The natural nativity

By | Christmas, Education
by Sally-Ann Barker
Potter’s House Preschool

It’s that time of year when Early Years practitioners are beginning to think about how to make Christmas magical for the children in their care. For a vast number of children Christmas doesn’t look like the John Lewis adverts – it’s a time of year that has the potential to spark a lot of emotions that are difficult to process and even more difficult to vocalise. So, when we think about putting on a nativity this year it’s worth asking ourselves who we’re doing it for? It’s a question I prompt my staff to ask themselves in every area of their practice several times a day. Who am I doing this for? Why? Who does it benefit? The nativity is much the same.

Many moons ago early on in my career, I assisted with nativity prep for my preschoolers – aged two to four. I watched as my manager wrote a script, sourced costumes, coached the children with lines, taught the children songs and definitely lost her mind for a good month. We all know that feeling. The children were superb; they were shining examples of confidence and resilience during every run through. I couldn’t tell you if any of them actually had any idea what was expected of them, let alone understood the nativity story at all. After a gruelling three weeks of nativity prep – during which time there was a vastly limited amount of natural learning going on – the day came for the children to perform. The little girls with blond hair were angels, the boys were shepherds and wise men, the little girl with dark hair was Mary – we’ve seen it a thousand times, let’s not even begin to talk about the politics of casting roles.

The parents, grandparents and younger siblings filled the big hall and the anticipation and excitement were palpable. I’ve always loved the buzz of a good ‘show’ and it was lovely to see the pride on the parents’ faces.

The curtains opened and the music started and the children stood stock-still. Nobody sang. Some waved at their parents, some cried, one ran off the stage and sat with their baby brother, one had an accident and one started screaming at the top of her voice in sheer terror. After a few minutes and some reassuring cuddles a few started to sing. The rest is a blur, I have vague memories of parents thanking the staff and taking pictures of the children but in between I think I probably have deliberate memory loss.

It was the last day of term so I spent the next two weeks recovering from the stress and confusion. With it being so early on in my career, I didn’t have the confidence to ask why on earth we put them through that but I’d love to go back in time and ask all the questions I should have asked then. Why did we do this? What developmental benefit was there? What message is this sending to the families who don’t celebrate Christmas? Because when you ask yourself those questions as a practitioner, it changes your perception. Our responsibility isn’t the cute photo of a little boy dressed up as a donkey for his grandma’s mantlepiece. It’s not making sure the children are able to sing ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ word perfectly.

Our responsibility is the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the children in our care – their learning and development too.

For as long as the responsibility has been on me to ensure Christmas is acknowledged and celebrated within a setting, I have made an effort to remove all pressure on the children, staff and parents. I try to make it as natural as possible, there are no expectations of anyone and nobody is asked to ‘perform’. For story time we read versions of the nativity and books about how other cultures celebrate – but it’s just story time. We have a small world play nativity scene on offer and some traditional costumes available for dressing up. We have Christmas songs playing in the background and offers of card making on the table but as always, they are all offers and not requirements.

We often see a natural nativity and if we are quick enough, we can catch glimpses of it on film. We see the children decide to dress up and act out what they heard during story time because they made the connection on their own. We see the way they’ve interpreted the story and the wonderfully imaginative additions they’ve made to it – Joseph wasn’t a carpenter, he was Spiderman. We see them putting Mary on the donkey in the small world play and dinosaurs on the roof of the stable roaring loudly at the baby Jesus in the crib. Most importantly of all, we see the learning outcomes – the development of language, sequencing and imaginative thinking. We have happy children, relaxed staff and parents who aren’t up until the early hours gluing cotton wool onto a t-shirt for their baby’s sheep costume.

There is no right or wrong way to celebrate anything in your setting, provided you’re doing it for the right reasons.

For more information please contact Sally-Ann at or call 07375 379148


The RSPB’s top tips for a greener Christmas

By | Christmas

As the festive season approaches, the RSPB, the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, share their top tips on how to have a Christmas that’s kinder to wildlife and the planet too.

While the festive period is wonderful, it can create tonnes of unnecessary waste each year. Wondering what you can do to help reduce your waste and impact, gift more sustainably or looking to find a new use for those items that would usually end up in the bin? The good news is, it’s easy and often cheaper to go environmentally friendly. So, with no sacrifices needed, read on for the RSPB’s top five small changes that make all the difference.

1. Oh Christmas tree
While the plastic vs. real Christmas tree debate rages on with no clear ‘green’ winner, there are thankfully options for disposing of your real tree that can help to make you a responsible Christmas tree owner.

The RSPB recommend checking if your local council is offering a tree recycling service for a cut tree, or you could consider renting a tree from a Christmas tree farm that will re-use the tree year after year. Potted trees can also be planted in your garden or re-potted in a larger tub ready for next year.

If you’re still struggling to get rid of a cut tree, cutting it up and stacking the logs in a quiet and sheltered part of the garden can provide a wonderful home for wildlife too, according to the RSPB. To find more inspiring ways to give the nature on your doorstep a home this Christmas, see the charity’s handy guides –

2. Give the gift of togetherness
Giving a gift that focuses on shared experiences often creates warmer memories and is more appreciated than a purchased gift. Getting out to a nature reserve is a great way to reconnect, and thankfully the RSPB has a great range of over 200 reserves across the UK to visit.

Family membership with the RSPB can cost as little as £6 a month, and if you take a homemade cake and a picnic you’ve got the most wonderful day out. This option is great for letting little ones blow off some steam too! To find your nearest reserve to explore, see

3. Under the tree
Supporting a charity doesn’t mean you have to set up a rolling monthly donation; the RSPB has some fantastic shops on their sites across the country stocked with unique, wildlife inspired and ethically sourced treats inside. The charity have so much more on offer than bird care products – think homeware, food and drink, cosmetics and toys and books galore – find your nearest store or shop online at

For the wildlife lover in your life, a pair of binoculars or telescope can make the perfect gift. The RSPB have a fantastic range suitable not just for wildlife experts, but beginners too. Whether it’s a pair of binoculars for the family to spot nature in your own garden, a telescope to use out birding, or compacts that make seeing wildlife on your summer hikes that little bit extra special, the charity have something for everyone. With friendly experts on hand at a range of RSPB stores on reserves across the country, head out for a lovely day out and a spot of Christmas shopping all at the same time!

If you can’t decide from the RSPB’s extensive range of gifts and treats, wrap up an RSPB gift card this year instead. What’s more, when you purchase any gift through the RSPB, there’s the added benefit that the income raised helps fund the RSPB’s conservation work too.

4. All wrapped up
There might be a lot of glitter round at Christmas time, but do you know the effect it has on the environment? Glitter is becoming a growing problem due to the microplastics used that then make their way into our oceans.

Thankfully, cutting down on glitter doesn’t need to mean cutting out little touches such as Christmas crackers and decorations, as sustainable options are becoming easily available. There are great alternatives out there – think recyclable wrapping paper, sustainable crackers, and responsible tableware and decorations.

5. Lessen the bin load
If you’re bins looking a bit full, why not upcycle? The RSPB has some crafty ways to repurpose your sweet wrappers, cardboard tubes or bottle tops while keeping the kids entertained – take a look at the charity’s creative ideas for your waste

According to the RSPB, winter is also the perfect time to be feeding your garden birds. You don’t need a fancy feeder – check out the charity’s handy video guide to making a window feeder from a recycled milk bottle

Don’t forget that some kitchen scraps, like cheese, cooked rice and potatoes provide a great energy source for birds, or you can also find out what’s best to feed the birds in winter, using the RSPB’s handy seasonal feeding guide

Finally, there are also plenty of simple switches you can make to reduce the amount of plastic and other rubbish that ends up in landfill.

Why not start with this range of range of beautifully designed homeware with nature in mind from the RSPB

The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.


lonely child at christmas

Coping at Christmas

By | Christmas, Mental health, Relationships
by Edmond Chan
Childline Supervisor
image by Ross Bolger

For many children and families, Christmas can be the most magical and exciting time of the year. But for many others Christmas can also be a more difficult and challenging time. This Christmas, Childline is preparing to help thousands of children and young people, both day and night, as many struggle to cope with loneliness during the festive period. There are many reasons why children may feel lonely at Christmas – some may be struggling with their mental health whilst others may be in homes that are not safe.

What is loneliness?
Children and young people don’t need to be physically alone or cut off to feel lonely. They might be surrounded by other people but still feel like they’re on their own. Maybe they’re struggling to make friends or have low self-esteem. Loneliness can make young people feel down. It’s natural for children to feel lonely at times.

Reasons why children and young people can feel lonely at Christmas can include:
• Feeling misunderstood and ‘invisible’, while those closest to them struggle to understand their feelings.
• Ever-growing influence of social media in their lives leading them to compare themselves negatively to others.
• Struggling to fit into new surroundings after moving house or changing school.
• Losing someone close to them after a death or broken relationship.
• Bullying.
• Experiencing abuse or neglect.
• Don’t get on with their family.
• Have an illness or disability.

As a result of their low mood young people will often spend a lot of time in their bedrooms or online, which can exacerbate their loneliness. In the worst cases some may feel so desperate that they self-harm to cope with their negative feelings, or may even contemplate ending their own life.

One 15-year-old girl who contacted Childline last Christmas said: “I feel sad all the time and keep thinking about suicide. I just don’t want to be here and cry all the time. I have so many bad thoughts and I am glad Christmas day is over as I feel like I should be happy and have to put on a fake smile for my family. It’s really hard to deal with life.”

What signs should parents look out for if they think their child may be struggling this Christmas?
Symptoms and signs can change from person to person but typical things to look out for include angry outbursts at themselves or others, becoming withdrawn from friends and family, irritability as well as problems eating or sleeping.

If you’re worried your child might be experiencing loneliness and unsure what to do, we have some advice to help support you both:
• Start a conversation when no-one will interrupt, perhaps during a bike ride or car journey.
• Try to stay calm if your child tells you something alarming as it may stop them from confiding in you again.
• If your child isn’t ready to talk straight away try again in a few days’ time.
• Listening is important and shows your child you value what they’re telling you.

The first step is always to talk to your child. Ensure it’s in a safe environment and talk to them about how they’re feeling.

A child should never feel so isolated and helpless that they see no way out. We all have a part to play in helping a young person before they reach crisis point. It is vital that children and young people know they always have someone to talk to and they never have to suffer alone, which is why Childline is always here for them.

Childline’s advice for children and young people who are suffering loneliness is:
• Take a break if your family is starting to annoy or upset you.
• Don’t compare your Christmas to other people’s, or what’s said on social media. Every Christmas is different.
• Tell someone you trust how you feel.
• Track how you feel in a mood journal.
• Think about positive things.
• Don’t be hard on yourself – it can take time to feel better.
• Visit the loneliness and isolation page on the Childline website for more advice.
• Call Childline free and in confidence on 0800 1111 or visit to chat to a counsellor online.

Christmas is the time of year where we think about children, and most of them are happy, excited and loved. But for some children, Christmas can be the hardest time of the year. Childline will continue to be there for all children who feel they have nowhere else to turn – this Christmas and beyond.

Children can call Childline at any time on 0800 1111,
visit or download the ‘For Me’ app.

Any adult concerned about the welfare of a child or young person can call the NSPCC helpline for free 24/7 on 0808 800 5000.

Just £4 pays for Childline to answer a call this Christmas from a child in need of support, to donate visit

How to get your children to sleep on Christmas Eve

By | children's health, Christmas, Health

Getting young children into their beds and staying there can challenge parents at the best of times, let alone the night before Christmas; one in three adults have to jump out of bed on Christmas morning between 4am and 7am!
World sleep expert from the University of Oxford and co-founder of digital sleep improvement programme Sleepio, Professor Colin Espie, has given us his top five tips to get your kids off to sleep before Santa arrives.

1. Be active during the day
There is plenty of evidence that regular exercise can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night. Take a break from Christmas movies and head to the park to help expend excess energy in good time before bed.

2. Stick to bedtime routines and rituals
A consistent bedtime routine, or a set of specific ‘rituals’ before lights out, will signal that it’s time to sleep. If you’re staying away from home, find ways to recreate parts of the routine, even if they are happening later than usual. Preparing for bed in the same order each night (such as bath, brushing teeth, stories, goodnight hug), will help with readiness for sleep, wherever you are. Even a few days of a consistent schedule should help your child settle in a new location. Bringing familiar bedding, toys and books will help them to relax and feel secure away from home.

3. Act before your child gets overtired
Young children are often reluctant to admit that they’re tired – even more so when the alternative to bed is playing with shiny new toys. Look for signs of sleepiness before your child starts to be overtired, which is often the driver for ‘hyper’ behaviour. Try to start the bedtime routine at a consistent time. If they really don’t feel tired, they can play quietly in their bed or crib with the lights low. If you notice that your child is often overtired at night, experiment by shifting the whole bedtime routine forwards by 15-30 minutes.

4. Give plenty of notice
Give plenty of notice when bedtime is coming up, and then stick to what you’ve said: “In 10 minutes the cartoon will end and it’ll be bath time, and then we’ll have time for two books.” A timer which rings when playtime runs out could be a useful ‘independent’ signal that it’s time for bed. If your child refuses to stay in bed, try to avoid giving extra attention for bad behaviour. Be as neutral and uninteresting as you can as you return your child to bed, even if you have to do this a few times. Consistency is key – even at Christmas – to help the whole family sleep well.

5. And if all else fails…
With a house full of guests, your child may understandably feel as though they are missing out on all the excitement by going up to bed. If you’ve followed the tips above and still have a stubborn and weary young one, hanging onto the bannisters in protest, the suggestion that Father Christmas only leaves presents for children who are asleep might just be enough incentive to encourage lights out.

The joys of panto

By | Christmas, dance & Art, Winter
by Mark Phillips
Ropetackle Arts Centre
Images by Richie Mountain

Pantomime is a curious British institution. Each year as we head into Christmas, theatres up and down the country start planning their festive finales; a magical mix of comedy, music, drama and spectacle, all aimed at bringing families together and sparking imaginations.

The funny thing about panto, or should I say one of the many funny things, is that it’s neither originally British, nor anything to do with Christmas. In fact, British panto emerged from Italy, and specifically the Commedia dell’arte – an ancient theatre show of improvised comedy. Commedia dell’arte featured a range of stock characters which today we recognise as the dame, the villain, the hero, the fairy and so on. As for being a Christmas tradition, well, that remains something of a mystery. While pantos have always been performed during holiday seasons, one theory suggests the Italian form merged with an ancient English folk play traditionally performed around Christmas time, and featuring several stock characters similar to those in Commedia dell’arte.

So, that’s enough history, how do pantos remain such an enduring feature of our festive calendars? Well, there are many reasons. Panto nowadays is very much a family affair, particularly geared towards entertaining children but always amusing the adults (innuendo, anyone?) Pantos draw from a wide pool of fairy tales from all over the world. English stories such as Dick Whittington and Jack and the Beanstalk stand alongside European tales like Cinderella and Puss in Boots. One of the most popular pantos, Aladdin, is an ancient folk tale from the Middle East! Add to this modern twists on classic novels such as Treasure Island and Peter Pan, and you’ve no shortage of enchanting adventures to choose from.

The magic of panto is not just in the story, it’s in the whole experience. Pantos are a chance for families to share quality time together. With increasingly busy lifestyles and the demands of work, time together as a family is a precious thing, and panto is a chance to treasure it. Pantos make the imagined real. For around two hours, families can escape from reality and immerse themselves in a fantastical world of fun, magic, excitement and togetherness. The traditional battle of good versus evil underscores every panto. And even though we all know who wins, there is nothing quite so uplifting as seeing these morals reaffirmed. But not so fast, there’s tension, there’s anticipation, there’s always what if… So the shared sense of happiness that eventually fills the auditorium is palpable, and for children – the triumph of good over evil is a powerful message of hope and inspiration.

Of course, nothing is quite what it seems in panto, and this is perhaps its most joyful quality – the chance to join in! Panto wouldn’t be panto without audience participation. With the fourth wall well and truly dismantled, the unexpected is laid out before you. Unlike other shows, you can shape the turn of events (well, kind of). Will the dame look behind herself? Will the hero know where to turn? Will the villain ever get the message (booooo)!? Boys and girls, it’s over to you. There’s nothing quite like the passion of children, energised by a gripping story and moved to cheer, jeer, laugh, sing and, in some instances, give frank advice (don’t you just love them). Participation like this makes the magic of panto just that bit more real.

So that’s why after all these years, panto is still going strong. It’s little wonder that celebrities (cough) line up to play leading roles, but more than this, many panto companies now feature local children in their productions. Companies that support this give children vital opportunities to benefit from the developmental and creative fulfilment of theatre and arts participation. Look out for local auditions and drama groups and get your children involved now. Drama improves children’s well-being in many ways, and panto is the perfect platform for aspiring performers. But remember, being in the audience is just as much fun as being on stage at panto, so whatever your inclination, panto has it covered.

And there you have it. The joys of panto. That curious, British-but-kind-of-Italian, Christmas-but-let-me-come-back-to-you-on-that, magical, interactive theatrical fairy tale extravaganza. Full of love, happiness, courage, fear, comedy, farce, triumph and festivity. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it. But if you’re still debating whether it’s worth visiting the panto this year, listen up. Boys and girls, you know what to do, altogether now… “Oh yes it is!”

Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham offers a year-round programme of family events including its Christmas panto – discover what’s on