Today’s incident about Biscuits raised an interesting issue about transcription. It’s clear as you read it that I’ve clarified the diction – but what convention might I employ to be absolutely clear about what has been said: “G’an’pa” for “Grandpa,” or “in a post” for “in the post”? When I write “What in the parcel, Grandpa?” it’s not really what I heard – but might I have written “What‘s in the parcel” when there was no “s” and therefore no clear use of a verb? Where does interpreting stop and editing start?


I also feel I have to point out that this particular observation is simply posted because I have really no idea which mental gears were crunching for Ivy to get Biscuiteers and make (perfectly reasonable) sense of it as Biscuit Ears.

Plus it’s astonishingly cute.

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Bike riding

Just to record the way in which parental (and grandparental) roles shift when teaching someone to ride a bike. “Liberty Hall at Granny’s House” is sometimes (not always) the order of the day, but the relationship shifts when a definite and complex set of tasks are to be undertaken, as in helping Maisy to get to grips with her bike. The need to keep her on task and not downhearted (and preferably relatively uninjured) is compounded by the need to help her succeed – in itself part of keeping her buoyant. Given how learning to ride a bike has a number of components that need to be mastered (balance, steering, pedalling – and to that I might add holding on, using the brakes), it is hard to make some small, achievable steps that are real and build to a sub-set of the skills of successful bike-riding.

Her progress is steady, she is doing well – but it is not easy. Falls are hard, and the effort from all of us is tiring. Lunch and Shaun the Sheep were an important punctuation.

And then this link reminds me of how many children have already had the Time Out of Time Outs in being excluded, as indicated by this DfE report. I just wonder how many of these exclusions had, somewhere along the line, a failure from a practitioner to recognise the complexity of a task, or how tired the day was making child or grown-up? This isn’t to join some line of people blaming the adults, or to suggest that everything must always go at the pace a child thinks is appropriate, but just perhaps

when we think about a piece of learning, should we ask

  • does it need breaking down any further?
  • what implications are there for adults’ time and energy?
  • how can a  break in the learning look like a success, not a retreat?



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Critical incident:
5 yo picks strawberries, puts them in a bowl, takes them out one by one and either eats them or shares them with me. Some are left for a while, and then she requests a knife, which she uses to chop the rest up. They are left in the bowl, and eventually (when they are inedibly squashy), she returns to them and feeds them (at my suggestion) to the garden chickens.


It is an idyllic scene in a garden in June. The child is engaged, her 2yo little sister too (see the drawing below), and there are plenty of opportunities for maths and science and language development  – a real “understanding of the world,” if we remove that term from the curriculum straight-jacket.  It would be very tempting to say that “every child should have the chance to pick strawberries.”


That’s the phrase that needs unravelling: it brings with it assumptions about class, expectations, entitlement and the unattended questions about who decides on  a child’s experiences.


This is all taking place in a lawned, private garden with chickens. We may not be talking an estate, but equally the incident is not one on a subsistence farm; we are talking, in current property terms, about a dwelling firmly in the middle classes. So the expectation itself that this is a valuable experience is already close to the idea of comfortable living. The “gaze about the multiplicity of who a child might be and how she might understand her world” (MacNaughton 2005:143) has been blinkered from the start by an unexplored attitude about the normalcy of middle class in the UK.


The “should” is itself therefore problematic. The work of Tina Miller on fathers (see previous blog post) suggests that just as fathering is part of/arises from  a set of views about “embodied selves and structural histories,”  (Miller 2010:38) so too do the practices of Northern-European childhoods. The “should” that may suggest fathers behave in certain ways also acts in a number of ways in the case of children. Proposals of “what children need” pepper Early Education books, and it is right that we have inspiration, leadership, direction – but the “should” is sometimes unexplored, and very often uncontested.  A child “should” be outside because of the tradition of children (particularly boys) being outside to play:

Let the amusements of a child be as much as possible out of doors; let him spend the greater part of every day in the open air; let him exert himself as much as he please, his feelings will tell him when to restand when to begin again; let him be what Nature intended him to be–a happy, laughing, joyous child. Do not let him be always poring over books (1878: 179)

This “nursery inheritance” (cf Brooker 2005: 117ff) brings with it a moral imperative that is likewise unchallenged.  When we talk about entitlement – and we should – what are we using as a yardstick? Do we see strawberry picking as valuable experiential learning about healthy eating? Or as another step in the induction into the middle class? Or an understanding of life processes? Or a replication of a dimly remembered rural past?

Who decides?

Let’s suppose this experience is viewed by someone – well-meaning and powerful – as a key experience for children. On what basis have they decided this? How do they implement it?

  • Is this the practitioner who sees a child enjoying strawberries and thinks about replicating this next year?
  • Is it the parent (or grandparent) who enjoys the time with a child and thinks “this is worth doing”?
  • What would it be like if the Secretary of State were to see the strawberry incident and say

“Every child should have the opportunity to pick and eat strawberries”?

This is not so far-fetched, even though the vision of government-regulated (and measured) strawberry-picking is a reductio ad absurdum.

How does a new project get off the ground? What criteria decide that this or that phonics scheme, or behaviour management approach “works” – and works for whom? This appears to be at the heart of a new book out of the IoE, which I look forward to reading.

To go back to the strawberries, we might ask (and in particular ask our students to enquire of their own experiences)

  • what makes this valuable?
  • what criteria do I use to give this value?
  • how do I communicate its value to the child, to the child’s parents, to managers and policy makers?

How am I an effective advocate for children, not just someone who sees a bandwagon and jumps on it?


Brooker, L (2005) “Learning to be a Child: cultural diversity and early years ideology”  in N Yelland (ed) Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education. Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Chavasse, P  (1878, 13th Ed) Advice to a Mother on the Management of her Children. Birmingham. available online

Mac Naugton, G (2005) Doing Foucault in Early Childhood Studies. Abingdon:Routledge

Miller, T (2010) Making Sense of Fatherhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wyse, D et al (2015) Exploring Education and Childhood: From current certainties to new visions. Abingdon:Routledge

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Fatherhood I

One of the joys of the team here at the moment is the real energy there is towards research. and looking outwards to more fluid forms of communication such as blogging.
Mat Tobin, for example, has recently blogged on why picturebooks matter, and it’s our shared interest here that has made us gravitate to each other on a shared project around fatherhood and children’s picturebooks.

Very often in books in which children have adventures, the parents are absent, and in some the very absence of the parent exacerbates the crisis (I’m thinking of Sendak’s Outside Over There, particularly, but there’s the gentler story of Joe’s Cafe – and  for older children we might consider the death of Torak’s father, and in YA fiction Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls or the complexities of Dacid Almond’s Billy Dean).

So just to kick me off on this (next stop looking in detail at Tina Miller on Fatherhood and exploring her ideas of the masculinisation of the home !), I’m posing three questions:

  • Why do parents have to be absent for a “good” story?
  • Are weak parents a substitute for absent parents?
  • What about the unlikeable parent – the buffoon, the bully?



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Laudato Si’

The full text of Pope Francis’ encyclical, via L’Osservatore Romano, is to be found here (if it didn’t break the Internet, it certainly made the Vatican website crash), and since on my Office Door I have the words from Caedmon’s angel Sing Me Frumsceaft, I thought I’d also add one for the Pope’s prayers with which he ends the encyclical:

A prayer for our earth
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

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Using visual methodology to look at childhood.

“Childhood,” that fluid concept that may (or may not) include infancy and may (or may not) embrace young people up to 18, gets looked at using all sorts of research tools which may (or may not – I’ll stop doing this now) provide valid data. Aries’ own use of visual material has been criticised for its subjectivity in selection and judgment, and I’m sure the four pictures I used in my research presentation could likewise be pulled apart.

What I attempted to do at our Faculty Research Conference was to look at a similar event – children playing outdoors – through different media: a four year old’s drawing; an historical photograph; children’s book illustration.

The child’s drawing I have already discussed.

This was the photograph I chose

Cowgate Nursery

Cowgate Nursery

– a substitute for the one I really wanted, from Margaret MacMillan’s passionate plea for Early Childhood provision from 1923, for which I couldn’t get a clear enough reproduction. My only real points here were about how we are unaware, by and large of how “participatory and collaborative” (Pink, 2001:58-9)  this is, and if there might be here (Burke, 2001: 117) a “possibility of idealisation” – positive or negative? Is this an ideal – an example of what schools often label “Best Practice”? Or maybe a plea for more of these institutions? Or part of a study of the urban poor – and in contrast to what?

The heart of what I presented was around Michael Foreman’s reflection on his time in Gaza

The first children play in the shadow of the vine

A Child’s Garden


and Roberto Innocenti’s moving and ambiguous story of a young German child’s encounter with the Holocaust.

The girl discovers the camp

Rose Blanche


I looked at composition to some extent (what is Innocenti’s girl staring at in horror?), and at the symbolism both illustrators managed to use (e.g. the notion of the vine as the symbol of a flourishing Israel at peace), but all I was really able to do in 15 mins was to suggest that for all three sets of images context is important, and that for the illustrations all this becomes much more complex; in an analysis of illustrations in children’s literature context includes, it seems to me:

  • Narrative (what comes before and after the single image)
  • Intertextuality (reference in word and image to other works)
  • Multiple readership and multiple views

I think I crammed a lot more into 15 mins than this precis suggests – and here are the articles and  books I used to help me on my way.

Anning, A and Ring, K (2004) Making Sense of Children’s Drawings. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Burke, P (2001) Eyewitnessing: the use of images as historical evidence. London: Reaktion Books

Foreman, M (2009) A Child’s Garden. London: Walker Books

Foreman, M (2009) Picture Books and the Environment: a lifelong concern in J Harding et al (eds) Deep into Nature: Ecology, Environment and Children’s Literature. IBBY/NCRCL Papers 15. Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing

Innocenti, R and McEwan, I (1985) Rose Blanche. London: Red Fox

Pink, S (2001) Doing Visual Ethnography. London: Sage

Pink, S (2008) “Analysing Visual Experience” in M Pickering (ed) Research Methods for Cultural Studies. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Rose, G (2001) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage

Rose, G (2014) On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture. The Sociological Review, Vol. 62, 24–46

Sipe, L. (1998). “How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships.” Children’s Literature in Education 29(2): 97-108.

Styles, M. and Salisbury., M.  (2012). Children’s Picturebooks: the art of visual storytelling London, Laurence King.

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Ancient Darkness and other landscapes

Sitting at the end of a hectic day in the prestigious John Henry Brookes building at work, having handed in the exam paperwork and completed another piece of documentation for the treadmill of quality assurance, I am looking forward to immersing myself, after tea, in the final book of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, the wintry denouement (perhaps) of the hero Torak’s six-book confrontation with the evils of his Neolithic northern European world. I have loved these books – and may  come back to them after they’re finished for further exploration and comment.

It is in some ways a perfect escape from the worries of my present work: a young man pits himself against cold, and dark and the fear of death. The trivial round, the common task is not a quest. Torak’s Neolithic Scandinavia is as far as I could get from my life as an academic: I am not young, not a hunter in the antiqua silva, but sitting with a coffee in front of me, having had too much screen time, thinking not about arrow heads and tracking in the forest but about deadlines, learning outcomes, emails. It would be foolish to see me as having a part in this story, however attractive the three main characters are. It would be self-aggrandising, too, to envisage my struggling to make sense  of quality assurance as the lone battler against the dragon, or whatever. I don’t want to do that: Beowulf, Frodo and Torak did not have to prepare a report for Faculty Executive, any more than I have to find Grendel’s mere, or Mordor, or the Mountain of Ghosts.

Instead, spare a brief thought today for a little-remembered medieval saint: St William of York. He is an ideal for me today. Essentially an administrator born with a whole box of silver spoons, William gets all sorts of political and ecclesiastical preferment which are often not quite the gift one might expect. However, he is reported as undertaking them with a singularly assiduous charity. The darkness he fought was against the temptations of what today we would call class and background, against the uncharitable fight for power which denies the underdog.

I can’t see a children’s story in something so unheroic, any more than I can see any kind of ripping yarn in chairing a meeting or filling in a tedious pro forma.  But I do feel like some of what I have done today has been at least useful. Maybe I’m admitting that traditional tales of the outdoors quest are all very well, but they can only stand as an allegory for the everyday lives we live, or which we are preparing students and children for.

I’m not sure whether Torak and his wolf pack brother would understand any of that, of course, but it raises any number of questions for me:

  • Why do we need physical range in a narrative? Why does the sea journey or the vast forest appeal?
  • And what does landscape add in terms of danger?






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Reimagining Spirituality

Sometimes blogging takes off. In this case, Lindsay Jordan, a fellow academic and doctoral student’s reflection on the philosophy of education – sometimes hers, sometimes more generally – produces some really worthwhile stuff.  Go and have a look: she makes a good case, for instance, here, around holistic views of higher education.

And this is why it was worth paying attention when Lindsay tweeted Jonathan Rowson’s report for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on spirituality. It is a really good report. It says to me that the spirituality component of our Masters’ module on Children’s Imaginative Worlds should be asked to read, mark and inwardly digest it as a matter of course, and that it is a really useful document for the Undergraduate work on Spirituality that I’ve discussed before, e.g. here and here, where I start from Rowson’s blog.

At a personal level, the passage in which Rowson discusses “the myriad addictions of apparently normal behaviour and [how] what passes for everyday consciousness begins to look like a low-level psychopathology” hits me almost with the force of a passage of Lectio Divina. Perhaps I have to follow the instruction with which the report ends, where Richard Rohr exhorts us  to “live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

And this is where my own argument falters, and I have not yet worked out how to allow this holistic view of spirituality to develop my (sometimes uncomfortable) position as a member of a faith community teaching spirituality in a secular university. Perhaps, perhaps, it is time to move to a teaching of spirituality that is more open to (respectful) conflict and less eclectic, that allows, as one Muslim student remarked recently, “allows me to really re-evaluate what I believe – not so that I come to disbelieve it, but so that I know what I believe and I believe it stronger.” But does that mean that the academic demands are “best answered through practice rather than theory”? That the module looks at practising spirituality rather than examine it theoretically? Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who recieved his doctorate at the same time as Thomas Aquinas is clear:

“…if you want to understand how this happens, ask it of grace, not of learning; ask it of desire, not of attentive reading; ask it of the betrothed, not of the teacher; ask it of God, not of humanity; ask it of darkness, not of radiance.”

Is this an anti-intellectual stance, or one that is simply demanding learning though practice? And what are its implications for the mixed community of a secular UK university?


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Are we lacking in stories about real kids?

Abigail makes a good point in Like a Real Life where she asks “why are children’s picture books hardly ever about children?” She raises the issue of anthropomorphism in a slightly different way: are real children really “soooo thirty years ago”?

I suspect I have an answer of some sorts, but before we go that way, I’d like to echo the idea that Like a Real Life explores: there are good books with animals standing in for humans, and there may well be some decline in humans as main characters – although I think a really effective bit of time-sampling would be needed to make this claim securely (just to play Devil’s Advocate, for example, I  might cite Charlie and Lola, and the great Bear Hunt itself).

But no: alongside Charlie and Lola, as Like a Real Life suggests, are the Julia Donaldson brigade, great stories, massively well marketed and brilliantly produced, with frogs, and mice.

Where I think the animal stories succeed is in blurring limitations of time, space and culture.  That’s not to say they are bad because of this, but that Room on the Broom, for example, may be “about” sibling rivalry or how people learn to get along but is not boundaried by portrayals of a period of time, class, ethnicity &c., as (perhaps) the work of Mary Hoffman or Shirkey Hughes might be. This might, the cynic in me argues, come  down to marketing, although you could argue (see my post on Diversity) that this is a weakness: that a frog cannot ever really stand  in for  a marginsalised child, for example. If this comes down to identification then we have to develop a much more acute sense of what is being signified by this mouse, that badger, good and bad wolves, so that we can “leave in the magic, leave in the bizarre and the adventure” and still let the children be in on the game.

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Maintained Nursery Schools

Killing any birds with any number of stones is not easy in election time. This blog post, short though it is, maybe is over-ambitious.

This information is intended largely for the enlightenment of my own students (do I own students?) as their write their assignments for Early Years in the UK Context – but since it is of wider significance, and came to me as a personal communication from my MP, I thought it could go here for more public perusal.

Letter from SOS to Rt Hon A Smith

These are politically senstive times, so I will present it without commentary, except to say that the letter in response to my own letter to Andrew Smith, who took up the matter with Nicky Morgan: the date is explained in other correspondence by the letter from the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan in Sept not reaching Andrew Smith until this month.

Do use the reply facility if you wish.


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