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.

Toys, typing and a transmogrifier

In February last year I published a blog post entitled 9 essential items for happy live-aboard kids. The items consisted of toys or things designed specifically for play, such as Lego, Play Mobile, jigsaws, the dressing-up bag and play dough; and other things such as books, buckets and spades, and craft materials. A year later, with the girls a year older, and now that I am in the midst of a monster spring clean, I thought it was time to reflect on what on-board stuff keeps the girls happy these days.



Lego is the old reliable present for birthdays and Christmases (I was even given Lego on Mother’s Day) so our collection is growing. Since last year the girls have become more independent when playing with Lego and no longer need us to help them make things. That doesn’t mean they no longer want us to join in their Lego play. One day last summer I sent them into the aft cabin, where we spread the Lego bag, with the challenge to build a fantastic coffee-making machine. Seven months on they are still competing to invent ever more fantastic flying fire-dousing underwater coffee-making machines.

2014-10-31 08.03.54The dressing-up bag has been added to, with new tutus and ballet slippers added to the nurses’ outfits and witches costumes of last year. Despite that bag brimming with dressing up possibilities, Lily and Katie seem to prefer dressing up in stuff lying around – our woolly hats, gloves and neck-warmers; tying towels around their necks to be super heroes or characters from Frozen; using woollen braids to transform themselves into Rapunzel.

And while I’m on the subject of stuff lying around, I think the most cooperation and the least fighting happens when they are playing with non-toy stuff. They can play harmoniously for hours with the ropes, scrubbing brushes, buckets and cloths up on deck, planning and acting through all sorts of scenarios that may or may not include their soft toys and plastic dolls. They’ve even taking to acting out, on the pontoon, with all sorts of props, stories from their books. Lily reads the stories, line by line, and together they act out the scenes.

Granny’s cast-off camera inherited by Lily last year has proven a wonderful addition to the boat. They both use it, and have recently discovered the video function. They now record each other singing and acting out scenes from movies and in recent weeks we’ve been going to the beach where Lily has been attempting (with limited success) to simultaneously direct, film and act in her own movies!!

There are some notable changes from this time last year in what keeps them happy. The first is reading and writing. Lily has become an independent reader and she can sit or lie on her bed for hours reading silently to herself or aloud to Katie. She has also become an independent writer and, when the mood takes her, she sits at the table or in one of the cabins, and writes – letters, song words, transcribing from nature books, etc. So, merely supplying her with the tools she needs to write, and leaving them within easy reach means she can write whenever she feels like it. Earlier this week she wrote me an angry letter, asking me to stop telling everyone about her and the man she met on the street.

Scan_20150123 (2)Katie has taken a leaf out of her sister’s book, and she likes to ‘read’ and ‘write’ too, and I’m sure is only a matter of time before those words on the page make sense to her.

Only very recently they have both developed an interest in the laptop and use it for all sorts of reasons. They play games on the Internet; Lily now has her own email account; and they use Word and Paintbox and other programmes. The Internet games they play help develop their mouse skills and we generally direct them to maths and language games. But they are equally interested in content that isn’t strictly designed for children. They’ve been intrigued by the Mi Vida Loca Spanish language programme that Julian uses and have been learning Spanish from that; and Lily’s taken a few typing tutorials to learn to touch-type.

Teddy bears and the dolls are regularly strewn all over the boat. Before I get into bed at night I usually have to do a sweep of the bed, to remove tiny Barbie shoes, handbags, shells that have been transformed into jewellery, bits of Lego and who knows what else.

They need so little to keep them happy. They keep themselves entertained and transform whatever they find lying around into some imaginative prop for whatever game they are playing. I recently read an article by a woman who travelled across Canada with her husband and three young boys for over a month. She decided not to bring any toys AT ALL on the trip. She wasn’t sure she was making the right decision. But once the trip got underway the boys never complained of boredom. Instead they played with what they found around them, cooperated more, fought less, and talked more to their parents.

transmogrifierAs all children demonstrate to us, they make little distinction between what’s a toy and what’s not a toy. Children just want to play, and anything can, as Calvin would say, be ‘transmogrified’ with a sprinkling of imagination.

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

50 things I did this year

It’s that time of year when every newspaper, TV programme and blog reviews the best of the year that was. Even we’re guilty of it here on Carina’s blog. Is it just me, or have these reviews started way too early this year? In mid-November, I was disappointed to find my weekend newspaper’s book, movie and food reviews already trawling through the best of 2014, and I’m now longing for January, when normal service resumes.

But this week I read a different sort of review of the year. I follow a great writer’s blog, Live to write – Write to live. Diane MacKinnon, one of the regular contributors, this week posted a blog encouraging readers to devise a list of 50 accomplishments in 2014. Diane’s reasons are clear – we set New Year’s resolutions that all too often slide into obscurity by mid-February. Many of us experience negative feelings about failing to live up to our personal expectations, and beat ourselves up about how little we achieve (I’m guilty of both of these). But we seldom reach the end of the year and review our accomplishments. While film and book and even wine reviewers celebrate the highlights of the past year, we seldom stop to think about our own highlights. I couldn’t resist taking up Diane’s challenge.

I must say I’ve found it a difficult task. I flew through the first 25, had to do some serious head-scratching, and then got to 50 and wanted to write more. My achievements – big and small – fall into various categories – writing, sailing, parenting, wellbeing, and others that I’m not sure how to categorise. The exercise has also reminded me of what I have not achieved. I failed to win a research grant that would have seen the girls and I spend this winter in Arviat. I’ve had more rejections than successes with my attempts to publish, and I have earned far less money from writing than I hoped I would. But while I can think of 50 accomplishments, I can’t think of 50 failures. With two weeks of 2014 still to go, here are my accomplishments for the year:

1. Published an academic article on polar bear conservation and CITES in the journal Global Environmental Change, the highest rated journal in its field.
2. Completed my 80,000-word anthropological monograph about Inuit and the sea, and submitted it to a publisher.
3. Stuck to my New Year’s resolution to publish 10 blog posts per month.
4. Maintained a daily writing practice (well almost!)
5. Got paid for writing for the first time ever.
6. Published four articles – in two magazines and a newspaper.
7. Began writing a sailing memoir, and am on course to complete the first draft before the end of 2014.
8. For three months published a regular blog for an online magazine (until the magazine went bust 😦 )
9. Since June, submitted at least two publication pitches per month.
10. Increased my blog readership by 3-4 times since the start of the year.
11. Improved my knowledge and skill with using WordPress!
12. In my head, ironed out some of the major flaws in my draft novel – now I need to commit them to paper.
13. Researched the history of exhibiting humans in museums and fairs.
14. Learned about Theodore Roosevelt’s contribution to wildlife conservation in the US.
15. Learned about the history of industrial whale hunting and whale conservation.
16. Learned more about Columbus’ voyages to the New World.
17. Visited New York and Princeton.
18. Fulfilled a life-long dream of seeing Lucy at the American Museum of Natural History.
19. Sailed from Plymouth to the Mediterranean.
20. Completed a three-day crossing of the Bay of Biscay.
21. Spent more nights at anchor than ever before.
22. Realised the dream of becoming a full-time live aboard cruiser.
23. Lived aboard Carina over winter for the first time (admittedly, in the Mediterranean).
24. Dramatically improved my confidence in solo night sailing.
25. Finally mastered bowlines, figures of eight, clove hitches and sheet bends.
26. Tied up to dumb-bell moorings.
27. Berthed fore-and-aft.
28. More frequently brought Carina on and off moorings and berths.
29. Learned to use the outboard on the dinghy (horray…we finally got a newer working lightweight outboard).
30. Learned to use a pressure cooker.
31. Perfected my on-board laundry technique.
32. Perfected my on-board bed-making technique.
33. Perfected my on-board bread making.
34. Made perfect pancakes.
35. Made lemon curd for the first time in my life (yesterday!).
36. Improved my university teaching skills.
37. Landed a part-time winter job.
38. Made a transition from teaching university Geography to teaching English as a second language to eight year olds!
39. Improved my English language teaching skills.
40. Won over my difficult English language classes.
41. Learned at least 150 Spanish words.
42. Achieved near pre-pregnancy flexibility and strength thanks to resuming yoga practice.
43. Committed to a sugar-free diet for long periods of the year.
44. Started un-schooling the girls.
45. Got Katie out of night-time nappies.
46. Taught Lily to read.
47. Helped both girls develop their maths and writing skills.
48. Took Lily and Katie on day-trips to A Coruña, Porto, Lisbon and Cadiz.
49. Helped Lily learn to swim unaided.
50. Met and befriended wonderful fellow cruisers.

What is obvious is that few of these have been accomplished by me alone. My sailing accomplishments have been in the company and under the guidance of Julian, and this whole adventure would not be possible without his partnership. My chosen path of educating the children would not be possible without Julian’s enthusiasm and at least equal contribution. My teaching skills have developed in the company of a community of fellow educators. My writing accomplishments have been facilitated by Julian giving me the time, space and encouragement to write, by the inspiration and encouragement of friends, and by a community of bloggers who keep me motivated.

With 2015 just around the corner, I’m now thinking about my New Year’s resolutions. There certainly won’t be 50 of them. A nice safe four or five will do. As for this blog? Normal blogging will resume in a couple of days!

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!!

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.