5 Hints for Telling a Good Story

how to read to childrenFancy finding a way of having more fun reading stories to your kids? I read stories to my kids regularly, at least one a night and often more than that but apparently a lot of parents don’t do this (if Disney’s survey statistics are to believed I’m actually in the minority). I wrote about this issue in a blog post a few months ago so if you pop over to that you’ll see all the details and statistics, not to mention several arguments explaining the benefits of reading to your children (here’s the link). Given that I’ve already said my piece about the positive aspects of reading I thought today’s post could work as a guide to helping you and your kids enjoy the time you spend reading with them. You probably already do most of what follows but if you are unfamiliar with reading to you kids then hopefully this list can go some way to making it a much more enjoyable experience:

1) First off, think about the books you’re going to be reading. You shouldn’t read stories to your children that you yourself find boring or tedious. In fact your boredom will effect the way you read, leading to a boring and tedious delivery that your kids will tire of quickly. In short a book you don’t like will become a book none of you likes. Instead pick something you can get excited about, the excitement in your voice will catch attention and make the story instantly more engaging.

2) Drop any fear you have of being seen as ‘silly’, you’re a parent so that ship has already sailed; you have years ahead of you filled with your kids seeing you as out-of-touch, embarrassing or ridiculous, so give up any notion that you can still be ‘cool’ (at least in their eyes) and just get on with it. What you can be is fun, engaging and entertaining. Some of this leads on from 1, and it’s extremely important. You’ll need to give up to silliness if you want reading to become a shared (and enjoyable) activity. This saves it from becoming a chore which sees you spending your whole time just wrestling to get your kids to sit and listen.

3) Learn how to change your voice, even if only a little. From my experience most stories seem to have at most about 4 or 5 main speaking characters (though there are obviously a few exceptions). Keeping this in mind try and figure out some way of making four or five voices which are distinct from each other and your normal speaking voice (since you’ll be narrating in that). If you’re not good at imitating accents don’t do accents, it’ll just distract you, just change the tone and find different ways of talking by graduating between your ‘telephone voice’ and your more relaxed everyday accent.

4) Move your body and make eye contact with your kids. It’s not too hard to remember a few words in a row that you’ve just read. I find the simplest thing is to focus on dialogue; authors go to great lengths to keep dialogue short and snappy so it’s a great place to start breaking your gaze away from the book. You can then use expression and gestures to emphasise the character you’re playing. This way even if you find it hard to alter your voice you can have a second shot at distinguishing between characters through body language.

5) Read often and develop some favourites. If your child loves a particular book go with it and instead of getting bored with the repetition use it test your memorisation skills. This is actually a simple way of developing the skills described in 3) and 4) as you’ll come to know the characters better and find subtle ways of tweeking the way you play them. Repetition will also build your confidence, making it easier for you to adapt to new stories that come along.

That’s about it, it might never get you on Jackanory (or is that cbeebies bedtime stories now?) but it should make story time a lot more fun. This list is far from exhaustive so I’d love to hear any hints or tips you have for making story time more fun. Thanks again for popping over to my blog, Cheers, John

Oh and one last thing, try to encourage your child(ren) to tell a story along with the pictures too, even if they’re not readers yet, they’ll start to see how much fun it could be to read for themselves. Just as the repetition helps you, so too will your child(ren) pick up the story and eventually make it their own. Logan went through a phase where he could recite The Graffalo word for word (he couldn’t read at that stage, he rust remembered the story). He eventually started telling the story without the pictures in the book to help him. I’m not sure if there are any studies to support this but certainly from personal experience, reading to your children has a massive impact on their ability to retain text and recognise variation in tone at a very young age. Both pretty handy skills.

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Does part of you still look at the world like you did as a child?

bruder figure b world Somewhere buried deep inside that jaded and cynical ‘grown-up’s’ mind is there a younger version of yourself trying to make itself heard? In a recent post I put together a quick ‘case study’ to see if the toys you played with as a child influenced the career you ended up in. Of course it wasn’t a real case study as the data was far too circumstantial but it was a chance to try out a theory I’ve been ‘toying’ with for a while. Schools of thought in Psychology and Anthropology highlight childhood as a (if not the) key stage in your personal development to become a responsible adult within your culture. The question I want to ask is what role do toys play in this?

let toys be toys logo no girls toys no boys toysThere are more groups than you could count out there discussing the negative impact that some toys (and toy-like things like computer games) have on a child’s development; Groups that insist that toys are responsible for the heightened division of gender in our culture. Groups that claim that toys glamorising violence can encourage children to develop more aggressive personalities. Groups that think that ‘non-educational’ toys can be a distraction from ‘normal’ childhood development. At the heart of this is a standing assumption that the types of nurturing provided by toys plays a pivotal role in shaping who we become.

There has always been debate about the roles of nature vs. nurture but it’s generally accepted now that nurture plays a solid role in personal development. This is a position that few people would be likely to dispute which makes saying ‘it’s just a toy’ all the more surprising. I would agree, that some toys really are ‘just toys’ but not all toys are and even those which don’t stand out as ‘favourites’ will still have an undeniable influence on a child’s fledgling world view.

Peggy Miller

Peggy Miller

I looked at the work of psychologist/anthropologist Peggy Miller when I was working on my MPhil thesis and I saw seeds of this idea here. Miller looks predominantly at  personal storytelling (stories about the child) and the role it plays in the development of self-image but I wonder if the ‘pretend’ stories which develop during play could have an influence on this too. In a household full of anti-war sentiment would an Action Man shake things up? Would seeing a soldier as a hero influence a child’s perspective in ways which aren’t made explicit by their parents/carers?

If we’re going to condemn the negative influence which toys can have we should also be willing to consider the positive role they could play. Toys may well be the first true choices made by a child. What they ask for for birthdays and Christmases will open up possibilities that may not be presented otherwise. In many respects choosing a toy is a first step towards autonomy; it is the stage at which we decide what kind of play we want to participate in, what kind of children we want to be. I have trouble seeing how this could be any different than an adult, say, choosing a subject to study or sport.

Adults have this peculiar notion that toys are somehow inferior to ‘real’ pursuits. We even use the word ‘toy’ as a contrast to the word ‘real’. Not only this but the term ‘childish’ has negative connotations in our culture: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) This common quote comes from the Bible and is often used out of context to highlight an important developmental step which we all ‘must’ take (must we though?). This means that for at least 2000 years (and probably a lot more) we have contrasted ‘childish things’ with those things which are ‘important’. However, I’m of the opinion that toys are important.

leader of teh autobots transformers childhood icons memes

Barbie icon meme

Pop along to see the new ‘Dream House’ cartoons, they are genuinely hilarious, well written

Toys can have remarkable influence over cultures, and now that we’ve reached an age of intensified consumerism the evolution of the toy has been stepped up by an order of magnitude. With this in mind we could perhaps best understand toys as solidified ‘memes’. The word ‘meme’ was devised by Richard Dawkins to describe cultural ideals/ modes of thought etc. which are subject to selective pressure and which can be readily transmitted. I think we can safely say that something like Barbie or Optimus Prime are both examples of memes, and strong ones at that. They evoke specific emotions and responses which follow a set pattern and those of us who used these toys as children have particular types of reminiscence based on them (see this post about the current trend of toy companies reselling us our childhood for a bit on the power of these types of memes).

What’s more, simply having a toy in common with someone can sometimes be enough to initiate positive feelings towards them: just consider the last time you talked about a childhood toy with someone who shared that experience: ‘Oh my God I had a … too, didn’t you just love how it …, did you have to beg your parents for it like I did?’ You start to like the person, based simply on the shared past-ownership of a similarly shaped piece of plastic/wood/other. Toys are powerful and I’ve decided to dedicate a bit of time each week to getting feedback from other people about the role certain toys have played in their life. What toys have (or even do) play a significant role in your life? Do you think a toy is ‘just a toy’ or do you think there is something more to it than that? Who knows, if I can get enough information together I might get to finally merge my philosophy background with my toys background and write another philosophy book on the philosophy of toys (you can find my other, ‘non-toys’, philosophy book called ‘Living the Good Life in a Modern World’ here.

Apparently not many have ventured into the topic of the philosophy of toys but I found a few. A quick run through goes as follows; Charles Baudelaire’s ‘A Philosophy of Toys‘, and some interesting blog posts by Eyes Wide Shut and The Home of Schlemiel Theory. It looks like I have an interesting journey ahead of me if I decide to get stuck into writing this book, Just to put the feelers out do you think you would buy a book on the philosophy of toys written by a philosopher and toy shop guy? Anyway thanks as always for popping along here for a read, hope to see you here again soon, Cheers, John

Why are dinosaurs so universal?

t rex's dinner

click on the picture to check out ‘all things dinosaur’ at funjunctiontoys.com

Kids love dinosaurs, there’s no doubt about it. With no specific marketing dinosaurs are kind of an ‘evergreen’ toy/book/product. In the same way that making something pink seems to instantly up it’s appeal so to does making it dinosaur related (though often, but not always,  in a less gender-loaded and controversial manner). Dinosaurs never seem to go out of fashion and there’s always a steady and very dedicated fan base. I loved dinosaurs when I was a kid, I used to bore friends and family alike with long explanations of the eating habits, names, habitats etc. of every dinosaur I could think of.

the shining room 237/217 film/bookSo what keeps this appeal up? Why especially does it seem to appeal to kids between the ages of 5 and 10? I’ve got a theory, it is just a theory and maybe it’s a weird one; I think it’s because they’re real monsters. When we’re wee we dream up a host of frightful things; a many armed monster who’s claws creep up from under the bed, a ghoulish faceless banging creature that lives in the old wardrobe or a dripping crone with a sunken face who hides in the bath in the dark bathroom across the hall (OK maybe that’s just me). As we approach primary school our imaginations explode and a big mess of fright pours in. Thankfully our parents are there to calm us down and assure us that these monsters aren’t real, they’re just imaginary, made up, fake. But dinosaurs aren’t fake, they’re not imaginary and often they’re more frightful and more alien than any of the monsters we’ve cooked up in our little minds before we encounter these ancient terrible lizards.

I’m wondering if it’s this first glimpse of something magnificent (and occasionally terrifying) that sparks the appeal. These creatures beyond anything observable in our world now, they differ in size, structure and nature in dramatic ways from the wildlife we’re familiar with. At the same time they are cousins, distant neighbours, the previous inhabitants of this planet. We live where they lived, they are alien and yet familiar, terrifying and yet fascinating and there is no fictional entity that can be crafted by man that can rival this because, as I’ve pointed out so much already, they are real. With all this in mind, why wouldn’t you love dinosaurs.

interactive t rex dinosaur toyWe chose to make September dinosaur month at the shop because we knew how well received dinosaurs would be. OK there was that and the fact that we wanted to show off our ‘Dinosaur Train’ colouring competition. You can download the pdf of the colouring sheet here. The competition closes next Saturday (28th September) and the prize is awesome: a big interactive talking T Rex called Boris, pictured to the right.

What do you think motivates the endless fascination with dinosaurs? Do you have your own theory? As always comments are more than welcome, as is anyone who decides to subscribe to get these posts in their e-mail inbox/wordpess reader (you can do this by clicking the subscribe box to the right). Thanks again for reading, Cheers, John

Is play the first step on your career path?

bruder poseable B world figure figurine typing PC blogging blogIn this post I’m heading back to the topic of identity. Do toys determine the career paths we end up following? This is a hard one to gauge, if only for the reason that we’re talking about a pretty hefty time-scale to assess. I only have about 10 years on-and-off experience in toys (spanning about 15 years) so I can’t say my personal experiences will be worth much in this instance. Children who I sold toys to back in my Saturday job at school will probably at the most only be about 25 years old just now, and out of them there’s only a handful who I might recognise in the street. So for this post I’ll be leaning quite heavily on numbers and making something of a ‘case study’ out of them.

BBC LogoMy ‘case study’ is farming. Some of the most popular toys sold in a rural toy shop focus around the world of agriculture: tractors, animals, fences etc. So how does this translate into real life jobs? You could be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t, as a  BBC news story from May last year would appear to show. The BBC article focuses on interviews to drive home the fact that there are a lot of farmers out there who are beyond retirement age. They also cite  some research done in 2004 on the average age of a farmer, which showed it to lie somewhere in the region of 50 years old, with many farmers either forgoing retirement for financial reasons or because they just couldn’t quit the lifestyle. This data seems to show that the children who go mad for tractors etc. at 7 don’t seem to be turning into farmers as adults. The BBC report would seem to show farming to be a job of the past, something that only older generations are hanging on to.

yourfileHowever, it’s a different story when we look at the intake numbers in agricultural schools which are apparently on the up. It would seem that the young adults who were buying tractors etc. from me back in the 90s are part of a generation which is steadily seeing agriculture as a more viable career option than say teaching or architecture. So why don’t they show up in the BBC article or in the 2004 study? Perhaps the reason they don’t show up as ‘farmers’ is that these people aren’t instantly becoming farm owners. And the reason for that may be the same as that faced by all of generation Y and beyond: boomers.

People born in the wake of WWII are reaching retirement age at the moment but many of them are choosing not to for one reason or another (often this is perhaps less of a ‘choice’ and more of a necessity because of the decreasing usefulness of pension payouts). As a result many people of my generation and younger are moving into ‘make-do’ jobs or at least getting themselves heavily trained up in anticipation of the job market opening up a bit.

Whatever the cause of the high average age of farmers it is clear that many young adults who were once children playing with farms are at least trying to make headway into the field (pardon the pun). It would be interesting to see how many of these young adults were avid collectors etc. I’d also love to hear from anyone who moved from some profession-linked toy to a matching profession, are you an architect who played with Lego or an engineer who played with Meccano?

Parents seem to place great weight on the toys they buy their kids, expecting massive changes in their future to occur as the result of the choices made in the toys they play with. I’m inclined to agree with this (to an extent) as I personally think toys are the first means by which we develop a world-view and if a tractor is central to that early world-view I’d expect some part of you to always hold farming close to your heart.

tractor with load of blackberriesPersonally I still dream of owning a small mixed use farm/smallholding (just a few acres) and I did love playing with my farm as a kid so for me at least I can see how my toys influenced part of my view of the world and how they contributed to my ongoing goals in life. Pop a wee message bellow and we can all compare toys and life goals, it should be an interesting discussion. Thanks again for reading and I always welcome any new subscribers, just click on the subscribe box to the right to keep up to date with posts about toys, life and people. Cheers, John

Mole’s house revisited

Logan at 'Mole's house' Lady Mary's walk CrieffA few weeks ago I wrote a post about a local favourite ‘Mole’s house‘ I went on to pop a condensed version of the same post up in my column in the Strathallan Times. The response to both was brilliant, my original post is the most viewed post I’ve written on here (it even surpassed my post about Barbie with no make up) but it was the reaction the article in the Strathallan Times that really surprised me. Just a few weeks later the imagineer behind one of Crieff’s favourite little secrets actually came forward after reading my article. It was a lady by the name of Pat Barron who put the little display together outside of mole’s door as a way of keeping her grandchildren occupied when they went out for a walk. She seemed genuinely surprised that mole’s house was so well known and so well loved in the community, and I have to admit it’s lovely to think that something that started out as such a simple idea has managed to lodge so well in the hearts of so so many local parents and children.

Thank you Pat for contributing something truly magical to our little town, I hope many more locals take a leaf out of your book. Recently comedian Mark Thomas came to the MacRobert in Stirling with a show describing his project called ‘100 acts of minor dissent‘ and it appears that the idea is gaining momentum. Imagine how great it would be if these acts provided something positive and lasting. An unofficial fruit garden in a local country spot or more little surprise things for children, like mole’s house (where parents themselves will have to judge safety rather than run under the advice of health and safety regulations). Of course I don’t officially sanction or recommend such activity, officially, but in some hypothetical world wouldn’t it be a fun thing to see?

Back to the Strathallan Times: on top of the article on Pat Barron there was also a follow up letter to the editor which appeared the following week which was written by mole himself, explaining the history of his house sign and how grateful he was for the gifts left for him by local children. From these two responses in the Times one of the biggest surprises, for me, was probably the fact that enough people read my column for it to have had this kind of effect. When it comes to my writing I have the habits that many bloggers probably do. At least two or three times a day I check my readership numbers to see how popular what I wrote was and if I’m ever lucky enough to receive a comment I jump to it and try to get a reply out as quickly as possible. However, when using an ‘old fashioned’ medium like a newspaper there are no stats to look at, no comments section to engage with.

Once the article is published you just have to hope that those that read it liked what they read and that perhaps one or two of them might mention it to a friend or they may even go so far as to find my blog and pop along with a follow and a comment. Seeing Pat’s resonse in the Strathallan Times a few weeks ago was brilliant and made me feel as though I must be, if nothing else, readable which is always a good thing for any writer to hear.

Just a short wee post this time to celebrate the power of the written word and the creativity of people. Thanks as always for reading and feel free to follow (e-mail box on the right) or comment (in the box below), if you do either you can guarantee you’ll get at the very least a ‘woohoo’ from me (and maybe even a wee jump). Cheers, John

Harry Potter and Rise of Fantasy

Harry Potter dragon cerberus three headed dogNext month at Fun Junction is fantasy month and to be honest most of the crew are big fantasy geeks. I’ll read just about any fantasy fiction out there Karen (‘the boss’, and yes she is a Springsteen fan) is the same and our facebook guru (and inventor of Winston) Jo is like a walking Harry Potter encyclopaedia. I can safely say we’re looking forward to this.

Thinking about fantasy though, I can’t imagine a shop would have bothered with a whole month dedicated to fantasy and magic before the arrival of Harry Potter. ‘The boy who lived’ brought an awesome genre into the public eye and allowed millions of people access to a form of escapism that used to be associated solely with children and ‘geeks’.

Harry Potter expelliarmus by kidchewyI was a fan of fantasy  long before Harry Potter (I was/am a geek, for proof see my Starfleet uniform in this previous post) but I have to confess that I unfortunately initially overlooked the young Gryffindor as I though the books were just ‘kids books’. On reading the books I felt pretty stupid as I’d been missing out on something fantastic (get it ‘fantastic’? ha ha boom boom…ahem…sorry). I think that this, the awareness of childish things as fun for adults too, is possibly one of the most important contributions which J K Rowling has made to the world. Once you realise how enjoyable something ‘meant for kids’ can be, you start to wonder what else you’re missing out on (previous posts have looked at adult play and age appropriateness in much greater detail).

Lord of the ringsWhat’s more, Potter opened up the world of fantasy to the masses, I’d even go so far as to say that Lord of the Rings wouldn’t have got the budget it did if it wasn’t for the success of Potter. Tolkien’s masterwork is phenomenal but prior to the rise of popularity of fantasy in the 90s and 00s I don’t think the budget would have been there to do it justice. I have to admit though that I think the exclusion of Tom Bombadil was a crying shame, he was one of the only characters who changed the pace of the book, if only for a short while, and his presence added depth and an extra hint of mystery to the first book of the trilogy.

is twilight fantasy?The genre of fantasy is seen to include witches, wizards, dragons, fairies, goblins, vampires, were-wolves, mermaids etc. etc. With such a wide cross section of creatures this means that even the Twilight series can count as fantasy, as would many other ‘magical’ stories. With Fun Junction’s approaching fantasy and magic month this leaves the crew with a question, just exactly what counts as fantasy and what doesn’t? Are there any particular stories/characters/creatures that you think we definitely should/shouldn’t include? And possibly more importantly should we dress up? Thanks for reading, hope to hear lots of ideas from you all, Cheers, John

This Week at Fun Junction: Dino Month Week 2

Instead of posting my usual ‘Tuesday repost’ this week I thought I’d share our new weekly newsletter for the shop. Hope you find it useful, I’ll have a new post from me up on Thursday. Cheers, John

This Week at Fun Junction: Dino Month Week 2.