The Shape Game

posted in: Anthony Browne | 6

On our most recent trip to the library we took home a book which, quite by chance, is a perfect companion to Katie and the Sunflowers (reviewed in the previous blog post): The Shape Game by Anthony Browne (the current UK Children’s Laureate).

An apparently autobiographical story, The Shape Game follows the experiences of a family on an outing to an art gallery.

I was a little boy and didn’t know what to expect.
It was my mother’s idea – that year for her birthday she wanted us all to go somewhere different.
It turned out to be a day that changed my life forever.

As the family explore the gallery Mum tries to engage the reluctant kids and the Dad who is more interested in telling terrible jokes with what they can see. She points out curious details and asks the kids how the scenes they see might be similar to events or occasions in their own lives. As the family start to look more closely, the pictures (sometimes literally) come alive. Before returning home a visit to the gallery gift shop nets a blank notebook and a couple of pens, which soon get put to use:

On the way home Mum showed us a brilliant drawing game that she used to play with her dad. The first person draws a shape – any shape, it’s not supposed to be anything, just a shape.
The next person has to change it into something. It’s fantastic, we all played it for the rest of the journey.
And, in a way, I’ve been playing the shape game ever since….


Like Katie and the Sunflowers, The Shape Game includes both reproductions of original paintings (e.g. by Stubbs and Millais) and reworkings of the original by the illustrator (Anthony Browne) in his own style. M really enjoyed comparing the two versions of the pictures, but most of all she liked the idea of the playing the shape game and so that’s what we’ve done at least once a day for over a week now.


This game is great for nurturing imagination (although sometimes M draws a shape and tells me what I have to turn it into…). I also love it because it is so simple! All you need is a piece of paper and a pen (although two different coloured pens are ideal) – I can see it becoming a stock activity for when we’re travelling on trains or buses or need an activity for 5 minutes whilst we’re waiting or when we’re needing to calm things down a little. It also gets a big thumbs up from both me and M as our “artwork” has been truly collaborative and inclusive: when I set up an art activity for the girls I try to do some painting/drawing etc alongside them, but this time we were actively working together to produce something. It was also an activity that worked well for both my 1.5 and 4 year olds – J also loved drawing shapes for M and me to transform.


Simply learning how to play the Shape Game made this book a great discovery. I also enjoyed the understated role of the mum in trying to educate her children – it all rang so true! The jokes made by the Dad were a little difficult for M to get (“It’s gone, gone forever, I tell you!” said Dad. “What has?” I asked. “Yesterday!” said Dad.) and so I think a slightly older child (say 6-8 years old rather than 4) might get more from the text, but this book was still very much worth reading.

the-shape-game-frontcoverThe Shape Game: 2star

Whilst we’ve been playing the Shape Game we’ve been listening to Picture Gallery by The Times, Art Gallery by Papa Dada and best of all, for dancing and singing along to, Drawing by Barenaked Ladies.

The Shape Game is definitely a good book to read before going to a gallery with your kids, but if you want some more ideas about how you could prepare for such an outing you might find these links interesting:

  • 7 tips for taking children to art galleries by It’s a small world after all
  • Kids in Museums – a charity promoting family-friendly policies and attitudes in UK galleries and museums. I particularly like their manifesto.
  • Here’s a great interview with Anthony Browne

    “Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind as we grow older. The best ones leave a tantalising gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the reader’s imagination, adding so much to the excitement of reading a book,” he said. “Sometimes I hear parents encouraging their children to read what they call proper books (books without pictures), at an earlier and earlier age. This makes me sad, as picture books are perfect for sharing, and not just with the youngest children.”

    I was so happy to read this! What do you think about picture books for older kids (and adults)? And what other books do you like about looking at art or visiting museums?

    Oh! And look out for the next post here at Playing by the book – I’ll be announcing my first giveaway….

    6 Responses

    1. Caroline

      Katie and the Sunflowers is a book our art teacher used to introduce our Take One Picture project last year, run by the National Gallery:
      I once read an interview with Anthony and he was describing how he plays this shape game on school visits – I didn’t realise it was a book, thank you!

    2. Mandy

      What a great book and idea! I think I will order this tonight and incorporate into my Family Math component of our classroom for experiences with shapes for mathematics but absolutely the creativity. You are doing such important and fun things with your girls.

    3. Choxbox

      Hi. Saw this post and had to comment.

      There’s this book by Meredith Hooper called Dog’s Night Out. Awesome.

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