Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Educational Board Games

We no longer hit the books on Fridays in our home. Instead we head for the games shelves. I once read ( and have spent forever trying to find the link) that there were the top three family activities to help children succeed academically were :

Books - reading to your children, reading with them, and providing varied material for them to read themselves.

Days Out - The obvious museums and zoos and such, but also simple days out such as parks, the seaside or wooded areas.

Board Games: This one took me by surprise but it makes sense. There are so many skills children can learn from board games. You need to read and follow instructions - at least to get started - we often make our own rules or variations later. Even the simplest games encourage conversation, teach children to take turns, and of course how to cope with both winning and losing. Younger children's games often include matching, colour recognition, counting and fine motor skills. Older children's games are apt to include a few more math's concept like counting money and change,  strategy and more. There are a wealth of board games designed specifically for educational purposes each with their own goal in mind. I'll be trying to include as many of the games we use and enjoy as possible for now - so if my ratings look a bit one sided - it is because I am only including favourites for now. Age recommendations are my own. I consider the children's interest levels, difficulty of problems etc when estimating age, but assume some parental help is available for very young players.


Candyland by Hasbro
A perfect first board game. Teaches colours, taking turns and a wonderful game for Christmas time.
Ages: recommended 3+ but both of my boys played this from age 2. Still gets used at Christmas time but really best for children under age 6
Players : 2 - 4
Reading Required? No.
Entertainment Value  **** 1/2   Educational Value ****


What's The Point by Greenboard Games
Teaches, fractions, percentages and decimals
Ages Technically 8+, but my five year old enjoys playing this as a team with me.
Players: Technically  2 or more - you could go up to 6, but it would grow tedious with too many players. This could be played alone as well.
Reading Required? No.
Entertainment Value  ** 1/2   Educational Value *****

Sum Swamp  - Learning Resources
Very basic addition and subtraction - fun but only for younger children.
Ages 4 - 6
Players 2 - 4
Reading Required? No.
Entertainment Value  ****   Educational Value ****

Magic Cauldron Maths - Orchard Toys
Simple addition subtraction, a couple of very easy multiplication questions.
Fill a cauldron by collecting cards that equate to the correct number for each spell. Uses heat sensitive cards, but these can be hard to work on a cold day. I resorted to keeping a cup of tea handy and holding the cards against the cup, but children playing alone could use a heated bean bag ( not included).
Ages 4 - 7
Players - 2 + but could be used alone if you really needed to.
Reading Required? No.
Entertainment Value  ****   Educational Value ****

Run, Run, as Fast as you Can!  by Orchard Toys
An all time favourite in our house. Teach simple fractions and counting as well as adding abit of rhyming and literature if you wish. My youngest has played this since age 2, my oldest still enjoys this at age 8, and I'm quite certain I will never outgrow it.
Recommended ages 4+ but I would recommend from age 2 with suprevsion if you child has outgrown eating small parts.
Players 2-4
Reading Required? No.
Entertainment Value  *****+   Educational Value *****


It doesn't really matter which version you choose, we have a lovely set by Galt with animal pictures and a ludo game with different habitats on the back, but any Snakes and Ladders game will work.
When playing the game as you are meant to, children learn to count up to 100 and simple addition.

Adding a few sets of flash cards and some coloured markers creates a whole new game. You can use a ready made set of flashcards or make your own. Just be sure you will have answers that equal up to 100. We use coloured glass pebbles like you would have in a fish tank as markers, but anything will work : Hot Wheels cars ( although they roll about terribly) toy dinosaurs, zoo animals etc...  The object of this game is to get four of your markers in a row, while clocking other players from doing the same. Any time you correctly answer a flash card, you place your marker on that square. If it is already occupied - we allow the child to choose another square, but if you want to make it more cut throat you can bump the player off. Other options would be to draw another card, or just miss the turn. In all honesty this doesn't teach any more than flash cards alone - but it is a lot more fun.

For more variations see my review @


Scrabble by Mattel

The ultimate in spelling fun, this also teaches vocabulary, especially if played with a dictionary, and quite a lot of maths adding up scores, especially with triple or double and letter scores. This is an all time family favourite and one every home educating family should have.
Players 2 - 4
Reading Required? Yes
Entertainment Value  *****+   Educational Value *****

Fish N Spell Game
What's In The Box?
  • cloth pond
  • wooden fishing poles with magnets.
  • 80 magnetic fish with letters.
  • cards which have common words in four languages. You can choose to spell them in English, French Italian or Spanish.
  • two cards with eight fish shapes to spell your words on.
The idea of the game is to turn all the fish upside down and see who can find the all the letters to the given word first. It is meant  for only two players, but more can play by sharing the fishing rods and having the older players play without the card. The card is just a bit of paper anyway. I do wish it had been magnetic as it would have kept the letters together better. You are not meant to take turns which can make this  mad race, but we do take turns.

We also often use our own cards, either Kipper's Word Games cards from ORT, or home made cards using words from my son's phonics books. With my oldest we have played using a spelling list as well - so he doesn't get a card to guide him them.

There are a few flaws with this game. The fish stick together easily, the card for making your words is a bit flimsy, and the words on the cards are all easy in English. I don't really feel you can learn a foreign language with this as you wouldn't know the pronunciation, but it would be handy if you were already studying one of the three extra languages. But this still earns five stars because it is so flexible.  You can leave the fish right side up for younger players and use this to teach alphabet recognition  as well as simple spellings. By adding your own cards, you can focus on any subject you wish. You can even try spelling dinosaur names  or latin names of plants - there are enough tiles for most words.

Highly recommended for ages  3 - 10 but be aware that this does contain magnets. These are very weak, but the game is still not recommended for under 3's.

Hangman by Milton Bradley:

This is played very much like the original paper and pencil game. Each player chooses a word and places the letters in a rack at the front of their case. Players take it turns to guess a letter. If it is correct - the letter is placed facing out in the appropriate position in the rack at the top of their case, making this visible to person guessing, If it is incorrect their opponent turns the wheel one click revealing a part of a gallows - or the gallows with part of a body swinging from the hangman's noose ( although the noose itself isn't shown. When a whole body is displayed that player has lost - or in our house died - complete with gasping and choking with hands clutched to throat before collapsing in a very melodramatic death.

As an alternate you can place all the tiles on top of the case to begin with facing the person who has made that word. As their opponent guesses letters correctly - these are turned over, but my son did find it difficult to spell his words in reverse when he was younger.

Traditionally, each player should just make up their own words and must be able to spell any word they will be using. This is the way we play now as my oldest is 8 and can spell a reasonable number of words. When my son was very young ( ages 5 -6) I often gave him a book we were reading at the time and we would each choose a word from the book. This makes this game easy and fun for very young players. I feel this also helped my son learn to read and spell the words he was using in his every day school work as well. As he has grown older we tried using spelling lists for awhile, and it does help him to learn the words, but it also made guessing the words quite easy. Now we just choose whatever words we like - although as an adult I do refrain from using words I know he will not be familiar with - where if I were playing with another adult I would choose the most obscure words possible.

The biggest drawback to the plastic version of the game is that your are limited to only 8 letters. This leaves many dinosaur names out of the game. I also find the cases very hard to open, but my son can open them easily enough so I suspect that is just me. There are plenty of tiles and we have never come across a word that needed more of any letter than we have.

Stop back soon I hope to be adding more games daily.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Children's books that build character - chapter books - including dyslexia friendly titles.

I am including regular chapter books along with the smaller dyslexia friendly books published by Barrington Stoke. I have honestly been blown away by the quality of the writing and the number of books with very strong moral values published by Barrington Stoke. In addition to brilliant stories and strong values - Barrington Stoke is hands down the very best publisher for dyslexia friendly books. All the books are printed on thick cream coloured paper, in a specially designed font to make reading easier, with double spacing and frequent paragraph breaks. My own child does not suffer from dyslexia - but these books make reading easier for any young child.

Football Crazy by Tony Bradman and Michael Broad - dyslexia friendly. ****** +
This is a real gem for parents as well as for children. It should be required reading for anyone involved in youth sports. Tis book teaches children the real meaning of sportsmanship - as well as making clear that adults are not always in the right. This book features a group of football loving boys and a coach who will do anything to win - even cheat. Please se my complete review on The Bookbag - and excellent resource for new book reviews, with a good dyslexia friendly section as well.

Ninja: First Mission (Ninja Trilogy) by Chris Bradford and Sonia Leong - Dyslexia Friendly *****+
A unique blend of action and adventure with peace and tranquillity. This book has a lot in common with Zen Koans. It teaches a child to persevere and to make defeats into victories.

Cherry Green Story Queen by Annie Dalton and Charlie Adler - dyslexia friendly *****+
At first glance I would have expected this book to be a terribly shallow. Talk about a lesson in not judging a book by it's cover, this turned out to be one of the best books with a moral I have ever read. The story is deep, moving and unforgettable. It reminded me very much of the parable of the long spoons.

 Hagurosan by Darren Shan - dyslexia friendly ****
A very deep moving story for the more philosophical child. The story begins with a young child, living in a small village at the foot of a holy mountain. When he is told to take a small cake as an offering to the spirits of the shrine, he is disappointed as he would rather play with his friends, but he does as he is told. It is a long walk though and he soon grows hungry. Surely the gods will not mind if he has just a tiny nibble at the cake? But one nibble leads to another and by the time Hagurosan arrives at the shrine, he has eaten the whole cake. All children make mistakes, but what Hagurosan has done is a terrible offense in the culture he lives in. He isn't a bad child and confesses his crime to the spirits with great sorrow and fear. The spirits are not totally unkind. They take a liking to this child offering him one wish which he makes very unselfishly - but there are strings attached. He can stay with the spirits as they desire, making his home in the temple, or he can leave but his wish will not be fulfilled. It is a heavy burden for so young a child.

Varjak Paw - S.F. Said *****+
I would never have considered this book in a million years if not for the recommendation of a friend. A karate kitty just sounds a bit lame in my opinion, but this book is so much more, exploring the true meaning of karate as a way of life. This book deals wit prejudice, class, gangs and violence, but most of all it is a story of hope and redemption. Please see my complete review @
I would strongly suggest the review on dooyoo by Koshka as well.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Children's books that teach values.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Michael Morpugo
A truly epic tale of courage and honour.

Noguchi the Samurai
Wits are the greatest weapon of all and this is one of my very favourite children's books ever written.
Please see my complete review:

The Empty Pot by Demi
Another of my  favourite books. Teaches honesty, courage, and giving your best effort. A beautiful story in which the emperor decides his successor by giving all the children a seed and seeing who can grow the most beautiful flower. Ping has always been a talented gardener, but his seed never grows. In all humility he presents the emperor with an empty pot, but there is a twist to this story and a wonderful moral.

Little Monkey's Journey: Retold in English and Chinese by Li Jan
Respect for parents, kindness, courage.

The Water Dragon A Chinese Legend - Jian Li
"Self discovery, kindness, helping others"

Jin Jin The Dragon - Grace Chang
"Self discovery, kindness, helping others"

Jin Jin and Rain Wizard by Grace Chang
How to right a wrong, courage, forgiveness,  and not being wasteful

Leo the Late Bloomer - Robert Kraus
Believing in yourself, giving everyone time to blossom/

Tree of Cranes by Allen Say
Obedience and respect for parents, a mother's love.

The Koi Who Cried Wolf by Katina Lawdis
A beautifully illustrated and unique retelling of the famous tale. If you don't chose this though, do tell some version of this story.

The Snow Dragon by Vivian French
Courage, self sacrifice, love

The Muffin Muncher by Stephen Cosgrove
Helping others allows others to help you

Trafalgar True (Serendipity) by Stephen Cosgrove

Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth
Zen Koans in an easy to understand format for children. We especially loved a story of Good Luck or bad luck - showing how what looks like a bad luck may work out for the best - or vise versa.

The Emperor's New Clothes
There are several versions of this. You can choose any, read an online story or simply tell it from memory. But every child needs to hear this. This teaches the most critical skill - question everything.

My Bedtime Anytime Story Book by V. Gilbert Beers

This one  was written by a prolific Christian author, and is wonderful for teaching Christian ethics to very young children, but does not specifically mention religion. It has wonderful lessons in life for friendship, honesty, forgiveness and more relevant to all children. It has lovely animal cartoon characters and is a wonderful collection of stories which are both fun and educational.

The Usborne Illustrated Tales of the Knights of King Arthur
These stories form the backbone of chivalry, honest and courage in a young reader. I will never forget my oldest son listening to these at age 4. Not long afterwards he saw some bullies tormenting a little girl. The bullies were twice his size, but he marched up to them , demanded the wee girls tea set be handed over to him, then  returned it to the crying girl, comforted her, and helped her gather her things.

The Usborne Illustrated Norse Myths. 
Another good one for courage and honour, as well as loyalty, and perhaps thinking things through carefully.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
This one needs no introduction. It should be on every families bookshelf. True some stories are silly and not relevant today, but many others contain the body very oldest wisdom of our people.  The stories teach both morality and common sense and connect children to a small portion of their heritage.

A moral education

 As a home educator, I'm always asking myself - have I covered every subject thoroughly? Have I left anything essential out? But one topic that I think many educators, both schools and homes forget about now is morals. How do I raise an ethical child? How do I teach my children values, ethics and morals? Of course example is probably the most important - and kids can really call you out if your actions fail to match with your words in this. Taking time to explain and discuss issues is also crucial, there are many teaching moments throughout each day, and home education means we are there for most of them. But another wonderful, time honoured, way to teach morals and values is through stories.

This is one of my favourite quotes
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

“One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret,...
greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

I believe children are born basically good. But like all of us they must overcome  selfish urges and grow into good adults. As parents we need to help them feed the good Wolf.

My next post will be some of our favourite books to nourish the good within a child -  or adult.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

One of the best home ed items we have bought this year!

Toys of Wood Oxford Multifunctional Advanced Beads Puzzle & Threading Board

Most people buy back to school clothes, gym kits and stationary. We buy back to school toys. Of course do a lot more than just play, but play is an important part of our curriculum. I believe children retain what they learn better when they are having fun, but something like allows children to use several styles of learning. The manufacturer claims this is suitable for ages 3 -10. I originally scoffed at this idea, feeling 10 would be far too old for this toy, but seeing how much my 8 1/2 year old enjoys it, I've changed my mind.


Wooden tray with a peg board lid. There are two grooves cut into the inside of the tray which can be used to hold the pegboard upright like an easel if desired.
360 wooden mushroom shaped pegs , various colours, small medium and large tops. the bottom of the peg is just under 1/2 centimetre in diameter. The pegs are nearly 1 centimetre tall. The height is the same for all of them , it is just the width of the mushroom part.
6 coloured laces.
5 wooden shapes for threading: cow, teddy bear, butterfly, fish
And instruction booklet showing several designs to make.


This toy is made in China. The Amazon ad states that it does conform to EC toy safety rules has a ISO 9002 Certificate and conforms to EN71. this doesn't mean much to me so I looked it up. EC toy safety is obvious, but the ISO 9002 certificate is a British standards certificate but now obsolete. EN71 refers to "European and International toy safety standards EN71"*

The overall quality of the toy can only be described as exceptional. The wood has a lovely smooth surface and the lid fits on top perfectly. The lacing figures are simple, they are all one colour, but also have a nice texture and appear very well made. I do suffer from tremors at times in my hands, and unfortunately this box really went flying shortly after purchase. I was delighted that it came out unscathed. The paint is thick and robust and appears unlikely to chip and thank goodness the whole box was put together well enough o withstand some impact, although obviously this is not recommended. My favourite part however, is the pegs. We do have plastic pegs as well, but these are so much nicer. I just the love the feel of real wood and so do the boys.

The instruction booklet is written in both Chines and English , and I'm afraid the translation is not very good. In one instance it reads "Don't keep the toy in the mouth to prevent children devour small parts of the toy". The English is not perfect, or even good, but it does get the point across, and in all honesty it is common sense anyway, You really shouldn't need an instruction book to advise you not to throw this toy at each other or to allow small children to eat the little pieces. The "Warning choking hazard - Small Parts. Not for children under 3 years" is clearly stamps as are a few other references to 3+. The majority of the instructions are illustrations so no text is needed but what I really like about the booklet is that it has the English word under most pictures accompanied by the Chinese symbol. I really like this as my children have had some interest in Chinese writing and I think it is wonderful for them to be exposed to this little taste of another culture.


I could write a book on what you can do with this toy. It is great fun simply to make pictures and allow for artistic expression. It is also wonderful to make geometric shapes and explore patterns. You can have fun creating half of a picture and allowing a child to create the other half. You can make pictures only from pegs, or by lacing the wooden shapes onto the board. Or you can use this as a threading board with strings alone, crisscrossing them back and forth to make designs or stitching out letters. The wooden shapes can also be used for tracing, or you can just stitch the threads in and out of the holes. You can play X's and o's with this , or even a simplified version of Go one of Albert Einstein's favourite games.


Fine motor skills: The small mushroom pegs are perfect for encouraging children to develop a pincer grip. The threading and lacing activities help children develop the ability to use the hands asymmetric bilateral integration or the ability to use both hands at once in a different task. Both lacing and using the pegs improves hand / eye coordination.

Literacy: The ability to recognise patterns is a key skill required in emergent literacy. You can start with something as simple as a two colour pattern and allow the child to guess which colour comes next. If your child makes a picture, you can use pegs to spell out the word underneath. The main reason I bought this though is letter recognition. First I make the letter with pegs, then encourage my child to feel the shape of the letter. As he does I say the letter name and sound, and we think of words which begin with it. Next he makes the letter himself. He ends up using all of his senses in this activity, sight, touch, sound and even critical thought as he thinks about where to place the next peg.

Maths: You can discuss small, medium and large as you pick out mushroom pegs. The manufacturer suggests doing simple sums on this, but we didn't find that very interesting. But a child can learn multiplication easily using blocks of pegs. An example would be to find the total for three rows of eight. This is excellent for discovering factors as well as a child discovers how many different patterns he or she can make with a set number of pegs. You can practice simple division with remainder as well, or use pegs to represent number values such as blue for ones, red for tens etc... - or you could just use the pegs to count.

Geometry: This does not make a perfect circle, but it is nice for more angular shapes, and allows children to learn the shapes through touch just as we did with the letters. You can also show how some shapes can combine to make others. You can make wonderful geometric patterns as well.

Multicultural: Try making some of the Chinese characters along with the picture. You might also read a book about Chinese writing. I would recommend Jin Jin The Dragon by Grace Chang and The Pet Dragon by Christoph Niemann.

Art and colour recognition are fairly obvious so I won't go into these.


I only have two problems with this set. First I wish you would buy more pegs as with only 360 pegs and 550 holes you can not fill the whole board. The second issue is that while the lid fits perfectly, it does not attach, so this can spill easily, and believe me, you do not want 360 pegs rolling about the floor. To solve this, either make sure the pegs are kept in the plastic baggies, or get a pencil case to keep them as I did. A soft pencil cases fits easily in this, along with all the other bits, and I even had room for an extra set of wooden shapes which I bought separately. There are two notches at the top and bottom of this set. I place a rubber band over the whole box, fitting into the notches to hold everything together and it works perfectly.


This set sells for £13.99 new and delivered from Amazon, fulfilled by Toys of Wood Oxford.

As mentioned, you can not buy additional wooden pegs for this set. However, you can buy plastic ones. They aren't as nice, but they are fairly cheap. Amazon charges £18.49 for five plastic pegboards and 1,000 pegs but I bought the 1,000 pegs alone for roughly £5 on ebay. I have also added a beautiful set of wooden lacing seaside animals from ELC, and as luck would have it, they even fir in the box. Finally I bought of Miniland plastic letters for sewing. These letters can be stitched directly onto the board with the threads, as can the ELC animals. The possibilities are absolutely endless as Amazon has quite a few lacing and threading toys that could easily be added to this.


My sons are ages 5 and 8. Both really enjoy this toy, and I have to admit, I do as well. There are just so many things you can do with this. I think we could have this for years and still find new and different uses for it. Because this toy does have such massive amount of different uses, it never grows boring, you can always find a new game or activity. I love this because it keeps learning fun and really is helping my son with pre reading skills and fine motor coordination. My sons love it simply because it is fun. If dooyoo allowed 1/2 star ratings, I would drop this to 4 1/2 stars because you can not buy replacement parts. We are very careful with small parts, but if you can't be sure these will always be put away properly, this mightn't be a good choice as you will not be able to replace them. I can't bring myself to drop this to 4 stars though as the boys both love it, it has had hours of play already, and it is educational as well.

# How to play a children's version of Go or Goe:
Go is an ancient Chinese games, dating back at least 2,500 years. It is meant to be played on black line, but in this case, we can play it with holes. The idea is simple. Each player gets a colour. You take turns placing pegs. The idea is to surround your opponents pegs. Whenever a group of pegs is surrounded by another colour, with no open space in which to move, they are captured and must be removed. This is actually a highly complicated game using maths and logic, and we do not attempt the correct scoring. For a children's game, we simply count up the number of pegs on the board after a set time and whoever has the most wins. If you wish to play the game in it's true form, you Google "How to Play Go"


This review also appears on dooyoo

The Board (games) of Education

The children will be going back to school soon, and many parents at this time of year are thinking of ways to boost their child's academic achievement. If your child attends school, you may be looking for ways to help the child excel in class, or is some cases simply to catch up. If you are a home educator, you are most likely planning out an entire curriculum. But regardless of whether your child attends school or not - almost all children are home educated to some extent. Most of do try to engage in educational activities at home. Board games are often overlooked, but their value can be immense. For the life of me, I can not find the original study I am about to quote, but it did state that the three most important things a parent could do to help their child academically were:
1 - read to them.
2 - take them places, everything from museums to parks.
3 - play board games.

Now the first two originally came as no surprise to me, but over the years I have come to see more and more how board games can help a child academically. This book focuses on how board games can help a child develop key skills which may translate to academic success, as well as just basic skills required for life. Obviously, I did not need any convincing, I've been using board games more and more on our home education journey - to the point that next year Fridays will be devoid of all pencil work. We will only have board games, science toys, arts and crafts or days out. I bought this book, not to discover if board games could be a part of our curriculum, but in the hopes of finding new and better ways to use them.

The author, Jeffrey P. Hinebaugh is an American attorney and partner in a law firm. He has also taught economics, and is the father of two home schooled children. Because he is American, this book will have American names of games, and some of the games may be less common over here, but in most cases he does mention British Equivalents. I would note that he also seems to be referring to older variants of some of the games, so that The Game of Life he refers to in the book looks nothing like the edition currently available on Amazon. While some of these games may be less common in the UK, I did engage in a quick search on Amazon and ebay and found all of them were available, although some were a bit on the expensive side. Sadly, none of the Orchard Toys board games are listed though, and I believe this is because these are primarily British games, nor were any games created especially for educational purposes, and there are quite a few excellent ones out there.

The book begins with the simplest games Candyland and Chutes and Ladders - which for us means "Snakes and Ladders". At this stage children are learning very basic skills, such as colours and how to count. the author also points out that these teach very important life skills, like how to lose, and that bad things happen - like landing on a snake just when you are ready to reach the end. The Chutes and Ladders section was one of the best in the book and offers all sorts of variation on the game to make it more challenging for older students, as well as teaching new skills. I have got a few ideas from this, and I have in fact just ordered a Snakes and Ladders Game, but I also had a been reading up on other board games and realised I could make my own version of some very expensive maths games with a snakes and ladders set and some markers. Still the simple idea of added polyhedron dice to the game and a maths dice with +, -, x, and / make this a brilliant way to drill basic facts without work books or flash cards. I also liked the idea of using this game to introduce the concept of negative numbers.

Scrabble and boggle are of course brilliant games to improve reading and spelling. Scrabble also teaches maths skills as we use both addition and simple multiplication to calculate scores. The author gives a few variations, but most of these were ones I was already familiar with. Still, I found it a useful section and it does really make think just how beneficial these games are.

I was less impressed with " I Will Buy It!", the section on Monopoly, Payday and The Game of Life. I'll admit these games do all teach maths skills , especially if you have the child serve as banker, but I'm less impressed with their value as means to teach children to invest, budget, and plan for retirement in real life. The payday game does look quite useful for calendar skills, although it looks rather boring to me, so I may consider making my own version with calendar , monthly supplies drop and an expedition theme, if I can get my hands on a few cheap game boards or something similar to reconstruct.

The section on logic and deductive reasoning was brilliant, and this alone made the book worth purchasing in my opinion. This is an area in which the schools are falling short now, and the need for children to be able to think for themselves and come to logical conclusions, or even logical guesses has never been more apparent. The games included are Cluedo, Battleship and Mastermind. I already own the first two, but after reading this, I ordered Mastermind the same day. Much of what Hinebaugh says in this chapter is common sense, but it hadn't really occurred to me before. He does point out exactly how these games encourage children to use logic reason, and form educated guesses.

The section on war games was also brilliant. The include draughts ( checkers), Risk and Stratego. I am now in the process of searching for yet another spare game board to make a game of Risk based on a modern map, and perhaps one of the Europe only. I had never though of using Stratego places on a map of an actual battlefield and adding or subtracting points for things like high ground, narrow passes, marshes etc... This opens up a whole new level of gameplay. It also got me thinking of ways I could change the games , and I have some unusual ideas as well. I've though of our own addition to this as well - disease dice. Disease wiped out entire armies so something as simple as camping your troops in a marsh could put you at risk of fevers etc... If we include a budget and allow the players to buy weapons, medicines food etc... we could make an incredible game. These games are meant to teach strategy and negotiation, but with some alterations they can teach history, science, military tactics and more.

"Out of the Blue" shows how games like Pictionary and Scattergories can increase creativity and drastically improve a child's ability to express themselves. They don't really sound like a I need board game for them for them though, so I can take these ideas without buying the games or add a Pictionary category to one of my own made up board games.

"Einstein Played Board Games" seems a bit of leading title. It does mention that Einstein enjoyed Chess and Go, but doesn't give much detail on these. I had to look Go up myself, but it looks brilliant and is easy enough to play with a chessboard and markers. This chapter really primarily deals with chess, but I can't say that learned much from it. We all know chess has educational benefits, and this gives us some evidence of this in terms of studies and research. There is a significant discussion of Game Theory here, but I'm afraid if I hadn't already studied this in philosophy years ago, I would have been a bit lost. However, this is the only section that I feel any adult would struggle to understand. This section does have a very useful list at the end which lists each game and skills taught.

Overall, I am glad I bought this book. It was expensive. I paid £9.49 for a new copy from Amazon, with used copies being offered at twice the price - something that has never made much sense to me. I did give me some new ideas, and get me started on making up more ideas of my own. I've always been one to add to games, or even make whole new games out of old and unwanted ones. It did help me realise that playing board games really is teaching quite a lot, and so does constitute a fair use of our educational time, and gave me the research to back this should the school board ever call it into question ( which is unlikely as they don't seem to care how we do things as long as we get the desired results).

To be honest though, there really isn't a lot here I couldn't find by combing through home education sites, it just puts everything in one place, and many of the variations were similar to things we already do. Still, I learned enough from this to justify the purchase price in my opinion, and I tend to be very creative in the use of board games already, so I expect most people will get as much from it as I did. I know I am going to sound a bit arrogant here but in all honesty, I do believe if I wrote down my own educational variants for board games though - I would have more ideas than I found in the book. That said, it is always nice to find a few new ones. My one real complaint was that I did grow a bit bored with the authors use of his children as examples. It seems on every game he went into detail on how they lost the pieces, and what they used as substitutes. Some info on what they learned from the game might have been more helpful.

Finally, there is some really fun trivia on the games, and how they evolved. I was fascinated to learn that Snakes and Ladders developed from an ancient Indian board game which illustrated the path to enlightenment. Apparently many of our games originated in India, but there is fun trivia on more modern games as well.

The big question is - should you buy this? If you home educate - I would say yes. If you already home educate with board games, you are sure to find some new ideas, and if not this will certainly encourage you to consider it. If you do not home educate, but are actively looking for ways to help your child get ahead at school, this might also be worth considering. I do believe children would benefit more from books and board games at home than from workbooks, and especially if your child needs help in specific areas, this might be very helpful. If you already have a number of these classic games, this book will certainly be more useful for you. If not, buying enough games to make this book useful may not be practical. As mentioned, I don't own all of them, but I do own more than half - although some are altered. Mariopoly is ever so much more fun than Monopoly Jr and we will be converting Monopoly Skylandopoly next week.

I believe a family game night has many benefits, but we do have to face the facts that not all children will want to play board games when they could play X-box or Nintendo instead. Home educated children are going to leap at the choice of a board game over workbooks. A child who is already tired from a long day travelling to and from school, doing homework and trying to find a bit of time to socialise might really prefer to unwind with a video game before bed instead of a board game. It would certainly be worth discussing with your child before buying the book and games. I'm also afraid too many attempts to make a game more educational may result in the child growing bored. It's one thing to play a game based on maths facts instead of learning those facts from worksheets. It is quite another to be asked to do more sums after a full day at school and pages of homework. Of course other children will be so happy to be spending one on one time with the parents like this that they won't care how educational it is. So whether this book will work for you or not depends very much on your own child's interests. In short - if your child enjoys these types of games, this book may be very helpful. If they don't - there isn't much point.

This review also appears on

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Home Education in Northern Ireland - Meeting with the school board.

 My posts here are usually about books but meeting with the school board seems to be a subject which fills many home educators with dread. I'll have to admit, I was quite frightened myself at first after hearing few horror stories, but I phoned the gentleman in charge up a few months before hand, found him very helpful and actually look forward to their visits now. This is not a post about whether you should or should not with meet with the board. That decision is not mine to make. This post is assuming that you will be meeting with the board, whether willingly or less than willingly. If you live in Northern Ireland I would very strongly recommend that you visit the school board site for this:

If you live elsewhere, I can not stress strongly enough that you must find the legal requirements where you live. Do not rely on hearsay or opinion. Most people mean well, but a mistake here could have serious consequences.  Look up the documents, read themselves and form your own opinion. If in doubt I would ask the board for clarification, and failing this I would seek legal advice.  I will not give any legal advise as to the situation as I not qualified to do so.

My first advice on meeting with the board is to try to do so with an open mind. If you greet people politely and respectfully, most people respond in kind. Even if you have had differences, try to put them aside for this meeting. If you despise the board - do  not say so in front of your child. The last thing you want is a child who is terrified of or antagonistic the visitor. I know many people do have issues with the local boards. I can not comment on anyone else's personal experiences. Sometimes I find it difficult to think it is the same person I know being described, but we all have different circumstances and opinions.  All I can say is that our visits have gone very well. I have found both members I have dealt with to be very helpful, polite and easy to work with. My only complaint would be that they skipped us one year and never came at all, but I do appreciate that there are many families to visit.

Preparing for the visit:

 Keeping a journal: A journal or log is one of the very best ways to show what your child does each day. I do keep one year round, which documents attendance subjects covered and things I need to remember - like to review a difficult subject a month later to make sure it has stuck. If you don't wish to do this all year - I would consider keeping a record for a week or even a single day. This gives the board member an idea of what you do. My youngest is just staring school this September and the oldest

The following  are two examples from our journal:

Friday, 26 April
New Ants arrived - set up ant farm.
Planted Sunflowers ( which the slugs ate)
Searched online for a new book reading book descriptions and sample pages. Chose Can Science Solve - Black Holes.
Guitar practice
Researched ants online
Kumon Multipication
Logic Puzzles
Wrote report on Ants
Read Gawain and the Green Knight
Read Astrosaurs

Tuesday 25, May
Collins Mental Maths
Had problems with square centimetres. Used rulers and tape measure to measure various objects. Looked online for items sold by square meter. Took breaks on trampoline to deal with frustration and came back to problem.
Anton and the Piranha - helped write review for book
Nearly Dearly Insincerely Adverbs. Played game using adverbs ( many rude).
Helping to teach brother alphabet, creative movement making alphabet shapes with bodies.

As you can see the last day is a bit short, but we all have bad days - some might choose not document, but this is in red ink so I know to review it later. I've never claimed we were perfect. The parts in (  ) aren't in the actual journal.

 At one point I tried to keep a list of books used. I soon realised I'd need another book just for this. As we have our visits in the home, I leave out a few books we are using at the time, but thy can see all the bookshelves if they wish. If meeting away from home I would bring a list of the some of the most frequently used items though. Mine might look something like this:
Project X Code series
Astrosaurs series
Kumon, Collins and Letts workbooks
Klutz books
Collection of science kits toys and equipment
Maths manipulative including pattern blocks, fraction cubes and Cuisenaire rods
Educational board, card and computer games.
Horrible Histories books magazines and videos
Vast collection of books on many subjects including from science, history, folk tales, geography, literature and books that are just fun to read.

Provide samples:
 My son used a simple spiral notebook this year with maths questions written in,  book reports, written work from school books etc... this provided a quick means to show all subjects but in  one place but other years I just used a folder. A blog page like this is also an excellent way to show case writing skills. This is my son's blog  . We haven't put up many posts yet, but as he is now age 8 this should be growing soon.We also kept workbooks etc to show if needed and had this available at the time of the visit.

I also would be certain to mention outside activities. My sons take karate lessons, attend Boys Brigade, Sunday School and the oldest goes to youth club. This does provide some evidence of socialisation, but it also lets the board know the child is seen regularly - which has become an issue after the child being starved to death in England with no one noticing because she was listed as home education ( but to be fair it has just happened again - the school noticed and phoned the doctor but no one phones child protective services! The boy actually died from abuse but was near death from starvation as well). In addition to this though, it also shows a well rounded education. my sons learn religion in BB and Sunday School and karate is both a physical fitness activity and an art form.

I  also have a book ready for the child to read each time and a project they have worked on. I had photos of trips and days out, and a list of online programmes used. This could all be combined - except for the book into a simple portfolio.

Prepare an ice breaker:
 The board member will want to speak to your child if possible. Children can  talk a mile a minute if they want too, but can easily clam up when you want them to talk. I made sure my son had a certain book I knew he gets so excited about he would be certain to break into a conversation about it as the book for him to read out loud. I also know with his interest in the science behind it he would be able to carry on a fairly intelligent conversation regarding the subject. I also had his ant farm and  bio dome out, and always have some project the child will discuss. Once he gets started talking he is fine.

My child still won't talk:
 If you think your child is going to be too uncomfortable to read out loud, or simply will not talk to strangers - why not prepare a short video of him or her reading a favourite book - discussing why they like home education  or conducting a science project. If your child will not be meeting with the visitor, this will be even more helpful.

Prepare yourself:
If this is your first visit, I would expect to be asked why you home educate. Think about this before hand and be prepared to give some explanation as to your reasons for home education, your long terms goals in this regard, and what methods you use. If you plan to go against standard practice - be prepared to explain why. I refused to push reading before my child had reached reading readiness, and had all the research to back my decision if needed. It wasn't needed though as the gentleman agreed with me.

In all honesty, one of my reasons for home education is my belief that the local school is substandard. It certainly isn't my only reason - but I would truly hate to send my child there. There really isn't any point in spending a half an hour bashing the schools or boards though. I have simply said I feel that the local school does have an issue with literacy and that this is too important to me to leave to chance. If your child has had a bad experience, it is fair enough to mention it - but I would suggest sticking to the facts and covering it as quickly as possible without name calling or casting too much blame on any individual. But I also feel you should be able to mention some positive reasons for home education rather than just saying it because the local school is rubbish.

Common Sense:
The school board isn't really there to inspect your home and it should be safe for children anyway. There should be no obvious health and safety hazards. But rather obviously, some effort should be made at creating good impression. The child's study area at least should be reasonably tidy. If this is just the kitchen table - you won't want it covered in ash and overfull ashtrays. The children should be up, dressed and reasonably clean and presentable. I'll admit I've let them stay in nice footed PJ's all day on cold and miserable days in the winter - but not when the board is visiting.  I would put pets such as dogs outdoors or in another room and if you have frequent visitors ask them to avoid calling at that time.

I wouldn't worry about things like a crying baby, a toddler who has just dumped the toy box etc.. these are normal and to be expected. On one occasion a child had recently wrecked the border in the living room and it looked quite tatty. I wasn't happy about it, but it wasn't mentioned, nor was the chipped paint in the study room. This is not an issue for the quality of education. We are not expected to live in a mansion. The paint in my hall is always chipped from bicycles being kept there. That is just the way it is.

Ask questions:
If you have any concerns about the visit, just ask. The lady who visits us now is a qualified teacher as well, so I see this as an opportunity to get a second opinion on anything that might be troubling me. I do not think they expect us to be perfect so asking if a child is on track for a certain subject is not going to do any harm, and they may have some excellent advise to help if there is an issue. The gentleman from the board who came on our first visit recommended we try some pencil grips and they worked wonders. On the last visit, the lady who came out simply reassured us that my youngest sons switching from hand to hand for writing and colouring is still normal, and advised us to ignore it at this time and let him work out for himself which hand to use. If they do express concerns in a certain area - I would ask what I could do to improve this.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Insect related educational toys and unit study ideas


This is really just a simple net structure with a coupon to order live caterpillars - which will cost an extra £2.95, but it is fun and it allows children to witness metamorphosis first hand. We currently have 4 cocoons. We used a live plant inside this as well as the supplied foods and the caterpillars really seemed to enjoy it.


My son is fascinated with tunnels for some reason. At one point he asked for a hamster. I asked him if he really wanted a hamster - and all the work that entails or he just liked the cages with connecting tunnels. Turns out it was the tunnels. So when I saw this, I knew he would like it - and ants should be a lot more low maintenance than a hamster. The worker ant only lives about 5 months, so unless by some chance a female worker breeds ( very are and since I don't think we have a male even less likely), or we find a pupa which hatches into a queen, or perhaps buy one, the colony will die out in the fall. This might be just as well as I don't know if the cold above ground would kill them even though they are indoors.


2 red tinted pods
2 clear pods
a length of red tubing which is meant to be cut into 4 bits
6 legs - or support pieces
1 clear canister, very much like the old film containers which is called an ant catcher
1 red food canister
cotton wool
12 O rings
2 plugs
tweezers ( although I'm not sure why, you'd crush and ant if you picked it up with these)
A pippette for dripping water through the ventilation holes, or directly into the pod for planted pods.


Ants - you can catch your own or order online either from Interplay, the company that makes this set, or another source like. Interplay charges £5.95 including postage for 45- 50 ants. This group will not include a queen, nor does it appear to contain larvae or pupa. Interplay only sells the harmless, common black ant. Alternatively you can choose from a wide range of packages from the Queen Ant Shop, many of which contain queens, eggs etc with prices starting at £4.99 and free shipping. This business not only does the common ant, they have a few imported varieties, the native but more unusual yellow ant, and if you are not quite right in the head a few varieties of red stinging ants. I can't quite imagine putting these deliberately in my house, and the business makes very clear they are not suitable for children. I did to write to the fellow, who is very knowledgeable and happy to offer advice. I don't think he would even sell you the red ants if he knew they were for children, advising the common black as the most active, or the yellow if you want something a bit different.


The basic model is pretty quick and easy to build. I would estimate less than ten minutes, with the child doing most of the construction. Because we had bought 3 sets, construction was more complicated. My son had envisioned recreating an 8 pod set which was pictured on the back of our first set. However even with 3 sets, we did not have enough legs. If we had been able to build this - it would have taken a very large area to set up as well as each base is nearly 12" across. We ended up building a smaller set with two bases and 9 pods. This later had to be downsized when I accidentally snapped a leg, leaving us with 8 pods.

We built this without paying much attention to the instructions. The bottom half of each pod is meant to be all open , while the top part is divided into 3. Our way didn't work and meant switching everything around - after we put the ants in. You need to do it the right way because the ventilation and water holes on the top. Word to the wise : read the instructions.

The instructions are well written and contain a lot of additional information about the life cycle of ants and general ant care. There are even a couple of recipes if you want to start cooking for you ants. There is also a picture of a real ant colony, showing how this is modelled after their natural habitat.


Both of my boys love this. they love the tubes and the general set up. Having extra pieces makes this even more fun, but a single four pod set is would have been adequate. having extra pods means we can try different things though. We have two pods with creeping plants growing in them,  Creeping Julie I believe and cress. The other pods have mixtures of material. Foolishly I put cotton wool in one ( it was meant to soak in liquid for drinking) but the ants love it. Others have soil, sand, grass cuttings and a fiber substrate intended for reptiles and invertebrates. The ants seem to prefer the dryer soil and sand. The ones with plants are kept wetter.

This set is well sealed and you are unlikely to have escapes - unless some idiot leaves a tube disconnected or a plug off. This has happened once when we were rearranging the pods. The idiot shall remain nameless, to protect the guilty. Thankfully, it was when this was first set up and we don't seem to have lost many - if any - and the children didn't mind too much. It meant my oldest had to collect more ants, but he really enjoyed his father getting upset about it, so I'm sure it was worth it. Especially as it has future wind up value. I'm currently looking for plastic ants to decorate his food with or put on his face when he is sleeping. Needless to say this would be more of an issue if we were to have ordered one of those really nasty stinging varieties. You do have to be very careful that the pod seals perfectly when assembled though. This should be no problem with sand or soil, but if you have plants, a small stem sticking out can create a gap - which might result in escapes.


So far our problems have been minor. I did snap one leg, but that was my fault. The overall construction is very good. We did have some problems with the food conatainers and ants becoming stuck in these. I phoned the company and they are sending out a new food container, so I would advise you to observe the food jars closely and if ants get stuck, dump them back into the pods and phone Interplay. I considered rating down on this, but customer service was so brilliant, I decided to keep the 5 star rating. You are advised to place all food in the feeding container so you can throw out anything that is not used. Apparently the ants will keep their own area tidy, if need be using an extra pod as a rubbish dump. I certainly hope so as I can't imagine any way of cleaning this once it is set up. The other issue is ants do not live forever. I am looking into buying a queen, but I don't know if one can be added or the temperature requirements. Worst case scenario, the ants will die off ant this will need to be put away in winter, but one can always collect new ants in the spring, and I do feel that children can understand that an ant is not meant to live for years. Also an ant farm is basically a group of anonymous creatures, it isn't like the children will form a special bond with one.


This can also be connected to Interplay's Ant World, a more traditionally shaped ant farm, and you can interconnect as many Antosphere pods as you like. this can also connect to Interplay's worm farm or Eco Dome. Interplay also has some really brilliant looking sets like Antlantis, Fantasy Island, and the Mayan Ant Invasion, which I would love to have, but they do not seem to be available in the UK. I did find one ebay seller willing to ship here, but at a price of nearly £70 it was well out my range.


I think this is an excellent toy. Even at full price, I feel it does represent value for money. It is educational and fun, and has encouraged my sons to want to learn a great deal more about ants. It really is a nice looking set up, and I love that we can create different types of environments in each pod, giving the ants a more realistic environment, as the clear balls with plants would more closely resemble what they are used to above ground, while the red pods create a more natural underground habitat for them. I feel that it much more fun watching them scamper about the different the levels than a single rectangle like most ant farms use. Of course the rectangular ant farm might be a fun add on at some point. I also think it is more educational as the children can experiment with different types of environments and see which the ants prefer. If we are able to add aphids to a planted pod this will add a whole new dimension to the set up. The children can also experiment to find out which foods the ants like best, what times of day they are most active in, etc...

Obviously this toy is not suited for every child. A wee neighbour girl approached my son to see what he had in the collection jar and ran away screaming. This obviously would not be a good gift for a child phobic of insects. The manufacturer advises that this set not be used by a child with a known allergy to insect stings or bites, or by a child under 36 months, which I feel is rather obvious. But if your child likes creepy crawlies this really is a very interesting toy. It is set up in a large window sill between my computer and the children's and I have to admit, I often find myself observing the ants as well.
Full review @ dooyoo


The Bug Barn:
This is 8" long and 4 1/2 " high if you do not count the handle. It is made of plastic with a fine steel mesh screen material which ensures plenty of ventilation, but is not quite as good for viewing as plastic. There is a sturdy handle and two screen doors which slide open easily and close securely. The very fine screen mesh should prevent any unwanted escapes - but perhaps not all wanted escapes - more under our experiences. This is my four year olds favourite part of the set as it allows him to bring to creepy crawlies

Magnifying Glass:
This surprisingly good, we have had many magnifying glasses in science kits and I really did not expect much based on previous experience. This has a very sturdy handle a quite good magnification + there is a small circle with higher magnification. The total length is 9 1/4" with the glass itself being 4 " across. I would expect to pay £5 - £6 for this on it's own, so I was well pleased to have this included. It is plastic, and I find the glass magnifying glasses to be the best, but one hardly expects glass in a toy for small children to run about with.

The Catch Net:
You won't be catching butterflies easily with this one. The net portion is only 5"x 4" but it is reasonably sturdy and is fun for trying to catch flying insects. or perhaps some pond or tide pool dipping. The small size of this net is perfect for transferring creatures to the bug barn if you wish though as it fits over the door perfectly. Despite being small this is my oldest son's favourite part of the set.

Not really much use in my opinion. I think it would be all too easy to accidentally injure a bug trying to lift it with these. You can however grasp an unfortunate fly with these to lower into the waiting trap of a Venus flytrap.

These are window stickers that peel on and off easily and very nice, but sadly depict American insects

We call this the bug jar. This is 2 1/2" high and 2 1/4" wide. The lens has a built in magnifying glass but this is not exceptionally strong. The lid is also vented, but this is definitely a catch and release jar, or something to catch an insect and transfer it to the bug barn. You would not want to keep any bug in this for long.

These are very basic but then it is self explanatory anyway. Unlike most of these sets, this does not include a booklet of common insects to find, but as these always seem to be for American insects, I'm not bothered by this. I have bought a number of British bug identification books so while a sheet with common creepy crawlies would be nice, we don't really need one. It has a warning that you should not stare at the sun through the magnifying glass, but I would think that is obvious.

Our experiences:
My sons absolutely love this. They have had hours of fun searching for insects, which they bring in and identify, looking up facts about them in the books and occasionally keeping them for awhile to observe. they are learning to classify insects, take field notes and record experiences all of which I feel is useful for educational purposes, but more than that, they are really enjoying themselves outdoors in the fresh and air and sunshine. I also just find something nice about seeing my children enjoy the kinds of activities I enjoyed as a child. I like to see them play with things with out whistles and bells, computer chips and screens. I think every child should have fond memories of bug hunting expeditions.

This toy is listed for ages 6+ but my youngest is 4 and absolutely loves this. Of course a bit of supervision would be wise, and children need to be taught to avoid bees and wasps, but there really aren't many dangerous insects in the UK.

It is possible to burn things with the magnifying glass, and my boys were burning holes in paper earlier. I think it would be quite difficult to actually start a real fire this way, but a bit of supervision is never a bad thing. As long as an adult is keeping an eye out, I can't see any harm being done.

Necessary kit for an insect hunting safari.
This review also appears on dooyoo


Unit study ideas:

 I would also suggest outdoor activities in the springtime - go on a bug safari - record and graph the number of each type of insect found. Use an insect identification book to identify species and chart family, order etc...

For a maths exercise one might look up measurements of many different specials and compare sizes.

Draw out food chains showing how many animals depend on insects.

A dragon book so good it deserves a post of its own.

Please note this review contains spoilers. The whole point or shall I say "hole " point of buying this book is the ending. My meaning will be come clear at the end of this review.

My youngest son loves dragons, so when amazon recommended this for me I couldn't resist. It begins with a very cute little green dragon, playing sword fight, having a snack, brushing his teeth and taking a bath. He then looks up at his mother with a book in his hands and an enchanting look that just must be saying "Please read me this". His mother happily cuddles up to read the story of a fierce red dragon, who never goes to bed, terrorises trolls and eats princesses for dinner.

When the story is finished, with the sweetest of expressions the little dragon softly asks again to read again. Looking a bit tired, his mother obliges, but she changes the story a bit, making it a bit more gentle, and perhaps more conducive of sleep. The little dragon is still very happy, dancing about, but when his mother goes to leave he grabs her tail shouting "Again!". This goes on for several more pages, with the mother dragon looking more and more exhausted and the little dragon wider and wider awake. The mother tries to make the stories more suitable for calming down and going to sleep, but little dragon doesn't like this. He gets angrier and angrier until he turns a bright angry red himself, finally releasing a fireball which puts a hole right through his book, and your book as well. It's a good thing it is nearly the end of the story as the last page and the back cover now a big blackened hole in the middle.

This book is two stories in a way. We do get to hear the complete story of the angry red dragon each time as the mother reads it to the little dragon, while at the same time, there is another story of the little dragon and his mother. The second story is told primarily in pictures and the illustrations tell it perfectly. Other than the first line "It was nearly bedtime." the only word is "again". even a child who can not really read can quickly learn these lines and takes turns voicing little dragon's lines while the parent reads the story like the mother dragon would. As the story progresses Mother looks more and more worn out ( I'm sure we all know the feeling) while little dragon's face changes from angelic to petulant to nearly demonic with rage.

My son still giggles with delight every time we read this. He especially loves when the poor Mother dragon falls asleep and the little dragon jumps up and down on her screaming "again" which he often acts out by jumping on my bed. He also loves the hole in the back of the book and enjoys peeking through it or poking his fingers through. he likes pointing out how the little dragon is getting very angry as his facial expressions change, and little spots of red appear.

As a parent I can certainly relate to poor Mrs Dragon as well. At least my boys are nice enough to tiptoe off to bed, or the youngest may just go to sleep beside me when I have fallen asleep halfway through a story. the look of exasperation on the mother dragon is sure to bring a smile to most parents.

I have hundreds if not thousands of books. I have no intention of counting, but as a single shelf can easily hold 100 picture books, and I have book case after book case filled with books I don't think my estimate is too high. In fact a rumour was flying about that the school board counted the books in your house on home visits. My husband simply said "They may bring plenty of helpers then because they are not staying overnight". I doubt you could count them in one day. Needless to say they have never bothered. With so many books, it takes a lot for book to really stand out as exceptional, but this is one of the very best picture books I own. If you have a child between 9 - months and 7 years - all I can say is "buy it". Even my eight year old was laughing with this one, as was I. This is another book that will never find it's way into the charity shop. When my sons outgrow it, I am keeping it for myself until such time as they have children of their own.

This sells for £7.58 for hardback copy new and delivered from Amazon, or £5.28 from Amazon Marketplace. You can get a paperback for less, but in this case I would recommend paying the extra for a hardback copy as the hole effect is much better. I also feel that this is one of those books that may be read until it is falling apart in a paperback format. I did get my copy for much less as I bought used as new. I love this book so much though that if it were out print and something happened to my copy I could easily see paying £20 or more. As far as I am concerned it is priceless.

* This review has also appeared on dooyoo

Monday, 20 May 2013

More Dragon Books

Jin Jin and the Rain Wizard:
After reading the first Jin Jin, we just had to have the second. This one is as lovely as the first. In this story Jin Jin loses the power to breathe water after throwing rice away. He learns that food should not be wasted, as many people suffer without enough to eat, but he also learns that you can correct a mistake with enough effort. This is another beautiful story that combines Chinese Folklore with a mother's loving stories to her own child, illustrated just a beautifully by her brother. It gives some information on Chinese characters as well, and teaches something of Chinese history and culture, so this is very much a book that educates as it entertains.

 The Pet Dragon;
This book does set out to teach children Chinese characters, but as educational as it is, it is even more entertaining. It tells a lovely story of the friendship between a girl a very tiny red dragon - who doesn't stay tiny for long. Like most Eastern stories, there is some moral to this as well. The girl is kind and helpful to an elderly woman and this kindness is returned.

Tralfagar True: Another Stepehn Cosgrove story with a beautiful and gentle blue and purple dragon who teaches the furry kith and kin the meaning of friendship and the importance of sharing.

 The cover of this book is the first that thing that will draw any reader in, and it is beautiful. The paper is thick and smooth and printed to look like a red leather covering, with a circle in the middle which displays a lovely illustration of a dragon in flight. This circle is surrounded by three glass gemstones and text both in English and the language of the dragons. Encircling this illustration is a stunning red dragon embossed into the cover. This dragon is raised, so that children can run their fingers over it, feeling the dragon, or lay a paper across it and make a rubbing. Best of all though, it is made of a foil type material, which if tilted toward the light right will reflect a flame like glow. Finally we have a Celtic design in another circle like a great seal. The overall impression is magical and well suited to this book.

Inside the book we find several pages telling us all about dragons. The first set mentions other animals once thought to be myths that are now known to be real. There is a scientific explanation of how dragons fly and breathe fire, involving methane gas, a map of the world with locations of dragons, detailed descriptions of various types of dragons, the life cycle of dragons, their natural history and behaviour. After this we receive all sorts of advice for the study of dragons and finally a history of dragonologists and dragon slayers. the entire book is presented in a journal like format, meant to be the records of a dragonologist, Ernest Drake.
 Full review @ dooyoo

Dragonology Pocket Adventures:
Four short choose your own adventures perfect for younger readers. We finished each of these in one night. They are illustrated and teach just a little bit of geography as well.

Dragonology Chronicles
A series of longer chapter books with two children studying as apprentices for dragonologist Dr Drake. Black and white illustrations, easy to read, and lovely stories.

Dragon Stew:
 Dragon stew is about a very polite red dragon, and four very rude Vikings with nothing to do. The Vikings decide that capturing a dragon might be fun, they could tie him up and cart him home and cook up dragon stew.  They know they are in the right place when they find a gigantic pile of dragon poo. The Vikings find the dragon, who politely greets them and asks them if they would like something to eat, but the only thing the nasty Vikings want is a pot of dragon stew.

This is a very short story with a lovely rhyming text and a real pleasure to read aloud. Rhyming text or Nursery rhymes are considered to be a key part in emergent literacy, and believe it or not, this process starts as young as 6 months of age. Reading to your child from a very early age is the very best thing you can do to help them become readers later, but rhyming books are especially important for children who are not yet reading. Rhyming text is also far more difficult to write well, and many books rhyme, but fall short in the story, and just because it rhymes does not mean it will necessarily have a good cadence as well. This has an excellent story for little ones, as well as a wonderful cadence and rhyme.

The illustrations are top notch as well. They are somewhat carton like, but bright and colourful enough to entice even a very young child, and very, very funny. My son usually prefers longer stories now, but I am well pleased that he really enjoys this as well, as at age 4, he is not reading yet. I would highly recommend this, from ages 6 months or even younger ( I read to my children before they were even born). This is a book for sharing with a child though, by the time a child is old enough to read this on their own, I feel they will most likely have outgrown the story. There is nothing in this book that I feel would upset or frighten even the youngest child.

Full review @ dooyoo

Where Did All the Dragons Go:
 ' Where Did all The Dragons Go ' is, as the title suggest about what happened to the dragons long ago. Every part of the world has ancient tales of dragon like beasts, but of course none are alive today, so if you choose to believe they once were real - where have they gone? This book is for every child who asked this question. This book tells of a time long ago, when dragons shared the earth with man. The children loved the dragons and often joined in their games, but the adults could not understand the powerful creatures and feared them. The time came when the dragons knew they must leave to find their own place. they joined into a great flock and flew away, to a place unknown, but perhaps some trace remains. When the clouds grow black as smoke, and the fire of lightning can be seen, you just my hear the dragons roar again. Beautifully illustrated, rhyming text.
Full review @ dooyoo

The Dragon Snatcher:
George's dragon comes home but he needs help. An evil wizard is stealing all the dragons eggs to cast a spell to banish dragons from their home forever. Can George find the last egg in time?

Too Hot to Hug:
Lovely story about a baby dragon whose warmth is lovely at first - but he soon becomes too hot to hug. Beautiful pictures and a happy ending.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Dragon Books for children

These are all books with good dragons - so if you are looking for dragon slaying adventures. I'm sorry, but this is the wrong place. These books are for younger children who love dragons.

The Water Dragon by Jian Li:
This is a truly beautiful book with some of the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen, and a lovely story to match. It is a story of kindness and morality, but does not read as such. To a child this just a wonderful story, but the  it still sets a wonderful example as well. It is a story of a boy who finds a magical dragon stone, but then his village is beset by drought. He sets off on a quest to find the magical water dragon, helping many animals along the way. The story is told both in English and Chinese. One a scale of one to five, this book breaks the scales and easily earns a six.

Jin Jin the Dragon by Grace Chang:
This is another beautiful story based loosely on Chinese folklore. Jin Jin is a beautiful golden creature who hatches from an egg alone. He meets several helpful animals as he travels on is quest to find the wise old turtle and crane so he can find out what he is. He has the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, the antlers of the deer, the body of the serpent etc... But his quest to find out who he is interrupted as he comes across people in desperate need of help? The beauty of this story is that in helping others, he discovers his true nature.

In addition to a beautiful story, the illustration in this book are lovely as well - what child would not love Jin Jin? This book also explains how Chinese characters are formed, as Jin Jin reads the clues to continue his quest, and your child will learn a few of these as well. But this is not a book children will see as educational, although it is, for children this book is simply magic - and I have to confess - I found it magical myself.

Finally the author tells us more about dragons in Chinese culture in a brief note at the end of the book, as well as giving us information on Chinese characters in general, and the ones used in this book in specific.  This is another book I find difficult to limit to 5 stars and am adding a plus to show that even among 5 star rated books, this is a cut above.

The Popcorn Dragon by Jane Thayer
Dexter looks more like a traditional western dragon, but he appears to live on the African savannah, as his friends are an elephant , a giraffe and a zebra. The elephant looks a bit closer to an Indian elephant though, but they are all beautifully drawn. This story is more about friendship than anything else, but it touches on many common childhood themes, loneliness, showing off, and getting along with others.

Dexter is a very young dragon - and has just discovered a new skill - blowing smoke. But he ends up showing off a bit too much and not thinking of others, which leaves him isolated from the other animals. He soon discovers another talent - his hot breath can make corn into popcorn - but this time he learns to think of others as well.

The Muffin Muncher by Stephen Cosgrove
Out of print now and more difficult to find, but this is a lovely story with beautiful illustrations about a dragon who loves to eat muffins and learns that helping others can often make it easier for them to help you as well.

Dragolin by Stephen by Stephen Cosgrove
A beautiful little green dragon who can not breathe fire, at least not at first, and learns to believe in himself.

A  very sweet pink sea serpent with a message about pollution.
**** 1/2

The Egg by M.P. Robertson
When George finds an enormous egg in his mother's chicken coop , he takes it on himself to nurture and care for it. It turns out to be a dragon's egg and George makes a wonderful dragon mother, but eventually the dragon longs to be among it's own kind. A lovely story about love and letting go.

The Snow Dragon by Vivian French
A long time ago, the world was divided into two halves, the northern hemisphere was ice cold and populated by peaceful snow dragons. The southern hemisphere was fiery hot, and home to the fierce fire dragons. Only a small strip in between that was neither too hot nor too cold was home to the two legs (humans). Everyone stayed to their own parts of the world, and so their was peace, until Book tells the ruler of the fire dragons that a two leg will cause their demise. So the fire dragons searched out and destroyed the two legs, leaving only a few survivors hidden in caves. In their quest to destroy the two legs they went further and further north, changing the world to a hot dry desert and forcing the snow dragons to retreat deeper into the snow covered mountains until only one remained.

Now Book enters the picture again, found by an orphan twolegs, Little Tuft. Book shows Little Tuft a picture of the last snow dragon and the quest begins. Sometimes book helps Tuft, and shows him the which path to take, other times he misleads the boy deliberately. Tuft perseveres through all danger until he finds the snow dragon and persuades her to help.
Spoiler Alert - as this book has an ending which may upset some children - I will give away the ending.. The snow dragon gives her life to destroy the fire dragons and bring peace to the world. The twolegs prosper. Then at the end Little Tuft thinks he sees the shape of the snow dragon in the clouds, and you can see her in the illustration. This gives parents the easy out of saying the snow dragon isn't really dead, she has just changed int a cloud dragon and lives in the sky.
 This is a beautiful story and well illustrated, but my sons never took to it as much as the other dragon stories as they really did not like the ending.

Puff, the Magic Dragon (Book & CD)
A beautifully illustrated book of the popular children song, with accompanying musical CD and a happier ending through the final illustrations.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Unusual Alphabet books - including tactile alphabets, dinosaur ABC's and more

These books are all suitable for young children with the possible exception of two under Monster's ABCs. If you want a very scary one for mature audiences you will find one on my other blog : .

I have no idea why so few of these have ever been printed. Most children learn so much better when through many senses. These combine sight, touch and hearing.

Sparkle Books Learn Your ABC
This book consists of 9 pages printed on a heavy 9" x 6" card. Each page has 3 letters, except the last which has two. There is a large capitol for each letter cut out of the card to reveal a shining sparkling letter. There is also a set of smaller letters in capitol and lower case, a word beginning with that letter and a simple drawing to match. There is no text at all other than the single words and the letter pairs. This does have it's own usefulness though as children can easily learn the words for each of these common objects by looking at this book often. All in all this is a very basic ABC book, and the main point of interest would be the sparkling letters, which I have found even very young children seem to enjoy.

There is however one other aspect about this book that makes it worth adding to your child's bookshelf. The cut out letters are ideal for tracing with little fingers, something my own children enjoy doing with this book. This allows the child to learn the letters with three senses, visual, auditory and tactile, as opposed to most ABC books which only use two. While this will be of special benefit to tactile/ kinesthetic learners, I do believe this is helpful for all small children. 

* Also reviewed on dooyoo

Usborne Touchy Feely abc
This is a very traditional alphabet book - a is for apple, be is for b and c is for car.  They are very bright and colourful, and reasonably well drawn, but perhaps best suited to younger children - ages 1 -3. Not every picture has a texture, but most pages do have at least one textured pictured. I rather think it is cheating to use a cut out section with smooth card as a texture through when the entire book is made of smooth card. In addition to the card texture, they have a number of cloth textures. These are not the greatest, but they are OK, and enough to get him to read the book now and then. They most certainly do not compare with the textures in Fiona Watt's That's Not My.... series.

This book  uses lower cases letters only, and would be very useful for those following a Montessori programme, or  otherwise trying to use only lower case letters. The letters themselves were a bit of a dissapointment though. They are all textured, but only with a stamp creating ridges into the paper. There are none that have a cut out insert, and the texture is slightly less noticeable than the stickers I have used for a similar purpose on other books.  For tactile purposes as this is not quite as good as Learn Your ABC (Sparkle Books) - which wasn't even intended to be a tactile book.

In short this book is neither very good nor very bad, it is simply mediocre. I think it would be a very good baby or toddler book, but it still has some use for any child who is learning their alphabet. I do have a lot of complaints with this book, but at the same time,  there are so very few tactile ABC books printed, it is still worth considering.

My dooyoo review:

Montessori Letter Work by Bobby and June George
Lower case letters only - as one would expect from a  Montessori book. these letters are not in alphabetical order - which I feel is a good thing - it means children are learning the letters by sight, not order. Simple traditional ABC book type illustrations. The main reason to buy this book is the large textured letters with arrows showing the correct  way to form the letters. I would note though these are not sandpaper letters. The texture is simply a painted on material and not the most noticeable. Also Montessori purists will be horrified at the suggestion to pronounce each letter with an extended vowel sound such as "duh" for d. We simply skip this part and say the sounds the proper way.

Animal ABC Books

 A is for Animals by David Pelham
26 flaps with a large clear upper and lower case letter. These open up to reveal stunning pop up animal illustrations. Highly recommended.

Animal ABCs (San Diego Zoo Series)
A very fun small fold out book with lovely colour photos. Upper case letters only.

Animalia by Graeme Base
Beautiful hidden pictures animal alphabet. Upper case only.

Dinosaur ABC Books

An Alphabet of Dinosaurs - Peter Dodson
Beautifully illustrated with vivid, colourful paintings showing a great deal of artistic talent. In addition to a full page painting for each letter there is also a very detailed black and white drawing of the animals skeleton. Next to the skeleton is a simple figure of a man to give an idea of the size of this animal.

Each letter also has a long paragraph describing the animal. This is written on a fairly high reading and interest level. For instance, one sentence reads "Erlikosaurus belonged to a group of dinosaurs called the segnosaurs". This is a well written scientific book which is certain to please young paleontology fans, but may not be of as much interest to the average nursery age child - of course you can always subsitute with a simpler more age appropriate description.

 This does not display the letters on their own. The only place a child will really see the letter is at the start of each dinosaurs name. This is written in an artistic and highly stylized manner, which looks lovely, but really is not the best for children just learning to read. I drew large letters into the book myself. Then having seen how helpful stickers were in an alphabet book, I also places foil alphabet stickers for each letter on the page with the text

The Dinosaur Alphabet Book - Jerry Pallotta
Lovely book with clear upper and lower case letters, nice paintings and plenty of facts for each dinosaur.

Dinosaurs Write With Me Alphabet
This is really lovely book, printed on an exceptionally thick card. It features one dinosaur for each letter, with a well drawn illustration and a few brief facts presented in a rhyming text. At the bottom of each page are two lines with the upper case letter shown in black, grey, dotted lines, and finally a blank section so children can read the letters, trace over them with the special pen and then practice their own. The books zips up into into a built in case with room for a pen and small cloth so you can take this out and about as well. Also included with the book is a pen, stickers and a cd rom. Upper and lower case letters are featured, but writing practice is upper case letters only.

Alphasaurs and Other Prehistoresic Types by  Sharon Werner and Sarah Nelson
Alphasaurs has a very unique style of illustration. Each dinosaur or prehistoric reptile is made up only of the first letter of that creatures name. So Allosaurus is drawn only using only the letter A in upper and lower cases and of different sizes. This seems like an impossible task, but the artists has really created beautiful black and white pictures using only letters. In addition to the dinosaur being made of letters, there are facts on each animal as well. These facts are told in a highly alliterative verse, using the featured letter over and over. The letter is also drawn into the smaller illustrations with the facts, so the book tells us Allosaurus were both angry and aggressive, with capital A's drawn into angry faces. Fruitadens lived in a forest and the forest is drawn with the letter f for the the trunks of each tree, and the letter P forms the branches of pine for the Parasaurolophus.


The Absolutely Awful Alphabet Book  - Mordecai Gerstein
Titally nonsensical beasts in the shape of upper case letters witha short description amde up of words beginning with that letter.

Z is for Zombie Merrily Kutner:

My boys love this book but it may frighten some children. Each page has a picture of a monster or some other creepy item, followed by a short rhyme such as " Bogeyman: Darkness masks the Bogeyman, till you're sleeping that's his plan". The illustrations are usually in darkened shades, some showing the subject very clearly, such as a sink full of bloody eyeballs, the cyclops eating a man, or a queen with her head in her hands, while others only give you a hint of things to come - a clawed hand reaching in the door for the bogeyman, or a set of eyes staring in a bedroom window for the end of this book accompanied by this warning "Beware the night and what it brings, for out their lurk such scary things".

It has the name of each spooky item, but this is in a highly stylised block text, which I would find difficult to read if I did not already know the spellings for each word. Lower case "U" is the worst. It is presented as a black square shape with a white diamond in the middle, but all of the letters in the name of each subject are splattered looking, as if made by dipping a shape in ink, and slopping tons of extra ink over the letter. It actually doesn't look bad. There is a certain artistic quality to it, but it hardly suits a child who is just learning to read.

To make up for this shortcoming I placed large foil alphabet letters to the side of each poem. This worked out perfectly as the letters are very visible, but can also be traced with a finger allowing a child to learn the alphabet through touch as well. Of course you could simply write the letters in with marker, but having used the stickers, I would highly recommend this - and if possible - a textured sticker would work even better.

Full review on Dooyoo

Y is for Yowl - parental discretion also advised. Some parents have objected to a knife thrower illustration. Of course knife is a terrible word to illustrate the k sound with regardless of  your opinion on scary books. Illustrated with phots, but some are rather poor. My children did not find this frightening at all. It does have upper and lower case letters.
Full review @ dooyoo
Full review on Dooyoo


Curious George Learns the Alphabet by H.A. Rey
One of the very best alphabet books ever. Each letter is cleverly made into a picture - so the upper case A becomes an alligators mouth, the lower case a becomes an apple. This also includes a story of how George learned to write - and gets into a bit of mischief as well.

Dr Seuss ABC
This book isn't just a classic, when comes to ABC books, it is THE classic. It has 63 pages and uses capitol and lower case letters. The illustrations are what you would expect from Dr Seuss, cartoon type characters, often of totally nonsensical creatures such as the zizzer zazzer zuzz. They are warm and brightly coloured and I could still remember every page and picture from my own childhood before buying this for my children.

The text is not always rhyming, as one usually finds with Dr Seuss, but still had that rhythm to it which makes it easy to read and pleasant to listen too. It clearly distinguishes between capitol and lower case, with phrases like "BIG A little a What begins with A? " Although some prefer to teach children only one set of letters at first, I find it just as easy to teach both, especially when the differences are clearly drawn as in this book. Still for a strict follower of Montessori, the capitol letters would make it inappropriate, as would the letter names. I also believe this book clearly helps a child learn the phonic sound for each letter in a fun and easy way.
* also reviewed on dooyoo.

The Little Engine That Could ABC Time by Watty Piper

Beautiful gentle illustrations best suited to a younger child. Also has hidden pictures to find.

Peter Rabbit's Hide and Seek ABC 
Sliding picture ABC using original Beatrix Potter illustrations. This is a lovely book but please be aware the pictures are very difficult to change and could easily be damaged by young children. This must be used only with close parental supervision.

ABC Letterland
Beautiful illustrations with Letterland characters and text focused on each letter. Very useful for phnoetic reading programmes.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
Rhyming Alphabet Book

And a few other suggestions all by Jerry Pallotta
The Underwater Alphabet Book
Yucky Reptile Alphabet Book
The Bird Alphabet Book
The Extinct Alphabet Book
The Butterfly Alphabet Book
The Construction Alphabet Book
The Airplane Alphabet Book
The Yummy Alphabet Book

Putting it all together

the alphabet tree by Leo Liomi
A sweet gentle story of a friendly  bee who teaches the letters on the alphabet tree to join together in words and sentences to  stay safe in the storm.