Choosing an Educational Toy for your Grandchild
When my first grandson was born, he was living with his family in Washington DC and so we didn’t see nearly as much of him as we’d have liked. I remember preparing for a visit when he was around 9 months old and spending hours in toy shops scouring shelves for the perfect gift. Because we didn’t see him that often, we weren’t constantly buying small gifts, so I felt I could splash out a bit, but more than that I recall being really keen to find something that would be both fun and educational.
I eventually hit upon the perfect combination: a small ‘train’ with 10 carriages, all made of felt, accompanied by 10 small felt teddies. Each truck had a number on the carriage and the same number of dots on the other side in a domino shape. The carriages could be joined together by their Velcro strips and the great additional bonus of this toy was that he had a wee battery-operated button at the front which replicated the chuffety-chuff sound of a real train to perfection.
I was exceedingly happy with my purchase as I carried it in my hand-luggage to the USA. My grandson has always seemed to like it too….though probably not quite as much as me!
Sadly that train is no longer in production but has inspired me to think about what we as grandparents should look out for when buying toys for our grandchildren – and how to find something they’ll really enjoy and value.
So I’ve been speaking to Rob Trup at Fiesta Crafts who specialise in good quality, traditional and educational toys (and who made my grandson’s little train) for his tips and advice.
I began by asking how he and his designers set about creating an ‘educational toy’
We’re about quality products, not the mass market, so our customers tend to be people who know if they pay a little bit more the toy will last and be passed on from child to child. When we’re looking for a new idea to develop we’re thinking what will children get good play value out of , and what will they get good educational value out of?
Does the educational aspect come first or second?
Quite rightly, psychologists would argue that all play is about learning. Most toys have some element of learning but we try to build in things that make them appeal to the children and the parents. Our toys are always bright and colourful. We’ve steered away from ‘plush’ for instance – pure soft toys – because we like ours to have more of an educational objective.
Does fashion enter your thinking at all?
We provide traditional style toys with traditional materials but at the same time, we try to produce toys that have that classic play appeal but also look contemporary. This year , for instance, we brought out ‘glow-in-the-dark’ finger puppet – to keep it as edgy as you can within the confines of the materials you can use.
What should a grandparent look for in choosing educational toy?
Something that a child can interact with, engage with and something they can do together. A puzzle falls into that category as do puppets.
Puppets are great for ages between 3 and 8/9 as you can each take a role, put together a little scene, act it out. Finding things to do with your grandchildren that takes them away from all their electronic gizmos is probably the biggest challenge! But certainly puppets are quite a powerful toy in the sense that they encourage children to tell a story, to make up their own story. Indeed it’s always fascinating to watch and see what each child will do with a finger or glove puppet.
Our wall hangings and calendars are popular too with grandparents for they give children something they can do on a daily basis. When they’re old enough and understand about dates and days they can change those every day. But even small children enjoy these because they can check the weather when they get up and then stick the appropriate symbol on the chart.
I guess that’s a good idea, then, for grandparents who live far apart from their grandchildren, because when they Skype, or phone each other, they can discuss what they’ve done with the chart each day?
Of course. Children who have these calendars go to them first in the morning and change the weather. It’s interactive in that sense and certainly gives them something to talk about with a grandparent.
And how important is it to choose an age-appropriate toy?
When my children play – anything becomes part of their game, they just add it in, so they have toys they’ve had since they were babies mixed in with toys for their own ages now. They’re not at all bothered about which is which. So I don’t think grandparents have to worry too much about getting it right.
One thing I have learned from watching children play is whatever you think they’re going to do with a toy, you’re wrong! So basically just look out for something you like, that you think they’ll enjoy playing with you and if it’s of good quality it should have a good long life and give them hours, if not years of play and pleasure.
An Overview of last week's riots and the nation's response to them by Mark Ostling, who worked with the Probation Service for 10 years and now runs a consultancy which provides training courses to the Probation and Prison Services and Mental Health teams
'I am very happy to share some thoughts about the current situation in the UK, which I have been following with some dismay.
Some of the interesting features this time are the lack of harmony between the police and the government: it is very strange to see such an overt level of hostility from senior police officers to government ministers, especially the Home Secretary and PM. This has not been the usual response to the tired old cliches spouted by various politicians on similar occasions in the past. Look for example at David Cameron's talk about making water cannons available and suggesting that these should have been used, and Hugh Orde's immediate response that these would have been useless. Looks like even the police are getting fed up of "knee jerk" responses.
It has also been interesting to watch the discord between the coalition partners, with the liberals seeming to distance themselves from the conservatives' response, which certainly does have a knee jerk feel to it.
The Courts seem to have had a strong steer, as they have been operating in quite an unusual way- I used to work in the central London courts and they would not have had night-time and weekend sessions before. Also, it has been quite strange to see the number of people remanded in custody. The law is very clear that people should be bailed unless there are compelling and very specific reasons not to grant bail, and somehow this law seems to have been subverted in some way. Similarly, custody is only supposed to be used for young offenders in very limited circumstances, and this too seems to have been sidelined. Arson and serious assaults would perhaps merit immediate custody, but thefts from shops and handling stolen goods would certainly not. I have seen interviews with representatives of the Magistrates' Association expressing a lot of disquiet about these developments.
The problem with custodial sentences, especially short ones, is that they do not really work. Imprisonment is already used much more frequently in the UK than other similar European countries and, from my experience in working with young offenders, it has no deterrent effect: not because prison is too soft (anyone who says that should be required to take a trip to Feltham YOI or Wandsworth!), but because it is too commonplace. So many people are imprisoned that it has lost its power to shock, and in any case for many young people it has become a way to earn a bit of respect from their peers. In that way, the tougher the reputation of the prison, the less of a deterrent it is for the people most likely to end up there! Prison does work in a very very limited way, in that it will take people off the streets and therefore incapacitate them from committing crimes while they are in prison. The problem is that a short term solution can be a longer term problem.
Most of the sentences given out over the past week seem to have been six months or less. These sentences are particularly problematic, as they have very high reconviction rates after release. From two thirds to three quarters of people imprisoned will be reconvicted within a year or two of release. It is the highest reconviction rate of any sentence, and the rates are highest for people released from Young Offender Institutions. When you work with this group of people, as I did for many years, it is very easy to see why this is the case. Many of the people who end up in prison start off with a very tenuous hold on "a normal, law abiding and productive life". They often have little positive social or family support, are surrounded by peers who encourage them to get involved in crime, have few skills or qualifications, and often cannot read or write. I am always impressed to see people from this sort of background actually getting on and settling down, maintaining employment, finding somewhere stable to live and so on. Prison, even for a couple of weeks, will often destroy this fragile structure. People lose their jobs, are evicted from their accommodation, and get a label of "ex-con" that will follow them around and ruin whatever prospects they may have had. In a time of high unemployment, why would an employer want to take a chance with a person fresh out of Wormwood Scrubs? When Martin Narey was the head of the Prison Service, he said that for most people prison was "an expensive way of making bad people worse".
The fact that just about everyone involved in the criminal justice system knows that prison is generally an expensive failure will not stop it being used, especially in response to riots, as it is seen as a tough response. As the brilliant criminologist Mike Nellis put it "any society will be willing to tolerate non-custodial responses to crime in relation to the extent to which that society feels safe." If people feel frightened by crime they will often demand more and longer prison sentences, and we seem to lack politicians with the courage, honesty and integrity to tell the public that this is not the most effective response. Ken Clarke actually made some comments along these lines recently, but this may well have brought his time as Justice Secretary to a premature end.
Crime, especially youth crime, is a perennial concern of politicians, the media and therefore the public: you can look back to the middle ages and the panic around the bands of "sturdy beggars" wandering the land to see evidence of this. I read an article in the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" the other day, and it showed an analysis of the comparative reporting of crime in different european countries. In Italy around 16 % of news stories are concerned with crime, in the UK it is 12%, France 8% and Germany 4%, and the measures of public fear of crime exactly followed these trends. The latest riots could be seen as just a very dramatic example of something that has been going on at a lower level for a long time.
Probably the most useful way of looking at how young people get into crime is to think of them as being surrounded with risk factors and protective factors. Risk factors can be external, such as unemployment and having offending friends or family, or they can be within the individual, such as an outlook on life that sees offending as a reasonable solution to practical problems, or an emotional problem such as high levels of uncontrolled anger. People often get into a criminal lifestyle as a result of the interplay of internal and external factors, and of course internal factors such as attitudes and emotions are shaped by the environment, such as parenting, school experiences, the political, social and economic situation and the media/popular culture. Most young people are exposed to these risk factors, but what keeps some of them away from getting involved in crime, or helps them to break away from it if they have got involved, is the presence of protective factors. Again, these can be internal or external and can be quite simple, such as having a job or some sense of having something worthwhile to lose from getting involved in crime.
For many young people that I have worked with, their immediate family can be a risk factor rather than a protective factor- parents are not present, or are present but not able to give the child what they need because they are overwhelmed with their own problems, incapacitated by drug or alcohol abuse, involved in crime themselves, or just lacking in the skills and personal resources needed for effective parenting. Many times when I have been looking for potential protective factors in young people who are involved in the system, they will mention a grandparent as a key positive figure. This may be because the grandparents have stepped in to make up for parental deficits, some times to the extent of taking over the parental role. It can also be because the grandparents are able to act as a positive role model in a way that parents have not been able to do; sometimes grandparents have inspired a great deal of respect in otherwise rebellious and difficult young people. Sometimes it is because the grandparents are able to reach out to the young person, perhaps because they see the young person in a different light, or are persistent and don't give up on them, or because they have higher expectations and beliefs in the young person's capacities and are able to communicate these to the young person. It would be hard to overestimate the potential for a grandparent to act as a powerful protective factor for even the most troubled and difficult young person, whom others may have labelled as a "lost cause".
Unlike Mr Cameron and Mr Boris, I don't have any quick or easy answers. That is because there aren't any. Crime, especially amongst young people, is a very complex issue with complex answers. Nobody wants to hear that! What I would say is that we need to remember that many of the people being demonised by politicians and the media are actually children – our children - in that they are the children of our society. For me, the most important question is why would so many of our children want to behave in this way?
Crime prevention is often divided into primary, secondary and tertiary measures. Primary crime prevention involves policies that target the entire population. Secondary crime prevention targets "at risk" groups with interventions such as Sure Start, and tertiary measures are targeted at those already involved in crime. You could see prison and community sentences as a form of tertiary crime prevention. I am a big fan of community sentences and have designed and run several programmes aimed at helping people turn away from crime, but I would say that even the best of these are very imperfect, as you are often trying to apply a sticking plaster on a wound that runs too deep. It is not attractive to politicians, but I believe that the way to prevent riots is to invest time, effort and resources into primary crime prevention, that is making sure all young people have positive opportunities and something worth living for, and that they are helped to develop the life skills they need to control their emotions, think things through and make the best of an often difficult life situation. This isn't a soft option- it is a very tough one and it will not bear fruit in the short or even medium term.
Grandparents can play an unglamorous and often unrecognised (but nevertheless vital) role in creating the right kind of environment to help young people stay away from crime, without any special training and by using the qualities and skills that they already possess. In addition, grandparents can be the key factor in helping young people come through the process of getting in trouble and to recover from this, learn what they need to learn and try to get back into "normal life" as best as they can. The crucial thing is to be patient and persistent, and to keep the lines of communication open with the young person, even if they seem to be doing everything they can to wreck the relationship! The crucial thing is to avoid falling into the trap of seeing people as mindless "hoodies" and rioters, and instead ask ourselves what would lead a child or young person to behave in that violent and destructive a way?'
Mark Ostling – Head of Consultancy at Ostling Training
It was a fun morning when I went with my grandson to a Tiny Talk Signing Session at the Saxmundham Children’s Centre a little while ago. The class was for babies and toddlers and around 15 of them turned up with their Mums. They sang songs, made signs, used musical instruments and generally had a good time. There weren’t any deaf children in the group; this class was being used by the young Mums to help them communicate from an early age with their babies. Afterwards I talked with Leigh Turner of Norfolk Tiny Talk, who took the group, about Signing for babies and small children
How did signing for babies begin?
Baby Sign Language has been around for hundred of years: deaf families have been signing with their babies and with hearing babies born into deaf families. If there’s one deaf parent those families may also use Sign Language – then the children are brought up in a bilingual environment through speech and sign. A baby would understand what their parents were saying first through speech and sign then would communicate back first through sign.
Is the language of signing universal?
Tiny Talk uses British Sign Language, which is often found in schools. There is another one – called Makaton – which Mr. Tumble uses on the TV programme.
Why is it useful when we always used to manage without it?
Families do manage without sign language – but I’m sure some, if not all, the families often wish they could find out what it was that their baby needed or wanted – before they could talk. There is a period where a baby knows exactly what they would like before they can specify through speech and if they are not understood, it can result in real frustration, tears & tantrums. Sign Language is useful as a most babies will have the ability to communicate in sign before they’re vocal chords are formed and they can talk.
What are the first signs you teach?
Every week we have 5 core signs which encompass different aspects of life with a baby for example Family, Food, Bedtime, Clothing, Animals etc. We stress that it is important to not only teach useful signs for example ‘MILK’ but to also teach signs that are fun – for example ‘BIRD.’ It is mainly important to teach your baby signs that are relevant to your baby’s world….so useful signs around food would be ‘more’, milk’, ‘water’, ‘all gone’, ‘again’. Abstract ones can be useful too such as ‘ouch’ or ‘sore’ or ‘hot’.
At what age is it best to start?
You can start signing with your baby from birth. The sooner you start using signs as a natural part of your early communication with your baby the sooner is becomes part of your everyday life. But you have to be consistent and work at it. Babies can show understanding of a sign from around 5/6 months, the same time that they realise that we give objects names. Once a baby starts to clap and/or waves, they have the motor skills needed to form signs. A sign is likely to be copied first before using it in context.
At what age is it most useful?
Baby signing is most useful from when babies know what it is they want to when they can full communicate through speech. Even when a child is learning to talk sign language is useful to clarify mumbled words and young babble. My daughter signs if she feels someone doesn’t understand her word, is being shy or has a mouthful of food! Or she’ll back up what she’s saying with a sign. She can’t say sausages yet, so she signs that too!
What are the most useful/widely used signs?
This really depends on what signs the parents/carers have taught the baby as it is relevant to your home situation. I find that most start by teaching ‘Milk,’ ‘Food,’ ‘More’ and ‘All Gone.’
Do some children take to it more than others?
All children should be able to sign, it just may happen at different rates. Some children walk sooner than their peers and some may potty train earlier but most get there in the end. It is the same with signing and just requires some consistency from the teacher(s.)
When to stop?
Why stop? There is no need to stop if you and your child enjoy it. There are more than 70000 users of British Sign Language in the U.K. so by learning a little or a lot, you never know when it may be useful. I also work in a Primary with a profoundly deaf 4 year old and the children are fascinated by sign language; they gesture, point and manage to communicate with him.
What basic signs do Grandparents need to know?
Grandparents need to know the signs that are being taught to the child at home. Bearing in mind that sign language helps to reduce the child’s frustration, it is very important that anyone looking after the child knows the signs that are taught and/or used. If a child were to sign and is misunderstood, they may become frustrated therefore defeating the whole purpose.
Presumably anyone who interacts with the child needs to know the signs each child is being taught?
Definitely. I find fathers can be quite sceptical; my own partner was. But when he first saw Emi signing ‘milk’ he was very impressed. But everyone who’s involved with your child, be it Dads, Grandparents, Nursery Staff, all need to know the signs your child understands and uses. Many nurseries do indeed use either British Sign Language or Makaton.
She’s trained to BSL Level 3, has a BTEC Advanced Award in working with Deaf Children and has worked with Hearing Impaired Children since 2003.
You can contact her on: email@example.com
Computer and Internet Training for over 50's
SilverTraining.co.uk is a young company, established in 2009, designed to take the fear out of computers and the internet for people over 50 and beginners. Customers so far vary from complete beginners at computing to those who get on pretty well but want extra help in coping with areas like printing photos and online shopping.
Matthew Adam who founded the company says many of his customers have already been to group lessons and given up. Often these courses are taken by IT experts who rush through the subject matter, forgetting that they’re employing jargon that can mystify beginners, and inevitably this leaves some people behind. Other customers have been given laptops or computers by their families but are not yet able to make full use of them and know they’re missing out….so Matt recognised a need for one-to-one tuition – in your own home – and established the business.
“Anyone who’s familiar with computing knows that it’s repetition that fixes things in the brain” he says. “So our tutors spend an hour with each customer on a one-to-one basis each week, helping them go over and over each new technique, leaving them with course material free of charge which they use to practise until the next lesson. That way, things go in, and stay in.”
Lessons are usually taken once a week until a time when the participant feels comfortable with a topic and people can need anything up to 12 lessons . Some clients have been known to stay for 6-9 months, or more in some cases. “Our tutors are chosen for their patience, and trained to understand that some people, in particular the complete novices, won’t understand computer-speak. So we make sure they don’t take it for granted that their trainees will understand phrases such as: ‘load up a website’ or ‘right click the mouse.
We try to cover one topic per lesson (more lessons are needed for in-depth topics, like email) and make sure the trainee actually does the work, as there’s nothing better than doing things for yourself -including knowing how to sort out a problem if something goes wrong.
I started the company for the over 50’s but soon realised that the idea was catching on amongst the over 70’s and upwards. Some of this generation never came across computers at work so it’s all completely new to them. Some of the 50 – 60 year olds may have had an assistant at work doing all their letter-writing and emails for them so are at a bit of a loss when they retire. And we even have a 93-year-old whose family are in Australia who wanted to be able to stay in touch with them. She knew exactly what she wanted to get out of our training – to be able to email them, and send and receive photos as attachments.”
The main areas covered initially are Word Processing and Writing Letters, Files and Folders, Finding your way round the Desktop and Right-clicking of the mouse. Photos and printing is a popular area, and then they move on to the internet :.
“We cover emailing, of course, then using Google and doing research, and internet shopping is popular, both for groceries and other goods” says Matt. BBC I-player tuition is also becoming popular.
The service has become so popular that Matt has started offering gift-vouchers for people to offer their parents and grandparents the gift of computer knowledge. They now operate hubs in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Sussex and Dorset.
You can find more details at: www.silvertraining.co.uk
Brussels Sprouts and Seville Oranges
Our younger son married his Flemish wife in her beautiful Belgian home town of Ghent 8 years ago. They met at Leuven University – where she was studying medicine and he was doing a post graduate degree in European Studies. She is now a clinical psychiatrist, and he is with the World Bank. They are1ucky to live in a lovely house in the centre of Brussels. They have produced 2 sons, aged 6 and 3, and a one year old daughter). .
Our elder son and his wife decided, quite recently, that they would also like to live and work in Europe for a time. They are both teachers, and worked in North London. They are now teaching at an international school in Seville, having let their house in Enfield. They have one daughter who is 3.
So my wife and I have 4 grandchildren living outside the UK. Often people sympathise with us, and we do miss not seeing them as often as we would wish – and we miss out on those milestones of infancy …the first step, the first tooth, the first word. And we have less regular interplay between the generations which can make the grandparents’ role so enchanting. We have to recognize that the Belgian brigade sees more of their Flemish grandparents than of us – and their first language is Flemish. At home, our son talks to them in English and his wife in Flemish. All meals together are in English (to balance, in a small way, their Flemish schooling).
The Seville team is less embedded in Spain, having been there under a year. Our grand daughter will be slightly less immersed in a different culture than her cousins, because both her parents are English. But she is picking up Spanish swiftly and has made friends with her Spanish classmates. The family lives in the centre of Seville – surrounded by orange trees, the wonderful cathedral and centuries of history..
There are compensations to long range grandparenting . It is good to feel you have a place in a different nation and its different way of doing things. At Christmas in Belgium, our little ‘Brussels Sprouts’ get presents from St. Nicholas on December 6 and from Father Christmas on Christmas Day – which requires careful diplomacy to explain identities and how this magical figure comes down chimneys at different times. In Spain, children believe that on Epiphany Eve, January 5, the Three Kings travel through Spain on their way to Bethlehem. Children put out shoes filled with straw for their camels, which the Three Kings exchange for presents. So, to the international family, the Christmas show has a long run.
For us, over the years, Brussels has become a second home and we find it a congenial and impressive city. And Seville is lovely. It is a privilege to see, at first hand, how quickly tiny children can learn two languages at the same time (it makes you wonder how much more infants could learn if given the challenge). Their ability to learn can be a spur to the grandparents to understand another language (I fear that neither of us has conquered Flemish – Spanish might be easier). For the children and the distant grandparents, seeing each other is a big event, which is anticipated with excitement. Love is concentrated and focused, and time together is especially precious. And we are not available just around the corner to be called on as and when needed (a relief in one way, but, of course, a pity in another….).
It’s good to be a part of what is becoming a new world of communication and location. Information Technology shrinks distance and information is global at the touch of a mouse. A lifeline to long distance relations is the ability to talk on the telephone and be seen through the Skype computer camera. Skype widens the scope of international family communication – as does, for us, that other miracle of the age, the Channel Tunnel (which brings Brussels to around 3 hours door to door).
There is no balance of advantage in being distant from your grandchildren. Distance tugs at time, and it is very special to see them in Brussels or Seville – or on their visits to London. On a recent visit, the eldest of our grandchildren, sitting up in bed in his Father’s childhood bedroom said (in a slight Flemish accent) ‘I’m so happy’. It doesn’t come better than that…
Surestart Children's Centres
There are 3,500 SureStart Children's centres in England and more in Scotland and Wales. They exist to provide both services and support for families with young children and have been credited wtih changing the lives and prospects of both parents and children.
Funding for the Children's Centres though has changed and is no longer ring-fenced, which means he grants are likely to be 10.9% down, which in turn means Local Authorities are having to review how they spend the money. As a result, it seems around 250 of these Children's Centres may be at risk of closure.
The charities 4Children and the Daycare Trust have surveyed both local authorities…and only 39% are guaranteeing to ring fence future funding for their centres.
They've also surveyed mothers and found that 83% would like the funding to remain ring-fenced. That 35% say they'll feel isolated without the support that Surestart offers. And that 29% believe they'll miss out on parenting skills if they can no longer attend.
Frank Field, the MP who has responsibility for investigating the link between poverty and life chances says the government should 'grow up' and step in to protect the network of centres.
He told the Times:
“We are in a difficult phase… I see Sure Start as the biggest agent of change for addressing poverty and increasing social mobility in this country but some local authorities are cutting it in half, even though the cut in their budget is 11 per cent,”
“We are now into February and it seems to me people are whistling while Rome burns and they are going to be losing options unless they [intervene] quickly and say to local authorities ‘Please don’t slash and burn in this area.’”
Why not take your Grandchildren along to your local Surestart Children's Centre?
Contrary to popular belief these centres are not aimed at single parents or people who receive benefits, they are for all families with children under 5. As a new, first time mum i have found them to be invaluable, and the best thing is 99% of the activities are absolutely free!
The timetable and activites available do vary slightly from centre to centre, but some of the sessions I have attended with Isla include Baby Massage, Living with Babies, Early days (advice about a range of topics including weaning and first aid)Tiny Talk (baby signing), Rhythm and Rhyme and Breastfeeding support.
Grandparents are welcome to take children along to the sessions as well, you just have to fill in a short form at the centre to register your grandchild (if they've not been before) and include yourself as a carer on their record.
You can details of your local children's centre here:
and more info on the timetable etc. from your lcoal council site.