Food art plates

What: Morning tea or afternoon tea, sometimes lunch, served as curious and decorative plates.

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An actual picture rather than a decorative collection. Kid 3 has insisted on eating their snow peas disassembled ever since. Kid 5 was pleased that they recognised it as a picture and talked about it a lot. Only about half of the plate was eaten each, but it got them considering what they’d be willing to eat and making some decisions for themselves, which I try to allow within reason.

More details: Food art is one of those things that very occasionally you have time for, but mostly you just look at pictures of other people doing it on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook and think “my gods, how does anyone have the time for that?”. And usually I’m in the latter camp. But occasionally I squirrelled away the time to try, such as when we were visiting Grandma. It let me give foundations for later concepts such as matching shapes, colour themes, presentation of “cafe” food that we were serving. It also broke up the routine just a little, allowing me to introduce or reintroduce unusual foods and combinations and try and keep the variation going. Because, you never know what they’ll be willing to eat when they’re caught by surprise, and all the gods know they’re not willing to eat just about anything you give them. The other thing it did was occasionally give *me* a creative outlet or break in routine so I didn’t feel totally stultified by the constant and relentless demands of toddlers on my attention and energy. So yeah, this is one of those things that made *me* feel better, which I then justified afterwards (though the reasons are still good).

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Stars. Star shaped flowers, bread with avocado, pieces of plum arranged with almonds. Kid 1 and Kid 3 were both amused at this. We also talked about how there was blue, red, yellow and green all together. Activities/moments like this let me get food into both of them despite one eating one thing and the other eating another. Over time they’ve learnt to negotiate with each other to swap bits, though they need more practice at that.

Review: I Wonder

Written by Annaka Harris, illustrated by John Rowe.

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I Wonder, written by Annaka Harris, illustrated by John Rowe.

About: This book was written to provide an example of admitting “I don’t know”. It’s big on emotional intelligence, honesty, the idea that some questions are bigger than we are, and that some ideas are so big that nobody knows the answer to them. There’s a great sense of wonder and mystery, beautifully underscored by the luminescent and spacious semi-realistic artwork. A great gateway-to-science book.

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Then, she notices there are butterflies everywhere! “Mama, where did all of these butterflies come from?”

Good things:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Wonder and mystery
  • Luminescent beautiful artwork that could easily stand alone from the book
  • Supportive parental/adult relationship with a present parent
  • Gateway to science and natural philosophy
  • Admitting “I don’t know”
  • Includes change – the idea that things in life (including ourselves!) change and don’t stay the same

Back-of-the-door marble chase

What: A home-made marble chase, built by the kids, on the back of the front door, made from toilet roll tubes and cardboard boxes.

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Kid 5 testing the newest tube while Kid 3 cuts the next tube. The small box at the end was so that we didn’t have to keep searching everywhere for where the marble had ended up THIS time.

How: I collected a bunch of toilet roll tubes and set a couple of small boxes aside from the recycling pile. I taped one of the tubes to the back of the door with masking tape, and when the kids had gathered to see what their crazy mother was doing this time, I dropped a marble in the tube and let it roll out. Then I gnashed my teeth and rent my hair and bewailed at the insufficiency of it all and said it Needed To Be Bigger. The kids took over at that point. My main contribution was to insist that they did one tube at a time and then tested the chase with a marble, so they could decide if they needed to move the tube closer or tilt it more or what. Sometimes the testing had to be done several times “just to be sure”. Sometimes they’d have to change something further back down the line because the marble now had more speed when it got to that point. They worked out for themselves that they might need to cut the end of a tube a bit so that it would catch the marble better. Kid 3 and Kid 5 both did really well with this, though I did need to stick around – if I wasn’t paying them my direct attention they tended to wander off to find me instead.

Pattern generation

What: A multicoloured pattern, similar to some wrapping paper designs.

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Shapes going diagonally to the right, coloured squares going diagonally to the left. A maths and art activity.

How:

  • We took an A3(ish) sheet of drawing paper and folded it into a strip, then folded the strip into a small square. When we unfolded it, there was a grid of creases in the paper.
  • In the first square we drew something small, an easily repeated shape, with a coloured marker from a tuned set of six. We then counted across one square and down one square and drew the same shape again, and repeated til we had a diagonal line that went down to the bottom of the page.
  • We then went to the second square, and drew a new shape in a new colour, and repeated this down the diagonal line. There was a little bit of fiddly explanation to show how the line “wrapped” around from the right hand side of the paper to keep going on the left – Kid 6 took this as a random nonsensical instruction and followed it meticulously, eventually beginning to get a glimmer of why, and Kid 4 (who is very pattern oriented) grasped the idea immediately but had difficulty with implementation. Both kids worked out pretty quickly that moving one over and one down always put you on the right of the drawing you did before.
  • We kept going until every square had a shape in it. This is where Kid 4 ran out of patience / thought their pattern was complete / decided they were Done, and where I encouraged them to stop.
  • Then, we took a new colour of marker from the set and coloured the right-most-top square’s background, and went one over-left and one down to make a new diagonal line. I took some care to try and pick a colour that wasn’t going to turn up in the shapes we were colouring around. Eventually Kid 6 worked out for themself that there was a repeating pattern in the shapes they were colouring around – e.g. orange, brown, blue, orange, brown, blue – and that some of the colours weren’t in each line at all. The idea was to keep the background colours wrapping around as well, but Kid 6 lost track of this and decided to do their lines in a symmetrical colour pattern (green – purple – blue – purple – green) instead of wrapping (green – purple – blue – green – purple – blue).
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Kid 4’s pattern, with just the shapes and no background to make it simpler/quicker. Kid 4 also made each diagonal its own pattern, with shapes rotating or growing or changing in size. They are a bit obsessed with patterns and I was OK with them playing with the idea of nesting patterns inside other patterns.

The whole thing took us quite some time, it was meticulous work, and a reasonable way to fill in part of an afternoon when it was too warm to go outside. I actually did this activity with each of the kids separately, having thought that kid 4 wouldn’t be up to that much drawing / colouring (which they hate) but that kid 6 would like the time working quietly with me and talking, and was quite able / needing to deal with 2D patterns instead of linear ones. However, kid 4 is competitive (they both are) and didn’t want to miss out on having a pattern on their gallery wall if kid 6 had one.

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Kid 6’s finished pattern, which they were very pleased with the appearance of. Tuned colour sets do help with the final result. 

Extras: In theory, if we used butcher paper instead of good drawing paper this could become our own wrapping paper. I suspect if it was a good enough piece I could probably digitise it and find somewhere online that prints wrapping paper too (Spoonflower?). We could do something like this again but with stamping and gluing paper squares instead of drawing and colouring, which would speed it up / make it a little easier on the non-drawing child (it’s a long time to grip a marker).  Spending more conscious time on the idea of nesting patterns would be interesting, to see how the results then changed across the whole grid. A related activity would be to tape paper around a cylinder of some sort, get them to draw lines around the cylinder and then untape it to see how the wrapping had mapped back to flat.

Book review: Four Feet, Two Sandals

About: This book is set in a refugee camp. It’s about the friendship between two girls brought together by a pair of sandals. It’s also a very human vignette into life in the camp. The artwork doesn’t stint on either colour or the sense of heat and dryness and dust, and I love it.

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Four Feet, Two Sandals, written by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Doug Chayka

Good things:

  • Two girls as lead characters, and it’s delicately shown that they have both had to shoulder some part of the family leadership in the course of their escape to the camp.
  • The lead characters are Islamic, POC and refugees.
  • The story is, at its heart, about sharing and giving even when you have almost nothing of your own.
  • The lead characters have to develop empathy for each other.
  • Humanises and makes real both refugees and life in the camps.
  • Grief is acknowledged, though given that it’s a children’s book it’s not lingered upon.
  • Good artwork.
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“As-salaam alaykum”, Lina greeted her. The girl only stared.

“Washing” “dishes”

What: Gateway activity to getting the kids to wash dishes for me and also manual dexterity skills for cooking.

How: I collected lots of drink bottle and milk bottle lids over time, in a range of colours – orange, yellow and red from Gatorade and iced tea, blue from milk, green, black and purple from fruit juice. They were for use in other activities, but needed a good clean. The kids put an apron on each (and Kid 3 even kept it on!), I gave them a wooden spoon and mixing bowl with warm water and a squirt of detergent each. Then I distributed the lids. They had great fun stirring the water up to make bubbles, stirring the colourful lids around, trying not to send absolutely all their water over the edge, and getting the lids “clean”. I had a bottle-brush scrubber too that they took turns using. When they were “done”, they scooped the lids that were clean out and put them on a teatowel that I laid out for the purpose. I checked as we went for any that needed more thorough cleaning.

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Kid 1 and Kid 3 stirring and scrubbing in their bowls.

Extras: This leads on to other variations of washing dishes, and also to forms of cooking that need stirring. Stirring’s a surprisingly difficult skill, especially judging the force needed to move the spoon without flinging the contents on the ceiling. The lids have been in constant use since for maths and reading foundational activities.

Year of the Snake

What: A red and gold snake wall decoration for the Chinese New Year.

About: This is something I did with Kid 3 and Kid 1 back in the Year of the Snake. We were making a point of noticing seasons, seasonal festivals and changes throughout the year in that age bracket, partly because we’d moved to a new state and new climate, and also because that’s part of my basic grounding in druid practice.

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Year of the Snake wall decoration made with plastic plates, marker and alphabet stickers.

How: I got a pack of red plastic disposable plates from the supermarket and we each decorated a few plates, then I put them on the wall under the supervision of Kid 3. I wanted something gold for decorating and couldn’t find any gold markers or stickers except for one pack of alphabet stickers. Between that and the black marker we managed a few random decorativenesses, with no particular structure other than sticking to the traditional colours. I cut a couple of the plates to make the extra shapes. Kid 3 did this with some enjoyment, Kid 1 with a minimal engagement before wandering away to their own devices.

Book review: Handa’s Hen

Cover of book showing two African children and a black hen
Cover of book showing two African children and a black hen
Handa’s Hen by Eileen Browne.

This is one of many, many, MANY books that are based around counting to 10. There’s a limit to how many of such books you want to bother with, because really, it’s an incredibly boring plot device and your kids WILL work this out. However, there are some ages and stages where they like the predictability of it, or where you want to be practising their reading of numerals or number words, or where they are learning numbers as an ordered list (“seven comes after six and before eight”), or where they are learning to associate a quantity with a number, or where they are learning to recognise a small quantity visually without counting (“there’s three birds”). And we all have relatives and friends who will buy your kids something because “it’s educational”. So. You’ll have some of this kind of book around.

What makes this one any different? Well, I like it for several reasons.

  • The children are not white-skinned with red or blond hair. That’s a rarity in children’s books, where characters are either very pale people or they are animals.
  • The children are POC (People of Colour) from a non-English-derived culture.
  • The artwork is visually strong, colourful.
  • The environment in which the story takes place is a hot climate, which is important for me seeing as I’m trying to raise my kids with an understanding of the place they live in rather than the expectation that somehow everywhere they live is kind of like a second-best Europe. I find the Euro-centric dominant imagery of popular media a little disconcerting and not helpful to a peaceful future.
  • Handa and her friend explore natural surroundings through the book. I like the sense of adventure and play and belonging to nature.
  • The plot is based on a search-and-explore rather than just being a counting list, so it’s not *just* the sequence 1 to 10 that creates a narrative structure.
  • There’s a tracking reference. I love tracking myself, and one of my children is on-and-off keen about it too so having pictures of tracks automatically makes a search more interesting to us.
  • The language is nicely done – just repetitive enough to be rhythmic without being beat-heavy, not too complex, not too much text on any one page.
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“Five beautiful sunbirds,” said Akeyo. “But where’s Mondi?” said Handa.

Year of the Monkey

What: A picture of a monkey, using gold doilies as a belly / focus and adding in other features.

About: Each year I’ve tried to do an art or craft activity related to the Lunar New Year festival. We live in an area that has a high population of non-Caucasians, and many of our local businesses either take holidays or hold special events for the New Year. The activities are intended to be a chance for us to talk about stuff as much as anything, setting up the beginnings of cross-cultural understandings. This year, the beginning of Year of the Monkey, happened to fall in the middle of our worst heatwave for the season. So instead of my planned very messy fireworks paintings (which I may still do next week), we went to the air-conditioned local library and did work with textas and glue and other safe-in-public materials.

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Our three monkeys. L-R: Kid 4, who attempted to mimic my discussion of monkey face shape and who worked out that you could colour in the spaces in the doily; Kid 6, who tends to work from stereotype/rule as much as possible but did venture out a little to play with the idea of fur and fringes; and my monkey, which was mostly me keeping my hands busy while we talked.

How: We found a book with pictures of monkeys in it in the kids’ non-fiction section – involving discussion of how the books are grouped by category so first we have to find all the animal books, then we look at each of those books to find one with monkeys in it. Kid 6 is the one who really needs to practice categorisation, but this time they got the idea much faster than Kid 4 (who hasn’t tried to find interesting books on those shelves before). Then we looked at all the pictures of monkeys. We glued the doilies down – I’d had them in my craft materials drawer after seeing them in my local supermarket one day – and the kids drew whatever extra bits around the belly they felt like. As we worked, I referred back to some of the monkey pictures and we talked about what the monkey faces actually looked like, how drawing zig-zag lines instead of straight lines made it look more like fur, whether or not monkeys had tails. Whatever kind of came up in discussion – the point is to talk as much as anything. We also talked about the festive colours of Chinese New Year, the dragon art project Kid 6 had done in school that day, where and what Chinatown is, when Kid 6 can wear a Chinese dress – again, whatever came up out of their random thinking.

Extras: I’m thinking I might follow this up at some point with either a drawing exercise where we only use zig-zag lines, or with another trip to the library to pick a different animal to look up and work out how to draw. Both of those aspects seemed potentially interesting/useful. The other obvious follow-on is to try using a doily as a stencil, colour through the holes and then lift it to see the pattern.

Citrus prints

What: There’s a huge pile of lemons under the lemon tree at the moment. So when the kids saw Mister Maker doing citrus prints on TV, it became one of our summer art projects.

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Mid-activity.

How: We used a few different sizes of lemon, cut in half – I had helpers for the cutting to make sure there were several halves per paint colour. The paint was my standard acrylic, thinned with a little water and put on small styrofoam fruit trays for easy stamping. I picked three fluorescent colours this time. We each stamped over our page and let it dry, and then worked back into the design with permanent markers to emphasise the citrus shapes. Kid 6 insisted they wanted to do theirs exactly as they’d seen on TV and used a plain black marker, which gave quite a striking effect against the fluorescent paint. I used a range of coloured markers on mine to play with various effects. Kid 4 ignored this step completely.

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Kid 6’s final product.

Extras: While we were waiting for the citrus prints to dry, both kids helped me use up the rest of the paint with some finger painting. Kid 4 carefully built a complicated Star Wars narrative around theirs, layering in the story stroke by stroke. Kid 6 discovered that the paint was thin enough they could layer in the image handful by handful, and covered their whole page.

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My print, with multiple colours of marker and a variety of shapes drawn back into the print. I also allowed my shapes to overlap, something the kids weren’t quite sure was acceptable.