hundred) books out there which will offer you advice, ranging from the cuddly Continuum Concept  (never put infants down, attend to every cry immediately, let them take the lead) to the new, uber-strict, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ by Amy Chua (don’t accept failure, ban TV and computer games, force children to practise a musical instrument of your choice for up to 3 hours a day, even if they hate it…)

Mother kissing son at beach smiling @ monkey business - fotolia

In my view, each end of the spectrum has its merits. The Continuum Concept’s ideas of keeping infants close and responding to their needs, as soon as possible, can lead to greater security and confidence in older children.

Equally, Amy Chua’s thinking is not as harsh as it first appears. Why should you accept mediocrity if you know that your child hasn’t made an effort? You’d also be mad to think that hours of TV and video games are going to help your kids finish their homework on time.

It seems ridiculous to put forward one ‘method’ of parenting, as the perfect solution. However, there is evidence to suggest that hot-housing is not always successful - psychologist, Oliver James, reports that it can, in fact, lead to depression, substance abuse and academic under-achievement. Many prodigious children turn into average adults, so perhaps it would be better to help your children be emotionally stable and self-directed, rather than focusing on their academic achievements.

Good parenting, to me, means that both you and your children are happy most of the time, regardless of how ‘well’ they do at school. Beating yourself up about being a rubbish parent isn’t going to achieve this. If I were going to recommend one book, it would be ‘The Idle Parent’ by Tom Hodgkinson, who advocates largely ignoring parenting manuals and leaving kids alone to make their own fun as much as possible, with plenty of low-tech family games and silliness.

If, however, you’re aiming for your progeny to end up as prodigiously talented individuals, who excel in the field of your choosing, then the ‘Tiger Mother’ method is the one to go for, but don’t expect your kids to be universally grateful (Amy Chua describes her youngest daughter’s rebellion in the book, while the eldest seems happier with her choices).

There’s no handbook to help you bring up successful, happy and well-balanced children, who are fulfilled academically. The best you can do is to show that you love them, look after them when they’re little and then, as they grow up, give them as much freedom as you feel is appropriate. If you are trying your best, thinking about your decisions, and enjoying your own life, then more than likely your children will do the same!

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.


Love your library

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 13:43 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011


The recent reports about library cuts and closures have reminded me how much I value libraries. As a child, I visited our local library every week and my enjoyment of reading stems from being able to borrow and read books, from a wide range of authors. 

I rediscovered my love of libraries when I had my own children. Fortunately, ours is within walking distance and I spent many a rainy afternoon there reading with my son and daughter when they were young. They loved looking at all the beautiful picture books, even if they did hold them upside down at times. 

little girl reading book in library @ ying - fotolia

As they learnt to read we were able to experiment with different and sometimes obscure books that we simply wouldn’t have done, if I had to fork out for them myself. They also enjoyed the weekly story time at the library and books became as much a part of our daily routine as meals and cleaning teeth. We still use the library a lot. Not only is it cheaper, but our bookshelves are already heaving and so borrowing books makes sense all round.

Research shows that children who are read to regularly before they start school are most likely to achieve educational success and tend to be the best writers. Few parents can afford to buy their children bundles of books every week, but most libraries will lend at least 12 books out at a time. Of course, children often get fixated on a certain book – I can now recite Sleeping Beauty backwards I’ve read it so often – and repetition is particularly important for young children to help them recognise words, both by sound and sight. 

Being able to choose from huge selection of picture books, learn-to-read titles, stories and non-fiction books is one of the major advantages of local libraries. Children can spend as long as they need flicking through books in a way that simply isn’t possible in a bookshop. Even reluctant readers can find something of interest and, if it’s no good, bring it back and swap it for something else. Librarians are a great help too, if your child is looking for a particular type of book or simply needs some inspiration. 

The national Summer Reading Challenge is held in 95% of libraries and is a brilliant way to enthuse 4-11 year olds about reading during the summer holidays when children’s reading levels often suffer a dip.  Around 750,000 children took part last summer in the challenge to read six books and research shows that this annual event helps children improve their reading skills and develop an enjoyment of reading.

The library offers everyone, whatever their age or background, access to knowledge. Of course, libraries don’t have the budgets to promote themselves. But imagine if they did: Free books nearly every day. No membership fee. No age restriction. Local.

Sounds too good to be true? Soon it may be. Around 400 libraries are under threat of closure, and that’s just the start. It’s easy to take libraries for granted, but when they’re gone, they’re gone. Not a very slick advertising slogan I admit, but one to remember. Spread the word, before it’s too late.

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Storytelling - a magic part of childhood

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 15:12 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011


My children will not go to bed at night without having a bedtime story, it doesn’t matter how late it is and what we have done in the day, they still insist on being told a story. Storytelling was an integral part of my childhood and I like nothing better, than snuggling up in bed with the kids and reading them a gripping tale. At the moment, my eight year-old is enthralled by The BFG and my three year-olds love any thing by Julia Donaldson – The Snail and the Whale and The Gruffalo being firm favourites. I can’t wait to introduce my eldest to The Hobbit, Little Women and loads of other books, I loved as a child and that I still love now.

A recent survey by a broadband provider, released to coincide with National Storytelling week, says that 57% of respondents believe bedtime stories are dying out, while 48% of parents admitted they don’t have time to read to their kids. If you have time to check your Blackberry, send an email or update your Facebook status, surely, you have time to read to your children. Even five minutes is better than nothing. All kids love it and it is a great way to connect with your children, if you have been at work all day. If you can’t do it in the evening, because you get in too late, what about five minutes in the morning when they wake up?

mother and two sons reading book in bed @ Matka Wariatka - fotolia

In some parts of America, storytelling has had a revival and is helping children with their literacy. Volunteers lead ‘storytelling clubs’ for kids. Clubs like these, encourage kids to read more and enhance their literacy skills. It also helps develop creative thinking: a great idea, in an age when children are more likely to pick up the control for the Wii or PS3, than a book.

So it is great to hear about The Ministry of Stories project, started in Hoxton, in London. It has been set up to inspire children to write and enjoy stories. This initiative is inspired by the successful 826 writing programme in America, the brainchild of novelist, David Eggers.

The Guardian article about the project points out that children and particularly boys, need help with their literacy: while 80% of girls achieved level 4 in writing at Key Stage 2, only 64% of boys did. 

I hope the idea takes off, children and adults need to be reminded that writing and telling stories is fun. Sometimes the constraints of the curriculum in our schools, make writing an onerous task. According to the article, Eggers set up the 826 project, having realised that children don’t get one on one help with English in school. It did so well, that seven more centres were set up across the US and more than 22,000 students have been encouraged to write through the programme.

The plan is for the project to spread outside London, but they need to secure funding for the Ministry of Stories for the next three years. They rely heavily on the support of volunteers and some high profile authors are involved, including Nicky Hornby, Zadie Smith and the former children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo.

Try and think of ways to get your kids excited about stories. One idea is when you are on a long car journey with the kids, turn off the radio, any electronic games or MP3 players and get everyone involved in telling a story. Take turns in telling the story, elaborating on the characters and the setting so everyone gets involved in creating the plot. If that runs out of steam, how about listening to an audio book in the car together? You can all talk about what might happen next.

Or why not get them to make their own books, on the computer or by hand?  The BBC has loads of great story telling games and resources on the CBeebies section of the site. You can also find some on the BBC Class Clips too. 

My parents taught me to love books. I still get excited walking into a bookshop or library. I hope that I will pass that love on to my children - books have inspired me and made me the person I am today. I cannot imagine a life without them.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Find out more about Chris Evans’ short story competition for 13 year-olds and under, on Radio 2.  

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