A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!



Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.

It’s World Book Day!!

Happy happy World Book Day and hurray for public libraries!!

World Book Day – a day to celebrate books, to read, to share, and to encourage everyone to read more. I could spend the rest of my life singing the praises of my favourite books, because once I get started on that topic I wouldn’t be able to stop. I would lament the lost years – early 2009 to late 2011 – when small needy children came between me and reading, and I was lucky to get through one book every six months. My ulterior motive in cultivating my children’s love of books was that they would leave me alone to get back to my own reading. From early 2012 my reading opportunities increased and I am now back to pre-baby reading levels.

But having babies leads to a new appreciation of books and today, on this day devoted to cultivating a love of books, I want to consider some of the best children’s literature I have had the pleasure of reading to and with my children in the past few years.

First of all, it must be said, there are some truly awful children’s books out there. Some children’s authors seem to think that young equals stupid and so any old nonsensical drivel can be thrown together and flung at children and their sleep-deprived parents. That sort of stuff can turn children and parents off reading forever. Parents are the ones, after all, who have to read those same stories day after day and night after night, and there is nothing worse than reading something aloud that is (a) badly written and (b) tells a terrible story.

But, oh, the joy of reading good children’s literature. It warms the heart and nurtures the soul. No matter how many times I read Winnie the Pooh (and I’ve read it and The House At Pooh Corner aloud at least three times) the last chapter brings me to tears and I find myself sobbing through the final paragraphs with Lily and Katie asking ‘Why are you crying, Mummy?’

When Lily was only weeks old I discovered Helen Cooper’s masterpiece Pumpkin Soup. Let me tell you now, if you are ever going to have a baby and you are expecting a gift from me, you are going to get a copy of Pumpkin Soup. Cooper’s illustrations and her uplifting and hilarious story about a Cat, a Squirrel and a Duck with a weakness for pumpkin soup are about as good as it gets when it comes to literature for anyone of any age. It wasn’t long before I bought books two and three in the series – A Pipkin of Pepper and Delicious, where naughty and contrary Duck continues to cause all sorts of problems for his two friends. Next I bought Cooper’s The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go To Bed. It is such a sweet and playful book and the brilliance of her illustrations continued to make me swoon.

I’m a firm fan of Julia Donaldson WHEN she works with the illustrator Axel Scheffler. The Donaldson-Scheffler books are tales of heroism, justice and friendship, all featuring unlikely heroes, such as a witch, an earthworm or a sea snail. The Snail And The Whale is, for obvious reasons, my favourite. It’s the story of a tiny snail who dreams of exploring the world, and sets off on an adventure on the tail of a humpback whale, and eventually saves the whale’s life. With the exception of What the Ladybird Heard, I am far less a fan   of the Donaldson books illustrated by Lydia Monks. Their tone is different and they are too full of pink princess types in need of rescuing for my liking.

And were would we be without Dr. Seuss, with his humorous and eloquent morality tales that teach us about the evils of power and greed (Yertle the Turtle), racism (The Sneetches), capitalism (The Lorex), and about humanity of the most seemingly insignificant (Horton Hears A Who), sharing (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas), and loyalty (Horton Hatches The Egg).

There are so many other wonderful children’s authors who have entertained Julian and I as much as they’ve entertained Lily and Katie – Lauren Childs, Robert Munsch, Mo Willems, Barbara M. Joosse.The girls think they’ve outgrown some of these books, but we know better! They will return to them again some day, I’m sure. Now, as I wrote in my last post, they are moving on to other things and I, for the first time, am discovering the wonders of C.S. Lewis. When the girls want me to read ‘just one more chapter’ I am happy to comply, because I am just as enthralled by the adventures in Narnia as they are.

And finally, on this day dedicated to books, I was once again reminded of how blessed we are to have public libraries run by thoughtful and generous-spirited librarians. The girls and I flew to Ireland yesterday to spend a few weeks with Mammy and my extended family. This afternoon we went to Edenderry library. I am no longer a member of this library, because I haven’t lived in Edenderry for many years. But I was a member throughout my childhood and early adulthood. We walked in the door this afternoon and Lily and Katie immediately descended on the books, sinking to the floor to read what they picked out.

I approached the desk. ‘Hello’, I said to the librarian. ‘I’m from Edenderry, but I don’t live here. I’m just here for three weeks. Would it be possible to get a temporary membership?’ ‘Are you Bridget’s daughter’, the librarian asked. Bridget reads more than anyone I know and it was she who took me to this library about once a week throughout my childhood. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Don’t worry about membership’, the librarian said. ‘Take out as many books as you want on your mother’s card’. Ah, the generosity of librarians.

A while later we walked out, the girls with three books each, Mammy with three books, and I had C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew (the only one of The Chronicles of Narnia that we don’t have aboard Carina) and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (which I was planning on buying the next time I was in a bookshop). World Book Day has been good to me!!

We read the first two chapters of The Magician’s Nephew when the girls went to bed. And now, if you will excuse me, it’s time to make a cup of tea, get into bed and start reading MaddAddam.

I hope World Book Day has treated you well too.

One year a-reading

It should come as no surprise to you that I’ve once again been thinking about reading. I’ve gushed about the joys of reading in blogs posts before here, here and here, and I’m about to do so again. But I’m also going to gush about the amazing learning capacities of young children. I’m in a state of pleasant shock most of the time, from observing how both my own children and other people’s children learn and develop so quickly.

A year ago, Lily started reading independently. Before that, Julian and I had read with her, encouraging her to sound out words and use her ‘reading finger’ to follow the story. But shortly before her fifth birthday, she discovered the joys of reading all by herself. Her first real foray into independent reading was with the Elephant and Piggie series of books by Mo Willems. My friend Angela gave us two books from this delightful, hilarious and touching series about a friendship between an elephant and a pig. The simply drawn pictures capture, with a couple of strokes of the pen, a range of emotions, as the two friends experiment, ponder, play and deal with some tough issues (What do you do when birds build a nest on your head? Or when a whale steals your ball? Or when you are invited to a party for the first time?). The language is simple – a few words on every page, word repetition, and font changes to convey changing emotional states.

epBy mid-March of last year, Lily had mastered reading these two books on her own, so I picked up four more from the series at Barnes and Noble when I was in Manhattan (it’s an American series, and not easy to find in the UK). But, in the ten days I was away in New York, Lily had graduated to more complex reading material. That’s not to say that she didn’t still love Elephant and Piggie. She continued (and continues) to read them to Katie, and Katie is now learning to read from them too.

elephantandpiggieBut with what seems to me lightning speed, in the space of only one year, Lily has gone from reading Elephant and Piggie to reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and his Boy and last night we started Prince Caspian. Sometimes I read one chapter to her and she reads the next one to me; other times I read a chapter to her and she reads the next one silently to herself. Every night she falls asleep with a book in her hands.

lionThis is not easy literature for someone who is not yet six years old, and though she can read all the words, I am not sure how much of the content she understands. It is my first time to read the Narnia books and I find they deal with issues of duty, honour, friendship and betrayal. They contain joy and beauty, but also death and torture and pain. But Lily’s level of understanding is not important. She gets such joy from reading and she brings her five-year old wisdom and life experience to bear on what she reads. If she chooses to read these books again in one, five, ten, twenty years from now, no doubt each subsequent reading will be coloured by her experience and wisdom at those different points in her life.

She is a voracious reader, oblivious to the world around her when her head is stuck in a book. She’s deep into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, has read a couple of Clarice Bean and Horrid Henry books, various Roald Dahl books (The Twits, Matilda, The BFG, etc), and numerous others.

Although I am thrilled that Lily has a passion for reading, what really amazes me is that I see in her the facility that all children have to learn new things quickly and easily. Children Lily’s age do this all the time. With Lily it’s reading. With other kids it’s maths, or art, or music, or building things, or natural history, or archaeology. Given the conditions to follow their own interests and explore the world around them, children have a natural desire and a voracious appetite for learning. We’ve all met a five-year old who knows the scientific names and characteristics of fifty dinosaurs, or who knows as much as a professional archaeologist about ancient Egypt. Nobody teaches kids this stuff. They follow what interests them, often until they’ve exhausted the possibilities or until they happen upon something else that interests them more.

What I find truly extraordinary about children is how quickly they develop proficiency in things that, if we are lucky, we adults can only learn with far greater effort and over much greater periods of time. Children aren’t scared of making mistakes in their self-directed learning, and they don’t have an end goal in sight. They learn simply because they love the thing they are doing – they love adding numbers up, or drawing tractors, or finding out every shred of information about Man Utd, or reading.

If we adults could approach our learning with such abandon and joy, and such a lack of self-consciousness or self-criticism, then maybe we too could learn more and learn better.

9 + 9 + 9 = 36

In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.


A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.

I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:

Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.


This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!

Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.

She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.

We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.


The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.

This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx

Learning something new every day

I’m writing an article for a home education magazine at the moment and as I was pondering it the other day, I started to think about the day-to-day education of the girls. So I thought back over the previous twenty-four hours and I realised two things. First, it was a pretty typical twenty-four hour period. Second, all four of us had learned new things during that time, without really trying to.

So here’s what we did in those twenty-four hours:

We dropped the anchor in quiet Cabo Cruz in Ria de Arousa just as the sun was setting. And as we did, we were delighted by the presence of five dolphins fishing in the shallow waters around the boat. I told the girls what I knew about dolphin fishing techniques and we watched them leap and splash to confuse the fish, corralling their prey into the shallows by the beach. Both girls already knew about how dolphins breathe and they shared that knowledge with me and Julian.

When the girls went to bed I read them a chapter of Mary Poppins. After I’d finished, Katie fell asleep, but Lily started to read a book about Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette. She had lots of questions, but I was too tired, so I suggested we read the book together at breakfast.

The next morning, while I made breakfast, Lily practiced mental maths with Julian. After breakfast, I read the Emmeline Pankhurst book aloud. As I read, Lily, Katie and I talked about fairness, justice, equality and feminism; and I explained about voting and government.

After Emmeline, the girls decided to have a ‘disco’. In their cabin they practiced their songs (a medley from The Sound of Music), then, using felt tips and paper, made tickets with the names of each dolly, teddy and parent invited to the disco. By then they had forgotten about the actual disco and moved on to other things.

Julian got our ‘Spanish for Beginners’ book out to learn about shopping grammar and vocabulary, and we all ended up practicing the new words and phrases, and tried to figure out some useful grammar together.

Lily helped me with the laundry – hand-washing in buckets on deck and hanging the wet laundry on the guard rails all around the boat. Katie set the table for lunch.

After lunch we rowed to shore in our dinghy and, like many of our afternoons in Galicia, played on a golden sandy beach. We all swam to our own abilities and then each did our own thing. Julian went for a walk to explore, as this was our first time in Cabo Cruz. I read my book about environmental governance. The girls found broken bricks, stones and driftwood and built a tower, learning that some structures work better than others. All three of us then played at being princesses in the sea, telling each other a fantastical and evolving story as we paddled in the shallows.

Later, Lily sat beside me on the sand because she wanted to write. In her little notebook she wrote about a movie we had recently watched on DVD, asking for help to spell the occasional word.

When Julian returned, he and the girls foraged for clams in the sea, and filled a small bucket with enough for supper. Katie went foraging along the beach on her own and found wild carrot. Both girls were very proud of their foraging prowess and knowledge of wild food.

We went for cold drinks to a bar that had Spanish news on. We rarely see TV, and there were some shocking images from Gaza and Ukraine, which led to a conversation about war and violence, which led back to The Sound of Music and the von Trapp family escaping over the mountains.

Back on the boat once more, as I made supper, the girls each coloured a page of their shared colouring book. And in the process, Katie learned (under instruction from Lily) how to write ‘W’ and ‘I’, to add to the ‘M’ and ‘L’ she learned a few days ago. In bed, Katie fell asleep while I read another chapter of ‘Mary Poppins’. Lily eventually fell asleep reading about the life and achievements of that great inventor of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt.

What an eclectic day of learning for all!

In praise of public libraries.

Libraries. Wonderful, glorious, magnificent libraries. When I was a child the library in Edenderry was a quiet hushed temple. While Mammy browsed for her books, I took myself off to the children’s section and discovered the worlds of Mallory Towers (Enid Blyton), Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery) and so many other beloved children’s authors. As the years progressed I graduated to the grown-up books, and Mammy and I would browse together, recommending titles to each other and sharing our choices when we got home.

Libraries have changed a lot over the years, partly, I guess, in response to the death grip of governments that don’t quite see their point. Libraries have diversified. They’re no longer just about books. As libraries have become noisier, librarians have grown less stern and stereotyped (Noel Whelan, God bless him, always frightened the life out of me). Since my own children have come along, I’ve been to libraries for baby massage classes, rhyme times, story times, craft activities; and I’ve used libraries as quiet places to write and to mark exams, and to get internet access. When we’ve lived anywhere for any length of time we’ve joined the local library, giving the children a varied and endless supply of books. When we’re on the move, we seek them out. Even if we can’t borrow books, we can still spend a couple of hours reading stories together.

On Saturday we took the dinghy the two miles up river from our pontoon to the City of Truro. Truro is a city by virtue of its having a cathedral and being the county town of Cornwall. It’s a lovely market town with footbridges crossing little streams and lots of locally owned cafes and shops.

DSCI3602As we walked along a busy street, I saw a sign for free Wifi and, seeing it was the public library, decided to pop in to check my emails. What an unexpected treat was in store.

At that very moment – noon – a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was beginning in the library’s garden. Library staff served a selection of delicious foods – sausages, tomatoes, home-made cakes and biscuits, all sorts of chocolate delights, and jelly – and in the garden the children could make their own Mad Hatter ears, go on a treasure hunt, and have their faces painted by the Queen of Hearts. Another member of staff called the children around her and read stories from a ‘Nursery Alice in Wonderland’.

DSCI3604The garden itself was beautiful – opened two years ago by one of the girl’s favourite TV characters, Mr. Bloom. It contained a mixture of ornamental and edible plants – carrots, lettuce, chard, spinach, peas, beans, strawberries and herbs were growing in raised beds, hanging bags, and even in the drawers of an old filing cabinet. In one corner a large bug garden hung on a wall, with bricks and twigs and old odds and ends designed to attract insects to the garden. The walls of the garden were decorated with paintings and murals and, for the Tea Party, larger playing cards and other references to Alice in Wonderland were planted in the beds.

DSCI3606The girls and I had a wonderful time at the party, while Julian went off to explore the library’s collection of sailing books. When the party ended, we went to the children’s library and spent over an hour reading wonderful books – some old friends we hadn’t read for a long time and others new to us. Shortly before we left a staff member came and asked the girls if they were Lily and Katie. They had won the treasure hunt and were presented with a gorgeous knitted Alice in Wonderland doll. It was the icing on the cake for them!

Thank you to the wonderful and creative staff at Truro public library for giving us such an unexpected treat. And to anyone who thinks that libraries are an unnecessary waste of taxpayer’s money I suggest you spend a couple of hours in a local library – you’ll soon change your mind. Not only do they open up worlds of reading to children and adults, but they provide an essential space to people who want to develop skills, look for jobs, or who simply need a quiet space to think.

Reading is for life!

Those of you who know me know that I am a passionate, obsessive reader. Novels, non-fiction, the newspaper review section and, increasingly, blogs. Sometimes I read so much I get eye-strain, but like a smoker who ignores a nasty cough and carries on getting pleasure from their cigarettes, I ignore headaches and burning eyes because of the sheer joy of reading.

And this is not the first time I’ve blogged about Lily’s and Katie’s experiences with reading. But to see them every day with books in their hands probably brings me even more pleasure than reading for myself. To see a whole world of adventure and fantasy, of love and joy and hope and empathy opening up in front of them as they turn the pages of books makes my heart swell.

Lily’s reading skills have developed so quickly in the past few months. I still find it hard to believe that back around Christmas, although she seemed to like reading, she tired and lost interest quickly. These days there’s no stopping her.

Lily reading 'The Smartest Giant in Town' to Grandad and Katie a few minutes ago.

Lily reading ‘The Smartest Giant in Town’ to Grandad and Katie a few minutes ago.

What fills me with so much excitement this week is that Lily is reading her first chapter book. It took a little convincing for her to read it. Because the book had chapters and very few pictures, she thought it was a far too grown-up book for her. But I knew it was about her reading level and eventually she agreed to ‘try’ the first page. That’s all it took. She was hooked. She reads a few pages every night in bed and some days I’ve found her quietly sitting on her bed, engrossed in the goings on of Amber and the other fairies in her book! She’s a little over half-way through.

Katie has been resistant to learning to read. She would listen to stories being read to her all day long, and will happily sit looking at the pictures in her books. But she’s made a determined effort up to now to not learn to read. We haven’t pushed it. We know that would get us nowhere. But the other evening, after dinner, Katie suddenly announced ‘Mummy, I’d like to read a book now’, and for the first time we sat down together with a beginner reading book and read the story together.

Of course there’s an ulterior motive to my encouraging them to read. The more they read their books, the more time I’ll have to read my books!!

9 essential items for happy live-aboard kids

Space is limited aboard Carina, but thankfully children don’t need much to keep them amused. Quite often, the toys that encourage imaginative play are small, compact, and lend themselves to onboard storage. Here is my top ten of tried and tested favourites:

1. Lego: All four of us love Lego. It keeps the girls entertained for hours, creating and inventing, and acting out adventures with their little Lego people. Last year, Julian’s mum made a special Lego bag. It’s a large circular piece of material that, when opened out on the table or bed, makes the perfect play surface. When it’s time to tidy up, simply pull the draw-string that’s sewn all around the edge, and the bag pulls together. Ingenious!

2. The dress-up bag: Lily and Katie love to dress up, and they spend hours dressed as fairies, witches, nurses, pirates, characters from stories and fairy-tales, letting their imaginations run wild. Their cloth dress-up bag is ever-evolving and, as it’s full of soft dress-up clothes, can be easily packed away into a nook on the boat.

Lady Gaga of the high seas

Lady Gaga of the high seas

3. Play mobile: For Christmas 2012, Grandma gave Lily a Play-mobile camper van. It’s proven one of their favourite and most durable toys. Over time we’ve added more people, animals and furniture – but there’s room for them all. The camper van is small – only 30cm x 10cm x 8cm and it fits snugly in one of the shelves in the saloon. The Play-mobile people take on all sorts of personas, and lend themselves to endless imaginative play.

4. Jig-saw puzzles: Since she was very young, Lily has loved jig-saw puzzles. She now finds 100 piece puzzles a bit on the easy side, and I’ll soon have to find her bigger challenges. When we get new jig-saws – as gifts, or at a charity shop – I get rid of the boxes, and transfer the pieces into zip-lock bags, which are stored in yet another home-made draw-string bag.

5. Play dough: My friend Angela makes play dough, and a year and a half ago she gave me three zip-lock bags of the stuff, in three different colours. We’ve had other, mass-produced play-dough before and since (and I’ve attempted to make my own), but none compares to Angela’s, which is still going strong. It’s no longer the three distinct colours, but that doesn’t stop the girls making shapes, using their rolling pins and cookie cutters, and transforming blobs of dough into all sorts of amazing things.

6. Books: Where would we be without books? The girls love being read to and now Lily loves reading on her own. When it comes to books, I don’t scrimp. Their cabin shelves are full of picture-books and children’s novels, and on the quarterberth we have books especially written to help them learn to read. They also love reference books and we spend a lot of time together pouring over books about the ocean, plants and animals, the world atlas. They are weighty, but priceless, treasures.

Katie 'reading' her books at the end of her busy 2nd birthday, Sept 2012

Katie ‘reading’ her books at the end of her busy 2nd birthday, Sept 2012

7. Drawing materials: Pens, markers, paper – we never can have too many of these. Until recently, Katie was disinterested in drawing, but now seems to enjoy it almost as much as her sister does. Lily draws and writes, and especially loves writing letters to her grandparents and friends. With a table full of drawing materials, they’ll both sit quietly, absorbed in what they’re doing, for ages.

8. Soft toys: Teddies get treated to tea parties, they get hospitalised and bandaged, they are pupils at school, and are endlessly transformed into extras for all manner of games. Soft toys also have a functional role aboard Carina – as spare cushions and padding. Polar bear serves as a soft head board for Lily and elephant for Katie. I’ve never been a big fan of cushions, but on a boat with lots of hard surfaces, these soft toys add to the comfort of all.

Katie and friends back in 2012

Katie and friends back in 2012

9. Fishing net and buckets: All the other toys and activities I’ve listed are predominantly for indoor play. But we also spend a lot of time on the beach and no trip to the beaches around Plymouth are complete without fishing nets and buckets for exploring the rock pools, making sandcastles and transporting water.

All of our toys are low-tech, tough, hard-wearing, and they are powered by the girls’ endless energy. They encourage imaginative play, story-telling, co-operation and playing together. And, most importantly, Lily and Katie love them.

Growing Up

One of the great pleasures of cruising this summer was observing Lily’s and Katie’s relationship, and their individual personalities, evolve. Last year, when we sailed along the Devon and Cornish coasts and to the Isles of Scilly and Ireland, I was often frustrated by my inability to helm. While the girls seemed to enjoy sailing, they generally wanted to do it from the comfort of my lap. So unless they were sleeping, I was stuck sitting on my bottom in the cockpit, with my arms around them. This frustration was compounded by Katie’s tendency to suffer from sea sickness. After the first couple of episodes of finding myself sitting vomit-covered under a miserable toddler, I was constantly on high alert, watching for the signs of sea sickness and heading them off before the erupted.

Lily's artwork

Lily’s artwork

What a difference a year has made. Lily has made her first tentative steps into the world of independent reading and writing, and Katie’s imagination and facility for story telling have meant that I now get to spend quite a lot of time at the helm!

When our laptop met its untimely end I wondered how we would keep the girls occupied at those times when we needed to get stuff done. They’ve never watched much TV, but the laptop had always been handy when, late in the afternoon when everyone’s a little tired and dinner needed to be cooked, or when Julian and I were alone with them and critical boat maintenance or preparation needed to be done, we could put on a DVD or a show on CBeebies, and the girls could be kept entertained while we got things done. But with no recourse to the laptop the girls were transformed.


Katie as Puss in Boots

Katie as Puss in Boots

They began to play elaborate games of dress-up, inspired by their favourite movies. With eye-patches and bandanas, they were pirates; with capes and towels draped around their shoulders they were Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria; and with the same capes and an endless costume changes of hats and gloves they became Puss in Boots and Kitty Soft Paws. They developed story lines that involved their teddies and other toys and they transformed each cabin of Carina. And when we went sailing, the games continued. At first I was concerned about Katie’s sea sickness, but not once this summer did she show any symptoms. They would spend hours in the aft cabin, on our bed, playing out their scenarios, completely disinterested in what was going on up on deck, or along the French coastline, too involved in their own imaginary world.

Lily's underwater scene

Lily’s underwater scene

They also spent long periods of time drawing and colouring, either at the table or in the aft cabin. Lily took great joy and pride in writing. One day, after we had been underway for almost an hour, and all had been quiet below deck, Lily appeared on the companionway steps holding a letter she had written to our friend John. We were astounded. We had no idea she knew what a letter was, or that she knew how to write like this. Ok, so lots of her letters were backwards, and her spelling was atrocious, but, without any help from Lily, Julian and I quickly deciphered her letter, telling John that we were having a good time and that we had been to the beach.

A letter to John

A letter to John

I won’t say that all was rosy. They had their moments when they tormented each other ferociously, or clung to me like limpets. But to see them generally so transformed, so independent, and having so much imaginative fun together, was wonderful.

Each afternoon, as we dropped anchor or jumped onto a pontoon, I knew I faced an almighty mess when I went below deck. Cushions, toys, gloves, scarves, strewn all over, a scene of mini-mayhem awaited me. But mostly I didn’t begrudge the mess because Lily and Katie were happy, and tidying the mess was a small price to pay for the hours I got to stand at the helm.