Avatar: The Last Airbender/ The Legend of Korra
These animated TV series by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino are aimed essentially at young adults, but I highly recommend them to adults too. The narrative depicts Asian religious texts, mythology and ideas set in an adventure world. The writing is extraordinary. I’ve watched all seven seasons during lockdown – it’s just brilliant.
Avatar is currently available on Netflix
Malcolm X (1992)
Throughout my life, I have revisited the film Malcolm X, based on Alex Haley’s book, directed by the great Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington. I see this film as equivalent to a Greek myth. It is a foundational text for my generation of black men, but I also believe it is vital it is shared with the generation growing up now (it’s rated 15). It tells the personal quest of someone redefining themselves, both for themselves and for the culture they come from. The film also presents the opportunity to engage young people with the 20th century’s resistance to systemic racism.
Malcolm X is currently available on BFI Player
Fun Kids Activity Quest Daily podcast
Fun Kids is a great digital radio station for kids, and their Activity Quest Daily podcast has creative ideas for lockdown for grownups and kids alike – we’ve made bath bombs, newspapers, puzzles and cupcakes. It’s a good one for inspiration if you’re running dry, which many of us are at this stage.
National Literacy Trust, Virtual School Library
This library is a brilliant initiative from the NLT – every week a children’s author or illustrator provides free stories, activities and recommends their favourite books. An at-home library at your fingertips.
Sophie Dahl’s first children’s book, Madame Badobedah, is published by Walker
Walt Disney’s classic film (or its 1999 remake, Fantasia 2000) still works as a brilliant introduction to Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky via dazzling animation. But it’s long and uneven so try out clips first, starting with Mickey Mouse, unforgettable as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Mussila Music School app (iOS & Android)
An award-winning app that boldly tackles the essentials of music – rhythm, notation, instruments – through play, reasoning and logic (age 6six up to any age). For pre-schoolers, try Mazaam – The Musical Genius, a charming educational game with classical music.
My household consists of a novelist who generally persists in rejecting online life, a husband who doesn’t really like films or TV at all, an 18-year-old who enjoys Russian culture and sci-fi and a 14-year-old who would always rather be gaming with his friends. No one is impressed when I announce that we’re going to have a family movie night, or that I’ve found some great cultural resource to share. I think someone walked off in the middle of all of these, but your family’s probably more team-spirited than mine. Arte TV is an excellent and free source of films, documentaries and arts programming mostly in French and German. Useful for teenagers studying languages and adults hoping not to lose theirs while travel is forbidden – who wouldn’t be charmed by a short film about the cats living at the Hermitage? The “on reste ouvert” series has live-streamed concerts, opera and dance from the great theatres of Europe, and often at least three of us will watch at least half.
People Fixing the World podcast
We’ve had some good conversations about this BBC World Service podcast, which explores practical solutions to problems ranging from police violence in America to maternal mortality in Nigeria to poor urban design in Europe. It’s generally cheering – curiosity and education turn out to be quite useful sometimes – and encourages kids to connect what they learn to ways of making a better future. The Teenage Inventor Special from November 2020 might be popular.
There’s no way my teenagers are going to keep journals or make a practice of reflection, but I had some success with an adapted writing exercise now taking place daily after dinner. We made a list of 10-15 questions about a day. (What did you enjoy? What did you worry about? What did you hope for? What did you make? What did you learn? What new thing did you see? What are you reading? etc – make them as weird as you like.) Every evening each person writes down an answer to any two. It doesn’t take long, so there’s less resistance to overcome, and the record is oddly moving, even if the answers are “I hoped Mum wouldn’t make us do this,” and “I learned that my French teacher can’t work Teams.”
Sarah Moss’s latest novel, Summerwater, is published by Picador
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
This Hayao Miyazaki animated feature, made in the 80s, is on constant rotation in our house. It is such a beautiful, quiet film about two young girls who move to the countryside to be closer to their mother in hospital, and find a fantastical creature living in the tree next door. It’s a true example of how, when the dial is kept turned down, a subtle ending can still feel like a hugely satisfying crescendo – something big-budget Hollywood studios would do well to remember.
Currently available on Netflix
Bluey TV show
This animated Australian TV series is a rare one that appeals at multiple levels. My kids love it, and any time I stick it on to create some distraction so I can do something else, I find myself getting sucked in to the relatable humour of the parents’ perspective. It’s given us great ideas for some good old-fashioned make-believe games to play, too.
Currently available on Disney+
Mihran Kirakosian dance tutorials (YouTube)
Savannah, our four-year-old, is getting into dancing, so during lockdown we have been doing choreographer and dancer Mihran Kirakosian’s hip-hop tutorials online. I think I’m taking it a bit more seriously than she is, as she usually breaks out into freestyle movement after about 10 minutes, but it makes her happy and it’s a good way of tiring her out so she sleeps well at night.
David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet (BBC iPlayer)
We have discovered that Eden, our 16-month-old, has a bit of a thing for pandas, so we try to watch as many wildlife shows as possible. We are currently watching David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet. Eden seems to like David’s voice, as for the most part he sits still and takes it all in.
Production of The Girl and the Raven
Inspirational puppet theatre the Little Angel puts online Handbendi’s vivid production of an Icelandic fairytale: in darkness and snow, a small girl survives a landslide.
Free until January 2022; donations welcome
Shakespeare’s Globe 2019 production of Romeo and Juliet (YouTube)
Filmed in front of a responsive audience at the Globe, a dynamic cast in modern dress take the stage by storm in a speedy 90-minute production created especially for young people.
Available on YouTube until end of February
Toontastic creative drawing app (iOS & Android)
Screen time crushes us a little , but when we needed a break we found this amazing app called Toontastic. The kids make short animations by drawing the scenes and characters, and recording their own voices over to create the story. They have done some quite amazing cartoons. We try to do as much drawing as possible. Painting on lampshades is fun, and we are making a book called “night drawings”, which they make before bed.
Annie [Morris, his partner] and I donated work to an activity pack for kids called “art is where the home is”, in collaboration with Firstsite museum in Colchester. A great list of contemporary artists contributed, such as Antony Gormley, Gillian Wearing and Grayson Perry. Annie made a colouring book and I gave instructions to create a repeated word drawing.
The Railway Children (1970)
We try to get the children to watch at least one classic movie a month, to break up the usual Pixar onslaught. One of the most successful was the heartwarming, enchanting 1970 film The Railway Children – both kids (Maude, eight, and Jago, seven) cried their little eyes out when the children’s father gets taken away to prison. There is something comforting about listening to the old English language and Yorkshire accents.
Arthur, High King of Britain by Michael Morpurgo audiobook
I speak as an expert on Michael Morpurgo and the mother of a child with dyslexia. This is a perfect book, enchanting for children and, thanks to the sublime narration, captivating for adults. It’s a story we know but it’s so very well done, with lots of heart, humour and danger. A great introduction for your child if they’re not great readers but they are interested in stories.
Download for free from Calibre
Open Culture website
I always point people looking for anything arty to Open Culture, which is a free cultural and educational resource with a massive library of stuff, some especially for children. There are audiobooks like Aesop’s Fables and a big Neil Gaiman section, as well as all the classics for kids coming up to exams who are sick to death of the written word. Lots of links to other free content – podcasts, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), language lessons and museums and art galleries. There are also links to YouTube, where you will find my favourite, Boris Karloff reading The Reluctant Dragon. It’s a great resource, run by good people.
We’ve watched a lot of films with our kids – aged 15 and 11 – during lockdown. Gandhi (1982) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) provide a lot of history in short-cut. The issues around injustice and race are powerful and shocking. Remove phones and watch them become properly absorbed. Both kids are long-time fans of Studio Ghibli and Grave of the Fireflies (1988) induced lots of sobbing. It’s about a very powerful piece of history – two children trying to survive in post second world war Japan – that they certainly won’t be taught in school.
These are the movies that have provoked the best round-the-table debates during lockdown: Okja (2017) created an instant vegetarian, and our budding drummer was utterly riveted by Whiplash’s artistic obsession writ large. “Not my tempo” has quickly become shorthand in our house. Finally The Sting (1973) – good old-fashioned entertainment with Redford and Newman showing us how it’s done, more class than almost all modern movie stars put together. Brilliant piece of film-making. Good tunes, too.
All films currently available to rent on Amazon Prime
Peppa Pig audiobooks
My two-year-old recently discovered that she loves Peppa Pig, and there is literally nothing to stop us watching it for 12 hours of every day. I’m trying to keep sight of some parenting goals, though, so instead we listen to Peppa Pig audiobooks on Audible and Spotify during the day. This means we don’t become total couch potatoes, and she still gets to engage with her first fandom. The format lets her enjoy the narratives, which is what I love seeing her get to grips with. If I had a choice over what we listened to, we’d spend less time with Peppa and more with Foley & Friends, a truly brilliant podcast from Sesame Street that makes cool use of sound effects.
Lockdown Sonic Journal
We’ve tried quite a lot of hobbies in our house since last March. In the summer, a stint as twitchers got us into recording birdsong on my Zoom H6 field recorder. These days, my daughter and I like to take the Zoom out for walks and record all the ambient sounds, then listen back to the recordings later. A recording we took on Halloween, where she can hear me and her dad talking over fireworks and kids in the park, is her favourite thing to listen to. Most recently, we went out as a family on New Year’s Day and recorded the sound from the centre of a circle of trees. It’s our sonic journal of life under lockdown.
The Water Horse (2007)
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is an utterly charming 2007 film based on a Dick King-Smith book. It is set in 1942, in Scotland, where young Angus MacMorrow has the incredible fortune of discovering an egg that turns out to be a baby Loch Ness monster. What I love about this film is the cosy feeling it gives you. Families can cuddle up and enjoy the ups and downs of trying to hide the friendly monster who is growing at a stratospheric rate.
Currently available to rent on YouTube or Google Play
AR 3D Animals app (iOS & Android)
This device-based activity is really cool and I think kids would have lots of fun with it. Using your smartphone, use the Google 3D Animals app to search for an animal (I tried with a lion). Select the 3D option and follow the instructions to access your camera. You can then take photos around the house or even outside – and guess what? The animal you chose suddenly appears in your shot!
Forest School activities from Early Learning HQ
As an antidote to long hours spent in front of screens, listening to teachers patiently repeating the mantra of the Covid age – “you need to unmute yourself” – set your children free in a green and quiet place with Forest School activities. I like to think of it as the rewilding of small humans. Wellies, warm clothes, waterproofs are essential; penknives, tindersticks, fire flints, binoculars optional. This is an excellent resource for activities to coax children into the outdoors, for teachers and homeschooling parents alike. The National Trust has an inspiring list entitled 50 things to do before you’re 11¾, with a printable worksheet.
Online writing classes
If your child is jaded by times tables and grammar tests – or even if just you are – set them going on a creative task. A beautiful new notebook, with alluringly pristine pages, helps (I recommend blank hardback sketchbooks by Daler-Rowney; my children steal them out of my cupboard all the time). Children’s writers and illustrators have been gloriously generous with online advice. Try Cressida Cowell’s masterclasses on YouTube, or turn to book festivals, which have been quick to make certain events available online. The Edinburgh international book festival has some excellently inspiring children’s events that can be viewed at any time, as do the Hay festival and the North Cornwall book festival.
Tony Hart’s TV shows (YouTube)
Vision On and Take Hart remain for me the greatest creative art programmes in television history. Tony Hart conjured marvels out of chalk, newspaper, felt pen, ink or sand. He could turn a handprint into a portrait, soap into sculpture and a few pastel sweeps into a glowing landscape. Everything was art to him, and his originality liberated and inspired a generation of kids. The same would be true today if only BBC Archives would re-screen his programmes. But you can find him all over YouTube, including the first ever programme, a great compilation channel and this enchanting landscape on Hartbeat. Look and learn!
The Royal Drawing School art classes
The Royal Drawing School’s classes and clubs for kids and teenagers are famously absorbing and rigorous. Run by excellent artist-teachers, they are online during the pandemic. Some places attract fees, others are free. Whole mornings spent drawing: what could be better?
A dear friend gave me a fairy house building kit, and my daughter (five) and I built it on one of those grey winter days when it is both too cold and not cold enough to go outside. It was the only craft thing I’d ever truly enjoyed doing with her (like truly enjoyed, not just enjoyed for her sake) and I think it is because the kit came with a hot glue gun, which I’d never used in my life. We both burned ourselves so many times, and giggled, bonding, as it were, over the punning pain. And I was like: “Oh man, my daughter loves hot glue guns, I wish I had known,” and then I realised it was that my daughter loved how much I loved hot glue guns, and I should have known.
I am also making her do spelling bees. One-woman spelling bees. She may hate me, but she will also know how to spell onomatopoeia for the rest of her life.
Studio Ghibli films
We’ve been watching all of these on Netflix as a family: me, my husband Neil, and our boys, 14 and 10. They’re so meditative and beautiful, like reading a book together. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a brilliant, lesser-known one about a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl growing inside a glowing bamboo shoot. When Marnie Was There, Arrietty and Kiki’s Delivery Service are great too. These films make kids look again at the world. One day, on our family walk, my youngest son was looking at the light of the sun coming across the clouds on the sand dunes and said: “That’s so Studio Ghibli, Mummy!” Bless him.
Simply Piano app
My husband works as a baker, so he’s out very early in the morning, and I’m at home in the week with the boys, doing Instagram gigs every Thursday to keep me sane. We’re all learning piano together, though, one by one, on the Simply Piano app. You all get your own profiles, and put the iPad up on the piano and it teaches you songs note by note. We’ve gone for pop song mode, and it’s great. I only did grade two as a kid, and I’ve realised I’ve forgotten it all, so I’m learning too!
Kathryn Williams’s debut novel, The Ormering Tide, is published by Wrecking Ball Press in March
Google Quick Draw
Who doesn’t like to doodle? This site/app challenges you to draw an everyday object, the better to train a neural network. In our family, the draw here – pardon the pun – is to change the language setting, so you pick up useful French words (other languages are available) while sketching impressionistic teapots. (This language hack also works on other apps, games and gadgets.)
On this website you see a spot out in the big wide world and decode the street furniture to guess where you are. You can opt for famous places, but the real fun is to choose somewhere random, and glean where you are from the jaunty slant of the parking meters. You have to sign up (there are free options), but it’s worth it. Not only do kids get a feel for what things are actually like in other countries, you inevitably find yourself saying things like “those pylons definitely have something Australian about them”.
In the 70s, in North America, kids’ TV routinely ran groundbreaking animated shorts about grammar, maths and civic engagement. In between cartoons, kids were indelibly imprinted with little songs about pronouns, or how a bill became a law. One song about the number three – 3 Is a Magic Number – was sampled by De La Soul for their hit The Magic Number; I’m Just a Bill was lovingly parodied by Saturday Night Live and even Hamilton owes these ditties a spiritual debt. Wonderfully, Conjunction Junction, the US Constitution’s preamble and all their ilk are on YouTube. (Fronted adverbials were only invented by the Tories in 2014, so no folky earworm exists for those.)
My wife and I do a storytelling session before sleep, and choose stories that the children may not hear at schools – ones that originate from Africa, India, Japan or other parts of Asia. Sometimes, we search for stories from pygmy or indigenous tribes on the internet, read them, and then try to retell them from our memory.
We have been watching animation films that convey stories that aren’t mainstream. I would particularly recommend two directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart: Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers are two of a trilogy of films they have made based on Irish folklore.
Currently available to rent on Apple TV
My recommendations stem from my own interest in developing the art of in-depth, thorough conversation and debate with my children around any and all current social, intellectual and moral issues. The first comes from an exceptional website, Farnam Street. Its authors offer insight and inspiration by drawing from great writers and philosophers. One blog post in particular, a video of Bertrand Russell, is excellent. Russell is invited to offer advice to a society 1,000 years in the future; his response is flawless.
We do not use the N-word in our house, or anywhere for that matter, and yet it still seems a confusing and complex issue for many white people who feel that, like rappers, they should be able to use it. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains it perfectly in this video.
In attempting to understand the extraordinary political events of the past few years I began to think about the careless way both the American and British middle class referred to swathes of Americans as “trash”. As our disdain and disregard for the economically challenged gathers pace, let us pause and examine the precise ways in which we are culturally conditioned to see fault and responsibility where there is only fate and insurmountable disadvantage. Kurt Vonnegut puts it much better than I could.
PlayStation 2/Xbox/Sega Mega Drive
Get your old consoles out of the attic, set them up, make a cosy corner in the living room and play them with your kids. Mine are 12 and 10, and they’ve loved us playing all together. It’s been hilarious: we’ve played Tomb Raider: Anniversary and Star Wars Episode I: Racer on the Xbox. Sonic on the Sega Mega Drive next! But get outside too. I made a cardboard house for my daughter to do her schoolwork in, strung blankets into hammocks in our tree, and can recommend buying a big sheet of polythene to make a slip and slide for the garden!
KiwiCo Project Crates
These are art boxes I found online in the first lockdown that help teach kids Stem subjects. They’re amazing, and set for different ages – we got the Atlas and Tinker Crates. We’ve built our own robots, made LED signs, a perpetual motion machine and learned about bioluminescence. My 10-year-old made a Big Ben with a working clock face the other day.
Eliza Carthy’s Through That Sound (My Secret Was Made Known) and the Eliza Carthy Songbook are out now, available at eliza-carthy.com
Play with cushions, a washing-up bowl and a laundry basket
Our toddler, Wilf, is not always easily amused or distracted by screens, and we don’t have a garden. So, during lockdown we utilised what we had, and he loved most playing with a washing-up bowl full of bubbles, which became a magical ocean for his plastic shark. The sofa cushions became a bouncy car which flew, and the laundry basket a dodgem we launched and span around the kitchen.
My older son, Bertie, is nine and lives with his mum in Manchester and, although he still comes for weekends and holidays in lockdown, sometimes the bi-weekly Skypes have been hard, with neither of us doing much. So, we challenge each other to bring a topic for next time, and we’ve had some crackers along the way since March. Back in the spring he asked me to find out about the history of Lego and last week I asked him to think of a plot for the next Star Wars trilogy!
David Eldridge’s radio play First Out is on Radio 4 online
Thanks to all our young illustrators, including members of the Arty Farty Malarky online art club