Review: 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids

150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids, by Asia Citro, MEd

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About: This is hands-down one of my favourite books and a regular go-to for “What can we do this afternoon?”, “Mummy, please play with us” and “I don’t know what to DOOOOOOO” moments. I look through the book myself for something I’m willing to face up to, or I hand the book to the kids and get them to pick something out that they like the look of. I’ve also handed this book to Daddy for his nights-doing-stuff-with-kids and told him if he picks something he wants to do, I’ll make sure we have the ingredients. I really like Citro’s approach – she encourages a lot of the fundamentals of very-early-childhood science, which is basically investigating substances and the way they behave when you do stuff to them. It’s all play. Much of it is messy. It’s fun, it’s delightful, it’s imaginative, it can be wondrous. Many recipes and activities are suitable for kids who put things in their mouth, or who have allergies. Some take more prep or cleaning up than others, so I can choose what I’m capable of on a given day and find something fun. There’ll be a few activities I post up on this blog that have come from this book, or from Citro’s blog, FunAtHomeWithKids.com, which is well worth an explore. The age range of activities is probably 0 to 10 years, at least, so it’s a book you’ll get plenty of use out of.

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Each activity has preparation time, suitable age range, and a bunch of other quick things you might be looking for (eg eat safe, gluten free, nut free etc). I also like the “Tips for doing things on a budget” boxes in each section of the book, though they are less relevant if you’re not in the same country as the author.

Good things:

  • Wide age range suitability
  • Lots of ideas with accessible ingredients
  • Well laid out and photographed
  • Kids can look through the book themselves
  • Good science fundamentals (and literacy and numeracy and manual dexterity)
  • Basically, all-round good early childhood resource
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There’s also variations on each activity, to break it down or build it up to different age ranges, or to work with different materials if you don’t have something in the cupboard, or to extend it if you’ve already done this activity ten times and your kids want to do it *again*.
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Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code, written by Sara Hoagland Hunter and illustrated by Julia Miner.

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About:In World War II, the Americans needed a code that couldn’t be broken by the Japanese – and they recruited a group of Navaho to develop one. This book tells the story of the Navajo code talkers, put together out of interviews with many of the surviving code talkers, and framed in fiction as a grandfather telling his grandson not to be afraid to move to a new home. It’s an important part of American and WWII history, a discussion of how codes, languages and alphabets intertwine, and a clear portrait of what advantages cultural differences can bring to a multicultural society. It also tells clearly and effectively of the sadnesses of war, the punishments applied to Native Americans who tried to hold onto their culture and some of the barriers they faced to acceptance. The reading level is quite high and the themes quite strong, so I’d put this book at at age level of say 5-10 years old, despite it being a picture book with stunning illustrations.

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“The code had to be simple and fast. We would have only one chance to send each message. After that, the Japanese would be tracing our location to bomb us or trying to record the code.”

Good things:

  • Positive indigenous contribution to society
  • Central characters are Native American
  • War descriptions effective but without undue emphasis on the terrible
  • Places the code talkers in cultural and historical context
  • Talks about language and codes and how the code was developed
  • Promotes the use and value of indigenous language
  • Includes the basic code used by the code talkers
  • Beautiful oil painting illustrations

Review – Winter is Coming

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Winter is Coming
written by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Jim LaMarche

 

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The story begins on the title page, in silence, unremarked. Were you watching? Did you see it begin?

About: One autumn a girl goes into the wood, day by day, with her notebook and pencils. She climbs up on a platform in a tree and sits there quietly, watching, listening, drawing and writing what she sees and hears. Slowly the season changes, the animals come and go, they prepare for the cold. Winter is coming. Then one day the snow falls, and winter is here. I love the way seasonal change is described, how the skills of nature observation are blended into the story, the detailed observations of animals. I haven’t bought this one for ourselves, because it’s very North American – the animals that visit, the snow and cold and frost, all things we just don’t see where we live. I’ve been tempted though because it is so good at describing the nature observation, the patience, the stillness and listening and watching, the tracking of changes over time. Anyone who’s learnt about “sit spots” will resonate with this book.

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Each double spread is a different day, somewhere in the passing autumn, with magical drawings of season, animals and watching. Most include the watching spot in the big old tree.

Good things:

  • Nature observation skills
  • Seasonal changes
  • Animals and behaviour observed and described in detail
  • Patience, persistence, stillness, watching, listening
  • Cycle of the year
  • Girl lead character – but really, it could be anyone, any child will be able to imagine themselves in that role.
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A typical page of text.

Review: Helping Little Star

Written by Sally Morgan and Blaze Kwaymullina, illustrated by Sally Morgan.

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Helping Little Star. Written by Sally Morgan and Blaze Kwaymullina, illustrations by Sally Morgan.

About: A simple little child’s tale with a little bit of silly to it. It’s not an Aboriginal fable or Dreamtime myth, or a morality tale of any type, just a story with animals and stars and the Moon in it. There’s not too much text on any one page, or at all, just enough to lay out the story in support of Morgan’s glorious-as-always illustrations. And what text there is is simple enough that a beginner reader can attempt to make their way through it with some help.

Good things:

  • An Aboriginal take on the typical genre of animal and nature characters
  • Authors and illustrator are both Aboriginal
  • It’s not a traditional myth or legend or tale (I fully support the idea that Indigenous people are more than just what they were at the point of colonisation and that they don’t need to stay in that box).
  • Text is suitable for an early reader with assistance.
  • The animals encountered are Australian.
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“I only have one joey,” said Mother Kangaroo. “Who are you?” “I’m Little Star,” he said. “And I’m lost!”

Review – It’s Okay to be Different

 

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“It’s Okay to Be Different”, written and illustrated by Todd Parr.

About: It’s okay to be different – to look different, to do different things, to come from different places, and Todd Parr illustrates this with bold, bright pictures and plenty of silly. Physical differences, having and expressing your emotions, doing totally random things just because. They’re all OK. I like the way useful social and emotional pointers are slipped in amongst the hilarity.

Good things:

  • Social and emotional pointers
  • Hilarity in text and pictures
  • Promotes acknowledgement and acceptance of diversity
  • Small number of words on each page, big and easy to read.
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It’s okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub; It’s okay to say NO to bad things

 

Review – Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck

 

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Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck. Written by Michelle Gillespie, illustrated by Sonia Martinez.

About: This is a true story of rescue and adventure, retold for a picture book. In December 1876 the steamer Georgette came aground at Calgardup Bay in the south west of Western Australia. Many of the passengers were rescued from the waves by stockman Sam Isaacs and sixteen-year-old Grace Bussell, both from a nearby homestead. The two received medals of bravery for their actions.

Good things:

  • Strong artwork close to graphic-novel style
  • Local history
  • Western Australian setting
  • Young woman acting independently and collaboratively to rescue others
  • Bravery
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“Grace reaches Smiler’s leg with her hand and feels for the rope. The horse stumbles sideways, kicking to keep his balance. The child sobs in fear.”

Review – The Old Frangipani Tree at Flying Fish Point

 

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written/told by Trina Saffioti, illustrated by Maggie Prewett

About: Saffioti retells one of her family’s stories, of her mother-as-a-young-girl entering the school’s fancy dress parade. This is one of those books that reminds you that history isn’t just about the big things, but also about the little things, the things that make us family and town and nation. The illustrations are warm and in an Australian palette, easily bringing the emotions of each page to life.

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Long after the prize money had been spent on sweets, people would still talk about the time Faithy-girl won the fancy dress parade at Flying Fish Point.

Good things:

  • True story and historical event, retold by someone with a direct connection to the event
  • Aboriginal author and illustrator
  • A small event with a big impact, easy to empathise with
  • Lead character is female, Aboriginal, POC
  • Strong and present family supporting the lead girl
  • Setting is Australian, non-Eurocentric
  • Artwork is warm, Australian colours, shows a range of emotions clearly

Review: Noodle Magic

written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by Meilo So

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Noodle Magic. Written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illustrated by Meilo So.

About: A cute little tale about finding the magic within, told in the style of a Chinese folk tale. Plus, noodles! That made it an instant hit with my kids. The author spent 16 years living, working and studying in Asia, the illustrator is Hong Kong-born and British Empire raised. This book goes nicely in my collection of books about makers.

Good things:

  • Non-Eurocentric / Western-centric setting and characters
  • Little girl finding her own ability to do incredible things
  • A maker story
  • Author and illustrator both having a genuine connection to the culture they’re depicting
  • Sense of community in the illustrations
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The next morning, Mei and her friends played and jumped with strands of white, wheaty dough. “If only I had your gift,” Mei sighed. “I think you just might,” said Grandpa. But Mei knew that no one could spin magic like Grandpa Tu!

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

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.