When you were a star in the sky….

As any selection of toddler stories will reveal, there is a fine line between a simple rendition of a profound truth, and sentimental twaddle. This is the story I gave Sophie on her birthday. You can be the judge of which side of the line it falls for you.

When you were a star in the sky!

“Have you ever heard anyone say something that happened before you were born was “when you were a star in the sky”?
This is a story about that time.

Once there was a little star who loved to shine in the night sky and look down at all the people on the earth. In the daytime you couldn’t see her because she would draw near the sun and watch where his reflection sparkled and shone.

One day, she noticed that some of the stars that had been near her weren’t there anymore. An angel explained that they had gone to the earth to spend their time as people, and it would soon be time for her to go and join them.

The little star felt sad. She loved being in the sky near the sun and being able to look down on the earth, but she didn’t understand it. It seemed very messy and confusing. How would she manage?

The angel explained that every star that went to earth carried within them a little piece of the sun. “Don’t be afraid, little star” said her friend. “You will never be alone, the sun will continue to shine inside you. And when we can see the sun shining, we will see you and know that you still belong to us”.
“How can I do that?” asked the little star.
“Every time you are kind, even when someone is mean. Every time you share something, even when you don’t want to. Every time you treasure and care for another living creature, even when it’s easier not to, the sun in you will shine out, and the earth will become a brighter, more lovely place because you are in it”.

The little star felt a bit daunted by this for she knew that sometimes the reflections of the sun seemed everywhere, but sometimes and in some places, the sparkles were few and far between. But she was comforted again by the angel. “It won’t always be easy. But remember, you are never alone. The sun will be within you.”

And so the little star came to earth.

She was born on the 23rd June.

And her name was Sophie.”

Beyond Peppa….my top picks for pre school telly

A five year gap between children means you can be very deliberate second time around and I certainly am with telly.  There is good stuff out there but its not always widely known. As I keep promising to follow up on conversations, here are my picks. Frankly, now the school holidays have started it’s ever more of a preoccupation!

NB: For reference so you can judge me as a parent, my benchmark is no more than 30 mins a day. Does that make me good or bad? I dont mind, I use it as behavioural incentive, as a way to cut fingernails and as downtime to prevent grouchiness (needed on both sides)  and it works for us!

What makes good pre- school telly? I dont think its the ‘educational’ numbers and letters aspect; I like the ones I do for three reasons: They foster imagination, their characters and celebrate what’s good in childhood and they encourage a connection to the natural world. My top five do all each of these to a greater or lesser degree. Does it matter? I think it does because the characters and stories preoccupy their minds. So whilst all our children act like Peppa at times, I would rather she wasnt their ideal.

In order of relative obscurity (least well known first):

1. ‘POCOYO’ (youtube) Originally a Spanish series (meaning “Little Me”), Pocoyo is an animated little blue person with a set of friends including Pato the duck, Ellie the elephant and the wonderfully named ‘sleepy bird’ and her baby. Pocoyo inhabits a white world where things only exist if they are part of the story and so appear out of nowhere to be explored. Through his play and adventures each 7 minute episode reinforces something about relationships or resilience etc. It is beautifully narrated by Stephen Fry.

2  ‘Puffin Rock’ (Netflix original) Oona is a girl ‘puffling’, a conscientious older sister to ‘Baba’, a much younger puffling. They live with their parents in their burrow on Puffin Rock, which the narrator,Chris Dowd gives a strong Irish feel. Oona and Baba have adventures with their friends such as the seal, the hermit crab and the perennially hungry pygmy shrew. Each 7 minute episode is an adventure in a particular season, discovering or interacting with a different creature or animal behaviour. It is gentle, delightfully animated and makes me want to go there!

3 ‘Spot the dog’ (youtube UK episodes) originally made in the 80s, true to the Eric Hill books. Gentle in pace, from an era of drawn animation where expressions change with minute line details and the voices all by Jane Horrocks. Spot is a puppy and a child. You see the world from his perspective, the screens are full of table legs, parental legs, and under the stairs cupboards. He embodies all that is charming in childhood exploration.

4 ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ (CBeebies) is a series made in Tanzania, essentially an animated take on the ‘just so stories’. Each episode (11 mins) answers a ‘why?’ question about an animal. The characters are great, the voices include Lenny Henry and Miriam Margoylees and as an added bonus the music (in the form of the bird choir) is very different to most tv tunes.

5 ‘Octonauts’ (CBeebies) My all time favourite. Beware the ear worm theme tune but embrace the strong role models, the delightful characters out in a mission to protect the oceans and enjoy the flashes of humour for grown ups. The creatures in Blue Planet 2 are made accessible, the accuracy of the biology is impressive and the story formula works well. Enjoyed by my 7 year old and 2 yr old alike.

And an extra one for free, ‘The Clangers’ (Cbeebies). From a series first made I think in the early 80s from knitted puppets in a garage.  A family of space mice-like creatures, living on a planet with a family of soup dragons and an iron chicken. Whats not to like?

But I am sure there are loads of other unknown gems out there and would be very grateful for new suggestions….






“Together we can change the world”…just not for my birthday

“1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, We believe its not too late, Together we can change the world” sang my daughters’ year 2 class to their parents at the end of the year. We sat there with a feeling of warm hopefulness that the next generation, steeped as they are in recycling campaigns and eco-councils at school, will bring a fresh energy to the challenges we face.

An hour later: “I’m hungry. I won’t eat what’s left in my lunch box. It’s old.”. “I hope I get lots of new toys for my birthday”. “Everyone is collecting those foam squishies”.

You can inspire children to take part in one-off projects, to raise funds for a cause, or even write and campaign.  However, the reality is that the daily individual choices that drive how we consume our world fly in the face of how most children are wired. They want more, not less, something new, not reused, something bright and sparkly (so most often plastic), and something that appeals to them now, not something they will still have a use for in years to come. And frankly, it’s rare that the sustainable choice is the way of fun.

“Topsy and Tim and their parents were preparing for their birthday party.
“Can we have a swimming party, Mum?” says Topsy?
“Ooh yes please” says Tim “with inflatables. Can we have party tea at the swimming pool? With hula hoops and iced gems and party rings and cakes and everything!”
Topsy and Mum glance at each other nervously. “Well” says Mum “last time we went, I noticed there was palm oil in the crisps they sold in the vending machine. Maybe I could buy the things for tea. But that means you can’t have everything. I need to make sure we don’t waste too much and buy less but more sustainable food”.
“More expensive” moans Dad. “You’ve got the hand of buying more sustainable, just not the hang of buying less of it!”
Tim pipes up 
“What about party bags, Mum. I went to one where they gave everyone those foam water-pistols. Can we give out those?”
“But Tim” protests Topsy “Don’t you remember that assembly we had on plastic? I’m not sure they are recyclable. What about sustainable colouring pencils”.
“You can’t shoot anyone with those” grumbles Tim. “Try me”, mutters Dad, head in hands. 

(NB. Any resemblance to known individuals or marital dynamics is entirely coincidental)

Teaching children to make choices based on values rather than wants is hard. They have to care passionately about the values (which they won’t all do) and have a sense that it’s normal to have an internal conflict about what decisions they take.

My former colleague, Alex Evans, published a book called ‘The Myth Gap’ arguing that facts and figures are not sufficient to change behaviours. (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1113478/the-myth-gap/) Successful movements for change have stories and narratives that bring people together to be part of the change, and hence, part of the story. I am convinced that this is as true, if not more so, for children.

Its not just about the subject matter. We do need the stories about the animals, the wildlife and the adventures of the heroes and heroines that helped save the species. I haven’t read yet, but would like to the series by Holly Webb sponsored by the WWF. We need the natural world to be infused throughout children’s stories and programmes; I was struck recently reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that C.S. Lewis clearly expected his readers to understand the difference between beeches, oaks and larches; my 7 year old knows only oaks . The conveniently coloured, unseasonal, fantasy plants that abound in children’s animated programmes do everyone a disservice. Let’s at least make the real plants and creatures part of the story.

But for children I think its essentially about the characters.  We also need heroes and heroines who dont automatically do the best thing; characters who have to wrestle with themselves, who celebrated a triumph of pursuing a value or helping a cause rather than satisfying an immediate want. From my childhood, I can think of Pinnochio, Anne of Green Gables , the Pevensey children in Narnia and the March sisters from Little Women, for whom  it was a normal part of everyday life to have a conflict between their natural inclinations and who they were aspiring to be. Simba and Aragorn are both reluctant leaders who come into their own, albeit at different levels of complexity.

I don’t yet know enough about modern children’s fiction as my children are only just getting into it. My greatest exposure so far is to the Rainbow Magic series, where I am unconvinced that after nearly 100 identical adventures, the indomitable Rainbow Magic duo, Rachel and Kirsty, could remain so utterly unchanged in character. But, given that they did, it’s fortunate that they still always have just the right idea at just the right time.

So I genuinely want to know which are the stories that are going to really inspire the next generation to change the world? I want my children to understand internal conflict and development of character as a normal part of life that will help them with theirs. But I also think that such stories are a critical ally in the fight for the less immediately attractive option that, if we all took; together we could change the world.


Ideas of a zero waste birthday didnt go so well then!