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

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Getting Creative

scottish mersAs I write this we have a real live mermaid waving to passers-by from our shop window. As is probably the case with many largish towns (i.e. nowhere near city size but a lot of people about) we have a very diverse and vibrant community here in Crieff and this weekend is something of a celebration of that, it’s the Crieff Arts Festival.

I’ve mentioned Crieff’s creative side a few times on here, whether talking about ‘Mole’s House‘, random forts and dens or just the generally interesting things you can come across here (check out #awesomecrieff over on twitter to see a wee selection of what our population of 6000 can do).

real live mermaidSo back to today, guilty as I am that we’ve pinched the living mermaid (Clan Dragon had her on display at last year’s festival) it’s a great match for the toy shop and kids are loving getting a chance to talk to her (some are little shy so they’re opting for waving behind their parents’ knees).

This is just a wee short one today. What creative town events etc. do you feel particularly proud of? I love how surprising it can be to be involved in these kind of events, if I’d known how fun it was as a teenager (back when I had some of that mythical ‘free time’ that I hear people talking about) I’d definitely have been more involved. What’s the most rewarding community project you’ve been involved in?

As always, thanks for reading and don’t be a stranger, if you’re an actual human being I’ll happily follow back over on twitter, Cheers, John

When the Trains Take Over (Brio play days)

sheldon trainsAs the great Dr. Cooper says ‘Don’t be silly, you love trains!’. All the staff at Fun Junction have train brain this week, we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the next few days in our Perth shop: Brio have lent us a ridiculously large collection of trains and accessories and we’ll be popping it all out in store for kids to have a play. It’s as simple as that, no charge, no pushy sales-pitch just pop your child down with the trains and let them enjoy.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

I love the fact that one of the companies we deal with has put together such a genuine and enjoyable experience. They haven’t pushed a rake of cash into a traditional advertising campaign, instead they’ve made a toy range that they’re proud of and they’ve decided to let the general public decide for themselves if Brio trains are any good. As any parent with a child with a train fascination knows Brio is not the cheapest wooden railway system on the planet, in fact I don’t know of any wooden railway products that cost more. That said I’ve found through experience that you really do get what you pay for.

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Every wooden railway system is compatible with one another (well every system I’ve come across anyway), there are some that come very close to Brio’s quality level (like BigJigs) and cost a little less and there are others that are a lot cheaper. There’s therefore nothing wrong with shopping around to get bits and pieces from all these different companies to get a nice mix of quality and lower budget. That said I think the great thing about the Brio play day is that it’ll give parents (myself included) a chance to see what a train set made entirely out of Brio-quality pieces will be like. Not only that but because the set gets passed around group to group, shop to shop around the country we’ll all get to see how they do in terms of general wear-and-tear.

brio railwy uk fun junction toy shop scotland perth crieff perthshire

One of the only wooden railway trains that you’ll find that can take passengers, with spaces for two drivers and three passengers (Brio figures), you can get one here.

This is what I love about this event, Brio isn’t forcing an agenda, they’re not pushing a new line by throwing a pile of adverts in the middle of your child’s favorite shows: instead they’re saying ‘Here, we made something that we think is pretty great but you have a play, you decide, is it worth the extra cost to get a train/a piece of track/a station/any other accessory made by us?’ There’s nothing for them to hide behind, if your child plays with the trains and doesn’t like them then no amount of advertising will change that, so Brio has to make sure that what your child is presented with is something pretty awesome. It’s a gamble and takes a lot of bottle for a toy company to do what Brio is doing, but based on my own experience of their products I can’t say I’m all that nervous for them, I think they’ll do just fine.

Have you come across any companies (toy or otherwise) who surprised you like this? Are some companies good enough to do away with traditional advertising or do you think that, without TV ads constantly reminding them, kids will just forget about a toy/brand? I’d also love to hear any experiences you’ve had with Brio (good or bad). As always thank you so much for stopping by, I’m one of these sad people that get’s a bit of a buzz from things like reader counts and comments so it’s always brilliant when someone stops by for a read and it’s even better if you leave a comment. If you’re in the Perth (Scotland) area then pop along to our shop on the 15th, 16th or 17th of May to join in the fun (they’re open from 9:15am till 5;15pm, Cheers, John

UPDATE: Please note our Brio play day has passed but we have every intention of hosting another one soon 🙂

Winnie the Pooh day

180120141680Happy ‘Winnie the Pooh Day’! These kinds of holidays often seem to be plucked out of thin air but this one is actually due to the fact that today is AA Milne’s birthday. Because of this I don’t feel quite as bad about making a post out of what, at first, appears to be yet another nonsense ‘holiday’. Winnie the Pooh spans generations and thanks to Disney’s long running depiction we’re now at a stage where Grandparents, Parents and Children alike all typically picture the little yellow guy, we see in the picture above, when they’re asked to think of Winnie The Pooh. (Remember, if you fancy trying your hand at some character voices from the hundred acre voices you can pop along to my post here for some pointers.)

from collectingcollectables.comOne of my mum’s favourite toys as a child was her Winnie the Pooh slide projector, which she passed on to me when I was old enough to use it. Simple as it was, it was a great and diverting wee toy which projected scenes from Disney’s original  Winnie The Pooh movies onto the wall with captions so that you could follow the story. I’ve a feeling that it was sadly lost in a house move when I was about 7 but I still remember it as being brilliant fun. It was apparently very durable to, aside from Lego, Playmobil, and perhaps a handful of other brands, plastic toys don’t often last long enough to pass on to the next generation.

Both of my kids were dressed in the ever-present sets of Winnie The Pooh baby clothes when they were babies (in fact both of them came home from the hospital wearing a Winnie The Pooh character). Some might see this as over-commercialisation of a beloved character but I love the characters and their underlying notion that, despite vastly different personality types, a group of individuals can still find a way to get on with one another.

We see the gruff and bossy rabbit clash with the mellow ‘laissez faire’ attitude of Pooh bear, or piglet’s crippling fearfulness juxtaposed with Tigger’s excitement, flamboyancy and zest for life. Not to mention the bookish, rambling, often wildly uninformed, ‘expertise’ of Owl and the lovable sad-sack Eeyore. Joined later on by Kanga and Roo, a single mother and her child adopted into the wider family of the hundred acre wood.

the real winnie the pooh

These are the ‘real’ Winnie the Pooh and his friends, owned by Christopher Robin Milne. For the origins of these characters follow this link

Disney’s depiction of these characters is often critically compared with the original but when you look at some of the original stories you see that some less-than-lovable traits have been edited out by Disney. For a good example lets look at chapter 7 of ‘Winnie The Pooh’ (Milne’s first book dedicated to the hundred acre wood), which is sub-titled ‘…in which Kanga and Baby Roo come to the forest, and Piglet has a bath’. Frightened at the prospect of newcomers to the wood, Pooh and the gang formulate a plan to scare Kanga and Roo off by kidnapping Roo and replacing him with piglet in order to bribe Kanga into agreeing to leave. “We’ll tell you where Baby Roo is, if you promise to go away from the Forest and never come back.” (really friendly huh?!)

The story has a happy ending (of sorts) with Kanga treating Piglet as though he’s Roo, until Christopher Robin turns up and mistakes the uncharacteristically clean Piglet for a newcomer to the woods. The general gist of the ending is that everything gets sorted out, Roo gets back to his mum and they’re all friends in the end. If you compare it to some of Disney’s own stories, you start to see that, in terms of the overall message, not much has been lost from the original apart from some slightly less savoury behaviours from the gang. (NB Disney has made at least a couple of versions of this story which was shown, amongst other places, in their ‘Mini adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ series, but the kidnapping plot absent, instead replaced by the gang helping Roo to avoid bath time, and the emphasis was on the humour of Piglet’s bath). At the bottom of this post you’ll find two versions I’ve tracked down on youtube:

Which version of Winnie the Pooh do you have the most fond memories of? Do you think Pooh bear and his friends have become over commercialised or do you like them just the way they are? As always I welcome comments both here in the comments box below and over on twitter. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John


Do you actually enjoy shopping?

toy stall fife parents and toddlers show onesiesHow important is it to be entertained when you go into a shop? Do bored staff make you feel uninspired about the whole experience? It’s ‘Small Business Saturday’ today (at least in the UK) so I thought I’d take a break from doing voices etc. to think about something a bit different and consider some of the reasons behind our shopping habits. I’ll apologise from the outset that what follows isn’t particularly toy related, however I’m sure we all have an opinion on this (and I’d love to hear yours).

I’ve worked in various shops over the years, some of them I’ve loved and some I’ve really not. I’m starting to notice a trend now in shops and the thing that stands out to me is that some shops I walk into make feel as though I’m entering a glorified vending machine whilst others give me the feeling that I’m valued and that they genuinely want to help me, whether I’m spending 20p or £200. Sadly there seem to be fewer of the latter.

christmas independent businessesThis gets especially obvious at Christmas when staff are stretched thin and nerves are even thinner. I’ll admit I’m generally not a fan of shopping at Christmas, mainly due to the stress, the mass of people and the generally snappy (and sometimes aggressive) atmosphere. That said, when I walk into a shop where staff at least take an interest (even if only in passing because they’re busy and strapped for time) it makes me enjoy it a bit more.

The thing that really plays on your mind as a retailer at this time of year is whether you’re a vending machine or a human being: are you helping and adding something to the experience or are you just standing there and bagging up stuff?

It makes you wonder about the multiple ‘shop local’ campaigns up and down the country and the fact that smaller stores often have more experienced (and specialised) staff, meaning that they’re typically in a much better position to help you and make your day a little easier. However, the flip side is that a lot of these stores, after years of competing with supermarket/megastore prices start to feel a bit down-trodden and the enthusiasm starts to wilt.

I’ve always enjoyed the limelight and I’ve never felt particularly uncomfortable about looking a bit ‘silly’ in front of others so perhaps I’m not the best judge on this. However, I can’t help but feel that the future of shops lies in our ability to entertain customers whilst making their shopping trip an easy one. Where I work we have no ‘sales handbook’ or items to ‘push’, and that’s very liberating. I’ve worked in stores that did have handbooks, pushed lines, and sales policies and not only are these policies patronising to both the staff and the customer, more importantly they make you feel inhibited and scared to stand out, in short they contribute to staff apathy.

fun junction independent small business local toy shopI’m allowed to have favourite toys/brands/departments at Fun Junction (we never have a particular brand that we’re forced to show to customers) and in no way does this make me lose focus on the other toys we sell. Instead it makes me more willing to try the toys and find new favourites. Anyone who knows me knows that I love my job (who wouldn’t? I get to play with toys for a living!) and this means that I can step up to the stage of the shop counter and feel completely prepared and comfortable about where I am.

I’ve always enjoyed being on stage, whether in a band or acting, I thrive on attention and I love to see people react positively to something I’m doing. Back when I was at uni I used to busk as a means of getting some extra cash and it is genuinely the most exposed I’ve ever felt but it was also invigorating. As a result of the type of things I’ve done I’m not squeamish about people’s opinions, unless of course the response I get is boredom or apathy. Perhaps that really is the biggest fear of the small retailer: that you’ll try something and no one will care, but isn’t it still worth trying?

Every weird event, every dressed up staff member, every themed day is something that bigger stores can’t do without a serious amount of planning. Even if it’s not a success at the time, even if none of your customers seem to notice it very much, it still makes you special, they’ll still remember it and when someone mentions your shop to them what will come to mind is your uniqueness and your energy. So to all the independents out there I hope you have a brilliant ‘Small Business Saturday’ and that it gives you a chance to shine.

Are there shops where you feel entertained or simply just welcomed? How differently do you feel about shopping there in comparison to less enthusiastic shops? Do you simply not shop in brick and mortar stores any more, preferring to shop online? (there’s no shame in that, we all do it) That said if you do only/mostly shop online what attracts you to a web store, what makes you keep coming back? As always thanks for stopping by and reading my blog, you can subscribe by entering your address in the box to the right, Cheers, John

How to play

Giraffe eating a dinosaur

Puppets are a great way to stimulate pretend play, pop over here to have a look at some of the puppets stocked by Fun Junction.

This sounds like a bit of a ridiculous question but can you remember how to play? Strange as it sounds I’ve heard of adults who have genuinely lost the ability and there also seem to be a great number of parents who struggle with certain types of play. One of the key difficulties seems to arise during what we might call ‘pretend play’. The primary worry I hear is that there is a feeling of obligation that you, as the parent, will be expected to plan out a whole story and create a host of characters out of the toy figures in front of you. This is an intimidating prospect, especially where playtime comes at the end of the day when your mind is dulled after a day at work, or a day filled with housework and running the kids around to meet their busy social calendar (our kids always seem to have better social lives than we do).

Fortunately this isn’t really what’s involved in pretend play. I’m sure your kids would love it if you mapped out a whole story for them and then played it out before their eyes with a vibrant array of exceptionally voiced characters (who wouldn’t?!). To be honest though, that’s not playing, that’s more like a high-end puppet show. Scale it back, and remember how you used to play, but if that fails here are some tips:

  • Go to my previous post ‘5 hints for telling a good story‘ some of this is specific to reading but the explanations of how to change your voice and animate character traits should be useful.
  • If you genuinely struggle with pretend play then DON’T, and I’ll repeat DON’T, use a character they know from TV/films. Doing this will result in one of two things: EITHER you’ll crack it and perform that character flawlessly (or at least well enough for your kid to be happy with it) OR you’ll be terrible and your kid will just laugh at your attempts, disrupting play and bruising your confidence. If you crack it then there’s a strong chance that that is the only character your child will let you play as and this will get tedious fast (this character could also become a crutch, limiting you from enjoying all the fun that pretend play has to offer). Neither of these outcomes is particularly great.
  • Pick one or two character toys to play with and give them a character ‘quirk’. Don’t make them a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie’, of course that’s what kids often do but as an adult you can bring something different into the mix. Here’s an example, try a character who thinks everything they are presented with is edible. Your child will likely find it hilarious as they chase after the character trying to explain that they shouldn’t eat a cushion/a sock/ the TV/ someone’s hair.
  • Allow your character to develop. Even if you’re only playing for ten minutes or so you’ll find an easy ‘plot point’ in allowing your character to change their mind about something. If you need it, the development can be also used as a means of setting a time limit. Using the example above, the character could come to realise that not everything is edible as dinner time approaches (‘OK, OK, so I can’t eat your shoe but can I eat whatever it is that’s making that lovely smell?’ ‘Yes, that’s dinner!’ ‘Great let’s eat dinner!’).
  • Finally have fun, have as much fun as you can. They’ll only be playing like this for so long. Also, to keep things interesting, try occasionally throwing in some behaviour that breaks the status quo, this should help your child to think on their feet and it can lead to much more entertaining playtimes as well.

I’m always interested to hear how other parents play so feel free to pop a comment below and tell me about your own experiences. Hope these wee tips help someone out there. As always, thanks for reading and if there’s anything else you’d like me to post about please get in touch, Cheers, John

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.