Category Archives: play

Little pony

My daughter was given a family of little ponies for Christmas. One of the ponies has been adopted by my nearly seven year old son. These last couple of days this pink toy has become his favourite. He appropriately named her Pinx and has learnt to comb her mane, make plaits and use hair clips and bands.

It is a matter of time before poor Pinx ends up at the bottom of his toy box and he shifts all his attention to his legos, superheroes, cars and dinosaurs. But for the time being, he is simply enjoying playing with his little pink pony. Isn’t it sweet?



Summer ideas for Maths activities

There is a common misconception that maths is just about numbers. Yet maths is so much more than this. Pattern recognition, problem solving, structured thinking, comprehension, interpretation of quantities and critical thinking are all skills required to investigate even the simplest of mathematical questions. But most of all, maths is about questioning, trying ideas and challenging ourselves.

All children are born with the “curiosity bug” and love a challenge. In fact, children are adept to mathematical problem solving from an early age. The summer holidays provide a fantastic opportunity for learning in different contexts and through more playful channels. So this summer why not nurture your child’s maths abilities?

I have written a few tips and ideas for the latest Families Warwickshire magazine. Visit the website to find out how to have fun with your children this summer, while at the same time helping them to sharpen their skills. All activities are designed to develop core skills that will help children gain a solid background in maths.

Families Warwickshire magazine



Cereals and kitchen paper tubes

“To a child, often the box a toy came in is more appealing than the toy itself.” (*)
What wise words! It is the simple things that capture a child’s imagination and spark their creativity.
In our household it is cereal boxes and kitchen paper tubes that have been transformed into the golden weapons of the Lego Ninja.
(*) Quote by Allen Klein
ninja2fninja3f  IMG_0855f  ninja1fninja6fninja5f

Gender and the toy shop

I have always believed that the manifestation of gender stereotyping is a toy store. Visit any shop and you can get a glimpse of our society’s prevailing views on gender roles. Cars and other automotive toys, construction and strategy toys are for boys. Dolls, Pink Legos, cooking toys, arts and crafts are for girls.

boys girls

Raised in a gender-neutral family environment, I have always felt uncomfortable with any gender stereotyping, but this grew stronger when I became a mother. So when my daughter was born nearly nine years ago, I was determined not to expose her in what I thought were redundant stereotypes.

I asked all the relatives and friends to refrain from giving her gender specific toys and made clear that pink clothes were strictly forbidden.

This proved to be a hard job and certainly an uneven battle. If you have ever been to a toy shop, you have certainly noticed that the majority of toys are significantly gender targeted. Inevitably, a buyer’s choice is influenced by the labeling, branding and marketing of toys reinforcing stereotypes.

Unsurprisingly, within a few months my daughter was the proud owner of several outfits in a variety of pink shades. A few months later she had a pile of pink teddies and plenty of dolls.

Nevertheless, we tried our best to make available to her a wide choice of toys. We bought cars for her but she did not give them a second look. She was happy playing with her dolls and simply ignored the “boy toys”. We felt defeated and a bit disappointed, but how can you make your child like toys that you think she should like, when she clearly does not show any interest in them?

When her brother arrived three years later, we were determined to give it another go. We soon realized that this was going to be another monumentally lost battle. Our son discovered his sister’s old but hardly used cars and they became his favourite toys. He was happy playing for hours with anything having wheels and once he started nursery, he spent the entire day building ramps and complex structures only to have his cars rolled down.

Once more we felt defeated and a little bit upset. Our children had gravitated towards toys that were ‘conventional’ for their gender and there was nothing we could do about it. With hindsight, we should not have worried at all.

The origin of gender difference in toy preferences remains as yet an unanswered scientific question, but nevertheless the issue sparks popular debates and anxieties. Apparently it is typical for children as young as two to develop preferences, which are considered well in line with their gender.  In the first years of their life, children develop their gender knowledge, which is a rigid view of male and female behaviours and roles. How and why children form their gender knowledge is not well established, but just observing adults behaving in certain ways allows them to form an understanding of male and female behaviours and probably see the world through the society’s prevailing gender stereotyping. Obvious characteristics of males and females such as hair length or voice pitch as well as distinct behavioural roles may be engraved in a baby’s brain enabling them to form their gender knowledge. So it is quite likely for instance, that very young children associate dolls with females. At the time my children’s behaviour was simply a phase typical of their age.

As children grow and become aware of the world they live in, they develop what scientists call stereotype flexibility. In other words with age gender stereotypes become more flexible, so boys understand and accept not only that girls can play with cars but also that they can play with more girly toys. It is usually between the age of five and ten that children begin to develop gradually their gender flexibility. Gender flexibility does not necessarily mean that children play with toys targeted to the other gender, but that they accept that toys are not automatically gender specific.

I am happy to report that my children have turned all right after all.

My daughter still melts at the sight of a doll and only yesterday chose to spend her pocket money on a Disney Princess book. But she loves construction toys and puzzle games and building complex train tracks. She is a superhero fan and engages in role-play with her brother going together in great superhero adventures. Occasionally, Polly Pocket nips in to help Superman save the world or Batman has to go home early to take care of his little baby. But I am so happy to see her developing her interests and not being constrained by any gender stereotypes.

My son also shows that his interests do not include boy-only toys. He loves his sister’s dolls and in the past he was very attached to a cute baby girl doll. He still enjoys playing kitchen themed role-playing games and often is involved in girly games with his sister’s friends.

But I often think how difficult it is for parents to choose toys for their children.

Go to any toy shop (online shops included) and most likely you will be faced with pink and blue aisles. Look at the packaging designs and the labeling and you will be excused if you thought that there are only toys just for boys and toys just for girls but certainly no gender neutral toys.

Is this bad for the children? Is it limiting their choices and more importantly does this encourage them to see the world through certain, often redundant, stereotyping roles? Fortunately, parents are becoming increasingly aware of gender stereotypes in the toy industry and they demand a change.  Will this be translated into a cultural shift as well, where toys are not gender targeted?

There just might be a glimpse of hope. Last year I visited a well-known toy store in a nearby town and unsurprisingly they displayed their toys in colour-coded labeled aisles (see pictures). This year I visited my local branch and was so pleased to see that they had removed all of their gender targeted labeling.

It turns out that this is the result of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign led by a group of concerned parents. There were already a few other smaller scale efforts, most notably Laura Nelson’s successful campaign nearly three years ago for the Hamleys store to remove its gender-specific signs and pink and blue floors. But this latest effort has gained momentum and has already an impact.

With the parents taking action, will the pink and blue aisles of the big toy stores become a thing of the past?  It is too soon to tell but it is refreshing that parents have become more aware of the issue of gender stereotyping and demand a change. It is also so inspirational to see that their actions have triggered a widespread discussion in the toy industry.

I am happy to see that this festive season some big stores do not display by gender. It is now up to us parents to see beyond any gender stereotyping and choose toys for our children that will open their horizons, spark their imagination and sharpen their intelligence.

Look at the Let Toys Be Toys website and sign their campaign“Toy Retailers in UK and Ireland: Stop promoting toys as only for boys, or only for girls”


Toys not just for boys: parents help cut down sexist signs in high-street shops (Guardian)

Serbin, L. A., Poulin-Dubois, D., Colburne, K. A., Sen, M. G., & Eichstedt, J. A. (2001). Gender stereotyping in infancy: Visual preferences for and knowledge of gender-stereotyped toys in the second year. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(1), 7-15.

Trautner, H. M., Ruble, D. N., Cyphers, L., Kirsten, B., Behrendt, R., & Hartmann, P. (2005). Rigidity and flexibility of gender stereotypes in childhood: Developmental or differential?. Infant and Child Development, 14(4), 365-381.




The many ways of childhood

I spent the most part of last week observing and working with 3-4 year olds. It has been a delightful experience. Children’s creativity, resourcefulness and enquiry skills – not to mention their unlimited energy – never stop to amaze me.

So when I came across a poem written by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, on Our Reggio Emilia-Inspired Classroom Transition blog, I knew that it sums up nicely the great potential of very young children. The poem is a powerful description of what early childhood is and allows a glimpse into the way children perceive our world. Moreover, it is a reminder of a society’s collective responsibility towards those children.

No way. The hundred is there.

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

ways of listening

of marveling, of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

a hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way. The hundred is there.

Playing maths

Working with Gifted and Talented children can be a challenging experience. My group of G&T Year 6 students are smart, have a range of interests and love challenges, but they are not easily pleased. They know what they want and they expect me to deliver it. And I can tell they have high expectations.

Today I wanted them to work on some fundamental mathematical skills such as logic, memory, spatial recognition and analytical thinking. And what is the best way to introduce those subtle but all important skills to a group of 11 year olds, but a videogame?

So this morning I decided to use “The Clockwork Brain” an iOS game, which consists of a series of well designed original mini-games that encourage players to develop and practice the all-crucial mathematical thinking skills. It is fun and engaging with the level of difficulty linked to the players’ performance.

Train your Brain the Steampunk Way!

My group of Year 6 students were ecstatic and understandably happy to exchange working on problems with playing a game. They soon settled down and I could see them focused on the task at hand, trying to complete the activities before time was up.

They were concentrated and tried hard to improve their scores. To my delight they were also able to reflect on their performance and discuss how they can become better players. I have also encouraged them to discuss strategies and exchange tips.

I can tell they were really pleased and could see that it was a positive learning experience for them.

The good thing about this game is that everyone can play. As it practices mathematical thinking, it does not involve any math work. So even if maths is not your strong suit, you will enjoy it!

The games are accessible to younger children as well as adults. My daughter, who is in Year 3, has been playing the game for about a year now and she still enjoys it. And I have been playing on and off for quite some time now.

I am now on the lookout for some more games to use with primary school children. If you have come across engaging and novel applications/games, please share!

Reading or playing?

Before having children I had an academic interest in Education. I would read newspaper articles and the Times Educational Supplement. I had a job that allowed me to mingle with KS3 teachers and visit schools to talk to children or take part in astronomy workshops. But as I said, Education was just an academic subject to me. And surely I was not familiar with the nitty–gritty details of school education.

It is now that I have two children that education issues have become relevant to me. I can appreciate how education policies affect my children’s present and future. I can see how good education practices do not only support my children academically, but more crucially help them become creative, emotionally intelligent human beings.

So it really saddens me, or dare I say infuriates me, to see that the current education system is constantly pushing early formal and cognitive based learning to children as young as four years old. I am really struggling to understand what the benefits of this approach to young children are. And I am afraid I cannot.

Having spent five years in Greece and becoming familiar with their educational system, where children start learning to read at the age of six, I was horrified to find out that children in the English Reception class are subject to a strict curriculum and are taught phonics within the first couple weeks of school.

Children in Greek Reception and Year 1 work on developing soft skills through play and outdoor activities. They only learn to count to 10 and write down their own name.  The school day is also shorter starting at 8.15am and finishing at 12.15pm. To be honest with you up to a few months ago I just could not visualise a normal four and a half years old child being able to decode words, read and having weekly homework assignments.

My son is at an outstanding primary school. Their EYFS provision is excellent given the constraints of the curriculum and they encourage free unconstructive play with elements of the Reggio Emilia approach. But I see children who are not ready to cope with such a rigorous academic curriculum. What happens to those children? Research shows that they are gradually left behind and are likely to be behind when they are older. More crucially, all the children miss out on a vital part of their life. Care-free and creative childhood.

So I completely agree with Susie Steiner when arguing that Six-year-olds need to play more than they need to spell. (This Guardian article triggered today’s random thoughts on early education…)

But I am afraid the current education trend in this country dictates that playing is a waste of time and children should rush into learning their letter sounds and reading their story books from a very young age. Apparently, the cost of that approach to the children’s well-being and learning is not part of the policy makers’ equation.