Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

Making Peg Dolls & More – a very satisfying craft book for families

Posted on | November 24, 2014 | 6 Comments

Making Peg Dolls & More: Toys that spin, fly and bring sweet dreams is a second book by Margaret Bloom full of ideas about how to make the most delightful peg dolls.

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Like many families, now we’re in the run up to Christmas, we’re spending time getting crafty together, making presents and decorations, and this book has given us hours of delight. Full of ideas about how to customise wooden peg dolls into adorable characters, Bloom also provides lots of tutorials for how to use your peg dolls in innovative ways, such as in mobiles, wands, wall hangings and pincushion embellishments.

Super clear and friendly instructions, made beautiful and even easier to follow by the inclusion of simple but beautiful watercolour illustrations along with many photos of all sorts of children making and playing with peg dolls made sure this book really appealed to my kids as soon as they set eyes on it.

That the instructions are easy to follow and result in items which the kids are really proud of was clearly demonstrated by the way my 9 year old, M, took the book off by herself and created her first ever felt toys:

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Although M was totally absorbed by herself in her sewing, as a parent I especially enjoyed Bloom’s emphasis in her instructions on how the whole family can take part in making their own peg dolls; she clearly indicates which parts even the youngest children can get involved with, and encourages us grown-ups to be involved, but also to let our kids do their own things with the dolls. This book isn’t about parents turning out coffee-table-book-worthy gorgeous ornaments (although we’re definitely encouraged to play, sew and create along side the kids); it really is about facilitating children’s exploratory play and creativity.

The book includes a list of suppliers of peg dolls, felt and one or two other items that are especially nice to use (such as artificial/millinery flower stamens) and I would heartily encourage you to gift a bundle of supplies, including some watercolours, with this book so that the recipient can dive in straight away. I’ve personally used Craftshapes for my blank wooden peg dolls in the past and they’ve always be lovely to deal with.

What we started with

What we started with

Here are some of the characters we created:

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Whilst painting, sewing, sticking and playing we listened to:

  • Wedding of the Painted Doll, one of the hit songs from the musical “The Broadway Melody” – indeed, it reach #1 in the charts in 1929! Another version with more lyrics can be heard here.
  • The doll dance from Delibe’s ballet Coppélia
  • Come Over To My Dollhouse by Lunch Money. Whilst in some ways this is a world away from the lovely peg dolls made by Bloom (which are the antithesis to Barbie, who does feature in this song), the video is enormous fun and might inspire you and your kids to make your own video for your favourite music.


  • If you want ideas about how to take things a step further with your peg dolls take a look at:

  • Using corks instead of wooden peg doll blanks. Especially good if you drink a lot of champagne…
  • Using acorns instead of wooden peg doll blanks – I really love these!
  • Turning pinecones and wooden beads into dolls – a priceless idea from Margaret Bloom herself. In fact there are lots of lovely free tutorials on Bloom’s website – I encourage you to take a look! I particularly like the bat tutorial.

  • We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Making Peg Dolls & More: Toys that spin, fly and bring sweet dreams: It is beautiful to look at and filled with enticing projects, which are both achievable and give results to delight in. It is also a book which is very proud to be just a starting point; it’s really about giving you ideas which will bloom in you and your kids’ imaginations.

    What family craft books would you recommend?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

    Some things are worth waiting for: Snow by Samuel Usher

    Posted on | November 20, 2014 | 8 Comments

    Illustrator Sam Usher burst onto the scene two years ago with with a riot of colour and pattern in Can You See Sassoon?, which was shortlisted for the Red House Children’s Book Award 2013. When your first book gets flagged up as a potential prize winner, there is some expectation and anticipation when it comes to future publications.

    More than two years after Can You See Sassoon? was published, Usher is back, and like all good things, it has been worth the wait.

    snowfrontcoverSnow by Sam Usher celebrates that wonderfully exciting feeling in the pit of your stomach when you open your eyes in the morning, draw back the curtains and… your world has been transformed by a deep blanket of snow. The potential for play, the white world waiting to be explored, the possibility to really make your own mark….ahh! Just how quickly can you get out there to delight in at all?

    A young boy zooms through getting ready, frustrated by the time it takes his Grandfather to join him. Will it be worth the wait for other kids are already out there leaving footprints everywhere?

    A whole lot of snowballs and a little bit of childhood magic later, Grandpa and child agree “some things are definitely worth waiting for“. With Snow, I couldn’t agree more.

    snow_-_grandad

    Usher’s illustrations are full of life and energy; there’s a comfortable looseness about them, and I cannot help but draw comparisons (in the best possible way) with Quentin Blake. Perhaps it is because the Grandfather in this story physically reminds me of Blake, with his bald pate and avuncular manner. But it’s also in the noses, the wonky fingers, the hand gestures and I love this stylistic echo. Indeed I get a real kick from these potentially vulnerable pen lines that speak to me of a real person, drawing a line that connects creator, story, reader and listener together.

    With another contender for my favourite page turn of the year, showing how an almost plain white page can produce both gasps and a burst of warm delight, Snow is a wintry classic that will bring much delight and joy, however long you have to wait for it.

    Snow_inside

    Alas weather in our part of the world has been unseasonally warm so I don’t hold out much hope of snow any time this year. Ever the optimist, I instead made some snow to play with in the warmth of our kitchen.

    Snow dough is a moldable yet friable substance akin to commercially available ‘moon sand’, made out of corn flour (corn starch) and oil. We mixed about one part sunflower oil to four parts corn flour, and just for good measure added in a few drops of peppermint essential oil so that our snow dough smelt like Christmas candy.

    snow1

    I smoothed out the snow dough to recreate that blissful untouched vista of snow, and brought out a load of playmobil people and plastic animals (matching those in the book where possible). A small pot of glitter, for pinching and casting over the scene to add a little extra sparkle completed the invitation to play.

    snow4

    Lots of tracks in the snow were made, and because the snow dough is moldable, caches of snowballs and even an igloo were also prepared.

    snow2

    The snow dough has a wonderful crunch to it when you mold it – satisfyingly just like real snow!

    snow3

    Cake and hot chocolate completed our afternoon playing in the “snow”.

    snow5

    Whilst playing in the snow we listened to:

  • Dean Martin sing Let it Snow!
  • Snow Day by Zak Morgan – we really love this one!
  • Snow Day Dance by The Fuzzy Lemons


  • Other activities which could work well alongside reading Snow include:

  • Creating your own snowstorm at home. Inspired by the ‘Snowstorm in China’ magic trick (click here to see in action – I’m assuming shiny trousers are optional), you – and the kids – could tear up large quantities of white tissue paper and then use fans to get the “snow” falling in your home.
  • Using a jam jar to male a snow globe. I particularly like this tutorial on Our Best Bites.
  • Researching how to make the best hot chocolate. Why not make a “science lab” with different types of milk, cocoa vs hot chocolate powder vs melted chocolate, optional extras like marshmallows or flaked chocolate and investigate different ways of making this wintry drink; kids will no doubt enjoy coming up with their own recipes. Here’s a comparison of different recipes to get you started.

  • I know at least one of my readers has already got snow this November (Hello Donna!), but has anyone else had the chance to play in snow yet this year? Or are you heading into Summer?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Snow from the publisher.

    The Story of Money from bartering to bail out

    Posted on | November 17, 2014 | 10 Comments

    storyofmoneyThe Story of Money written by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura is a humorous, wide-ranging tale about the evolution of money, starting with what people did before money was invented, exploring why it came into being and how money systems developed before coming right up to date with a discussion of modern day bank crashes and their consequences.

    Although satisfying and curious facts about (for example) money’s relationship to the evolution of writing, the everyday use of official IOUs even in the 21st century and the remarkably tiny total volume of gold that exists on planet Earth pepper the conversational text, Jenkins presentation of these nuggets is unusual; rather than short, sharp fact boxes, or framed individual paragraphs (writing styles which are very common in non-fiction for children), he weaves a story together creating sustained texts over each 2-3 page chapter (each with their own funny title, echoing Victorian novels).

    This slim hardback volume, ideal for upper primary aged children, is richly illustrated throughout with Satoshi Kitamura’s quirky and slightly wonky comic strip style images; they bring their own brand of humour to an enjoyable, approachable economics text which manages to make things as foreboding as inflation, deflation and taxation come to life.

    mapsandmoneyinside

    The Story of Money is a digestible and entertaining introduction to many aspects of pecuniary history which offers up plenty of starting points for both practical and philosophical discussions about the value of money. An index and short bibliography add to the book’s utility both at home and in the classroom. Prepare to finish it feeling surprised: Surely there aren’t many other economics books which end by reminding us that there’s a great deal more to life than accumulating as much money as possible?

    ****************

    A numismatist was selling low value world currency at a charity table-top sale we recently visited and I took the opportunity to by a bag of coins for £5 (yes, the girls and I did see the irony at using money to buy… money).

    mapsandmoney2

    I threw in a few chocolate coins for good measure and then we set about investigating where our coins came from.

    mapsandmoney1

    On a cheap wall map we highlighted the countries we had coins from, noting those countries which we had coins for but which no longer existed (e.g. Yugoslavia), and also those countries who have currencies are now something other than that which we had coins for (for example we had lots of pre-Euro-era European coins). Some coins also opened up new stories in history for the girls; we had several coins from former UK colonies which referred to their ‘Emperor’.

    mapsandmoney

    That £5 I spent opened up so much exploration; from what coins are made out of, to the sometimes exquisite art on them, via the history they reflect as well as the geography they open up, I was quite amazed at how much interest and enjoyment we got out of a small coin collection (to say nothing of the very tactile and romantic experience of handling coins that have somehow landed up on your kitchen table even though they were made 1000s of miles away, sometime more than 100 years ago – what stories led them into our hands we wondered?).

    Whilst mapping our money we listened to:

  • Money makes the world go round sung by Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret
  • Money for Nothing by Dire Straits (every child’s education ought to include _that_ guitar riff, right?)
  • Money, Money, Money by Abba
  • Money (That’s What I Want) by Barrett Strong (though I also like the Flying Lizzards version)

  • Other activities which go well with reading The Story of Money include:

  • Designing your own coin. The Royal Mint recently ran a UK-wide competition for the design of a new £1 coin. Whilst the competition is now closed you could still use their “Hints and Tips” as a starting point for designing a coin. There was also a recent bitcoin design competition, and a United States Mint competition – just keep your eyes peeled and maybe another such competition which you could enter will turn up.
  • Cleaning coins at the same time as gaining a little bit of scientific knowledge: use electrolysis to make tarnished coins shiny!
  • Creating a Chinese Money Tree, or collecting coins from your birth year.

  • What are your favourite activities for helping your kids learn about money?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Story of Money from the publisher.

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