Never get bored! Book reviews

April 19

NEVER GET BORED: BOOKS FOR THE TREASURED GAPS IN THE SCHEDULE

Sitting at a meeting in College last night, we discussed how children’s days, even those of undergraduates, are timetabled to the nth degree, leaving very little to chance or choice, or to children’s own inspiration and initiatives which can emerge from a period of boredom. There is rarely time for children’s minds to freewheel or for them to think deeply about their world.

For this issue of Salad Days, I have chosen books which children can pick up in a moment of inactivity and decide ‘Yes, this is what I want to explore today’. I still remember the surge of exhilaration I enjoyed on the mornings when I could sit in bed, turning the pages of my Project Ideas Book, making plans and listening to the cooing of the collared doves outside my window. That sound still makes the adrenalin flow today.

I’ll start with Never Get Bored Book published by Usborne Books. With bright illustrations, this has a range of inspiring ideas for the under-10s, from ‘Describe how bored you are in an inventive way’ (e.g. ‘I’m as bored as an astronaut floating in a spacecraft who hasn’t spoken to anyone for 1001 days, and can’t even see out the window because it’s misted over’), to making a bunch of grapes costume from blue and purple balloons, making striped ice cubes, growing vegetables from scraps, and practising spycraft. The last page lists ideas for those who haven’t been inspired by anything earlier in the book – though one of these is to dare to eat a teaspoon of mustard, so you’d have to be really bored! This is a super book – children will love it and, frankly, parents and carers of children too young to read the text could also do well to study its pages for ideas to suggest.

For thinkers rather than doers – or to inspire children to think – I love Why Can’t I Feel the Earth Spinning? And other vital questions about Science by James Doyle, illustrated by Claire Goble. I picked this book up because I myself have never understood why we can’t feel the earth spinning. The explanation is simple and satisfactory – though I still don’t quite understand why, if I jump up, I land back down on the same place. That’s for another book. 

Other questions include ‘why do I dream?’, ‘will there be new mountains?’, ‘can anyone hear me scream in space?’, ‘why is a computer ‘mouse’ called a mouse’, and many more. The answers offer short clear explanations for children beginning to explore how the world around them works – and will inspire them to research further and think of their own follow-up questions.

For those who like to think even deeper, DK’s Children’s Book of Philosophy: an introduction to the world’s great thinkers and their big ideas is a treasure trove. Like all Dorling Kindersley books, it is superbly well-illustrated with a colourful mix of photographs and diagrams. The book is set out in five sections: Is the world real? What am I? Thinking and Feeling. How do I decide what’s right? And Why do we need rules? 

The opening quotation is from Wittgenstein – ‘Philosophy is not a theory but an activity’. He’s right:  tackling any of the sections of this book exercises and energises the mind. What is particularly exciting is that the book doesn’t provide answers but opens questions which will set children thinking. For example, to the question ‘Is my mind different from my body?’ it offers seven different explanations from philosophers for comparison, any one of which is either completely or not at all satisfactory depending on your thought or belief system – and there is plenty of scope for new ideas from a child given space and time to freewheel around the problem.

From the inner world to the outside, I like Peek and Seek, by Violet Peto, illustrated by Charlotte Milner.   With sturdy cardboard fold-out scenes and animals to spot and count, this is an early start in encouraging children to be observant of the world around them. Each double-page spread has a selection of interesting facts about the habitat in the picture – for example the page about ants explains the roles of soldier, leaf-cutter and worker ants in a colony. The page about wolves explains how they communicate and work as a pack. Plenty to spot and talk about – and then to go outside and find real examples (possibly not of the wolf pack!).

Once outside, The Wild Year Book: things to do outdoors through the seasons by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield is a must-have. This pair are brilliant at ideas for games, crafts and adventures for outdoors fun. With activities for all ages; all lengths of available time; and all sizes of group, every child (and adult) will find something to inspire them. How about something as simple as running barefoot through wet grass on a rainy summer’s day?  Making camouflage capes from garden netting, twigs, and leaves, painting your face with mud, and then playing hide and seek? Making nettle bracelets? Making ice windows in winter? Doing a foraged food bake-off challenge over a campfire? Exhausted carers and parents might like the Sleeping Lions Listening challenge …

The outdoor projects in Forest School Adventure: outdoor skills and play for children by Naomi Walmsley and Dan Westall probably need a bit more forward-planning and adult supervision but are inspired. There’s a great section on bushcraft – knots, shelters and dens, collecting water, making natural clay pots, foraged food; the section on ‘bare-hands cooking’ includes spatchcock chicken, and lemon cake cooked in a lemon; and there are a host of other activities like charcoal-making and leaf-printing which teach children a whole range of skills through play. 

The authors say ‘Nature can be both a playground and a classroom, as well as a vast storeroom of things to eat and to build with. Some of a child’s early encounters with nature are rites of passage; discovering the joy of stomping in puddles, building sandcastles …With these discoveries come important never-to-be-forgotten lessons, such as what happens when that muddy puddle is deeper than the height of your wellies …’.

Older children will read and be inspired by this book themselves. But it is also a fabulous resource for parents, especially those who may not have explored outdoors much as children themselves. It will give everyone the confidence to engage with nature. 

Finally, and still on the subject of nature, but funny and ridiculous, is the picture-book You’re Called What?! by Kes Gray and Nikki Dyson. This book, about the Ministry of Silly Animal Names stars a cast of real animals with unbelievable names. From the Cockerpoo to the Bone-Eating Snot Flower Worm (yes, I’ve googled it and it is a real creature which feeds off minke whale carcasses), this book will have children (and probably adults) in fits of giggles throughout. It just shows that truth can be sillier than fiction. 

I hope that this selection of books will give your children a treat when there’s a gap in their busy schedules. I’ve certainly had fun reading them! They are all on the shelves at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk).

Books suggested by Jo Burch

Founder of Words in Walden

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