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Educational children’s gifts: Parents and experts give their opinions

With Christmas on the horizon, parents across the UK will be heading to the high street to make their kids’ Christmas lists come true. But with all sorts of flashy and entertaining gifts available, are those with a more educational edge a better choice? And do parents see merit in these developmentally focused presents?

Educational children's gifts: Parents and experts give their opinions

How do educational gifts benefit kids?

To find out whether items that are expressly made and marketed as educational are better for children, we asked Dr Amanda Gummer – founder and managing director of Fundamentally Children, an organisation that helps children develop through play – what she thought of educational gifts.

According to Dr Gummer, educational gifts and books were important, but parents needed to be aware of the way the industry marketed the products: “Many items have a developmental benefit but a lot depends on how they are marketed.

“We need to be careful how we define ‘educational’ when it comes to children’s gifts, as there are a lot of skills that children need to learn.

“We should not undervalue those that promote other key aspects of child development, such as communication, empathy or confidence.”

Do parents factor in education when buying gifts?

To find out whether parents saw merit in gifts marketed as traditionally ‘educational’, we surveyed 1,100 parents of children aged 12 or under.

40% of parents said that they prioritised buying gifts that were entertaining, not educational, and 23% noted that the developmental value of a gift didn’t factor into the choices they made. 12% of parents believed their children deserved a break from school, buying more entertaining gifts as a result.

That said, a number of parents surveyed saw the developmental value in gifts that aren’t traditionally labelled as ‘educational’. 51% believed that fictional books aided development of communication and language skills, while 31% said outdoor toys and games and 23% colouring books help personal, social and emotional growth.

Disney films were also seen as being beneficial, with 35.3% seeing them as a positive influence on the development of communication and language skills. As well as this, 37.5% of parents believe that the Christmas mainstay of board games and puzzles help children develop these areas.

So which educational gifts are best?

According to Dr Gummer, different types of gifts are better suited towards different age groups. For newborns and toddlers, products that promote attachment, physical development and early reading were seen as being best, while for young children, it was important to choose toys that bolstered social skills, problem solving, phonics and reading abilities.

For kids between 10 and twelve, toys and books that promote self-expression and knowledge (non-fiction texts) were best, and for 13-16 year-olds, Dr Gummer thought it important that teens were given communication-based games and literature to help them make sense of the world around them.

Overall, the study shows that many children’s gifts which aren’t explicitly marketed as ‘educational’ can have developmental value. Buying the right presents for children can be stressful, with many parents struggling to find a balance between items that are both entertaining and also aid learning. However, parents shouldn’t worry as every child learns differently and educational value can be found in the strangest of places, even in a fictional book.

Costa First Novel Award Shortlist 2016 Round-up

Some of the most exceptional British and Irish debut authors of the year have been honoured by being named in the Costa First Novel Shortlist 2016 – but which one will be the winner?  Below is a round-up of these remarkable titles.

Costa First Novel Award

Alice Adams, Invincible Summer

The exciting highs and desperate lows of adulthood are illustrated in this beautiful, intricate work, which demonstrates how important lasting love and friendship can be in a hectic world.  The story features a tight-knit group of friends – Eva, Lucien, Sylvie and Benedict – who graduate together in 1997, excited to pursue their hopes and dreams.  Eva, deeply in love with party animal Lucien and desperate to escape the socialist politics of her upbringing, goes to work for a big bank.  Eva’s infatuated admirer Benedict goes on to do a PhD in physics, whilst siblings Sylvie and Lucien opt for a more laidback existence, Sylvie an artist and Lucien a club promoter.  However, the group’s dreams and aspirations are continually denied as they progress through the years, and they find themselves longing for their youth again.  The four are drawn back together again by heartbreak and disappointment – but in ways they could never have foreseen.


Susan Beale, The Good Guy

This novel tells a captivating tale about marriage, love, deceit and self-delusion.  Set in 1960s suburban America, the story features Ted, a car-tyre salesman, and his wife Abigail, who longs for more than the tedious life of a housewife.  Then along comes Penny, a single girl who longs for everything that Abigail has – the husband, the house, the baby.  When Ted and Penny are unexpectedly brought together, Ted becomes infatuated, and starts planning a whole new life with Penny at its core.  But this is only fantasy, and when reality hits, the consequences threaten everything – and everyone – he treasures.


Joanna Cannon, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

This entertaining, comical yet mysterious read stars Grace and Tilly, two ten-year-old girls determined to discover the whereabouts of their missing neighbour, Mrs Creasy.  The girls decide that the best way to do this is through finding God, and so they go door-to-door to locate him.  Several other mysteries are revealed throughout the novel – including an instance of arson and the enigma of what a group of neighbours did nine years ago – and, to explore these various threads, the story is told through six additional perspectives.  This gives the reader a valuable insight into the lives of the neighbours, such as Dorothy, bullied by her menacing husband, Eric; Brian, who’s clearly been drastically over-mothered; and John Creasy, Mrs Creasy’s husband.  Secrets abound in this particular community, making for an intricate, intriguing tale, in which all will be revealed.


Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon

This poignant tale about identity, love and heart-breaking loss wonderfully evokes the culture of 1980s suburban Britain and shares the story of nine-year-old Leon.  He and his beloved baby brother Jake are taken into care when their mother is struggling to cope.  Belong long, however, Jake, a baby born to two white parents, is whisked away by brand new parents, and Leon – born to a white mother and a black father – is inevitably left behind.  Leon must learn to cope with this, but misses his brother intensely.  Some things still make him happy, however, like Curly Wurlys and riding his bike really fast downhill – and, most importantly, stealing enough coins so he can rescue his brother and mother someday.  Featuring a wonderful childlike perspective, a lot of heartache but a lot of hope, this touching story gives readers a fascinating insight into adoption in 1980s London, and reveals the despair and disappointment some children must endure.


Guinevere Glasfurd, The Words in my Hand

This fascinating book re-imagines the true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for a pedantic English bookseller, Mr Sergeant.  She yearns for knowledge and desperately wants to write, but, as a woman and a maid, she is held back by her position in society.  When an enigmatic lodger arrives, however, things will change dramatically – particularly when it transpires that the mysterious Monsieur is French philosopher, René Descartes.  This wonderful work weaves together the tales of Descartes’ search for reason and Helena’s desperation to write, as their worlds collide and overlap, and their feelings for each other deepen.  Helena has lots to learn about literacy, but can teach Descartes much about emotion and love.  But when Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy, can their love survive it?  Historical fiction at its finest, The Words in my Hand gives voice to one of the many previously silent women of history.


Simon Barnes, The Sacred Combe: A Search for Humanity’s Heartland

Everyone has a special place they hold very dear to their heart.  Simon Barnes found this place in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, when, on his first morning, he awoke to find elephants eating the roof of his hut.  In this beloved place, he has known peace, danger, discomfort, fear and a deep sense of ‘oneness’ with the Valley, nature and the world.  The Sacred Combe explores the special places of both the mind and the world, giving special attention to the Luangwa Valley and the support of Pam Carr, the Valley’s great artist.  It’s about the search for paradise and the eternal quest to find such bliss everywhere.


Wyl Menmuir, The Many

This gritty and mysterious tale follows Timothy Buchannan, who buys a derelict house on the edge of a coastal village, and starts to renovate it so that his wife can join him there.  The villagers are perturbed to see smoke rising from the chimney of the old house, becoming first intrigued, then obsessed. Timothy becomes more and more entangled in the uneasy life of the little village, particularly when he offers to take the fisherman Ethan out to sea.  When Timothy begins to ask questions about the previous owner of the house, Perran, he is given only vague answers and confronted with an increasing animosity.  Timothy starts to question why he really came to this isolated place, and must face an uncomfortable truth.  The effects of loss are explored in this novel, as well as the anguish that strikes when our very foundations are swept away.


Francis Spufford, Golden Hill

Set in 1746, when New York was but a small town on the edge of Manhattan Island, this story features a delightful and handsome stranger, Mr Smith, just arrived from England.  When he goes into a counting house on Golden Hill Street, it turns out he has an order for a thousand pounds which he wishes to cash – a perplexing yet compelling proposition.  Can this unfamiliar man be trusted with his fortune, however, when he refuses to say what he will do with it, and in a place already full of financial corruption?  It seems that a young man in fledgling New York can have it all, where a quick mind and a clever tongue can help him reinvent himself, fall in love – but also land himself in a whole lot of trouble.  So what will happen when the enigmatic Mr Smith falls for Tabitha, his creditor’s daughter?


Natasha Walter, A Quiet Life

Laura Leverett’s double life began the moment she stepped onto the boat which would take her across the Atlantic in 1939.  With dreams and aspirations to learn and to love, she was inspired by a Communist woman she met on the journey.  In London, she finds herself caught between two worlds: the suave society of her cousins and their upper-class friends, and those who passionately strive to forge a new society.  Then she comes across a man who seems to weave the worlds together – but he hides a secret she could never have imagined.  She becomes entangled in his secretive life as both love and fear grow.  This novel takes the reader on a journey from London to Washington to the potential respite of the English countryside – but Laura must confront the sinister consequences of her youthful idealism.  Passionate, intense and enthralling, this novel grips the reader and doesn’t let go until the final page is turned.

Top 10 gifts for people who are hard to buy for


What do you get for the person who has everything?  It can seem an impossible task to find something!  But here’s a list of 10 fun and quirky items that might just inspire you.

1) 1001 Quotations to Inspire You

For anyone interested in history, culture, or just witty observations, this book is an ideal gift.  From William Shakespeare to Ellen DeGeneres, this fascinating book shares hundreds of stirring, thought-provoking and amusing quotes, covering topics from art, literature, politics, psychology, religion and philosophy.  It is perfect for busy individuals to dip into every now and then, but for those who wish to know more, each quote is complemented by detailed information on its origins.

2) Hedgehog Doorstop

For something a little sillier, how about an adorable hedgehog doorstop for the animal-lover in your life?  It’s both cute and useful, and would make a great little companion for someone’s home!

3) Robot Mug

This cool and colourful mug would be ideal for a gadget-lover, or anyone who appreciates something a bit different!  The handle of the mug itself is in the shape of a robot, making this an awesome and very unique gift.

4) A Book on One Page

The literature-lovers you know may have jam-packed bookshelves reaching saturation point, but these amazing literary works of art, each comprising a full work of literature beautifully arranged on a single page, are very different to your typical read!  Choose from a selection of wonderful works, including Alice in Wonderland, Shakespearean plays, Jane Austen novels, princess-themed stories and adventure books.

5) Socks: The Rule Book

Did you know about the extensive etiquette concerned with wearing socks?  Me neither.  But at least your friends and family can now be in the know with this funny and informative gift!  This indispensable rule book divulges 10 essential rules when it comes to the serious business of sock-wearing.  Unbeknownst to most of us, crimes of fashion are being committed every day when it comes to hosiery, but this book provides great advice on how to avoid this fate.  It answers all the important questions, such as: which socks best complement brogues?  And are patterned socks permissible with sneakers?  Every sock secret will be revealed in this humorous read.

6) Paint Your Own Ceramic Mug Set

Perhaps you know your friend would love a mug, but you’re not sure which mug to get them?  Get them to paint their own!  They’ll love tailoring their gift to their very own taste with this set of colourful paints and not one, but two white mugs.  They’d make great ornaments, artworks, or unusual pen-pots!

7) Hurrah for Gin by Katie Kirby

Perfect for any parent, this riotous read will be hugely relatable for anyone who’s raised a child.  It contains absolutely no useful advice whatsoever, but does prove highly entertaining with its candid portrayal of the wonderful highs and desperate lows of parenthood, complemented by a series of amusing stick-man illustrations.

8) Vintage Learn to Play Set with Book – Harmonica

Few people realise how much they’d love to play the harmonica until they have one, so indulge your friends and family with this gorgeous vintage learn-to-play set!  Whether they want to pursue their harmonica dreams, or just play for fun, this kit will take the harmonica novice to the harmonica pro, with easy-to-follow instructions and a numbered guide.

9) Colour and Doodle Gift Box

Colouring for adults is now a hugely popular activity, helping grown-ups to relax and be mindful in a chaotic world.  With this gift box, your friend or family member will be treated to a beautiful book of botanical patterns, six high-quality colouring pencils, and a smaller book of colouring and wordsearches.

10) Tequila Mockingbird by Tim Federle

This fabulous cocktail book is perfect for the book-lover and the booze-lover.  It combines the titles of much-loved classic novels with delicious drink recipes and a good dose of humour.  Recipes include Gin Eyre, Bridget Jones’s Daiquiri, Rye and Prejudice and Huckleberry Sin.  It also contains alcohol-free concoctions for the kids (or for the recovering reader), such as Charlie and the Chocolate Fake-tini and Pear the Wild Things Are.


Competition – Great Literary Bake Off

Bruce Bogtrotter-inspired chocolate cake


Everyone remembers the bit in Roald Dahl’s Matilda when poor Bruce Bogtrotter is forced to eat an enormous chocolate cake just to himself. We know that there will be some who would like to try it for themselves, especially as this week we’re celebrating the centenary of Roald Dahl, so we’ve put together a Bruce Bogtrotter-inspired chocolate cake recipe for you and the little ones to try – ‘you can do it, Brucey!’

For the chocolate cake:

3 large eggs
175g self-raising flour
175g caster sugar
175g softened butter
1½ level tsp baking powder
40g cocoa powder
4 tbsp boiling water

For the chocolate spread:

150ml double cream
150g plain chocolate

You will also need:

2 x 17cm deep sandwich tins, greased and lined with non-stick baking paper


  1. Preheat the oven to 180C, gas 4.
  2. Beat the eggs, flour, caster sugar, butter and baking powder until smooth in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Put the cocoa in separate mixing bowl, and slowly add the water to make a stiff paste. Add to the rest of the cake mixture.
  4. Put into the sandwich tins, level the top and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 mins.
  5. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn on to a wire rack to cool completely.
  6. To make the icing: measure the cream and chocolate into a bowl and carefully melt over a pan of hot water over a low heat, or gently in the microwave for 1 min. Stir until melted, then set aside to cool a little and thicken up.
  7. To ice the cake: spread half of the chocolate spread on one of the cakes, then lay the other cake on top, sandwiching them together.
  8. Use the remaining chocolate spread to ice the top of the cake – and gorge!

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