Megan Dowsett is a creative consultant working with museums and galleries, and an illustrator who is finding her voice through personal and local projects.

Through the name Norris and the Flamingo, she shares the sense of adventure that runs through all of life, wherever we are on our journey. A sense of imagination, of possibility and discovery, for children and adults alike.

30 April 2020

Begin with a Story: Tell Me a Dragon

20200424_105712 Things got a little tricky at the beginning of last week. A little burnt out and at the same time bursting with ideas and exuberance, all of us frustrated at how little space there is, physically and spiritually, I suddenly realised my thinking had gone a bit haywire: home-schooling was such an opportunity for ME to be creative, for ME to enable learning the way I believe it should be, for ME to build a portfolio of experience and ideas. I have to be honest, it was becoming a bit too much ME and not quite enough of the KIDS.

20200424_121240 I've shared my thoughts with a couple of people - a few others who are simmering with ideas, pressure, juggling and a serious lack of headspace, and I realise I'm far from alone. Parenting is such a creative thing - we had found a balance, long ago when the kids were at home and we provided social time, free play, and independent time too. Then we found balance in a different way when kids started school or nursery. And now ... now there is a whole new equilibrium to find, in very narrow confines.

So, I took a big step back. I took a few days off Instagram, and abandoned my blogging plans. (Yes, I'm here, but I'm not sure how often I'll post!). It was mighty hard - this EGO is a powerful thing!
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Added to the mix was a bit more direction from school; I find it very difficult use the more prescriptive approaches to learning with Feets - especially while Bean is in the same room, demanding attention and distracting Feets the moment she tries to sit down. Still, I decided to try a combination - the theme from school was mythical creatures, and so the week evolved from Tell Me a Dragon, a poetic, magical vision by Jackie Morris.

20200424_104256 The week had a serious dip in it: recently, we've hit a serious wall of perfectionism in our previously carefree, experimental 6 year old. We make so much mess together, but all of a sudden, everything we do - all the things that used to make us happy - go terribly 'wrong' in the first 30 seconds and deteriorate fast into tears, shouting, and gloriously stamping feet. And that's just me!

So: Tell Me a Dragon, by Jackie Morris, which you can see her reading here.

- We read the book, and picked out the words that described each dragon. Wrote them into little dragon eggs.
20200423_105332 - We fell out. Feets took on the planning of her own literacy for the rest of the week. Not much literacy happened as a result, if I'm honest, but she did write an incredibly poetic description of her own dragon (when I find it, I'll share it :-). Perhaps there's nothing left to teach her.
- (Also, as the week began to improve, they wrote invitations to their two closest friends and delivered them, inviting them to hunt for dragons in the woods on Friday afternoon...)

IMG-20200425-WA0002 - With Mr Liam, Feets got to grips with fifths and thirds, through the tricky task of dividing birthday cakes for Shrek and his friends.  Our shed door was littered with pictures of fairytale characters! (One day, perhaps I too will manage a completely spontaneous shed-door lesson complete with full chalk illustrations, but for the time being this is definitely Liam's forte)

Creative Time
20200423_233515 - We used a technique suggested by my Mum's fabulous art teacher, Debbie Chisholm, to create our own dragon eggs: paint your egg with water; grate some watercolour pencil into dust using sandpaper and sprinkle it onto the wet paper - beautiful results, thank you Debbie! (I thought it was a fail-safe experimental technique for a perfectionist Feets. It wasn't. But Bean loved it.)
- Inspired by the willowy shapes of Jackie Morris' dragons and the variety of forms they take, we took a sack of watery art materials outside and experimented with creating dragon forms. Again, Bean immediately filled her page with joy, while Feets burst into tears and stormed off with the snappy instruction to 'find 10 positives'. The sensible part of my mind took enough control to suggest we stop for lunch, before she got to 10 positives. And the magic happened after lunch, when I turned around to discover Feets on the table, churning out one flamboyant, experimental, magical dragon after another. I left her to it and took Bean for a walk.
20200422_115621 20200422_132746 - The next day we made glitter glue and gave our dragons a shimmer, along with eyes, mouths and other details.
20200424_112116 - Everything came together with a buzz of energy and a glow of magic on Friday morning, as Feets awoke early, cut out numerous eggs and dragons, and helped me write a sign for the fence. We set off with chalk, dragons, eggs and wire. We hid the eggs in an abandoned bird's nest, in our den in the woods, and strapped the dragons to trees leading back to the entrance gate. We hung our sign, and passed another happy half hour creating dragon footprints in chalk up the first part of the path. Then we hid to watch our friends doing the hunt.

20200425_104401 With a clear message in my head to remove the pressure on myself and the kids, I had begin the week with the idea of a dragon trail as a possibility, depending how it all went. By Wednesday, it was looking highly unlikely. But the joy of watching our friends follow the dragon trail erased (almost) every memory of our tricky start to the week! 20200425_132044 What's more, we sent the message to a number of their school and nursery friends, and the families in our block, and were rewarded with numerous photos of children doing the trail. Dinosaur stampers appeared in the nest; video messages of thanks; a chalk message on the pavement by the gate to the woods; and every time I went to re-stock the eggs, the sound of voices hunting for dragons.

We floated like kites into the weekend! 20200425_161302

19 April 2020

An Interlude of Birthday Cards

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If you ever receive a birthday card from me, you're lucky. If you receive a card on time, it's brought in a panic from a shop. The thing is, you see, birthday cards are such a great opportunity to play, try something different, not get too caught up in the perfect result, and show somebody that you REALLY care about them. This usually means I have a great idea in my head.

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Most of the time I fail to execute said idea. But this is what happened when my two best friends turned 40, and my fairy God-Daughter turned 9 under lockdown.  A chance to play with pop-up and paper-cuts, creating something beautiful and surprising for the inside with just a hint of it on the front.

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Happy birthdays, folks!

12 April 2020

Begin with a Story: George's Marvellous Medicine

The experience of home schooling is particularly challenging in the current context - "Miss B doesn't DO it like that!" - parents trying to work at the same time ... and of course, NOWHERE to escape to.  But there is one thing that I find gloriously liberating - it doesn't really matter what they learn.  We concluded, the priority right now is to pass their time constructively, to offer some kind of structure to the days and weeks (for our sanity, if not theirs), and ideally, to prevent them forgetting EVERYTHING they've already learned.

20200330_095215 For a while, I've been hoarding little pots, jars and bottles from the kitchen and bathroom.  My children love making mixtures so much, that I was waiting for the right level of desperation before proposing a Medicine Shop.

Well, the other weekend, when Feets begged to make a mixture just as I finished cleaning up the kitchen, I fobbed her off with the promise that we would make mixtures in school that week, if we could only have a clean kitchen for an hour at the weekend.

20200401_120720 The deal was sealed, and I was committed.  We have spent two weeks on George's Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl.  We've used 5ml syringes to measure the sizes of vessels, followed recipes to mix paint, made smoothies, set up a medicine shop with accompanying information book, and put on a show.  The mess was wonderful and ... well, messy; staying ahead of the game was exhausting.  Thank heavens for an Easter 'break'!

And here is the detail, for anyone on the lookout to borrow ideas ...

The First Week
Potions ... naturally, we took the opportunity to look at capacity.
20200331_102627 - We took a selection of four pots each, and used 5ml syringes to fill them with coloured water so we could find out the capacity of each pot.
- We built towers out of duplo and added labels to them to make scales which we could practice reading, guessing whether they were counting in 2s, 5s or 10s.
- Then I gave in and created a couple of worksheets to practice reading scales.
20200403_101738 - We switched to bigger vessels and used the scale in the mixing bowl to find out how much water different vessels from the kitchen could take.
- We finished the week by writing a recipe for and then making our own smoothies.

Creative Time:
What could we possibly do but make mixtures?  Mixtures, and music.
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- I wrote recipes for mixing the colours of the rainbow, using combinations of primary colours and water.  This enabled a very large rainbow of thanks and hope to join the lovely array in people's windows.  Warning - this used quite a lot of paint; we have mixtures to spare!
20200401_123212 - We experimented with how to make our own paints, using anything we could find in the kitchen.  We boiled onion skins, spinach, mushed up red grapes and boiled them, and tried red peppers too.  We stole a load of spices from the spice rack.  Took the whole lot outside with some syringes (I tried to include recipes and measuring in this, but it was too exciting and the recipes quickly slipped to one side) and painted more rainbows with the results.
- Looking for slightly less washing up, we used rice, lentils and couscous etc to make rainbows in yet another way.  This kept the children very busy while I was in a work meeting.
20200402_113814 - Squeezed in some music midweek to give me a 'mess-break' and quench my fear that I do nothing but art.  Having long felt limited by the lack of songs that really get children moving, I've made a playlist, including my favourite song by Artburst - Hop, Skip and Jump.*
- In our second music session, we took some pots and pans outside and woke up the neighbours by building a drum kit.  Next time, I'll wear ear defenders.

Mr Liam led literacy in the afternoons and demonstrated just how much Feets can write - she reviewed the story with character and aplomb.

And ... the Second Week
Literacy: Mission for the week: Create The Medicine Shop.
Desperate to make just a bit less mess, this week we spread the project out, making an information book about the medicines on sale.  We also read Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski alongside George's Marvellous Medicine - another book about a mixture with dramatic results, more accessible for Bean.
20200408_103335 - We played the Tasting Game - I put tiny amounts of widely varying foodstuffs into small bowls for the children to taste - everything from peanut butter, to soy sauce and toothpaste.  First they looked, then smelled, then tasted.  I wrote down all the adjectives they used to describe each one, and then tasked Feets to invent descriptions for imaginary medicines using some of the adjectives we'd discovered.
- We imagined what might happen if they tasted those medicines, and enacted the result - everything from flying, to turning into a dog or exploding.  Feets wrote down the results and created some accompanying illustrations from magazine cuttings.  Bean stuck cut-outs of strange beasts into a picture of a cauldron, for her own mixture.
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- We invented names for our medicines.  I broke the most common medicine names in our house into segments, and we arranged them to invent new names.  Admittedly, Feets was just as interested in inventing her own spellings for existing medicines.
20200409_132753 - On the last day, we finished compiling our descriptions, titles and illustrations into an information book.  Then we abandoned maths and spent an (astoundingly independent!) hour mixing horrific medicines.  Feets created medicines that fitted the descriptions in her book, before pouring them into suitable jars and labelling them.  Bean couldn't believe the freedom and created a grotesque range of concoctions, happily using the syringe to transfer each mixture to a jar.
- That afternoon, they opened a medicine shop for Mr Liam, poor man.

We looked at multiplication in anticipation of opening a shop.
20200406_120317 - We began every day by playing bingo, which worked a dream.  Feets had simple addition sums (then subtraction, then a mixture) with totals less than 12.  Bean had numbers between 0 and 10.  They won a raisin for every row or column.  Could play it forever.  So could I - minimal effort.
- I gave Feets a bag of money to count up.  Tasked her to work out how many 5s, 10s, 20s and 50s she needed to make £1, and to sort it into piles.  We got there, but it was a slog.  She made bridges out of coins.  She misses school, and her friends.  I can't blame her.
20200408_120717 - We looked at the multiplication sign, x, and wrote down sums that totalled 100p, using the calculations she'd been doing the previous day.
- I created a code in which she had to solve multiplication sums (5s and 10s) to find the value for each letter, and then apply the relevant letters to the number codes below.  This, she loved.  There will be more puzzles and codes, when we can find the energy to spend an evening preparing them.

Creative Time
Mr Liam led creative time each afternoon.  They put on a show - Super N to the Rescue!
20200410_145422 I can only share my impression, but I thought it was fabulous.  A distinct step up from the Saturday morning 'Sofa shows', and they had thought about everything:
- a musical score played on the piano, recorded on Liam's phone
- set design, painted on cereal packets and propped up between the slats of the picnic bench
- costumes and props
(Nice job, Robs!)

Job done.

*You can find the playlist on spotify - 'Movement Songs for Children', user name Liam Roberts

28 March 2020

Begin with a Story: Mrs Armitage on Wheels

20200323_110720 This week, an entire nation of parents suddenly began home schooling, with no notice, training or research, a wide range of backgrounds, an enormous range (and number) of children, varying input from schools and a vast selection of attitudes as to how we would approach it, while continuing with our day-jobs at the same time. And as the first week came to an end, I'll bet our attitudes have changed significantly. I salute us all! Golly, wasn't that exhausting.

20200328_130208 And fun.  I'm absolutely broken by this, but I can't help it - as a creative person who's sat at a desk for the last few years, the ideas are suddenly pouring out faster than I can keep up with.  That, too is exhausting.  Our kids are thrilled that finally their parents are willing to play school with them all day, every day.  From 8.30 each morning, Bean and Feets, aged 3 and 6, are trailing me with their book bags and a selection of cuddly toys, asking how many minutes until we start, while I try to shower, wash up, and work out what we're going to do in literacy.

20200325_120743 This is what happened this week.  I want to share it because I'm proud, because much of it was fun, and because I couldn't cope with the plethora of activities, resources and videos that arrived in my WhatsApp inbox.  If I needed anything, it was one coherent set of stuff I could do with minimal resources and no preparation, that would take me across a few days and provide a loose but creative structure.  So, just in case, amidst all the noise, this is of any use to you too ... here it is, in brief.

We decided to start with a story.  We chose Mrs Armitage on Wheels by Quentin Blake, but a number of other stories with similar themes would offer the same activities.  Mrs Armitage is an eccentric, an inventor, an engineer.  She adds more and more items to her bike, to make it ever better, until it collapses under the weight.  Ever the optimist, she abandons the bike and, on the last page, decides to try roller skates.

20200323_115049 We asked ourselves, what would you add to your roller skates?  We wrote the next page of the story, then took junk modelling outside.  The idea was to embellish Feets' roller skates and Bean's balance bike.  Naturally, Feets decided instead to make her own roller skate from scratch.  She is not as optimistic (yet) as Mrs Armitage.  There were many tears of frustration.

Alphabet Feets read the book to Bean and me.  Then she drew her invented roller skate and labelled it (Bean drew a rainbow).  This time, we took the tool box outside, and explored it.  Feets created each letter of the alphabet.  Bean made a bouquet from screw drivers.  I hid the handsaw and the WD40, and nobody injured themselves.  Miracle.

20200325_115023[1] Thinking back to Mrs Armitage's bike, we watched a little (not very good) video about the parts of a bike and planned labels that we could attach to our own bike (meaning, Feets told me the parts of the bike and I wrote them down).  Then we took a few tools (about 10) from the tool box, trays, paint and old cereal packets outside and had a go at printing with the tools.  Spanners and the ends of Ikea bolts worked well.  The best bit was washing up afterwards.

20200326_124038 Feets wrote her own label for the parts of her bike, underlining the title and writing a line underneath to explain what each part is for.  I drew dots for Bean to go over, to write a few labels for her bike.  She lost interest after two labels, but I figured two was already a pretty good effort!  For creative time, we took our instruments (mostly shakers, lets face it) outside and had a go at a music session.  The nursery rhymes made Bean very happy and I felt guilty for not pitching things enough at her level.  Ah well, guilt is a constant in parenting.

20200327_104556 I tasked Feets to dress up as Mrs Armitage and Bean to dress up as an Alien (her favourite current book has aliens in it).  Feets errupted into cacophonies of misery because we don't have a green top suitable for Mrs Armitage, before we agreed to carry on the activity without dressing up.  20 minutes later we made it outside, got out the bikes, and attached the labels made yesterday to the relevant parts of the bike.  Then Bean and I emerged from behind a rock, pretending to be aliens, and asked Mrs Armitage (Feets) to explain what this 'thing' was and how it works.  Which she did happily, thank goodness.

20200327_135105 This week, Mr Liam did maths in the afternoon.  He labelled everything in the bike shed with a price, took down his (very full) bowl of spare cash and opened a shop, calculating totals on the shed door with chalk.  He and Feets took it in turns to be shopkeepers.  Half way through the week there was a sale and everything was half price.  Bean was able to choose her items and play with them, a freedom she sorely needed.

Golly.  Can we possibly do this again next week?  And the next?

19 February 2020

The synergy of art and science

"Mummy ... 

I think when I grow up I want to be an engineer.  

Because I love art and I love fixing things.

... and if I could just use electricity ..."

It staggers me to see the impact of an evolving culture on a creative mind.  30 
(alright, 40) years ago, I loved art and fixing things and it wouldn't, in a thousand years, have occurred to me to be an engineer.  That was an option for my super-intelligent, super-scientific brother.  Now the climate has changed, our nation is desperate for engineers and we are seeing how creativity is intrinsic to science and innovation.  And by the age of 5, my creative daughter knows a completely different application of her creative skills than I did at the same age.

Since the day she could pick up a toy, I have loved watching the way her young mind draws the whole world into each project.  Her two favourite activities are junk modelling and making mixtures.  When she makes a guitar from cereal boxes, is she building or sculpting?  When she makes a mixture from soap, lentils and muesli, is she doing art or chemistry?
For me by the age of 12, art and science were polar opposites.  Still I identify fundamentally as an artist, and I loathe science with my entire being.  It brings back the dreary impossibility of naming the parts of a plant, learning the formula for calculating forces, or the properties of the periodic table.  It had no real world relevance or application for me.

Feets teaches me otherwise on a daily basis.
How long can we keep hold of this intrinsic understanding that everything is connected?  Everything I read, and everything I see, tells met that in the Early Years, children don't see the lines between disciplines.  Learning is play-based, child led, exploratory - every activity is an experiment with a sensory and a scientific outcome.

Through Feets, I have first-hand experience of brilliant reception year teaching, in which learning was planned and guided in response to her and other children's interests.

But the National Curriculum of our current government feels at odds with the harmony that can be found between creativity and STEM 
(Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.  As far as I understand, from an early age, the curriculum is so driven towards filling our children with knowledge - the dates of history, an understanding of verbs and adjectives and ... Subjects are more separated in schools than ever.  It feels as though there is a severe contradiction between the National Curriculum and contemporary understanding of how children learn.  

I am wondering how long Feets will be able to see the art that lies within engineering ... will the current influence of the engineering sector win out, or will the school curriculum gradually erase the harmony of these disparate subject areas?*
20200202_150538 *She will probably change her mind next week and decide to be a tree surgeon.