We are what we do

SCH SM Boss Smurf (W)“Papa smurf has really taken his CES (Chief Executive Smurf) job to heart, round the office the smurfs have started calling him ‘Alan Smurfer’ (though none of them say it to his face, they don’t want to be told ‘you’re smurfered’).”

I write product descriptions, it’s not my only job (not by a long shot) but some days it takes up most of my work hours. Recently I had a couple of pretty mammoth sessions and as I got more tired I unintentionally got a bit more creative (as you can see above). With this in mind I’d like to share some of my favourite product descriptions that I’ve written in the past few days.


schleich dragon hunter gremlin ankylosaurusSchleich, Dragon Hunter

“If you threw a Gremlin, Battle-cat from He-Man, a dragon and an Ankylosaurus in a blender…well you’d have a broken blender for starters…but if they somehow converged into one creature then THIS would be it (and if you don’t get the references in this sentence we now feel very old).” You can buy him here.


Sometimes you look at a group of linked toys and a story just emerges spontaneously. That’s what happened with business Smurfs. It started with ‘Marketing Smurf’:

SCH SM Marketing Smurf (W)Schleich, Marketing Smurf

“Last month’s smurf numbers are smurfing smurfable, if we keep up the smurfle media campeign and really push our bricks and mortar smurfs we’ll be in for a smurfer of a year!”

But once he was on-board the others all seemed to find their own place in the office, next came ‘Accountant Smurf’:

schleich accountant smurf figurineSchleich, Accountant Smurf

“We’re going to have to switch to generic coffee in the break room if we want to get our smurfspenditure down to smurfable levels but I don’t want to be the one to tell lazy smurf, it’s the only thing that smurfs him smurfing.”

After these I wrote Alan Smurfer or ‘Boss Smurf’ up (you can see his description above) and couldn’t help but feel that the middle management in this place would feel a little strained. This is where Manager Smurfette stepped in:

schleich smurfette manager figure figurineSchleich, Manager Smurfette

Smurfette is at her smurf’s end, why did she ever agree to manage this team of smurfless smurfs? The CES (Chief Operating Smurf) is demanding increased performance, while the accountant keeps smurferring on about lazy smurf’s coffee consumption, and the marketing team keeps telling her “It’s all smurf! We’re building smurfial media presence’ but that doesn’t translate into cold, hard smurf!


jack-reusen-cover-front2There are a heap more product descriptions but I don’t want this post to run on and on. Before I finish up I thought I’d do a wee plug. I’ve written a story book for children aged five and up (and for reading age of six or seven and up) called ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame.’ It’s part one of a series and we’ve got a fully fledged website (and blog) about the book and the characters, if you find your way over there I’ll be very grateful. The kindle edition is out now, click here for a list of links for purchase in different countries.

As always thanks for reading, I feel like it’s important to be creative wherever you can and I hope you enjoyed a few of my wee sparks of creativity. How do you express yourself in your workplace? Do you find it easy to let your creative side out for a spin or do you feel as though you have to curb it until you get home? I would love to hear your own experiences in the comments below or even over on Twitter, Cheers, John

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The solution to annoying blind bags? More blind bags?

LEGO-Guess-How-ManyBlind bags are a little ridiculous, I’ve discussed this before and just yesterday ‘oglemylego’ decided to share that post over on reddit (among other places). As a result my blog has had another moment of fame (my last bit of reddit fame was for my post on kraggling). This little flash of fame is probably my biggest yet, apparently there are literally thousands of you reading today, which is just brilliant, thank you.

Now back to blind bags, I had expected the thread over on reddit to contain a lot of defence of blind bags, given that the Lego community over there are adults who are likely to notice the cost a little less than a child scraping pocket money change together after getting a little over-zealous in the sweet shop. However, it would seem that even adult Lego collectors, on the whole, don’t like throwing their money around blindly either.

So what’s the solution? Could we get away with a small viewing window which retains mystery but makes it easier to figure out what you’re getting (a great suggestion from ‘tobiariah’)? or is there another option.

Given that Lego is clearly wanting to keep the blind bag earning potential I doubt we’ll get them to change the dynamic all that much, so how about a compromise: Lego bit bags. A bit bag would contain a piece, or a few pieces that you just wouldn’t get in any regular set. It could contain things like an unusual door, some space-themed wheels, a superhero head, a collection of cool accessories, etc. etc.

Overall this could satisfy Lego’s apparent need to create a blind product, whilst keeping the cost down to an actual manageable level for a kid with pocket-money to spend. Also it would be more in keeping with Lego’s ‘master-builder’ ethos that it’s been promoting through the Lego movie.

Alternatively, legend tells that many many years ago, in toy shops throughout the land, Lego was sold in individual piece form. Our modern supermarkets would baulk at the idea of loose Lego lying around their stores but independents and toys specialists could happily display big collection cases. Seems a much fairer way to appeal to pocket-money trade than asking kids (and adults) to blindly hand over their cash.

As always I welcome any thoughts you guys might have on this in the comments section below and if you fancy keeping up with me over on twitter I’ll be very happy to see you over there. Thanks for reading (and welcome to my blog to all the redditors), Cheers, John

Everything’s more exciting when you whisper

treasure-chest‘Shhh keep really quiet and come and see this!’ Even if you’re just getting your kids to head through and eat their tea, somehow it just gets so much more interesting when you treat it like a big secret.

You can’t do this too often or it loses its magic. You also have to make sure that the ‘secret’ is actually something special or your kids are just going to think you’re nuts (‘shh look, I found a chair!!!’). However, this little trick is a handy thing to keep in your back pocket for times when your kids just aren’t doing what you ask. For example, if you get creative with what dinner looks like then you can sneak them to the dinner table and show them the crazy culinary creation.

Whatever you choose to do you get to take them on an adventure. Everything gets more interesting and it’s never a bad thing to look like a guide in the eyes of your children. A lot of the time as a parent your position of authority takes a ‘bossy’ or even ‘disciplinary’ tone. There are times when this is unavoidable and even necessary but being a guide offers parents a chance to retain authority whilst removing feelings of conflict.

Playing at being a ‘guide’ can offer a welcome break from having to be ‘the boss’, whilst at the same time managing to stay in charge. You definitely shouldn’t over-use it but every now and then it’s nice to not be the bad guy when getting your kids to eat their tea, head to bed, or even do their homework.

Have you ever used something similar to this to get your kids on-board with something that ordinarily causes conflict? How well does it work for you? Do you have other tricks that allow you to stay in control without having to be ‘the boss’? As always, I welcome any comments/suggestions, feel free to comment below and you can catch me over on twitter any time by following this link. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Everything you know will change!

the knock crieff den wooden structures forestIt gets pretty repetitive hearing people tell you that having children makes you look at the world around you in a different way, to be honest this is so well recognised that it’s hardly worth saying. However, one thing you don’t expect is for your children to change the way you look at the town you live in. For those of you who don’t know, I live in a medium sized town in Perthshire, in Scotland, called Crieff.

Having kids has made this whole familiar town change before my eyes. It’s not so much seeing the town through the eyes of a child, I’ve lived here since I was seven years old (with a break of about four years when I left for Uni) so I’ve already seen it through the eyes of a child and an adolescent. I don’t think any teenager is able to find redeeming qualities in the place they grew up, to be honest when I was that age I never wanted to see the place again. I think the main difference in the way I look at Crieff now is that things that I’ve grown accustomed to are surprisingly exciting to my kids, whilst things that I find unusual and different sometimes have no effect on them. And then there’s little things that surprise and entertain us all.

Not all that long ago I started using the hashtag #awesomecrieff on Twitter to highlight things that I was doing with the kids or things that just stood out as highlights of Crieff. Trust me the teenaged John would have been shocked and appalled that I could ever find anything ‘awesome’ about this little town. Nonetheless, the more time I spend looking for positive things about this little place the easier it’s becoming for me to find them.

Mole's house Lady Mary's walk Crieff PerthshireThe first thing that comes to mind is the creativity and slight rebelliousness of the people that live here. I’ve posted about ‘Mole’s House’ before (a tree which has been customised and decorated to provide a perfect home for ‘Mole’ down in Crieff’s Lady Mary’s Walk). However, this is by no means the full extent of creativity to be found, I’ve lost count of the amount of small dens that we’ve found in various wooded areas around the town, but by far the most impressive so far is one that Hazel and the boys found up the Knock (the name given to the big hill upon which a large portion of Crieff is built). Apparently there was room for the three of them to sit in the den’s provided seating fairly comfortably (you can find a picture at the start of this post). There’s no way of knowing who creates these little houses but this one really stands out, so far they win the prize of Crieff’s best den (I’m not sure what the prize is but whatever it is they win it).

wpid-imag0578_1.jpgThere’s plenty of ‘official’ creativity to come across too, we’ve had June McEwen’s Highland Cow installation (now replaced by a Highland Calf) which the boys liked to pretend was going to charge after us when we passed it on our way home from the shops (was always a good way to hurry them home anyway). The cow is only June’s most recent addition, she also provided the driving force behind the ‘Crieff Arts Festival’ which was on last week, and a number of years ago she also painted some bustling barflies on the boarded up windows of an old pub at the far end of the high street, the boys were intrigued by these strange characters but probably (thankfully) didn’t get what they were all up to. We have a whole host of local artists in Crieff but along with June one of our art institutions has to be Pedro, who is an artist/photographer/caricaturist who often turns up at local events and draws caricatures of kids and adults (we’ve even seen him up at Crieff Hydro a couple of times).

wpid-imag0615.jpgIt’s probably part of being a parent that you start looking for things that will entertain your children, some of the things scattered around our little town might not have stood out to the boys if Hazel and I didn’t spot them first and the same goes the other way. Maybe the transformation in the way I look at things now comes from not just looking at what the world has to offer me (as I think we all do as children, to an extent) but what it has to offer my children. This occurs through almost everything I do but it’s perhaps most unusual and most noticeable when this ‘parent’s eye’ is aimed at the domestic, the familiar and the everyday of the town where I grew up.

Have you had any familiar places change before your eyes since becoming a parent? Is there anything you miss from before you developed ‘parent eyes’? (e.g. seeing a fancy restaurant and not immediately imagining restless children and temper tantrums, or looking into a lovely open fireplace, watching the flames dance and the logs glow and not thinking ‘Oh my God! Hazard! Where’s the fire-guard? Dow we even need a fire on?’) As always comments are more than welcome and I love to catch up with anyone who reads my blog over on twitter. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Skully and the story fire

wpid-imag0603_burst002_1.jpgIf you’re looking for a good way to get inside your kids minds then you’d be hard pushed to find something as good as story-telling. Just sit them down and tell them a story (it honestly doesn’t have to be great) then once your turn is over pass the story-telling duties on to your child. It’s amazing to hear some of the things they come out with, whilst listening to just one story develop you can see the beginnings of a witty sense of humor whilst at the same time get an idea of what their worst fears are/might be rooted in.

I don’t do this every night with the boys or anything but it’s good to throw it in on a night where everyone’s kind of been doing their own thing (TV/games/solitary play/housework). You just put a half hour to an hour to one side and use storytelling as a means of touching base and feeling connected and listened to.

wpid-imag0605_burst006_1.jpgThere’s of course the issue of siblings interrupting with their own ideas of what should happen with each others’ stories and this is where I bring in props. Typically we use the ‘story fire’, this is a simple little battery powered fire that Logan got in a Playmobil¬† caveman set. The great thing about this one is that the fire starts to dim on a timer so you can limit how long each turn takes to save siblings getting bored, plus it puts a fire under your butt to get something good out quick. (You could of course use a large egg timer or something similar to provide the same effect as the ‘story fire’)

Another prop we use is ‘Skully’ (no connection to the X Files), the difference with Skully is that he can talk, so the boys can experiment with voices and make him into a narrator-type-character or simply use him as a participant in their story-telling. Skully has developed into a character who likes to talk about ‘spooky stuff’ (which gives me a wee insight into what makes my boys scared) and he also likes to add comic elements to a story.

I’ll admit that I contributed to this persona but it’s really fun to see the boys experimenting with humour, and especially fun watching them attempt to emulate some of the darker humour that Skully sometimes demonstrates when he’s helping me tell the story.

Have any of you experimented with story telling as a means of getting kids talking and expressing their thoughts/fears/sense of humour? I’ve found the story fire and Skully to be great ways of letting my kids feel heard and giving us all a chance to be creative and have some fun together. Have you come across any other ways to help kids feel heard? As always I welcome any comments you have and don’t forget you can keep up with this blog (or just chat about toys) by popping over to twitter and following me there, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

A Storm a Brewing!

wpid-imag0049_burst010_1.jpgOutside right now there is literally a storm brewing but I thought I’d talk about how absolutely nuts the emotions of a toddler/pre-schooler can be. As a parent I’ve already gone through this stage once and I’m also currently smack-dab in the middle of it with my youngest. The thing that really amazes me is how striking some of the emotional developments can be that happen at this time in a child’s life.

Is this intensity of emotion simply a hormonal thing or is there something more to it? On top of this is it really such a bad thing when you also get sways into the extremes of more positive emotions? For example, mid-play they hurt themselves in a way that would have an adult swearing quite colourfully but because they’re being happy-go-lucky at this exact moment they bravely brush it off and just get on with things.

There’s a depth of emotion there and a broadening of their emotional range that you don’t see in any other group of people other than teenagers (and perhaps artists).

Pretend play with a pre-schooler can be an immersive and surprising experience, watching them demonstrate at one moment a gentleness of character and at the next a boldness of spirit that allows them to challenge their fears/ an authority figure in order to get the right thing done. Children at this age can have a fairly unremarkable vocabulary but they make up for this in droves with dynamic, evolving personalities and an unmatchable range of emotions.

Thaaars a storm a brewin’ in that thar little person!

What are your experiences of a pre-schooler’s emotional character? Is there anything that’s just surprised you as you watched it unfold? I remember playing knights and castles with Logan years ago and popping in some elements into the game that subtly showed discrimination in action when an Ork toy was unfairly treated by ‘brave’ knights. After a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of thought a giant pre-schooler joined the game and smashed the knights away to keep the Ork safe from harm. Ever since then ‘Ork’ has been a gentle giant, protecting castles (and occasionally boys with nightmares) from harm. The emotional understanding of a pre-schooler should never be underestimated, they pick up on an awful lot!

As always thanks for reading and feel free to share pre-schooler surprise stories below in the comments. I’ve recently started work on a book about childhood, toys and how play shapes the adults we become so I welcome any anecdotes etc. that I could pass on in the book (though if you’d rather they weren’t in the book let me know and I’ll be sure to avoid referencing them). All the best, John

Getting outside with science: can it build momentum of interest?

stick insect science education biology entomolgyFun Junction currently has a bug infestation…but, you know, the good kind: ‘Insect Lore’ recently sent us two lovely new stick insects. This builds on our population of Fun Junction pets which, up till now, consisted solely of some aqua dragons. We have Barbara and Fetch (get it ‘Fetch the stick insect’, you can thank one of our facebook likers for that wee pun).

We had Barbara and Fetch along at our stall at Perth’s garden and outdoors show last weekend and it gave us a chance to show off all the fun sciency stuff kids can do outdoors without even realising they’re doing any sciency stuff (does that make sense as a sentence? It sounded right in my head). Getting kids into science and helping them to feel comfortable about asking questions about the world around them is vital, both for parents and educators, but there’s a tricky issue when it comes to maintaining interest.

really gross scienceThere’s a rising realisation at the moment that a lot of girls are not engaging with science after a certain age. When we try to understand why this is happening, we have to consider the host of social stages that girls are going through (not to say that boys don’t experience their own, just as affective, stages). These social changes are thinning the numbers slowly and surely all the way through primary school, high school and on into adult life. Surely anything that increases interest at a young age is likely to provide that smidgen more momentum to help girls stay interested as they mature.

There are of course a host of other issues to tackle, possibly most pressing being the cultural idea that maths and science are for boys. However, I could easily get bogged down in discussing this so just for this post I just want to look at ways of building a level of interest with some real momentum, in the hopes that the children that experience it start to think of themselves as scientists from a very early age.

pop up Port-a-Bug bug enclosure catcher biology science toy children resourceThis is where outdoor engagement with wildlife can be helpful. Children can monitor the quantity of wildlife and the behaviour of that wildlife throughout the year, developing an emotional investment in what can only be regarded as scientific research (albeit on a fairly small scale). This can be as simple as setting yoghurt tub traps under a hedge and noting what you find. When you add some educational aides to the mix it makes it even easier to get kids interested; this can range from bug catchers that let them see the mini-beasts they encounter up-close and personal, all the way to insect habitats in your home or classroom which allow children to observe insect behaviour throughout the day.

In terms of the kinds of toys Insect Lore has put together they offer loads of educational aides which are functional whilst managing to remain entertaining and different. Every one of their products draws children in to find out more about the living world around them and on top of this the sets have a bright cheerful feel that can sometimes be so sadly absent from educational toys (especially science-related toys). The simplest way to tell you about what they provide is with a quick run-down (I’ll throw in some mentions for some other companies along the way too):

Insect lore Creature Peeper biology entomology children toy resource classroomNavir Bug Viewer biology entomolgy children toy resourceJars and magnification: There’s something really startling about seeing what an insect (any insect) really looks like. Give a child a magnifying glass and an insect and you’re basically sending them into an alien encounter. The physicality and behaviour of insects is so different to our own that children (and most adults too to be honest) can’t help but be enthralled by what they see (just look at Rose-Lynn Fisher’s ‘Bee’ to see what I mean). At Fun Junction we stock a heap of magnifying bug jars (by Insect Lore and Navir, among others) that vary in size and functionality from mini jars that can fit in a pocket, to large display jars with multiple-angle magnifying viewing windows). Insects just won’t look the same to a child again.

insect lore Living_Twig indian stick insect biology entomology children toy resource classroominsect lore Live_Butterfly_Garden biology entomology children toy resource classroomStick insects and butterflies:¬†This next collection pushes things to a different stage of commitment. With bug jars you’re typically responsible for an insect for at the most a few minutes. However, with a butterfly or stick insect pack you’re watching insects develop from an egg to a full-blown adult. This process can take a few weeks (as is the case for butterflies) or it can mean as much as a couple of years of care and attention (a stick-insect’s life-span). Along with the extra responsibility there comes the advantage of being able to show children the entire life cycle of a creature in real time. For those who think the end of a stick insect’s life-cycle might be a bit difficult for a child to take the release of a net-full of butterflies may be a much more attractive option (I know my eldest wouldn’t cope too well with the death of a pet at this stage, he’s only 5 just now).

navir_Optic_Wonder biology entomology children toy resource classroomOther resources: Insect Lore also makes a range of other resources that can help children to understand insects and insect behaviour. This includes life-cycle figures, butterfly feeders, bug’s-eye-view goggles and many other things to use for display and play which allow children to feel connected with studying insects.

These are just a few products that can help develop a momentum of interest in science in children (I’ve set up the images so that clicking on them takes you to the product page where you can find out more). There are heaps more science toys that we stock at Fun Junction and I’ll definitely talk about science toys again in future. Are there any ways that educators or parents have found of sparking that kind of interest? I’ve already mentioned yoghurt tub traps (you dig a hole, put in a fairly large plastic yoghurt tub which makes it harder for insects to climb back out, and then you come back the next day to see what insects have fallen into the trap), but are there any other home-made methods you know of to help kids get in touch with the natural world around them? As always I love to hear from you and if you fancy catching up with me on twitter you can get me here. Thanks for reading, all the best, John