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Re-Entry

I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live abroad – an opportunity I enjoyed, appreciated immensely, and will remember the rest of my life. After four very full months, and one very long day – an hour drive to the airport, a two hour check-in before departure, a 12 hour flight to SFO, and a two-hour drive to Sacramento – we came home. It was a joy to see our children – especially since they are so grown up they could pick us up at the airport and drive us home.

We got home just before Christmas so we were able to do all the family traditions and activities. Lights on the house, tree trimming, food extravaganzas… the usual. I had a week to recover from the holidays before I returned to work on January 3.

As I walked into Fairytale Town, its magical charm took over as usual. The Castle, Shoe Slide, Crooked Mile, Sherwood Forest, Stages, and Gardens looked the same as they did before I left – minus the tree leaves. The animal menagerie was the same as well, only a bit fuller with their winter coats. 

The board of directors and staff were a bit leaner than when I left.  Two Board Members completed their maximum nine years of service, and our Staff is typically smaller during the slower winter months. Other than that, they too were the same as when I left. A little tired after a long and busy year (our highest attended year in recent history!), but still dedicated to our mission of promoting the imagination, creativity and education of children – and working hard to make sure we provide meaningful experiences for our community.

And that, I realized, is the magic of Fairytale Town. Brilliant, dedicated people working hard for a common goal: to provide children and families with opportunities to spend time together in imaginative play.

It is good to be back at a place I love and with people I admire and enjoy working with. I am grateful to be part of the magic of Fairytale Town!


The Wisdom of Flight Attendants

Flight attendants are onto something. You definitely need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anything or anyone else. Here’s to them!


Access to Culture – Part 2

Train Station Sign

Public transportation makes it possible to get to all of the cultural activities London offers. It runs pretty much 24/7 – with the occasional strike and shut down of course.

I was able to get everywhere I needed to go on public transportation. Museums, playgrounds, markets, movies, theatres, restaurants, lectures, concerts, cathedrals… you name it, I could get there by bus or tube (the London underground).

Public transportation is good for other reasons.

It’s great for physical activity. Yes, even though you’re riding somewhere, you have to walk to get to the bus stop or tube station, perhaps not far, but farther than the driveway or parking lot. (I am happy to say I lost 10 pounds from this alone. I am sad to say my sedentary ways are now taking their toll.)

Buggy Parking

In my humble opinion, in addition to creating a more mobile environment, it also creates a more literate community. When you have to sit (or stand) for at least an hour a day people use that time to read. In fact, newspapers are handed out to people during the morning and evening rush hours. It is amazing to see people holding a book, magazine or newspaper in one hand – and turning the pages – as they hold on to handrails with the other.

Finally, public transportation is good for families. It allows older children to get places without having to be carted about by their parents. This gives much more freedom to both the child and the parent. And, of course, you don’t have to worry so much about drivers under the influence…

Taxi at Discovery Children’s Story Centre

It cost me about $40 a week for a public transportation pass to get pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. I spend at least that much a week on my car if I include gas, maintenance and insurance.

In addition to getting around in the city, I could take public transportation to other cities and countries pretty easily and cheaply also. I was able to get to Halifax, Leeds, Oxford, Staffordshire, Great Missendon, Portsmouth and South Hampton in England, as well as Ireland, Scotland, Slovenia and France.

Train Station

The ability for people from all walks of life to get pretty much anywhere they want to go with out driving is an amazing thing.  In my mind, public transportation is what makes a world class city.


Access to Culture – Part 1

Like its playgrounds, museums in London are busy places buzzing with visitors and activities. In my opinion, there are at least two reasons that they are so central to every day life: free admission and public transportation.

British Museum

Being trained to get the maximum value for the dollar, I was excited about free admission to museums because of the “savings” I was getting. I soon realized there were other benefits as well. When I did go a museum, I could spend time looking at one gallery or even one piece of art because I knew I could go back again and again to see the other galleries and art. One afternoon I popped into the British Museum just to see the netsuke (Japanese carvings) they had on display. A few days later I went back and spent a few hours with the Elgin Marbles. And one afternoon when it was unusually slow, I was able get close to the exhibit of the Rosetta Stone which is usually mobbed with crowds.

Because I had no financial ‘risk,’ I also found that I went to museums I would normally not visit, which opened my horizons. I am not a big fan of interior design, but because it was free, I visited the Geffrey Museum and enjoyed looking at ‘family rooms’ from different eras. It gave me sense of history from a different perspective, and made me appreciate the comforts of home. 

Obviously, on a personal level I greatly appreciated and took advantage of the free admission to museums and cultural attractions. However, the most important aspect of the free admission is the public benefit.

Whenever I went to a museum it was busy – full of tourists, yes, but also locals and students. The tourists crowded in during regular operating hours. The locals took advantage of the late nights and special programs offered. Classes of young students sat on the floor in front of paintings to learn about subject matter, art genres, and history from museum educators. Older students – from teenagers to senior citizens – could be found sketching copies of the great masters or taking notes on design trends, science discoveries or archeological finds.

London Museum

Visiting museums is much like playing together in a playground. When people play together ‘common experiences’ are created. When we play together – whether on a playground or in a museum – we learn how to work together. And when people work together amazing things can be accomplished.  Public transportation being one of them. But more on that later.


Full of the Dickens!

It is hard to imagine the holidays without the great English writer Charles Dickens. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a seasonal standard and Dickens Fairs are popular winter attractions. Some historians claim that Dickens’ portrayal of Christmas as a secular, family-centered festival of generosity and merriment redefined the spirit of the season and influenced the way we observe the holiday in Western nations to this day. (Certainly the terms ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Bah! Humbug!’ have become part of our seasonal vernacular.)

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth, a special exhibit on his life, work and relationship with the city is on display at the Museum of London, and his home on Doughy Street was recently renovated and re-opened to the public. Both reveal the life behind the legend – and a remarkable rags-to-riches life it was. From debtor’s prison to child laborer to successful writer, Dickens used his experiences to create iconic characters and bring much-needed awareness to the plight of the poor and working classes. Dickens continued to be a champion for the poor throughout his life with his philanthropy and campaigns for social justice and reforms.

I have seen many ‘Dickensian’ traditions this season. Generous gifts of food, clothing and money make a great impact to many people and charitable organizations. The time families and friends spend together while baking, shopping, decorating, and playing games is time that is treasured. The family-centered festival of generosity that Dickens allegedly created is certainly cause for celebration.

May your holiday celebrations be full of the Dickens – with family, friends, generosity, fun, games, and merriment!


Holiday Cheer

Carols

I felt like I was in ‘Who-ville’ earlier this evening.

I walked up the hill with some neighbors to Highgate Village for the annual Carols night. Just as in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, all the villagers (and other neighbors close enough to walk) gathered at the town square and sang together. The local school band and choir accompanied and led the crowd of several hundred in the songs. And everyone sang! Buckets were passed along for donations to the local hospital. Everyone gave! There was no Christmas tree, no presents and no roast beast — just family, friends and neighbors singing together on a cold winter’s night. It was a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

People have been asking me about the holiday traditions I have seen here, and so far this is my favorite one. I understand that gatherings like this occur in many towns across England, and in other neighborhoods in London.

Of course there are a few other traditions I’ve noticed…

German Market in Rochester

German Markets are common sites during the holidays. The markets have rows of booths with all kinds of goods to sell – from gloves and scarves to preserves and perfumes. Food booths offer hearty German fare to eat while wandering the stalls. You can also buy cheeses, nuts, breads, wines and savories to take home. The Markets have nice lighting display — simple but magical. It is amazing to a weather-wimpy Californian, but they stay open in the cold and rain.

Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park appears to offer the largest Christmas Market in town. In addition to the usual fare and lighting displays, it has a bunch of carnival rides and an ice skating rink. They too are open rain or shine.  Outdoor ice skating rinks are another winter tradition. There are rinks all over town. Many are next to museums and palaces which adds to their magic.

View from the Ice Rink at the Natural History Museum

Holiday lights here are different than at home. Like home, all the big shopping streets have large and lovely light displays and store fronts, and many squares and small shopping areas are lit as well. Unlike home, very few homes have outdoor lights. You will see decorations and Christmas trees in homes, offices and restaurants but, except for the shopping streets, decorations are more simple and subdued in general.

Oxford Street Lights

I guess it’s no big surprise that the holidays seem a little less commercial over here than at home. Perhaps the surprise is that so many of the traditions and activities take place outdoors. It is a nice way to welcome and celebrate the winter season. And it’s a nice way to learn what it’s like to be a ‘Who’.


Eureka! National Children’s Museum

I found it! As I debarked from the train I looked over the railings and saw… Eureka!

Eureka! is the National Children’s Museum in England. The only museum of its type in the UK, Eureka! has hundreds of hands-on exhibits designed to teach children about themselves and the world around them.

Based on the North American model of children’s museums, the 14+ acre site includes a two-story museum with six galleries and an outdoor area that features a sensory ‘Wonder Walk.’ The facility also houses a large nursery (what we would call a day care or preschool).  

The main exhibition galleries for children 3 to 11 are Me and My Body, Living and Working Together, Our Global Garden and Sound Space. There are also two galleries for children under 5.

Me and My Body allows children to learn about how the body and the five senses work. They can step inside a giant mouth to find a wobbly tooth and can learn how joints work by riding a skeleton bicycle.

Living and Working Together creates a town square atmosphere and children can learn about the jobs people do in daily life. Money can be printed, deposited and withdrawn at a bank. Letters can be mailed at the Post Office, and cars can be filled up and worked on at the garage.

The Global Garden features six themed gardens – Town, Country, Jungle, Ocean, Ice and Desert. Children learn what is precious and unique about each garden and how they are connected to each other and themselves.

Sound Space provides enables children to explore sound, music and performance through state-of-the-art technology. Visitors help Orby, a young alien from a faraway planet, understand and enjoy music.  In doing so, they learn about the unique relationships between music and creativity, science, technology and the arts.

As I spoke with their chief executive, I learned that there are many similarities between FT and Eureka! Both are places where children play to learn and adults learn to play. Both have Yellow Brick Roads leading to our entries. Both are charitable organizations that serve about 250,000 visitors each year.  We each have sensory gardens and interactive exhibits. We each offer special events and programs for children and families. We both have diverse sources of revenue and earn close to 80 percent of our budgets with fundraising filling the gap. We both are landlocked and look for unique ways to create new experiences for our communities. Both of us are major attractions in our areas.

There are some differences as well (besides the obvious that they have a large indoor space).  Founded in 1992, Eureka! is technology heavy. Nearly all of their exhibits rely on technology of some sort, and lighting and sound are also key elements in the displays. They spend a lot of their staffing resources on technical support as well as on the day care/pre-school. They call their entry-level staff members ‘Enablers.’ They offer consultancy services on play to community organizations and colleges, and have an outreach vehicle they take places. They survey their audience religiously. They charge a high admission fee per person, but it can be used for a year of visits. (In other words, once you pay you can attend as often as you like for a year, much like our membership.)

As you can see, just like the children who visit them, I had a good learning experience during my visit to Eureka!  and will come home with stories to tell and things to do.


City Farms

Mud Chute Farm and Park

In the shadows of skyscrapers sheep are grazing. In the rubble of construction zones gardens flourish.  London’s City Farms make it possible for urban children to see how food grows, and to connect with farm animals and nature. There are about a dozen City Farms throughout London. I visited a couple.

Mud Chute Park and Farm sits between the posh high-rises of Canary Wharf’s financial district and the transient neighborhood along the river Thames. This is not your well-manicured English park. It is natural and unruly. The 32 acre green has an equestrian center, chickens, ducks, pigs, sheep, community gardens, a restaurant, open fields and football pitches (aka soccer fields).  The park is open to all, and children and adults alike can wander in the fields – in fact, they can wander in the very same fields the sheep graze in! Who knew humans and farm animals could handle close contact like this?!

Cow and Cranes

Across town, the Hackney City Farm also offers children the chance to grow food and interact with animals. Though smaller in size, the farm delivers very unique learning programs. Bicycle maintenance, beekeeping and, yes, basket weaving, are among their course offerings. How cool to be able to learn a trade before you’re 12! The Farm also offers school workshops on the chicken lifecycle, growing food, bike power and creative recycling. Brilliant!

London is famous for its cultural amenities and everyone has easy access to the arts and parks.  Its City Farms aren’t as prominent, but they are just as important. Connecting urban children with agriculture and rural experiences makes them more aware of the world around them – and may even provide them with a lucrative trade when they grow up!


Whizzbanging Writers

It’s been a whizzbanging week full of inspiration from books and authors.

From the Roald Dahl Galleries

I began the week with a visit to the Southbank Centre to see children’s book author Frank Cotrell Boyce read from his new book, The Unforgotten Coat. The book tells the story of two brothers from Mongolia, and their immersion into the little town of Bootle, England. The brothers’ new school mates are fascinated by their nomadic life in Mongolia and with the special coats they have. After the family is taken away in the dead of night, the students discover a coat is left behind in the classroom. It remains hanging there and serves as an ongoing reminder of the brothers.

From the Roald Dahl Galleries

About 100 people came to presentation. Boyce read from the book and then opened up a dialogue with the audience. The children in the audience were well-familiar with his other books and asked a ton of questions – everything from what books he read as a child to where he found inspiration for his characters. Like his books, Boyce was warm, funny and thoughtful. He made a point to talk about the importance of reading for pleasure, and shared how meaningful books were to his life. He puts his money where his mouth is – he wrote the book to support The Reader Organization, a charity and social enterprise dedicated to making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy and engage in reading. 

From the Story Centre

A few days later I headed up to Great Missenden to visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. What a place! Full of energy, the Museum not only tells the tale of Roald Dahl and his books, it also inspires children to generate their own stories. The Galleries offer dynamic exhibitions about Dahl’s life and books. Miss Honey’s Classroom offers space for school children to learn about character, plot and word play. The Story Centre provides children with places to devise and record their own stories. Bags of props, costumes, pencils and paper are throughout the facility to spark and capture ideas. The Museum makes excellent use of technology to impart information, inspire stories and record them. You could listen to soundtracks of authors talking about how they wrote, you could record your own story ideas and play them back, and you could use props to film your story.  The Story Centre also houses a replica of Dahl’s famous writing hut so you could see how the master wrote his books. The Museum recently acquired Dahl’s actual writing hut, and will be under renovation this winter to incorporate it into the facility.

Replica of Dahl’s Writing Hut

The Museum and Story Centre also encourages its audience to wander through the town of Great Missenden and visit sites that Dahl frequented. A Village Trail takes you to the library, post office, train station and other buildings that provided inspiration for settings in Dahl’s books.  A Countryside Trail leads you through fields and woods that are featured in many of his stories.  The trails are nearly as inspiring as the museum and the man.

Saturday morning, I headed to the National Theatre to see a talk about the great Irish playwright Sean O’Casey.  The Abby Theatre’s production of Juno and the Paycock is now at the National, and O’Casey’s daughter Shivaun, the Abby’s archivist Mairead Delaney, and playwright Frank McGuinness were on hand to discuss his work and life with moderator James Naughie. Actors from the Abby were also there to perform selections of his work.  The audience of 300 or so got to hear about O’Casey the man, see play submission and box office records from the Abby’s archives (complete with scribbles from Yeats!), and a working script from The Plough and the Stars. The 90-minute program ended with a recording of O’Casey himself, speaking on his views of theatre. To him, theatre should encapsulate all the arts – writing, music, design, architecture and painting – exactly what his plays do.    

From the Story Centre

The audience knew the writer and his works, and asked provoking questions about why he left Ireland, his relationship with Yeats, how he drew inspiration from the struggles of his time, and how he dealt with criticism from his contemporaries for his portrayal of it. Fascinating stuff.

Present and past, writers have been capturing the world we live in so we can better see ourselves – or creating new worlds so we can gain fresh perspectives on ourselves. Some record the words heard around them to find sense and meaning during chaotic times.  Others make up words to illustrate the new worlds they create. Either way, it’s captivating and whacktastic! 

Countryside Trail


Children and War

The Children’s War Poster

It is difficult to ignore the effects of war in London. The bombings during World War II have left their marks. And then there’s the Imperial War Museum and the hit production War Horse.

The imposing building of the Imperial War Museum (the former site of Beldam mental hospital) houses permanent exhibitions of tanks, airplanes, guns and helicopters. It has a Foxhole experience that you climb into to feel what it was like to be a soldier in World War I and a Blitz experience where you can feel what it was like to like to be in London during World War II. These personal experiences are eye-opening for Americans who have not had wars of this magnitude on their soil. The powerful Holocaust exhibit also creates empathy by showing personal items of victims and video recordings of survivors sharing their war experiences. Several of the exhibits are not recommended for children under age 13.

The Museum is currently showing a special exhibit called The Children’s War. The Exhibit takes us through the homes of British families during World War II, showing displays of kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms of the times, posters about food rationing and victory gardens, bomb shelters, gas masks, and so on. There is emphasis on how families in the city sent their children to the country where it was safer, and on the kinder transport which brought Jewish children to England from Nazi Germany. There is also information and exhibits on how children played during war time. (More proof of its importance!)

I was fortunate to spend some time with educators at the Museum. The Learning Department has Family Education programs for out-of-school offerings and Formal Education programs that serve their large school audience. Education programs on the Holocaust exhibit have been developed for secondary school children (Grades 9-12) and those programs alone serve more than 30,000 students a year. The Children’s War exhibit is geared more for the primary school children (Grades 4-8).

The Learning Department is doing its job well. The children I saw at the Museum were interested and engaged in the exhibits, and took the subject matter seriously.

I also was fortunate to see the brilliant production of War Horse.  Based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, War Horse is an incredibly moving story about a horse that is thrust into the chaos of the First World War – the last war to use horses as the major form of transport. The story shows the strong bond between the horse Joey and his young master Albert. When Albert’s father sells Joey to the army, Albert promises they will be united. The action follows both of their lives as they maneuver through the trenches, barbed wire and madness of war.

Joey

All the horses and farm animals in the production are portrayed by puppets and puppeteers. The puppets were fascinating pieces of artistry and engineering. The adult Joey had at least three people operating and voicing him. After a while you either stopped noticing the puppeteers, or you began watching them closely to see how they were moving this amazing piece of machinery. It made the animal characters no less real to see the workings behind their anguish and joy.

War Horse has been included in children’s libraries and bookstores since it was published in 1982. The play has been in London for many years, opening at the National Theatre in 2007 and playing at the New London Theatre since 2009. I understand that Steven Spielberg is now making a major motion picture of War Horse.

A Piece of the Berlin Wall Outside the Imperial War Museum

It’s always good to see a children’s book on the world stage. And it is positive to see that children are also on the world stage, learning about the foibles and follies of our past.