Children and power

superman and the flash duke it outWhy is it so important to be the ‘fastest’, the ‘strongest’, etc. etc.? It’s a question I’m asking myself more and more now that my two are hitting that wonderful ‘isn’t it fun to hit my brother’ stage. I understand that competitiveness is to be encouraged but sometimes it seems genuinely nonsensical. I’ve had squabbles over who can fly the highest (basically bound by the laws of imagination; i.e. infinite) and other utter insanity that I just can’t get my head around. So again (and again) I find myself asking myself, why is it so important to them?

Ordinarily I can get myself into my kids’ shoes fairly easily, despite the fact that so much of their play makes no ‘real-world’ sense, there’s normally some internal logic to it. However, this imaginary one-upmanship looks like nothing more than an exercise in futility to me.

At the start of Toy Story, Andy has the toys duke it out in this kind of competition but the key thing is that his imaginings stop after about two rounds (basically because there’s only one child playing):

“I brought my attack dog with the built-in force field.
Well, I brought my dinosaur who eats force-field dogs.”

The story is alarmingly, brain-achingly, different with two children in the mix. Thankfully I’ve had a dry spell of this for the past few weeks but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the spectre of the debate over ‘strongest’/ ‘fastest’/’furthest’/’most immune to damage’ etc. etc. returns.

It will no doubt start along the lines of “well I’m lava proof!…well I’m as hot as the sun!…”well I’m sun-proof!…” and it will degenerate (along with my sanity) from there.

Is it just me that get’s utterly sick to the back teeth of this or are there others out there with a similar dread for what I call the pretend-power arms-race? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below. As always thanks for reading, 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

When parents stop being heroes

The IncrediblesNow don’t freak out, I’m not sitting judging every customer who comes into the shop but I do notice trends in the kinds of things people buy and I can’t help but notice a slow change in the kinds of toys children are asking for. A common theme that still comes up when children are choosing toys is that a lot of them like get toys to do with a parent’s job. The strange thing I’ve noticed (and the topic of this post) is that this trend is waning, from an earlier and earlier age children are less inclined towards the traditional hero-worship of their parents’ jobs.

BamBamFirst off the job thing has probably been done since little Ug junior got a club just like his daddy’s and went through a stone-aged world trying to bop unsuspecting pre-historic creatures on the head. Nowadays there are more subtleties, I’d imagine, in the kind of jobs parents do. For years the definitions and responsibilities of different jobs have been changing, there are new technology-based jobs that never existed before and a growing industry of information processing and content creation which make it harder for parents working in these fields to explain their job to their child. When this happens you either find that the child ends up mimicking a simplified idea of what their parent(s) do for a living or they give up on the whole thing and get into superheroes and other non-ordinary characters (like Barbie and characters from cartoon shows).

This is before you even get into how exciting or boring the parent’s overall job is. I work in a toy shop, exciting right? Well yes, sometimes, the toys are exciting but I’m not sure how exciting they find the shop work so when my kids get tired of playing shops they’ve got a mummy that works in a swimming pool, a grampa who’s a farmer and another grampa who’s a ‘fixer’ (my dad ran a handy-man company then went into fixing up properties). Out of all of these my kids are pretty much sorted for emulating jobs but when families that have more unusual/difficult to explain jobs come into the shop I have to admit you see a lot more super heroes and other fantasy jobs getting looked at.

I can’t help but wonder what this feels like for these parents. These parents probably emulated jobs as kids but now their own jobs are so hard to define that their children just give up on the early-years hero-worship of their parents’ profession and plunge right into the avengers, frozen, spider-man, batman, disney prinesses etc. etc.

the thinkerI had a small taster of how difficult job explanation can be when I was doing research for my MPhil. Back then Logan was only four and he just didn’t get what I was writing about. He often got upset when daddy had to go to the library to write for the day or when I had to head through and teach in Edinburgh. Far from something he wanted to emulate, for the most part I think he kind of resented my work. There were of course times when he would sit at his toy laptop and do his ‘writing’, he clearly wanted to understand what I was spending my time doing, he’d often choose to do his ‘writing’ when I was working at home. I loved it when he did this,  but at the same time his interest would wander and fairly quickly he’d be back to being a zoo-keeper, an animal doctor or a palaeontologist. The thing was, even if he managed to understand the nature of my work, at the end of the day it just wasn’t very exciting.

Perhaps that’s the tricky point so many parents are having to deal with, underneath all the difficult explanation lies a job that is quite simply boring (at least in the eyes of the average pre-schooler). With this in mind perhaps it’s better leaving a hint of mystery around what they do for a living, at least the mystery itself can make the job seem a little more exciting.

Do you have an unusual job, or just one that’s hard to explain to your kids? How have you gone about describing it to them, do they try to emulate it? Feel free to share in the comments area below, chat to me over on twitter or if you’re feeling particularly nice you can subscribe to get e-mailed my new blog posts as and when they come out (box off to the right). As always 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

Stop tantrums dead in their tracks!

This epic 'Baby Hulk' is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

This epic ‘Baby Hulk’ is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

Want your child to stop screaming for what they want? Simple, just give them it! Want them to stop complaining about being somewhere they don’t like? Simple, just take them where they want to go. No one wants to sit through some speech or other when they could be at the park or the cinema anyway, it’s a win win, and the best part is you can use your kid as an excuse. It’s exhausting constantly fighting over issues with your kids, not to mention stressful. Just take the strain off, lower your blood pressure, put your feet up and give in. Conflict isn’t for families anyway, surely it’s better just to keep everyone happy.

What’s the alternative anyway? Say no to even the most reasonable request just so that your kids know who the ‘boss’ is? and boss of what? (we could add) Families aren’t businesses with a product or service to sell, they don’t have to worry about beating last years performance/revenue. Why would a family need a boss? On top of that, two-parent/carer families would have to have two bosses and that can’t go well as there’s no guarantee they’ll always agree.

step-brothersI should point out that the unfortunate side-effect of the first option is a very high set of expectations, but it seems more appealing than the potential side effects of option two including a lack of drive and individual motivation in the absence of being told what to do and the increased risk of members resigning from ‘Family inc.’ when they tire of towing the party line. I mean, kids brought up via method one might be spoiled beyond belief but at least they’ll never want to leave right? Like they won’t want to leave ever, it’s great, you can fix up the attic/basement and make them a little home of their own.

Happily, we all typically pick a spot somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and with any luck our kids won’t run away from home, turn into mindless drones, or end up lodging with us through our retirement. That said, we still have this gruelling problem of tantrums: how do we deal with this unreasonable, high pitched audio visual attack? Do we just ‘pick our battles’ and give in occasionally? How do we decide which time is best to give in? and how far do we give in when we do?

The short answer is that it’ll be different for every kid and every parent. The long answer is that there is another way, I’ve seen a lot of meltdowns in my line of work and one of the most effective ways of dealing with tantrums is not to let them happen in the first place. There are parents among us who have developed the uncanny ability to foresee tantrums and take the wind out their sails before they even get started. I have to admit I’m not always one of these kinds of parents, my two have both had their share of public meltdowns, hell some of you reading this may even have had the pleasure of experiencing one. I’ve met a number of these hyper-aware parents but here’s just one example.

professor-xThere’s a dad that comes into the shop fairly regularly with his son, the boy must be about 7 or 8 years old now but they’ve been coming in for a few years and in that time I have never, and I mean never, seen the boy have a tantrum. One of the key things I’ve noticed about the two of them is a mutual respect and a willingness on the dad’s part to be clear, explanatory and reasonable with his son. He’s clear about why they’ll be going into the toy shop (I can hear him at the door), he listens to his son and responds positively to reasoned arguments for things to buy. I should point out that by ‘positive response’ I don’t mean he instantaneously rewards good arguments with a toy, but he does acknowledge a good point well made. Probably the key thing that I’ve noticed about their interactions is that the boy understands that a shopping trip is not all about acquiring stuff for himself, sometimes it’s not even going to lead to any purchases. In short, his expectations are set pretty low and he seems genuinely pleased with even the smallest occasional purchase.

A seven or eight year old is a far cry from a toddler (or worse still a three-year-old) but I can even see this working (in a diminished sense) with younger kids. The key issue on top of the responsiveness and reasonableness will be figuring out the time of day to expect their reasoning to be at it’s highest (i.e. not at nap time/snack time/after exertion/any time their mood is generally off kilter), for a lot of young kids the window of reasonability is small though, so to be perfectly honest your best bet may be a set of ear plugs (and some to pass round to other shoppers).

Have you found an effective way of avoiding these experiences of high conflict? Do you think they’re just an unavoidable aspect of parenthood? Have you been through this and reached the other side? What’s it like over there? Is there anything you would have done differently, looking back? As always, answers and comments are welcome below and I’m always up for a blether about toys, life and people over on twitter. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your views, all the best, John

3 Good Reasons to Lie to your Kid

wpid-imag0611_1.jpgIs there ever an excuse to lie to your kids? Of course there is! However when it comes to fairy stories and ideas about magic Richard Dawkins has said on a number of occasions that fantasy might (and I emphasise he says might) lead to supernaturalism. Lets just leave to one side whether ‘supernaturalism’ really is something to be feared, and instead concentrate on Dawkins’ assumption that we somehow brainwash our children and remove their capacity for scepticism by exposing them to fairy stories. Whilst I see where he’s coming from, I just don’t see his argument holding water. Dawkins has been quoted as saying: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?”

I’m actually inclined to think that fantasy and scepticism are far from the apparently opposing perspectives that Dawkins paints them out to be. In fact I think more exposure to fantasy can allow children to gain a greater understanding of the difference between fairy tales and things that are real. Logan loves superheroes but he knows they’re not real, he likes the idea that there might be fairies but I can see the doubt in there somewhere too. Without these props to exercise my scepticism as a child I’m not sure what kind of world-view I would have right now, but I’m pretty certain I’d be more caught up in dogma in some form or other.

There are many great reasons to lie to your kids in some form or other but here are just three that I think actually do them some good in the long run:

1. To provide a hint of the fantastical in their world. The fantastical builds up imagination, it bolsters creativity and allows children to develop the skills required for thinking outside the box. This all seems pretty positive to me. Angelina Jolie certainly seems to belong to the same camp on this score.

wpid-imag0612_burst001_1.jpg2. To keep their innocence alive. This is probably the weakest of the arguments I’m putting forward here but I’ll still hold on to it. For example, when asked where babies come from we of course tell our kids the basics (with ‘seeds’ and ‘eggs’ galore) but often we include ‘when two people love each other very much’. We want our children to think that everyone they play with comes from love (I’m sorry for being a little mushy here but it feels necessary). You aim your children at a fantasy but lay in hope that it becomes reality.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that a portion (I’ve no idea what quantities) of the children that my kids play with resulted from more complicated emotions than love but I don’t want to complicate my kids’ friendships with them by letting them in on an issue that is extremely complex, and may be difficult for them to understand (and easy for them to misinterpret) at the moment. Sadly this amounts to an argument for ‘ignorance is bliss’ but I think that, to an extent, children are one of the only groups on the planet who can really take advantage of ignorance and they should enjoy it whilst they have the chance. We can expose them to the more varied and colourful aspects of reality as they become more mature and can better understand the subtleties of human emotion and behaviour.

3. To make them feel comfortable about testing authority. This last reason for lying is by far the best. When I was a child my dad used to tell me blatant nonsense with a straight face and even re-assert his point if I called him on it. He knew exactly what he was doing. It may have been aggrieving, to say the least, but it pushed me to come up with better and more persuasive arguments to prove his obvious nonsense wrong. I do the same thing to my kids, I challenge them, I’ll push nonsense as far as I can to the point where they feel comfortable calling me on every detail of the nonsense with which they’re being presented. Far from dulling a capacity to ask questions and challenge the ideas put forward to them, I’d say that this particular kind of lying can sharpen your child’s wits and make them more than happy to call someone out (anyone out) when they fail to persuade them with an argument (one would hope this would work for advertising too).

Am I wrong, is it ‘always’ wrong to lie? Is fantasy dangerous or is it to be cherished? Do more adults need to open themselves up to fantasy? Can there be ways of honing an assertive scepticism in children without lying? As always I’m really glad you stopped by here, and I welcome any comments you feel like sharing below. Please feel free to have a nosey around at my other posts and follow me on twitter if you’d like to have a blether about toys, life and people, 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

The Philosopher in the Toy Shop

owl cuddly toy toy shop crieff fun junction perth perthshireOK I’ve not mentioned this for a while but I just happen to be a philosopher who sells toys for a living (BAHons, MLitt, MPhil and Toymeister, OK I made that last one up). On a day to day basis you would think these two things have little in common but I like to think, as I approach my 100th post (this is number 99!), that I’ve managed to show that this isn’t the case. One of the key things that makes me feel comfortable about my cross-disciplinary position is that philosophers (good philosophers anyway) never stop asking questions, it’s built into us, it’s why we picked a subject made of questions and it’s the attitude to the world that our training has enforced in us. In short we like to ask ‘why?’ a whole freaking bunch, does that remind you of any other demographic group perhaps?

427276_10152018994445401_531008992_nChildren enquire as a reflex, it’s like it’s coded into their brains that their primary function at that point is to find out and experience all that they can. Children are like a heap of mini Aristotles, Platos, and Socrati (that’s probably not the right plural of Socrates but I like it and I’m sticking with it). They question things, they’re even brave enough to ask us why they’re not supposed to ask questions (at those really awkward moments like ‘why is that man doing that?’ shouted within earshot in the middle of a crowded street). We hit our teens and everything gets very internally analytical, we all resemble Descarte’s meditator, knowing only what we think, feeling less inclined to understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of others.

To an extent that’s probably a good thing, at that stage in life it is important to know and understand yourself but what happens when we leave your teens behind? Can we go back to the fun enquiring-minds attitude again? I obviously did but perhaps its harder for others. Depending on what you choose to do with your life, your training may require a degree of accepting what your instructor tells you ‘just because’. I’ve always been lousy at retaining that kind of information. Even at school I only really learned when I was the one asking the question; I don’t do well with force-fed information.

There’s a growing population of adults who enjoy mind-altering objects and literature: from Rubik’s cubes to science fiction, from strategy games to game of thrones. A growing portion of the population are taking a chance to think about the world in a different way and toys can be, and are, a big part of that. Obviously some adults take this interest in toys a little far and turn a little (sometimes a lot) creepier but overall I think we’re doing well from it.

pulp fiction winnie the pooh

Gansta Pooh (Pulp Pooh just sounds…wrong)

So what happens to kids toys as a result? Sadly the potential income generated from the disposable income that is ‘pocket money’ has lead companies that traditionally appealed to teens to start venturing into a younger demographic. In this climate it’s going to be hard to tell a kid who’s a few years shy of thirteen that they’re better off playing with toys instead of play-acting being a teenager. Remember the go-to of any child will be ‘why?’ and if they don’t get a good answer they’re going to investigate this new world and absorb all they can about this new culture, that’s so different from that of childhood, and so alien to the world their parents belong to. At that age it’s not rebellion it’s a thirst for knowledge and a yearning for new experience.

That’s why I like to look at toys philosophically, I like to think about whether any manufacturers are managing to step up to the plate and offer kids a chance to enjoy that feeling of wonder and interest without having to leave their childhood behind. It’s an ongoing quest, a fierce battle ground, where toy companies battle against ‘teen-centred’ product for a person’s very childhood. It’s a fascinating thing to watch and it’s hard not to feel the need to step in with your own voice raised to the heavens crying for the continuation of childhood and the holding back of the floodgates of adolescence (at least for a few years). Why wouldn’t a philosopher enjoy working in the midst of this?

As my 100th post looms on the horizon I’d love to know what people have been thinking about this blog and I’m open to suggestions on how to make it better. If you have any questions about toys or ideas about topics I haven’t touched on yet please pop them in the comments section below or pop over to twitter and tweet me here.

Now a public service announcement: If you know any philosophers or have been effected by philosophy in any way there are departments around the world who are there to help. Philosophy can effect you at any stage in life, symptoms include a tendency to ask questions about questions, a need to see every side of a problem and an emotionally detached approach to arguments. If you think you may have been effected by philosophy please contact your nearest philosophy department immediately.

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

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 🙂