A successful National Non-Fiction November event

In November 2014 he St Albans Literary Festival offered a ‘National Non-fiction November’ event to two local schools for their Early Years Foundation Stage classes. It was to take the form of a ‘tree workshop’, held in a room at the side of a café in a local park.

The event was a great success.

We had the ultimate accolade from one helper present: she asked for contact details so that the same format could be used for her Brownies. ‘I could never make it as interesting as you have done,’ the helper said.

Anyone could replicate the success given the Hello Trees books, having access to a few trees and using the following format.


– 150 children aged 4-5 years, grouped in 5 lots of 30, had the makings of a nightmare

– It was not a nightmare because the format was right

– The children had half an hour to roar around outside collecting leaves, twigs, seeds and cones in the park and were ready to sit down quietly.

– Each session lasted for30 minutes and there was a half hour break between sessions and an hour for lunch. This gave time for presenters to tidy and make ready and to recoup their energy.

– Each session was divided into three 10-minute slots: a talk, a sensory experience and a craft; all 30 children for the talk, two groups of 15 for the activities.

– Having said the format was right from the presenters’ point of view, teachers have said that an hour for each session would have been better. Presenters agree that three slots of 20 minutes each would have been help ful to cover the material. They think they could cope with the longer sessions, but the number of classes would have had to be reduced.


Two people were responsible for the event and were present throughout:

– Kirsten Lester was in charge and responsible for deciding the format of the session, supervising the craft sessions and supplying materials for them.

– Author Kate Bretherton was responsible for the talks and supervising the sensory table and providing materials for it.

Each class of thirty 4-5 year olds was accompanied by its teacher and by 5 helpers.


The children came in from collecting bits from under the trees in the park.

They were directed by Kate to sit on the floor round her.

Kate introduced National Non-fiction November:

– Which month are we in?

– Special month for book people. They call if ‘National Non-fiction November’ emphasising the ‘N’s

– Not just their locality, not their town but everyone in the United Kingdom: the whole Nation.

– ‘Non’ means ‘not’ but what about ‘fiction’? Kate asked children to turn to the child next to them and see whether they could decide between them what ‘fiction’ could mean. The children were not sure. Kate said ‘fiction’ is something ‘made up’, a story.

– Used example of Gruffalo stories: ‘not real’ ‘made-up’ ‘from the author’s imagination’

– Non-fiction is ‘real’

– Kate told the children that she has written a set of non-fiction books about trees. We would look together at one of them to see in what ways a non-fiction book is the same as a book of fiction and in what ways it is different. Later the children would make a leaf rubbing that could be the start of their own non-fiction book.

– For 3 classes ‘Horace Horsechestnut’ was used, for the other 2 classes, ‘Larry Larch’ was used. These two were chosen because Kate had collected 90 conkers and 60 larch cones so that each child had a tangible reminder of the session.

The similarities highlighted as the book was held up to be looked at page by page (cover + 6 double pages) were

– Both fiction and non-fiction books have pictures. Some of the pictures are drawings.

More could have been made of:

– The pictures in both fiction and non-fiction ‘illustrate’ the text (‘throw light on’ ‘tell you more’ ‘show you more’)

The differences Kate highlighted were

– In this non-fiction book, most pictures were photographs: only real things can be photographed.

– That sometimes a pointer was needed to be clear which bit of the picture went with which words.

– That the book was giving us ‘information’ and ‘facts’

Kate thought in hindsight that she could have made more of some of the words being ‘labels’ for the illustrations; that labels need pointers; that pointers can be connecting lines or arrows. She could have asked the children why they thought she had used a dormouse as a pointer.

Kate also wished that she had shared the thought that following the tree through the seasons of the year was a kind of story, and that our own progress through each year is like a story: a real and interesting and wonderful story.

Kate wished she had emphasised the message that non-fiction is real and interesting and wonderful.


At the end of the talk, Kate prepared the children for what they would be doing next.

The class would be divided into two groups (some teachers had already given the children a grouping, others divided the children by which adult helper was responsible for them)

One group would explore the sensory table first. Kate demonstrated how most effectively to use a magnifying glass. The children would be able to listen, look and feel bits of trees. Kate pointed to ears eyes and held up her index finger. She wished she had encouraged the children to point to their own eyes as we said ‘looking’, their own ears as we said ‘hearing’ and had wiggled their fingers as we said ‘feeling’.

One group would be doing leaf rubbing first. Kate showed how to feel for the smooth side of a leaf and the vein-patterned side of the leaf, how to put the smooth side down, then the paper on the veined side and then to rub a crayon over the paper.


A group of 15 children were able to explore a range of leaves, twigs, bark, buds, seed holders and seeds that Kate had collected from the surrounding park.

Listening: a box of dry leaves was replenished for each class from a huge box of dry leaves. The children loved scrunching the leaves and we used the words ‘crunch’ ‘scrunch’ ‘crackle’ to describe the sounds, and said the words had the same sound as the sound! It was also useful to have the box of leaves as a separate activity that a helper could take charge of freeing Kate to draw the attention of the children to things that about trees that adults might think of at short notice.

Looking: the magnifying glasses were not used particularly effectively despite the attempted training but the children loved having them and looking through them.

One of the most successful activities was squidging dry birch catkins into each child’s hand. The children were asked whether the bits that fell out of the catkin were the same. The children discovered that there were 2 kinds of bits: one bit was identified as a tiny yellow seed with transparent wings on either side. The other was bird-shaped and held the seeds together into a neat catkin. The children’s attention was drawn again to the neat catkin and we marvelled at how very many tiny pieces there were in it. The children loved pretending to be the wind, blowing the seeds off their hand and seeing how far the seeds scattered. They begged for more seeds to blow about. Kate drew the children’s attention to the cover of her book ‘Betty Birch’ which showed a birch tree taller than the filling station behind it. It was agreed that it was amazing that such a large tree could grow from such a tiny seed. This led to the comparison between the size of the birch seeds, beech nuts, and conkers.

The children were encou raged to find words to describe the colours and shapes of berries, leaves, bark, stems and buds; to compare the size of buds and leaves of different trees.

Feeling: The children enjoyed feeling the ’satin smooth’ inside of beech-nut cases and contrasting it with the rough outside. They felt bits of bark, conkers and conker cases.

The children felt the stickiness of sticky buds and were encouraged to look for buds on other twigs, to find words to describe the buds’ colour, shape (‘egg-shaped’, ‘pointed’, ‘long and thin’, ‘fat’) and size.

Children were encouraged to imagine their fingers moving against their thumb to be a deer’s mouth coming to eat a holly leaf. The children felt how sharp the holly leaves felt against their hand, and we thought how much worse the sharpness would feel on the inside of a tender mouth.


After the first session, Kirsten asked Kate to explain to the children in advance that they needed to put the smooth side of the leaf down and the veined side up, then to put the paper on top and rub the paper with a crayon. Having the explanation, the children were able to get on with the craft and produced successful leaf rubbings.

Each child was given one crayon to use. Teachers said the children would have liked to be able to use different-coloured crayons because the leaves they had collected were multi-coloured.

Some classes used the leaf rubbings as the cover for books the children made about trees. The teachers would have liked the page to have had a space for ‘author’ and ‘title’ and a label for the leaf.


‘After speaking to the FS2 to team, we are all in agreement that we really enjoyed the school trip’ ‘The workshop was well organised, there was enough space for us all and lots of lovely resources for us to explore – especially the little books we took back to the classroom!’

‘We all agreed Kate Bretherton had a lovely tone with the children and used lots of visual aids e.g. pretending to hold a door mouse in our hands and making the shape of the trees with our fingers, to keep the children’s interest.’

‘It could have been improved if the workshop was an hour. We could have gone into more detail about which leaves or berries belonged to which tree, or added labels to our leaf rubbings so that we were learning the different types of leaves instead of exploring’.

‘We loved Kate’s introduction but thought next time some of her language could have been simpler e.g. calling her books information books instead of non-fiction would be more appropriate for our classes.’

‘The children enjoyed the sensory activities and learnt a lot from them – the children described the sound, texture and look of the autumn objects really well.’

‘They also enjoyed having the opportunity to walk around the park and collect leaves, twigs, etc, many of which we then used for follow up work in class. For example last week the children made tree collages using wool for the tree trunks and scrunched up real leaves, which were really effective.’

‘Next time it might have been nice to go outside and name some of the trees at the park so that the children can relate their learning to everyday life.’

‘We did have a great time, especially Alexa who afterwards said ‘I loved our school trip, shall we go again tomorrow?’’ and lots of parents have commented on how lovely the little books are.

‘Thank you for meeting and go through the risk assessment (and changing around your plan for the room).’


The brief given by the St Albans Literary Festival organisers to the presenters was to offer an event for National Non-fiction November. Some preparation by the teacher for the use of the word ‘fiction’ or for Kate to introduce the word in a more helpful way or for Kate to have referred only to the books as ‘information books’ would have been better than putting the children on the spot trying to come up with a description of a word (‘fiction’) that they had not heard before.

If Kate had prepared a few short guidelines for the assistants on what to help the children to look at and feel, more children would have had more experiences at the sensory table.

Kate has referred above to how much she regrets not concluding her talk with the message of the joy of non-fiction.

The format of 3 slots of 20 minutes per session would be better in order to cover the material more comfortably.


The books ‘Horace Horsechestnut’ and ‘Larry Larch’ are two in the ‘Hello Trees’ series of 10 books about trees for young children. The books are by Kate Bretherton and Donato Cinicolo.

Contact Kate Bretherton: kate@tree-talk.co.uk, 07901 945920, see www.tree-talk.co.uk.

The books are available from www.tree-talk.co.uk, the Archimedes Forest School shop at www.archimedes-training.co.uk/shop, other on-line outlets and Waterstones Book Shop in St Peters Street, St Albans.