Homeschool Christmas Shadowbox Topic

I have been meaning to get around to making shadowboxes with the children for a couple of years now and I have finally managed to squeeze it into our December home school schedule.

Firstly we started off by learning about Joseph Cornell who is famous for his challenging and fascinating shadowbox art. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go to an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London so I was able to show my daughter the literature that accompanied the show so she could find out more about the artist and his work. Another fabulous artist working with shadowboxes today is Andy Acres who makes elaborate tiny scenes in boxes.

Shadowboxes feature as illustrations in a number of picture books so get your child to look at some examples. Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White and Jen Bryant’s Roget and his Thesaurus illustrated by Sweet are excellent, as is Falling Angels by Colin Thompson. Others I have stumbled across but not read is the Book of Shadowboxes: A Story of the ABCs by Laura Seeley which has alphabet-themed poems accompanied by shadowbox illustrations and Seeley’s search-and-find book, Shadowbox Hunt

We had a good look on Pinterest at examples of shadowboxes, focusing particularly on Christmas-themed examples. Then we were ready to have a go at making our own box.

We really like the use of found objects in shadowbox art and I was keen not to spend any money on the project at this expensive time of year so we used bits and pieces from around the house: a box that had contained rubber stamps (although you can buy shadowboxes in craft shops); old Christmas cards; a cracker toy; a scrap of ribbon; old baubles; ornaments left over from my own childhood; an old family photograph; toadstools from a packet we bought years ago for a miniature garden project; white pompoms from a craft-supply multipack; a Christmas tree eraser that was a present last Christmas. The only thing we bought were some plastic bells and the wrapped gift box and we got those in a ten items for a pound deal at a local charity shop.


We had a go at trying different bits and pieces in different places and when my daughter was happy with them we used a glue-gun to fix down most of the pieces. The china thimble is fixed with Blu-tac and the pig ornament is just resting there as my daughter wanted to remove him (or her, as my daughter insists she is) immediately after I took the photograph so him(her) could meet her Sylvanian Families and have a button-based feast.


We created a cabinet of curiosities-style shadowbox but there are lots of different ideas you could try. Like Andy Acre you could make a miniature scene (perhaps a winter or Christmassy one) or you could try these self-portrait shadowboxes at Meri Cherry. I am always a fan of incorporating creative writing so you could use a Christmas list or letter to Father Christmas as your background or inspiration. Or a story about the elves in the North Pole.

I hope you have fun!





Home school illuminated manuscripts

My daughter’s learning about Medieval history last year led her to find out a lot about Medieval illuminated manuscripts. Before printing presses books had to be laboriously copied out by hand, usually by monks who made copies of the Bible and books of prayers and holy writings, on vellum and were often gorgeously illustrated with vibrant pictures of birds, flowers, animals and people. A lot of these books also ended up with the scribes’ graffiti and doodles in the margins which can be very amusing.

A good place to start finding out about Medieval manuscripts is Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson, a lovely story with wonderful illustrations. As you read Marguerite’s story of her bookmaker father’s special commission to create a Book of Hours you find out about how Medieval manuscripts were made. You will probably be able to learn a bit about them from most general books about the Medieval period but you might also be fortunate enough to see some genuine examples. In London we have the National Archives which has a vast collection of ancient manuscripts, some of which we have been able to view. We also attended a Medieval Day where we were shown examples of different types of vellum under a microscope in order to compare the different properties, saw how seals were made and watched an artist create beautiful illuminations. In the United Kingdom we are fortunate enough to have many places across the country where we can see Medieval manuscripts; our trip to Winchester Cathedral earlier this year, for example, included seeing the marvellous Winchester Bible and using the interactive programme that teaches children more about it and how it was made. Of course, the internet means that children are now able to view Medieval manuscripts online if they cannot get to see one in the vellum, as it were. Try the National Archives extensive online catalogue.

Once your children have learned about illuminated manuscripts then it’s time for them to have a go at making their own! Actual vellum isn’t really an option but parchment-effect printer paper makes an excellent substitute or you can ‘age’ ordinary paper with a used tea bag and a few minutes in the oven. I prefer the parchment-effect paper, however, as it gives a smooth surface on which to draw and paint or colour and it is easier to rub out mistakes.

Get your child to think about what text they want to choose to illuminate and then what sort of pictures might be appropriate for that. You could use this an a creative writing opportunity: children can write a short autobiography of a Medieval character, real or imagined; they might write their own prayer or life of a saint; perhaps they might want to write a letter based on their own ideas or taking a historical figure or event as inspiration. While she was still at school last year all the Year 5 children were invited to enter a Diocese handwriting and illustration competition, taking the Lord’s Prayer as their text. My daughter chose to make her entry (one of the winners in her class) an illuminated manuscript. She used the fantastic The Medieval Flower Book by Celia Fisher as her inspiration. It is an alphabetic collection of the flowers that appear in Medieval manuscripts, complete with glowing illustrations and examples. She drew flowers, coloured them with bright felt pens and outlined and accentuated with gold pen. You can look at examples of manuscripts to get lots of other ideas: monsters; mythical beasts; angels; animals; religious imagery…


Recently I found this Christmas spices nature study at These Are the Day Family of Six and got my daughter to have a go at researching cinnamon, ginger, mace, allspice and so on. When it came to trying to draw the plants I had the bright idea of revisiting the illuminated manuscript project and turning the pictures into a Christmas card featuring Christmas spice plants. We searched through some books to find some suitable quotations about the evocative seasonal smells of the spices which was surprisingly difficult. Eventually my daughter chose a short quotation from one of her favourite books, Elizabeth Enright’s The Four-Story Mistake, as her text and then draw the plants around her writing. On this occasion she used coloured pencils as she didn’t want to obliterate the careful shading and detail she had achieved on some of her drawings. A fine gold pen was used for that authentic illuminative effect! My daughter really enjoyed the project and now has a handmade card to give this Christmas.



Home school learning about chocolate

We have been enjoying an impromptu chocolate topic this month. My elder daughter has recently joined the Guides and on browsing through the interest badges available to complete we found there is a Chocolate Badge and a Confectioners Badge! We thought we would make a start and then my younger daughter came home with her holiday homework for the forthcoming half-term topic, ‘Scrumdiddliumptious’! All of a sudden we were up to our elbows in chocolate which is not a bad place to be! Here are some ways children can enjoy learning about chocolate at home:

  1. Make some chocolates! dsc_0018.jpgWe used this ice-cube tray recipe from Tiphero which was great fun on a Saturday afternoon. Be sparing with the coconut oil and don’t use really deep ice-cube trays. For fillings we tried to make a fondant based on this recipe by Clare’s Contemplations but as we couldn’t find raspberry extract in time we used strawberry and prosecco flavoring. They tasted very good but were very sweet despite the fact that our fondant obviously needed a lot more icing sugar. We certainly didn’t end up with a mouldable soft fondant but a fairly runny mixture. Still, it all worked out well and the children enjoyed making them.
  2. Make edible art by painting with chocolate! DSC_0078We were inspired by one of my daughter’s homework options which was to make a picture of, or with, some food and were really keen to try painting with chocolate. We melted dark, milk and white chocolate and then used food colouring gels to colour batches of the white chocolate. Use clean, new brushes and paint onto grease-proof baking parchment so that when your paintings are dry you can peel them off and eat them, which my  children found hilarious. We have previously tried using icing for paint which was also fun.DSC_0083
  3. Make model chocolates. This was what my daughter finally decided upon for her homework project. My elder daughter has tried this before for a Brownie Badge so we were keen to give it another go. We used Fimo modelling clay in ‘chocolate’, ‘vanilla’ and a darker brown to create the milk, white and dark chocolate. While we were buying it in Hobbycraft we found some little beads shaped like tiny slices of fruit that made great toppings. After making the chocolates and baking them we used a glue-gun to attach the beads to the top. The chocolates look great nestled in petit four cases.DSC_0059 My daughter made a chocolate box from an old cardboard box, designing a label with her chocolates’ name and a description. When my elder daughter made her first batch of model chocs a couple of years back she really enjoyed coming up with creative names for each chocolate and designing a ‘menu’ for her chocolate box. My younger daughter made her menu into a poem about chocolate and laid it on top of her sweets.
  4. If you wanted to take it further you could encourage children to think up an advertisement and marketing campaign for the chocolates: who are they aimed at, where would the be sold, are they affordable pocket-money sweets or a luxury brand, what might their slogan or strap-line be, and so on. Pick one flavour of chocolates to make: research the costs of the ingredients and packaging, make and package them.
  5. Learn about where chocolate comes from and research the history of chocolate. The Charlie and Lola Comic Relief book But I Do Know All About Chocolate is a fun way for younger children to learn about where chocolate comes from, how it is made and to start exploring some of the contemporary issues around chocolate such as the Fair Trade label. My young daughter also loves Triffic Chocolate by Alan MacDonald and has read it umpteen times. We’ve also enjoyed How Sweet It Is (And Was): A History of Candy by Ruth Freeman Swain.
  6. Try chocolate tasting! Depending on the age of the children you could either do a blindfold guessing game where children guess the flavour of the chocolate or you can get children to taste different flavours and varieties and evaluate them. There are so many different and interesting flavours available that this can be a chance to explore lots of new combinations. Can children come up with their own exciting ideas? can you have a go at making some of them?
  7. Read some chocolatey fiction. Probably the most famous chocolate book is Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which remains a perennial favourite with my younger daughter. My elder daughter enjoyed The Candymakers by Wendy Mass and is looking forward to reading its sequel, The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase. Other ideas include: Kate Saunders’ The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (which my younger daughter will be getting for Christmas); The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis; Clara the Chocolate Fairy for those Rainbow Magic fans among you; The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling; Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith; The Great Chocoplot by Chris Callaghan; and, for younger children, The Chocolate Monster by Pip Jones.

Marshmallow Bonfires for Kids


Last month my daughters tried their first ever chocolate fondu which was great fun but left us with a bag of spare marshmallows. Tomorrow is Bonfire Night but as it’s damp and I think back-garden bonfires are actually banned where we live we won’t be having a fire to toast them on. Instead we decided to make them into mini bonfires to enjoy after the trip to the town’s firework display tonight.

You will need:

  • a bag of marshamallows
  • 200g white chocolate
  • food colouring paste in red and yellow (you can use these to make orange unless you happen to have a separate orange colouring)
  • Matchmaker chocolates (we used Zingy Orange flavour but my preference is for Honeycomb)
  • Fairy cake cases


Melt your white chocolate over hot water on the hob. Using a hob means you can keep the chocolate warm and melted as you will be using it in batches; alternatively, you could microwave them in three quantities.


Separate off some of the melted chocolate (the first and third batches will need to be a little bigger than the middle batch) and add some red food colouring. We added quite a bit and the red was still fairly pinkish but it didn’t really matter.


Either dip the narrower end of each marshmallow into the red chocolate or use a spoon to drizzle it over. You want the red chocolate to go down the sides of the marshmallow; it doesn’t matter if there isn’t much on the top because you will be adding two further layers. Put the marshmallows in the fridge for a few minutes so that the chocolate can harden while you colour the next batch.



Separate off another load of chocolate (this is the batch that can be a little smaller than the other two as you won’t need quite so much of it). Either use your orange colouring or mix some red and yellow colouring to make this chocolate an orangey colour. Get the marshmallows out and dip or drizzle as before so that the orange chocolate is layered over the red. Put them back in the fridge to set.


Remove the remaining chocolate from the heat and colour it yellow. Top the marshmallows with the yellow chocolate, making sure you cover any glimpses of marshmallow still showing through the previous two layers.


Break up one or two Matchmakers to make branches. Criss-cross them in the bottom of a fairy cake case, using a dab or two of the left-over yellow chocolate to stick them together. Take a marshmallow and dab a little melted chocolate on the bottom before perching it atop the branches. Once the chocolate is completely set you could remove them from the cases so they look better but if they are being handed around and eaten outside you might want to keep them in the cases and just try to pick a pattern that is vaguely appropriate for Bonfire Night (we didn’t!).



Ta-da! Your Bonfires are done! Ours aren’t works of art but my children had fun making them on a wet afternoon, they used up our marshmallows and they’ll be a sweet treat after the fireworks.





Children’s books for autumn

Torcross and Slapton Ley

Last month we took our annual trip to South Devon: beaches, turning leaves, feeding the ducks, fish and chips…and a few of our favourite bookshops.

On Monday we made a start at The Harbour Bookshop in Kingsbridge. It is a small independent bookshop that was bustling with half-term customers. The staff are helpful and enthusiastic and it’s always a pleasure to browse there. My elder daughter is a Beatrix Potter fan and chose The Fairy Caravan about a little guinea pig who joins a miniature circus and travels the countryside having adventures as well as Winter Magic, an anthology of winter-themed children’s stories by authors such as Michelle Magorian, Gerladine McCaughrean, Abi Elphinstone and Michelle Harrison which she absolutely loved and could barely put down. My younger daughter was harder to find a book for and insisted there was nothing to take her fancy until I found Roller Girl,  a graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson; she picked it up, started reading and had to have it prised from her hands so we could pay for it. Roller Girl is about how Astrid discovers the thrill of roller derbies and how her new found passion changes her relationship with her best friend. It’s a book about friendship, identity, seizing new experiences and setting these within the world you already inhabit. My only complaint is that the book is not well bound; it’s already falling apart and though my daughter has read it umpteen times already in the eight days she has owned it, she certainly hasn’t been rough with it. A book that I didn’t buy because it was really too expensive but which did look lovely was Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, gorgeously illustrated by Jackie Morris whose hares and illustrations of poetry we have long loved. As I haven’t read it properly I will let the blurb speak for itself:

“All over the country, there are words disappearing from children’s lives. These are the words of the natural world — Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone. The rich landscape of wild imagination and wild play is rapidly fading from our children’s minds.

The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of nature words and the natural world they invoke. With acrostic spell-poems by award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane and hand-painted illustration by Jackie Morris, this enchanting book captures the irreplaceable magic of language and nature for all ages.”

On we went, up the hill to the excellent Oxfam Bookshop. There we found The Magna Carta Chronicle: A Young Person’s Guide to 800 Years in the Fight for Freedom which we snapped up after my daughter enjoyed playing the National Archives Magna Carta game online. Much of it is newspaper-style reportage and runs from the Magna Carta to Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize. There is a pull-out timeline and a quiz, too. We also picked up a very vintage Usborne Cut-Out Models Make This Model Village (updated version here) and The Children’s Book of Domesday England by Peter B. Boyden (1985) ‘in conjunction with the English Tourist Board’. My younger daughter found a couple of old favourites: Daisy and the Trouble with Zoos and Daisy and the Trouble with Chocolate by Kes Gray.

On Thursday we headed to Dartmouth and visited the dog-friendly Dartmouth Community Bookshop where we bought Alice-Miranda Shines Bright by Jacqueline Harvey, another favourite series. We also discovered a gem: The Anthology of English Folk Tales which has been fascinating for my daughter to read and which I am keen to get my hands on having recently enjoyed Katherine Langrish’s scholarly book on English fairy stories, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on fairy Tales. We couldn’t resist popping into the Dartmouth Bookseller to see what they had and ended up buying The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon about a boy who sets off to find his adventurous but missing grandparents. My daughter says that she will reveal that they turn up but she doesn’t want to ruin the ending by explaining how!


While we were away The Wonderling by Mira Bartok arrived. I won a free copy from Mumsnet in return for sharing my child’s opinion of it. Unfortunately my daughter has stalled fairly early on in the book and says it is rather scary and has some nasty bits so I am going to have to read it quick-smart so I can offer a slightly more detailed report…



Visiting Museums at Home


We love museums! We have our old favourites and then we also love to discover new ones. Museums these days are often interactive, welcoming, child-friendly places where we can all learn something new. But it’s not always possible to get to them. Maybe you just don’t have many nearby or perhaps transport is difficult. Often money is a concern because while many museums are free, not all are and then there is the cost of getting there, gift-shops, cafes, etc. the latter of which are not essential to a museum trip but can sometimes be hard to avoid. So,  I offer you our guide to enjoying museums at home!

  • On-line collections. Many museums now have excellent websites which have a lot of their collection available to view online. Many also have a whole host of other information, kids’ pages, games, craft and art ideas, experiments to do, and so on. Check out the education pages at The National Archives, Kew, for example; it has games, a ‘build your own Magna Carta’ project, information on different time periods, a document of the month, and more.
  • Museum publications. The larger museums often have a selection of children’s books and project-sets. The V&A in London, for example, have a great selection, as does The National Gallery which has just published its first ever children’s guide to the gallery, Picture This! We love the V&A’s Welcome to the Museum, an amazing set with a fold-out museum and a book full of stickers and press-out exhibits so you can create your own tiny museum on the dining-room table. There is also the huge book Historium (Welcome to the Museum) by Jo Nelson and Richard Wilkinson which is set out like a museum catalogue full of ancient artefacts. There are other books in the series which focus on different museum types, such as dinosaurs and natural history.DSC_0013.JPG
  • Make your own museum. You can use something like Welcome to the Museum but you don’t actually need a fancy kit to make your own museum at home. It’s a great rainy day or winter activity. Children can turn their bedroom, playroom, or Wendy house into a museum or, if you are short on space, a tray or table can become a display-area. Your own museums can reflect whatever passions your children have: dinosaurs, rocks, dolls, shells, stamps, coins, old things, family souvenirs, postcards, thimbles, badges, even fun erasers or Shopkins. How far they develop the activity is up to them. Maybe they just like to arrange the exhibits but perhaps they would like to make display labels and/or some information about each item. They might even want to make a museum guide or brochure with photos or drawing and extra information. Nina Chakrabarti’s My Collection of Collections might be a good source of inspiration if your child is a little unsure of where to start.
  • Start your own family archives. Start a family history folder or box. This could go as far back as you are able or it could just focus on your own family, including birth certificates (see if you can give them a copy rather than the real thing), birth announcements, photos and mementos of significant family events and so on. You might have items from further back in your family’s past even if this is just a coin or stamps from when you were little – to children that’s still quite a long time ago!DSC_0015.JPG
  • Museum fiction. There are quite a few books that take museums as their focus. One of the most well-known is E. L. Konigsburg’s modern classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler about two children Product Detailswho run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I used to love how the children get to sleep in an antique four-poster bed! Robin Stevens has just published The Guggenheim Mystery, a follow-up to Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery. Siobhan Dowd passed away before she could develop the sequel to the first book so Stevens used the title as the inspiration for a story about a missing masterpiece. My younger daughter loves the ‘Violet’ books by Harriet Whitethorn and has already read the latest one several Violet and the Mummy Mystery by [Whitehorn, Harriet]times. Violet and the Mummy Mystery revolves around some sneaky thefts from the Egyptology Department of the British Museum. When a mummy thought to hold the key to locating the lost tomb of Nefertiti is stolen, Violet and her friends are determined to get it back. In a similar vein are Mike Museum Mystery Squad Books 1 to 3: The Cases of the Moving Mammoth, Hidden Hieroglyphics and Curious Coins (Young Kelpies) by [Nicholson, Mike]Nicholson’s Museum Mystery Squad books in which a team of kids solve mysterious puzzles that crop up in museums. There are The Case of the Hidden Hieroglyphics; The Case of the Moving Mammoth; and The Case of the Curious Coins.   For younger children The Museum of Me by Emma Lewis is a picture book exploring a child’s journey of discovering museums. David Lucas’ book Lost in the Toy Museum follows Bunting the Cat as he searches for his hiding friends amidst the treasures of the museum. The Museum by Susan Verde is a picture book about a little girl going to an art gallery and responding in the pictures she sees there. In The Queen and Mr Brown: A Day for Dinosaurs by James Francis Wilkins the Queen and her corgi visit the Natural History Museum and meet some dinosaurs…
  • Puzzles and activities. Maths Quest: the Museum of Mysteries by David Glover is a book that uses maths puzzles to help the reader unfold the mystery. My elder daughter spent her birthday money on Museum of Me: Curate your life with your own drawings, doodles and writing by Charlotte Farmer. It’s a fantastic book that allows you to fill a museum with your favourite things, stuff about your family, friends and hobbies and so on. It would be a great Christmas present. A similar book is Me Museum by M. H. Clark.

Testing times


This week my elder daughter was one of thousands of children who sat a ‘pre-test’ for local selective schools. This is something new to me; when I was a child and applying to secondary schools all the children automatically sat the 11+ exam. together at school unless parents opted them out (e.g. they were moving abroad or had only recently moved to the UK and had not yet learned English well enough to sit the test). This system had its own draw-backs, of course, and one advantage of the way the applications process changed over the years was that you now had to opt in to sit the 11+ on a Saturday at one of the selective schools. However, the vast numbers of children applying each year for a few hundred places meant that this system became untenable. It was not logistically possible to examine that many children. So, the ‘pre-test’ was born…

The idea is that everyone who would like to apply for a place at one of three selective boys schools, two selective girls schools or a comprehensive (co-ed and mixed ability) school with a selective stream needed to sit a ‘pre-test’ in order to qualify to take the entrance examination. Anyone can apply, provided they are the appropriate age. This means that our test in a South London suburban borough was attended by children living as far away as Hertfordshire, on the other side of London. If that child won a place at one of the schools in this borough he or she would be faced with a two and an hour plus commute in both directions each and every day. Selective grammar schools are so rare and so far between that some parents would send their child that way every day rather than send them to a local non-selective school.


So this week the local girls’ grammar school held two enormous sittings for the pre-test. Each test had four different entrances and examination sites within the campus, each accommodating a huge number of children. The morning test candidates were told to be there no later than 8.30 am and were warned that traffic and parking in the area was likely to be difficult. We live about 15 minutes drive from the school if traffic is normal; the journey includes driving through two town centres. Taking into account ordinary rush-hour traffic as well as the test traffic we left home at 7.40 am; one of my recurring nightmares had been that I was circling the area in the car, desperately searching in vain for a parking space. Yes, I was having nightmares about the pre-test and I’m certainly not the only parent who was so imagine the pressure the children were under!

Fortunately the traffic was a dream and we arrived at just before 8 am to find lots of space in one of the car parks in the park next to the school. It soon filled up, though, and by the time I returned to my car it was so packed that I had difficulty backing out of my space, despite a car park nearer to the school gate being left half empty, presumably because it wasn’t paved. We had time for my daughter to finish some of the breakfast she’d brought with her, to read the Bible and pray and to head into the school with plenty of time. We were both over-awed by the sheer numbers of girls. It was just astonishing. All these girls were taking two hour-long tests, one in maths and the other in English, just for the privilege of sitting another exam. My daughter went in at 8.30 am and, as they ran behind schedule, didn’t leave the building until 11.50 am. Children were missing school, parents were missing work, all these children (a good number of whom have only just turned ten and are nowhere near eleven years-old) were under a huge amount of pressure for a pre-test.

There is a hugely popular girls’ grammar school in a another borough close-ish to ours; the vast numbers of girls applying has led to it deciding on an eligibility zone. The zone is quite wide; it excludes us but if our daughter attended that school she would have been undertaking a bus ride of well over an hour every morning and a similar length of time in the afternoon. A slightly late bus would make her very late for school and she would be worried about getting into trouble. Yes, it’s a shame she can’t apply there but, on the whole, it is better for her physical and emotional well-being that it’s not an option for her.

If the schools in our borough would only apply a similar zoning admissions policy then the pre-test could surely be done away with and all these children spared the additional stress and anxiety of a pre-test. I can understand that in these days of league-tables schools want the very best students and can have their pick. If a child living in Hertfordshire will do even slightly better in exams than one living five minutes walk away then the Hertfordshire child is preferable despite the cost of the commute to that child’s health, family life and friendships. However, the number of children sitting the pre-test means that, in fact, it almost becomes a lottery. Virtually all of these children are likely to be intelligent and in the top learning sets in their class. How they do in the tests is largely dependent on what questions came up on the day, whether they had a cold, if they slept well, whether they were feeling anxious or panicky. On any given day and with any given paper a different group of children could well pass at the required level.

The only factor which tips the scales is the amount of preparation the children have had: tutors; summer schools; parental preparation; practice tests hosted by the same local grammar schools. As you can imagine, the desperation for places has created a completely false environment in which children are expected to know maths work from across the Year 6 curriculum and do so by being tutored. The few untutored children, unless they have a really special aptitude for maths, cannot be expected to know all of this after less than a month in the final year of primary school. Many children are encouraged to do a really astonishing amount of extra work to prepare for these tests. I met a lady who had recently moved to the area who told me her daughter would love to join Guides but would not be allowed until after the pre-test and 11+. Making friends and pursuing extra-curricula activities took a back seat way behind revision. The family are fortunate enough to be able to fall back on local private schools if the child didn’t get a place at the preferred school but in the meantime she was not allowed to do a two-hour activity on a Friday night just five minutes down the road from her house.

Next week we will hear whether my daughter has passed the pre-test. If she hasn’t then we will reassure her, comfort her, give her positive alternatives and tell her that we will love her no matter what. Hopefully other parents will do the same but it is hard to prevent the children from feeling like they have failed at ten years old.




Home school learning about the Georgian Era


Last term one of our home education topics was the English Georgian period. This covers 1714 until 1830 when the ‘last George’ died and William IV reigned briefly, ushering in the Victorian era. We had a brilliant time studying the Georges; here are some of our favourite learning experiences:

  • Get your Georges straight! My daughter did some research online to make a chart showing each of the King Georges (I, II, III and IV!), their birth and death dates, length and dates of their reign, their wives, mistresses and children, interesting facts about them and important events that took place during their reign. It is a great help getting the era ordered in your mind and reduces the George confusion. You can watch clips from the BBC documentary The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain here.
  • Read up on the period. There are not many books about the Georgians readily available, especially compared with other periods of British history, possibly because it is not part of the government primary school curriculum. The Usborne History of Britain book The Georgians by Ruth Brocklehurst is easy to buy and often available in the library. My daughter also read The Georgians 1714-18307 by Kingfisher books and Georgian Life by John Guy. The TV-tie-in book Regency House Party by Lucy Jago was a suprising addition to the list; my daughter was fascinated by the insights it gave into the period.
  • Find out about other famous Georgians. My daughter’s favourite of these was Jane Austen and we did a lot of research about her. She tried reading some of her fiction, and made a start with some biographies: Jane Austen by Carol Shields and Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley. She also absolutely loved I was Jane Austen’s Best Friend and Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend by Cora Harrison, modern historical novels for young people about Austen’s circle of friends. Another very accessible book for younger readers is Jane Austen. Her Life, her times, her novels by Janet Todd, a beautiful sort of scrap-book-style book with documents you can take out and slot back in. We visited Austen’s cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, her tomb in Winchester Cathedral, the portrait exhbition in Winchester and the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. We also went to a lecture about Austen at the National Archives and saw her original will. Because this is the bicentenary of Austen’s death there has been a huge amount of Austen activities going on in the UK and especially in the South of England where Austen was born, lived, worked and died. You can watch clips from Lucy Worsley’s BBC documentary Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors here.IMAG2347
  • Visit some historic Georgian sites. We visited Regency Bath, Mompesson House in Salisbury, the famous Brighton Pavilion, Osterley Park and Castle Green House and Regency gardens at Cardigan Castle to name but a few. Previously we have been to the National Trust property Saltram near Plymouth which is also excellent. Visiting some Georgian properties gives you a real sense of the lives and environment of the Georgians and although this is usually mainly that of the wealthiest members of society (because theirs are usually the only houses and possessions to have been preserved) you are sometimes able to glimpse something of the lives of their servants, labourers, and so on through the kitchens and outhouses. IMAG2326
  • Research Georgian fashion and jewellery. The internet and Pinterest (my Georgians board is here) have lots of information about Georgian fashion although you could try more general books about the history of fashion or visit a fashion museum. My children really enjoyed looking at all the clothes at the Fashion Museum in Bath which had some beautiful examples from the Georgian era and is hosting a talk next week about fashion in Jane Austen’s lifetime. You could try making some Georgian-inspired jewellery of your own. We made a cameo pendant and Georgian ‘eye jewellery’ but we would have loved to try using precious stones to send secret messages in pieces of acrostic jewellery. The Jane Austen Centre website has a huge back-catalogue of posts showing you how to make different pieces of Georgian clothing and jewellery, how to try Regency hairstyles and make recipes from the era.IMAG2430_1
  • Which brings me on to… try some Georgian food! Try some of the recipes from the Jane Austen Centre or, for a more American flavour, try Colonial Williamsburg. We made Queen Cakes and browsed through my daughter’s American Girl recipe book Felicity’s Cooking Studio with the idea of throwing a full-on Georgian dinner party. Unfortunately we haven’t got round to it yet but I think it’s a great idea! We also watched the BBC documentary The Sweet-Makers (you can watch clips here) which had a whole episode about sweets in Georgian times. The impact of slavery on the business was shocking and the programme didn’t pull any punches with revealing just how brutal the sugar slave-trade was. IMAG2393_1
  • Learn about slavery. This is something we only touched upon because my daughter was only nine and not ready for the very sad and horrific details. It might be something your children are ready to explore more, however.
  • Read some fiction! Reading some fiction of the era is obviously the best place to start and can prompt some great discussions about what sort of messages and ideas were being created about and for children. My daughter loved reading Stories from Old-Fashioned Children’ Books by Andrew W. Tuer, first publsihed in 1899 but republished in 1985 and again this year which means it is readily available. Of course, what were ‘old-fashioned’ in 1899 are even more so nearly 120 years later! It is a fascinating treasury of late Georgian texts for children. The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories edited by Jan Mark (currently out of print but you may be able to find a cheap copy second-hand) also contains a selection of stories from the 1700s and early 1800s as well as Victorian and twentieth century examples. Project Gutenburg is also worth exploring for free examples of texts.  My daughter is not yet ready for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels by has enjoyed Gulliver, Chris Riddell’s graphic novel for children, and the DK Gulliver’s Travels which gives a lot of background information about the author, book, the political background and the society in which it was written.
  • Read some historic fiction. As well as the Cora Harrison books about Jane Austen mentioned above we found a few excellent books set in Georgian times. The Historical House series is a wonderful set of books by experienced writers of historic fiction; Mary Ann and Miss Mozart by Ann Turnbull focuses on Mary Ann who dreams of becoming an opera singer and has the chance to watch Mozart perform in London before her father’s failing fortunes puts her ambitions in jeopardy. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kinberly Brubaker Bradley take events across the channel in Revolutionary Frances as their focus but my daughter found them a bit too scary for her. In the same vein is The Fall of the Blade: A Young Aristrocrat’s Diary 1792-1794 by Sue Reid, part of the fantastic My Story series which also includes Australia by Goldie Alexander about a girl is is transported to Australia for a crime she did not commit. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is another obvious example of historical fiction about the 1700s; published in 1882, it is the adventure of Jim Hawkins who goes to sea in search of treasure when he gets caught up with pirates. Our common images of pirates with eye-patches, hooks, parrots and wooden legs cursing and grasping after pieces of eight owe a lot to characters imagined in this book.

Home school learning about Japan


My daughter had been fascinated with Japan since she read Rumer Godden’s books about Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum, so when we started home-schooling we chose Japan as one of our first topics. It’s been really interesting and a lot of fun learning about Japan and I thought I would share our ideas and activities.

  • Read! Books are a great way to introduce children to a new country and lifestyle. There are quite a few lists on Pinterest listing books for younger readers, particularly picture books (like this one from Happy Brown House, for example), but I needed some for older readers. Here are some of the books we tried:

The Rumer Godden books, above. // My Awesome Japan Adventure by Rebecca Otowa, a fantastic scrap-book-style books full of little snippets of information but with the over-arching narrative of an American kid’s visit to Japan// Similar but for older readers is Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, Hi-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer//  Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata about a girl of Japanese heritage living in the American Deep South. // Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi about two Japanese cousins who meet and become friends when one family moves to the US from Japan, sharing the art of rokkaku (kite-flying). // Japanese Art and Culture by Kamini Khanduri // Japan (Nations of the World) by Jen Green // Alice-Miranda in Japan by Jacqueline Harvey is a fun read // Jingu: the Hidden Princess by Ralph E. Ray, a short historical novel about a young 4th-century princess, the Japanese heroine Jingu.

  • Try some Japanese food. Sushi is readily available now in supermarkets making it a very easy way to have a taste of Japan; there are even vegetable sushi options for vegetarian children or those squeamish about fish, raw or otherwise. We tried sushi from a variety of shops and outlets and also made our own, which is very straightforward; we used this recipe and tutorial from Eats Amazing. You might be lucky enough to have a proper sushi restaurant near you so you can try a more authentic experience. We also tried mochi, a squidgy Japanese cake, which I liked but my daughter didn’t! We also tried noodles and other Japanese foods including this simple teriyaki chicken recipe from Taming Twins which my daughter could make herself. She kept a Japanese food diary to record all the things she had tried and what she thought of them.2016-up-to-september-075
  • Learn about Japanese arts and crafts. A very obvious one is origami. The internet is full of tutorials showing how to make different animals, birds and flowers of varying difficulty. Origami paper can sometimes be very expensive but you might be lucky to find some in a value craft shop. The British Museum has an exhibition of the iconic Hokusai (best known for his ‘wave’ painting) at the moment if you are able to travel to visit it but, if not, then there are are several radio and television programmes about him and his work available online. The BBC has just finished showing a Japan season so we have had the chance to watch programmes on all sorts of things on iPlayer – from pottery to kimono-making,and wildlife to nightlife. Children can have a go at trying some of these arts and crafts for themselves; my daughter painted her own ‘wave’ painting, inspired by Houksai. Another idea is to make a mon from clay or Fimo. These were heraldic symbols worn by clans or members of specific groups to announce loyalty and membership. Children can design their own symbols or pictures and then form them from clay on a circular base or boss. Children might also like to try brush painting: look up how to write their name in Japanese and then use black paint and a brush to write them out. We have also been meaning to get around to making some Japanese fans.
  • Dress-up. If you get the opportunity to dress up in kimono then it is great fun to do. My daughters had a go when we went to a Children’s Day Festival hosted at the V&A by the Japanese Society and it was probably their favourite event of the day. If a kimono isn’t possible then try some geisha make-up with facepaint!
  • Listen to some Japanese music/watch some dance or theatre. Like kimono-wearing, this is something you don’t often get a chance to do, but if you have a local Japanese Society they may well put on shows once or twice a year. When we went to the V&A day we got the chance to listen to Japanese music and try out some traditional Japanese instruments. We had the privilege of watching some Japanese dance, theatre and puppetry, including an ancient form of Japanese puppets which had never before been performed in the UK before.
  • Celebrate a Japanese festival. I have posted before about celebrating Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival: find out a little about it and then celebrate with a tea party. This can be as simple as inviting a few friends and their favourite dolls or  you can challenge yourselves to have a go at making your own court of Japanese royal dolls. Serve your own favourite tea-time treats or try some Japanese mochi, sushi and other traditional food. 2016-up-to-september-071The Japanese Children’s Festival or Kodomo no Hi is another great one to explore with children, for obvious reasons. Make paper koinobori carp fish banners (template here, or use cardboard tubes) and tie them to a garden cane; you need one fish for each family member with the adult fishes being the largest and the children smaller. The Japanese also love the Cherry Blossom (sakura) Festival; hanami is the tradition of viewing these beautiful blossoms and is often celebrated with picnics or evening parties. The shops sell everything sakura-themed so have a go at painting your own blossoms, create some from tissue paper or try making sakura sweets from marzipan, peppermint creams or coconut ice. Tanabata, usually celebrated on 7th July, is the Star Festival and is celebrated today by writing wishes (sometimes as poems) on small pieces of paper (tanzaku) and tying them to bamboo. Have fun making up wishes and poems and there is also a Tanabata song which children might like to write out and illustrate.
  • Learn about haiku. Haiku is traditional seventeen-syllable poetry. Read some classical haiku (Matsuo Basho is one master of haiku and is widely available) and then have children write their own.
  • Write your own guide-book to Japan or Tokyo. This is great process learning and has a finished product they can be proud of. The child can choose what they feel is important to include or you can guide them to a lesser or greater extent. It’s a good opportunity to learn more about Japan’s geography, draw some maps, find out about transport systems, local culture, shopping and eating out, as well as useful phrases and information about all sorts of things like how child-friendly it is, are pets welcome, how do you contact the police force, and so on.
  • Learn about Buddhism and ShintoWe used the Dorling Kindersley book on Buddhism.IMAG2440
  • Visit a Japanese garden and/or make your own Japanese flat garden.IMAG2514
  • Do some research about Japanese wildlife. We watched Wild Japan on Netflix and discovered some really beautiful animals and birds.


We really enjoyed our Japan topic and hope you do, too!

Austen Land (aka Winchester)


Disclaimer: I apologise for the lack of photographs in this post; the camera on my mobile has broken and I really need to sort out a new one!

On Sunday I realised that the very next day was the last day of the Mysterious Miss Austen Exhibition in Winchester. This exhibition had brought together all the known and suspected portraits of Jane Austen together for the first time, offering a very rare and exciting opportunity to see them, particularly as one is in a private collection. The exhibition also had Austen’s hand-written alternative ending to Persuasion and other articles including letters to her sister Casandra, her pelisse and a tiny purse she worked herself. So far my daughter’s interest in Austen has taken us to all sorts of places including Austen’s house in Chawton, Bath and a very accessible lecture at the National Archives on the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Winchester was on our list but it seemed such a waste to delay our visit until later in the summer holidays and thereby miss the exhibition so we got up early and headed off…

Image result for portraits of jane austen

We were so glad we did! The exhibition was held in the Winchester Discovery Centre which also houses the city library. There was a suggested donation of £3 which was a wonderful contrast to the huge amount we were charged at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath for the opportunity to look at six copies of the portraits. It was a privilege to be able to see the real portraits and the rest of the exhibition and the understated and calm setting was perfect. Downstairs on the ground floor there was another exhibition about medicine and apothecary in the time of Austen, ‘Malady and Medicine’, focusing particularly on Austen and the city of Winchester. Jane had lived for many years in Chawton, a village a little way from Winchester but towards the end of her life she was moved to Winchester to take advantage of the more specialised medical care available there. It had some interesting exhibits including a sedan chair and apothecary drawers.


Image result for painting of jane austen by cassandra

We had a quick picnic lunch sitting on a Jane Austen bench in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral and then intended to go inside; partly to see Jane Austen’s grave and the various memorials to her but also because we always love a cathedral! We timed our visit just as a private memorial service was about to begin (not for Austen, I might add) and so one of the volunteers suggested we came back a little later. We went for a wander, hoping to find Austen’s last home in Winchester in College Street, but actually went in the opposite direction and serendipitiously found ourselves at the City Museum. It was £3 entry per person (again, this was the suggested contribution) and well worth it! The museum is divided into three floors, each with a different historical focus. We worked backwards, as it were, starting with Victorian Winchester, moving up through the Medieval and ending with the Roman and Anglo-Saxon. Not only was there a wealth of treasures, sometimes rivaling those on display at the Ashmolean, but there were children’s activities scattered around and, best of all in my children’s opinion, a dressing-up station on every level! Moreover, the costumes were of good quality and kept nicely. We saw an almost complete Roman mosaic discovered at Sparsholt, along with some beautifully preserved paintings; Medieval children’s toys (including a ball, toy sword and a whopping top) and whistles fashioned from goose bones; a Roman burial; a collection of Medieval ‘face jars’, vessels made with humorous faces; Anglo-Saxon jewellery; and all sorts of other things. The Museum also houses Austen memorabilia including a purse owned by her (the one she made and was on show at the Discovery Centre is also usually displayed at the museum), a monogrammed ivory spool-case with a bobbin for winding silk and a handwritten poem circa 1811.

Eventually we returned to the Cathedral where under-16s are free with an adult (£8 entry fee) and had a wonderful walk around it. My younger daughter did the children’s trail which was informative and fun without being too exhaustive. We were visiting on the bicentenary of Austen’s funeral in the Cathedral itself and we saw her grave and the memorial plaque. The Cathedral hosted a Book of Memories which is intended to be a lasting record of the impressions and reflections of visitors as well as Inspired by the Word, a collection of pieces of art by contemporary artists inspired by Austen, her work and her faith. Perhaps the most memorable of these is a portrait by Joy Pitts made entirely of name-tapes, such as you might have made to sew into school-clothes; 71 words from the opening paragraph of Pride and Prejudice form Austen’s face while 16 names of the main characters make up the backgrounds.

There is a great deal more to see in the Cathedral: the 12th-century Winchester Bible is on display there along with a very useful computer programme which allows you to explore the illustrations in greater depth; there are wonderful mortuary chests containing the bones of ancient Kings and Queens including King Cnut and his Queen, Emma; a beautiful painted ceiling in the Quire; the Lady Chapel with a reredos dedicated to the memory of the novelist Charlotte M. Yonge; and a memorial to the deep-sea diver, William Walker, who worked tirelessly six hours a day for six years in the dark underwater wearing a diving suit and helmet to help repair part of the Cathedrals’s sinking foundations!

We stopped in the Cathedral Refectory for a quick snack (the flapjacks are delicious) before going in search, again, of No. 8 College Street. En route we discovered the most fabulous book shed, more accurately known at the Deanery Bookstall, an amazing treasure-trove of second-hand books run by volunteers to raise money for the choral music and choristers of the Cathedral. Sadly for us we got there at the end of their day and the end of ours, so there wasn’t much time to rifle through their stock but my elder daughter and I could have spent hours there! We chose a couple of books but didn’t have enough change on us; the exceptionally lovely lady running the shed said it was all about being kind and let us give her what we had! I did make a run to a cashpoint and paid her back because I heard her telling someone that they need to raise £50,000 a year, and it is for charity after all, but it was indeed very kind of her! We will definitely be heading back there on our next visit!

Finally, we found Austen’s house just as a beautiful little butterfly was fluttering along its wall. Opposite is a little grassy area with plants and a bench where visitors can sit and rest for a while. We headed back to find our Park and Ride bus, admiring the enormous statue of King Alfred the Great, unveiled in 1901, as we went. We had a fantastic day out and will go back to see what else Winchester has to offer.

‘…we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ Northanger Abbey.