When you were a child, what was your favourite book?

18 06 2011

I read a lot as a child. I really enjoyed school and pony stories, but I did read other stuff as well, honest!

Enid Blyton featured quite heavily. Not so much Famous Five and Secret Seven so much as Malory Towers, The Book of Naughty Children. All heavily moralistic!

On a similarly moralistic note, I loved the Jill books by Ruby Ferguson. They were about a girl whose father died and she and her mother, a children’s author, moved to a small village. The other children in the area were very into riding and Jill was desperate for a pony, although she’d never ridden before. The books focused on doing things properly, being honest, putting one’s pets first etc. Jill was by no means a sickly sweet heroine – she would quite often be struggling with frustrations and “ignoble thoughts”. Unlike her friends, she and her mother were not terribly well-off and Jill was always taking part-time jobs and looking for ways to support her ponies. “Pot-hunting”, entering shows with the sole of wish of winning prizes, was seriously frowned upon in these books – a stark contrast with the more modern books I’ve picked up! There is also no boy-chasing at all – another contrast with modern pony stories. I would whole-heartedly recommend these.

The Pullein-Thompson sisters were great favourites as well. Again, they were not about chasing boys and trophies and, as in the Ruby Ferguson and Enid Blyton books, the lazy and the conceited always got their comeuppance!

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley was a favourite and I still re-read that from time to time. My brother gave me it for my eighth birthday and it really stands up to the test of time. It’s about a girl called Penelope who lives in London and, with her brother and sister, goes to spend the holidays with relatives on their farm in Derbyshire. The farm had been the home of the Babbingtons, who plotted to save Mary, Queen of Scots, who was incarcerated at the nearby Hardwick Hall.

None of the heroines in these books shies away from doing things because she’s “just a girl”. They all face up to things. None of them thinks she only exists in the mirror of men’s eyes.

The values in these books had a big influence on me: no one likes a show-off, put your animals first, take responsibility for yourself (it is NOT your mother’s fault that you have forgotten your PE kit!), be truthful, kind and considerate and look up to your elders.


Free Summer Fun

8 06 2011

The summer holiday season will soon be upon us and who doesn’t know someone who’s going somewhere that makes you green with envy? At this time of year, it can feel as though you’re no one if you’re not going somewhere that’ll make everyone green with envy.

I don’t know how many of you watched the BBC TV series, Beautiful People, but there was an episode in which Simon’s family had been telling everyone they were going away on a fantastic holiday, but found themselves too short on cash to actually go, so, to keep up appearances, they locked themselves in their house for a week and carried on as though they were on holiday. They decorated the house, dressed in their holiday clothes and held holiday-camp-style competitions in their living room. They had a whale of a time.

I’m not suggesting that you go to the lengths of lying to your friends, family and general acquaintance about your whereabouts, but here are a few ideas for fun holiday activities on a shoestring budget.

House Swap

If you fancy getting away, how about swapping houses with a friend who lives in another area? You can have fun making lists of local sights and activities for one another and you won’t have to worry about finishing absolutely everything in the fridge and getting someone in to water the plants and feed the pets.


Picnics are vastly under-rated. You can go where you like, within legal limits, obviously, and eat what you like, when you like. You don’t need to be near a café or restaurant, you don’t need to comply with their times, you won’t find that there’s nothing you like on the menu or that everything’s over-cooked. It won’t be hideously expensive. Basically, it’s all on your own terms and you don’t have to be on your best behaviour!


Spend a pleasant summer’s day by a river, enjoy being outside, take a picnic and maybe a book or a radio and you’ll maybe get something to take home for tea. It’s not free to fish everywhere – you need a ticket or club membership in many places. dofreefishing.co.uk has information on where you can fish for free and what you can catch there.

There really is something very satisfying about catching your own food!

Free Days Out

For ideas on free days out, try dofreestuff.com. There’s also a list of free museums provided by the Department for Culture. It would also be worth checking your council’s or local attractions’ websites, to find out whether admission is free or discounted for local residents.

Discover your home town

Very often, we look further afield for our holiday fun, but how many of us can say that we’ve taken the tourist trail round our home town? Get a guide-book out from your local library and find out what you’ve been missing out on.

If you can get hold of a walking tour map itinerary, you could give yourselves the full-on tourist experience. Go in a large group and you can take turns at being the guide and being the tourists. Why not go the whole hog and create characters for yourselves?

Cycle paths, bridleways and green lanes

The countryside and, for that matter, towns are full of paths and shortcuts you would never see from public transport or your car. They say a change is as good as a rest, so why not look at your town from a different perspective?

Scavenger Hunts

These are great, in that you can easily make them age-appropriate and you can even sneak a bit of learning in there.

For those who don’t know, on a scavenger hunt, each participant has a list of items they have to find. The first to return with the full set of items within the allowed time wins.

They’re nice because you can pass time with spin-offs. A rainy-day project could be making or decorating bags to carry collected items in. The journey could be spent making up the item list in the style of the game ‘Granny went to market’.

Let the Children Camp in the Garden

Just because you’re not going away, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to the term-time routine. Why not let the children camp out in your garden? You can have a quiet night in and they can imagine they’re anywhere – American pioneers, heading west, nomads in the desert, circus performers, a travelling fair, jungle or arctic explorers – the world’s their oyster! If you have a sandpit and or a paddling pool, they could create their own beach. They could put on their own circus act with your friends. It gives a taste of independence, with the safety net of running back in if they need to.
Maybe they could cook on a camp fire, under adult supervision? Some easy cooking ideas:

  • Baked beans – cook them in a pan then eat them out of a mug
  • Jacket potatoes – wrap them in tin foil and put them in the embers of the fire, once it dies down
  • Marshmallows or toast – put them on skewers and toast them over the fire
  • Cocoa – make it in a pan over the fire, then pour into a mug. It goes really well with marshmallows.

When you’re camping in the garden, you might see all kinds of wildlife you wouldn’t see in the daytime: hedgehogs, foxes, owls, badgers etc.

Sexism in toys

29 05 2011

I was just reading this post about the way women are portrayed as sex objects in popular culture and the influence this has on children. It brought me back to a pet hate: the difference between girls’ and boys’ toys.

Firstly, what is the purpose of toys and should there be different toys for boys and for girls?

Toys are, essentially, tools for play. In play, children explore their place in the world. They learn how to interact with objects and other people. They use play as a means of exploring ideas they don’t fully understand. Toys, therefore, serve to assist in the mental, social, physical and emotional development of children.

Do we want our children to all learn the same things, or do we want boys and girls to learn different things to fulfil different roles in society? What do we expect of our children when they grow up? Do we want to give them equality of employment opportunity? Do we want them to form and sustain stable relationships? Do we want them to treat one another as equals? Do we want them all to be capable of looking after themselves and their children in their own homes?

Personally, I would answer yes to all of the above. This is not, however, what we are teaching them. We are teaching them that boys should be doing something active, something ‘clever’, bringing home the bread and that girls should be making themselves look pretty, caring for children, cooking and cleaning.

Out-dated, you say? Couldn’t possibly be happening in this day and age, you say? Look at the facts.

I have scrolled through the first eight pages of the ‘role-play‘ category on a major toy retailer’s website. I only reported on toys that were either pictured with a child or used an overtly gender-specific colour scheme. The charts below were created from my findings.



Who does this affect? Everyone. It affects parents and children, yes, but it also affects the rest of us: this is the training we are giving to the people who are our future. They will be the doctors, the politicians, the civil servants, the emergency services personnel, the mothers, fathers, entertainers, teachers etc etc etc. Do we want female representation in these professions? Or do we want men to do that so that women can stay at home and cook, clean, look pretty and make babies?

Please consider this when buying children’s’ toys and clothes. Girls don’t intrinsically like pink, purple, sparkles, high heels etc, they like them because they’ve been taught to. Make sure they get a balance in their toys and clothes – let them be active and get dirty, don’t let them focus on make-up, clothes, cooking, cleaning, looking pretty etc. At some point, girls will need to earn a living and boys will need to be able to look after themselves. Don’t do them a disservice by not making sure they all learn to do both.

For anyone interested in the raw data, here it is.

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