All fun and games at Lit Fest Families Day

7 May

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Today was World Laughter Day. Apparently, wherever you were in the world, you were supposed to laugh when the clock struck noon. The idea was to create a continuous chain of merriment around the globe. My family and I were supposed to do it, but we forgot – we were too busy having fun.

Today was also Children and Families Day at Lower Shaw Farm, at the very uncorporate headquarters of the Swindon Festival of Literature. At or around noon, children and adults piled out of a presentation by author Jack Cooke to climb one of the tallest trees on the farm.

The kids loved it, and – once they’d recovered from the initial shock of seeing their precious moppets clamber from limb to limb up a huge horse chestnut – the adults were having fun too.

Jack is the author of The Tree Climber’s Guide. Whilst working in an office overlooking London’s Regents Park in 2015, he made the decision to clim a tree for the first time since he was a child. Life in the limbs of a tree, he discovered, gave him a unique perspective on London – viewing a familiar city from a different angle, close to – but unseen by – passers-by.

Through his Instagram account – treetopcity – he recorded and shared these new perspectives. Written with adults in mind, the book has appealed to both grown-ups and older children, and sparked a bidding war between publishers.

Although his treetop adventures have taken him to dizzy heights – both in the literary and the arboreal world – he remains grounded; he was happy to sign copies of his book for members of his audience, young and older, and led the climb at Lower Shaw Farm, where he took photographs with a Polaroid camera and dropped them to parents below.

Later, while children made spoon puppets in the farmhouse kitchen, enjoyed tales around the campfire with storyteller Chris Park, and dressed up for storytelling fun with poet Hilda Sheehan in Hilda’s Happy Hut, adults were able to find out what makes The Happiest Kids in the World, with author Rina Mae Acosta.

Rina set off to find out what makes children – and, ergo, parents – happier. In UNICEF’s list of the world’s richest 29 countries, the UK’s kids are the 16th happiest. Children in the US are 26th. Filipino American Rina is married to a man from the Netherlands, where children top the happiness league. So what is it Dutch parents – and the state – are doing differently?

Assuming all children have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, it seems a relaxed attitude might have a lot to do with it. Young Chronicler Milo (nearly 11 and in his final year at junior school) would have cheered at the idea of no homework during primary education, while there was internal cheering from the mums and dads at the idea that “lazier parents mean happier children.”

In fact, Milo is a good case in point. Tomorrow (Monday) is the first day of the dreaded SATS exams, where children are tested on their knowledge of hard sums and grammar for an entire week. The poor lad was fretting so much over getting his long divisions wrong, or being unable to identify the subjunctive mood in a sentence, that he was determined to miss his first LitFest Family Day in six years.

(If you want to share his pain, you can take the grammar test online at https://sats2017.uk/quiz-would-you-pass-sats-english-grammar)

But strong-armed into it by his parents, he hadn’t been through the farm gate for 10 minutes before puppet-making, tree-climbing, and “the most awesome puppet show I’ve ever seen” (the excellent The Tin Forest by PuppetCraft) put a broad grin back on his face.

Then there was a chance to behave boisterously on the cargo nets and rope swings in the barn before chilling out to The Goddard Ensemble, who performed narrated versions of The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf on flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn – the perfect end to a day of entertainment and stress-free education.

Words: Peter Davison

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