Arts, Crafts and Nurturing Creative Development in the Early Years – Part 1: Mark-making


As a parent, I’ve found that one of the most challenging things is being patient as your child’s skills and interests emerge. It’s tempting to overwhelm them with all of the things they could be doing instead of meeting them where they are at.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an artist, but expressing myself through the arts is something that I enjoy. Early on, I recognized H’s beautiful imagination and her knack for patterning and dramatic play but I noticed she never seemed very interested in drawing or colouring.

Over the years, I gave her opportunities to draw and mark make (mostly with paint) but I never really pushed it. I knew that the environment was a big factor in how she approached art, and while ideally, I’d love to have a studio space in our home, that is far from coming into fruition.

A few months before she turned 3, she spent 6 weeks in a Reggio inspired preschool setting and she absolutely loved it. She still wasn’t as “into” art experiences as some of the other children, but I did realize there was a seed there, and it just needed time and the right type of care to foster it.


I knew that the chances were very high that any preschool/future schooling she attended would not have a good art program. In fact, traditional daycares and preschools are notorious for pushing traditional crafts on children. While there is nothing wrong with crafts in and of themselves, they do not replace art. Here is a very simplified explanation:

Art is a process. It focuses on expression and what is beautiful to the artist. Only the artist can determine if it “turns out”. It’s deeply personal and has meaning. It can only be explained by the artist. There is no right or wrong or good or bad. The same materials manifest multiple different ways. For example, a group of eight children given the same materials will probably process that material differently and an outsider will see eight distinct works. Conversations about art might include dialogue like “Can you tell me about what you are doing?” “I notice you are using…”

Crafting is often about the product. It usually does not come from the child but instead from someone in an authority position or sometimes a book who subtly or overtly dictates what is important. Children have a standard that they are trying to meet, and anything that differs from the standard is somehow deemed “bad” “imperfect” or “incomplete”. Even if an adult doesn’t explicitly comment on the craft, children may feel discouraged because their crafts don’t look like the prototype. The unspoken value of craft often become perfection, uniformity, and just following directions. Conversations focus on “what did you make?”


H picked out an animal crafting book from the library and chose to make a family of penguins to reflect her own reality (instead of a single penguin like in the book). She made minor changes, like giving some of the penguins two different-sized eyes because she liked it better that way.

As an educator, one of the first things I do when I walk into any childhood setting is scan the walls for children’s artwork. If it all looks the same, a part of me dies. I don’t want to send the wrong message: H attends such a preschool – children often engage in crafting and making “gifts” for their parents where everything looks the same. It lets me know that at home, I need to make sure I give her the opportunity to engage in more open-ended art experiences.

Here is a look at H’s journey with drawing. Most of the past photos are inaccessible to me at the moment as they are stored in my laptop which is not working. The collection of inaccessible photos also includes process-based work from when she was younger.

EDIT: The photos below were up in our house so I took photos of photos to share with you. They were taken between 10-28 months. One of her earliest mark makings was outdoors with sidewalk chalk. The fat chalks were easy to hold and there was no mess indoors. I also wanted to highlight that mark-making can happen outdoors (here it was in the sand and snow) and often turns into a sensory experience, especially with younger children.

In October 2016, H was almost 3 years old. This is one of the first pictures I remember her drawing that was understandable. I had been drawing her attention to human features around this point of time. She drew a picture of me. I believe that circle around my head is “curly hair” (which I do not have but she did). She quite amused at drawing herself with curly hair that swirled around her face.


These are her drawings from a few months later (you can read more about them here).



She was never one to enjoy colouring in colouring books (I never bought her any but she did have a collection she received as gifts from various people). And to be honest, she wasn’t “good” at it. I never wanted to be one of those parents that told her to colour in the lines because I didn’t want to limit her and undo her natural creativity from the onset.

Her lack of interest in mark-making may have stemmed from it not being satisfying for her. I noticed that she didn’t enjoy crayons but did enjoy paint and markers (probably because they actually left marks when she used them). *Sidenote: Using crayons is encouraged because you have to push harder and children develop muscles and control they may not with something that is “easier” like markers.

She also didn’t have the pincer grip (the correct way to hold a pen) down. I wasn’t sure if it was something I should teach her or just let her come to it on her own. So for the most part, I backed off. I’ll be honest though…I was nervous. I saw one of her same-aged peers who attended a montessori program colour exceptionally well within the lines. She had perfected the pincer grip at an early age. But I’ll never forget one day when she shared her work with me. It was a small colouring book- 8 pages of the EXACT SAME PICTURE of a bear. I was so confsued at first, and then I realized that in each page, she had coloured an isolated body part. I quickly realized that this is how the children were taught to colour in this particular program…”on page one, colour the ear; on page two, colour the arm…”  I was mortified. (EDIT: this activity was not used to teach colouring but to review previously taught/learned knowledge. I still believe that it required precise colour skills) Side note: if any of you have experience with the acquisition of colouring skills in the Montessori method, please comment with your insight!

Please understand that I’m in no way implying that traditional art doesn’t require specialized knowledge, technique or skill- it definitely does. But at three years old, I believe that our thinking around children and “art” should centre around creative development and expression.

Around the time that she was 3.5 years old, I decided to buy some oil pastels for her because they would leave marks easier than crayons, but I was hoping the new medium would be engaging. I remember that the first time I presented her with them, she resisted. So I did what we, as parents do when faced with such circumstances. I started drawing with the pastels. This peaked my daughter’s interest. I rememeber the first thing she draw. On a piece of black construction paper, she carefully selected seven different colours and drew horizontal lines then wrote her name. “This is my rainbow.” We were both proud and excited. I knew this was going to be the beginning of something.

As the year went on, I saw her more and more interested in drawing and colouring (in colouring books). Perhaps as her fine motor control improved and things started looking more the way she was intending, she became less frustrated. Perhaps it was because she befriended a girl at school who also enjoyed drawing. Perhaps it’s because she now had more of a narrative to share. Perhaps it was because now, she was developmentally ready.

Here is a family photo she drew in September or October.


Here is one she drew in January. It’s surreal to me how much detail she has started reflecting in a span of 3-4 months.


“Papa has buttons on his shirt. Mama is wearing a hairband. I have long hair. Y is wearing a bowtie.”

In mid-December, we went to go see a “Wizard of Oz” play.



A few weeks later, she started drawing characters from the play.



In early January, she wanted to draw together. I quickly drew a “yellow” brick road, which she soon turned into a “rainbow brick road”. She drew Dorthy and used stamps to create the field of deadly poppies.



A week later, we decided to stay home from preschool one day and H wanted to draw together. We used the packing materials from a recent furniture delivery. She wanted to draw together so we decided to draw trees.

imageShe asked me to draw some animals in our “forest”. Then, I asked her what animal she would draw. She started drawing a family of monkeys. “This is Mama Monkey and she’s carrying sister monkey and brother monkey.” I asked about their tails and she drew curly tailsfor them and their food (lots of bananas).


A few weeks later, she drew this abstract picture of a cat. This was the first time I had seen her draw a non-human form. She was working meticulously on this “cat for mama”. This also happened to be the first incident I saw her get emotional over her art. Her same-aged cousin decided to take the picture (without permission) and engage in her own creative process (use a pencil to poke holes and make shapes like circles). There was a serious emotional meltdown that followed. In the four years I’ve parented this child, I’ve never seen her so angry. She had nightmares and held a grudge for a few weeks. There was so much more going on for her than art- this was an extremely socioemotional experience for her. The two eventually made up and I know her cousin was not being malicious- she was just a child experimenting with her own creative processes and testing her limits.


At the beginning of February, H had a “bring a toy from home” day. She brought in a stuffed Elsa doll a friend had passed on to her a few weeks before that. She came home with this drawing of Elsa.


Earlier this month during free play, she drew a family of sunflowers and explained the details to me. “This is the Papa Sunflower, Mama Sunflower, H Sunflower and Y Sunflower. These are the stems and here are the seeds in the soil.” It wasn’t until a few days later when I learned they were growing sunflowers in their classroom (which is where this sudden interest and detailed understanding stemmed from).


It was evident that her technical skill was definitely improving. Here are some of the things I did to help postively influence her relationship with art and drawing:

  1. When she said she couldn’t draw something and asked me to draw it, I rarely did. I didn’t want to reinforce the message that she couldn’t draw. Instead I’d ask her to think about what she wanted to draw and think about what shapes it had. If she couldn’t remember what it looked like, we looked for the object in real life, or looked up a photo.
  2. I told her I would not draw for her, but I do accept her invitations to draw together. There is something beautiful to be said about collaboration.
  3. I encourage her to think about possibility (see the post on “Beautiful Oops” here). Similarly, here is a box we were using as a tunnel for Y. To help pass time, I suggested we try to transform the original text on the box into something else. I turned the barcode into a truck. She turned another barcode into a submarine. I turned the P into a snowman’s hat and the 2 into a goldfish.



In a future post, I will share some specific exercises/games/activity ideas that can be done with young children to foster their creative development.

Allowing for more art/creative experiences is definitely something I would like to incorporate more into the kids’ lives. I think it will be my next  challenge as an educator to give some more thought to how I can do this.


Snow Day Indoor Play


Living in Canada, you quickly have to accept that winters are long and days are short. As great as it sounds to get outdoors with the kids everyday (it is possible!) it can be quite challenging.


This winter, independently caring for two children who were on different nap schedules (as my partner worked long hours and took evening classes) while simultaneously trying to keep house and get dinner on the table was making us all a little crazy. We needed to find a way to get our move on while being trapped indoors.

The most challenging times were the early evening hours so here were some of the things we did at home the past few months to use up energy and share some giggles. My main focus was engaging in gross motor play (play that uses up large body muscles such as legs) since that’s what H was missing out on the most.

  1. Dancing – This is a staple in our house. When all else fails, I just put on music and we start dancing. In the early days of Y being a baby, this was a daily occurrence. He would be sleeping in the baby carrier and we would dance to songs like “Follow the Leader.”  Other times, we sing songs that have actions. Our favourites are “Penguin Song” and “Go Bananas” both of which my daughter started singing this summer  at camp. We love disney songs as well as various fast world music genres. Y loves watching and has started “dancing” along too.
  2. Races – It started as crawling races when Y started crawling, but other races we’ve had are crab walk, bear walk, slithering like a snake, potato sack (we used pillow cases) and scooting.imageAs adults, it may feel silly to be doing these things but it’s actually quite refreshing to not have to walk on your legs. Not only does it give you a new perspective and help you see things from your child’s point of view (literally and figuratively) but you have new realizations like “wow, it’s so dusty under the couch” or “that’s where all the baby toys are hiding!”
  3. Props– Add any prop and suddenly, every day movements become more exciting. One of my favourite things to do with children I work with is to tie a ribbon to a stick/twig and watch as they start to dance, and move their arms in new ways as they try to make the ribbon dance. Bonus: If you have an older child and an infant, the infant will be transfixed watching the older child and their colourful ribbon swirl about.
  4. Tape up the floor – Whether you use masking tape to tape different types of lines to the ground (straight, zig zag, giant spiral) or create a traditional hopscotch, sometimes creating a defined path for children helps invite movement.
  5. Pop! – Whether you reuse furniture packaging or buy a roll at the dollar store, bubble wrap taped to the floor can add novelty. I distinctly remember taping a roll of bubble wrap to the hallway between the kitchen and living room last month as I cooked dinner and my 4 year old and infant played happily for almost an hour.  What will start as just walking across will soon turn into running. image If your children start losing steam, ask questions like:
    1. What happens when you walk on your tip toes?
    2. How can you make a really loud popping sound?
    3. How can you make a quiet popping sound?
    4. What happens when you crawl across?
    5. What if you hop, skip, jump?
    6. Can you find ten bubbles that aren’t popped and use your finger?
    7. What if your wear your rainboots and walk across? How about your party shoes?
  6. Colours and Shapes – I cut different shapes out of different colours of construction paper and taped them to the floor. Then, we played a game where I said the name of a colour in French and my daughter jumped to it. We did the same in reverse. Then we did it with shapes. My daughter decided they should have numbers so she practiced writing numbers on the shapes and then practiced writing her name and “Mama” on the shapes. Not only was this a great gross motor activity, but it also had a cognitive component and helped with second language acquisition.imageI’m not sure how worthwhile or sustainable this would be in a home with mobile infants (it only lasted a few days in our house before Y tore them all off) but I just viewed it as an opportunity for him to practice his fine motor skills as he strengthened his finger and hand muscles by ripping up the paper. image
  7. Building – We used boxes, cushions, a play yard, dupattas/scarves, and a building toy to build a variety of tunnels and unique spaces such as forts and trains.
  8. Balloons and Bubbles – These were super easy items we had on hand that were equally fun for H and Y. As the months passed, Y went from just watching the bubbles in confusion to actively popping them. image

As Y is gaining more control with standing, I predict that he will be taking his first steps sometime this spring. I am excited to see how gross motor play between the children will change both indoors and outdoors, once that happens. I cannot wait for spring!

Super Easy Infant Sensory Baskets


Setting up play opportunities for infants can seem daunting: they don’t talk, they may not have clear interests and may not even be mobile. Besides, they put EVERYTHING in their mouth (an excellent way for them to collect information since they have more nerves in their mouths than in their hands, and in the early stages, more control in this part as well). Then what are you supposed to “do with them?”

There’s a host of toys designed for infants. Most of them have some combination of lights, music and lots of plastic. If you are looking for something novel and spontaneous, this may help.

It’s important to realize that even though infants may not be able to verbally communicate their learning to us, do not be fooled. Their brains are working faster than yours and mine! Simply speaking out loud to them throughout the day, narrating your activities, making eye contact and having lots of physical touch is GREAT! Taking them along and including them in the sights, sounds and smells of your daily life is FANTASTIC. Giving them the gift of early literacy by singing, reading and doing finger rhymes is AWESOME. But what about those moments when you are at home and need a few minutes to yourself?

Making up a few bins of items grouped by themes is an easy start. Ideas of baby appropriate themes may include a specific colour, various texture/fabrics, things that make sounds, a particular material like steel or wood, a particular shape like spheres or rings. Depending on the age of your infant and their physical ability, you may decide to adjust your theme. For example, my eight month old is perfectly capable of maneuvering wood and steel items because he sits independently, but I probably would not have left him alone with those items when he was four months old and still lying on his back.

These photos are of a very last minute effort that served to not only stimulate my baby, but also involve big sister, making it an engaging play experience for all parties involved. I asked my daughter to pick a colour. She picked green and I picked yellow. Then I told her to go around the house and find green things her baby brother might like to play with and collect them in her basket. When she was done, I checked the items with her. We decided to remove a small green domino because it was not safe for him to play with on his own.


Later, I left him with one of the baskets while I cooked dinner and he happily tasted every item. He was most engaged by the thick yellow rope. Not only was it a new object for him, but the texture, weight, material, and shape played into his interests (this will be revisited in an upcoming post).


Many of the items in the basket were traditional toys so the next time We do this and give ourselves more time to prepare, I’d like to challenge us to find
a greater variety of items as we think about texture, natural materials and other physical properties.


October Round Up


October has been a busy and interesting month! We spent the last few days of September outdoors visiting the farm and exploring the neighbourhood.


Good thing because the beginning of October brought snow! Fortunately, it was temporary so we could enjoy fall some more.


As we found ourselves settling into more of a routine, we started spending more time indoors.

H came across this tray and literally begged me to fill it with things for her (she remembered the last time we had used it), so in a five minute hussle, I filled it with things from my kitchen (isn’t it amazing how many different types of pasta there are?!)


H got to work, adding in her own loose parts like bracelets.


This month, she spent a lot of time dressing up. Sometimes she used ready made costumes and sometimes she used her imagination.


I love H’s knack for symbolic play. I think she would be great at improv. Here she is with her bicycle helmet, a bunk bed she made for her dolls and putting her babies to sleep in their bassinets.


We voted in the municipal elections and that raised a discussion about mayors. So far the only mayors she knew about were Mayor Goodway and Mayor Humdinger. She was very curious about Mayor Nenshi.


H played with old loose parts, building homes and having picnics.


And explored new ones too.

We read. We ran up hills. We went to go see a play.


We did experiments and yoga.

Our car broke down and we ended up stuck at her school for a few hours. It was nice for me to have a deeper look at her preschool environment. I know I’m the keener parent- the one who is always looking at the lesson plans, remembers spirit days and peeks to see what new centres have been added to the room.


As Y has been growing older, it’s fascinating to see what captures his attention. Not only does he love watching his sister at play, but he has started to express his own preferences. He was really drawn to this bicycle-printed hijab of mine so we used it over his play gym and suspended from the swing. He also tried catching his shadow.


I spent time learning this month. I found some inspiring Facebook groups and attending virtual workshops I had signed up for last winter. This exposure to seeing Reggio in practice got my gears turning and reignited my passion for self-growth and reflection.

When I look back at some of what we did this month, I feel exhausted! But I also can’t help but smile at all of the synapses (brain connections) that must have been made. Play, is after all, the work of the child.


Ramadan 2017- Post #9: Happy Neighbour Day!


We moved to our current neighbourhood almost four years ago, and we’ve met some incredible people since. We’ve been blessed with tremendous neighbours- the type I call upon when in a bind; who shower us with friendly smiles and kind gestures; who make us feel welcomed and loved. We’ve come to love our neighbours and are so fortunate to belong to such a friendly community.

As the years have passed, I’ve forced myself outside of my comfort zone (and taken H along for the ride). I want my children to feel like Ramadan is something they can share with the various communities they belong to, not just the Muslim ones.

This Ramadan I prepared soup jars that I thought might be appreciated as all one needs to do is add water! This was actually something I planned to do last year but ran out of time. This year I made it a priority and worked in increments (around everyone’s schedules).

To make these Moroccan Lentil Soup jars, I bought and washed a bunch of mason jars.


Then I filled them with red lentils, layered with dehydrated onions and a spice mix as per the recipe.


Then added some more lentils and topped with a bay leaf.


I spent a good deal of time looking online for pre-made labels (how I wish I was more graphically-tech savvy) before I gave up and decided to make my own with good old scrapbook paper, tags, a pen and a gold marker I happened upon while cleaning up. I wrote the cooking directions on the back of the tag.


Originally, I wanted H to help me measure and prep but there was no time for that. She happily came out to deliver the jars.

A sense of community is very important to me. Taking care of neighbours is also a big part of our faith. In the Quran, God instructs us:


I find it remarkable how it’s not just the neighbours we know that we are supposed to do good towards, but those who we don’t know either. Inshallah I plan to expand my efforts next year to include neighbours that I don’t know as well. It’s actually my dream to host an open iftaar for everyone in my complex!

I couldn’t believe how happy the elders I delivered the jars to were to receive them (and a visit from H)! They are honestly always so touched that they haven’t been forgotten about. I really love that my kids have access to these “next door nanas” in the absence of their biological grandparents.


I am so grateful for our wonderful neighbours! And to a mayor who is cool enough to designate June 17 as “Neighbour Day” in my city to strengthen communities.

Happy Neighbour Day folks!




Ramadan 2017 – Post #8: Sharing Ramadan with Classmates


A few months after starting preschool in December, H expressed interest in wanting to invite all her school friends over, have a party, and celebrate with friends. I suspect that this desire was sparked by becoming more familiar with the idea of birthdays through cartoons and real-life experiences (attending other children’s birthday parties). Since her birthday falls in November and we have so far been pretty minimal about how we celebrate, I told her that we could do something for Ramadan. Now i knew that by the time Ramadan rolled around, I would be pretty freshly post-partum so I went from entertaining visions of healthy, beautifully-crafted fruit skewers, to rice krispy treats shaped like moon and stars to good-old-fashioned treat bags when the reality of post-partum life with two kids, my mom leaving and Ramadan hit.

While we still might get around to the first two ideas for another group of friends during Ramadan/for Eid, I realized they weren’t going to work for H’s school setting as the fruit wouldn’t preserve well and I think there’s a school policy around bringing in homemade food. So instead, we decided to make treat bags that included some store bought treats (granola bars and “fruit” snacks) and included some novelty items like bubbles and tattoos and dates of course. Since nature of goody bag didn’t scream “Ramadan” , I included a “Ramadan Fact Sheet for Parents” inside the bag as well as a simple message in English and French on the outside for the children (thanks to my dear friend Lynn for proofreading the French part!).

Creating and assembling the bags was a process for H. We divided it up into multiple steps and I heavily involved her (I believe that if my kids want to do something, they need to put in the effort!)
Step 1: We used dollar store paper treat bags left over from a past event and brown paper bags. We didn’t have enough of either type so we used both kinds. We decorated one side of the bags with stars and moons. To do this, we used a start-shaped cookie cutter and a sponge, roughly cut up in the shape of a moon, to stamp with using paint. H chose the paint colours. We let the bags dry overnight.
Step 2: I typed up, printed and cut the message from H and she glued it to the back of each bag. This allowed her to practice using a glue stick.
Step 3: We filled the bags one early morning while we slept over at her grandparent’s house. Since her cousins were still sleeping and I was trying to to discourage her from making noise (the whole house tends to sleep in during Ramadan). I held baby with one hand which meant it was up to H to really fill the bags.  H carefully chose a bag for each classmate and decided which colour of bubbles and which tattoos each friend should get. I was surprised at how quickly she memorized the quantity of items to put in each bag. We slipped each friend’s name tag inside their bag so that I could finish off the bags at a later time.
Step 4: I finished off the bags and we transported them back to our house. H took the bags to school and proudly distributed them. We made a list of other friends we wanted to give Ramadan bags too. I explained it may not be possible to make bags for everyone right now but depending on how things were around Eid time, we may be able to share some more things with friends we have missed. Regardless, I was pleased to see how caring and inclusive H is!
This process, which spanned a week, not only gave H the opportunity to practice fine motor skills through stamping, gluing and filling, but also allowed her to work on numerical concepts such as collecting, sorting, sequencing and distributing and contribute to socioemotional development as she got to connect her home life to her school life. She was able to share an aspect of her life that is important to us in a setting where it isn’t discussed (public preschool). She had the chance to do something nice as she thoughtfully created the bags and selected the contents and share them with friends- this was her favourite part! I was actually not planning to add names to the bags (I figured it was more work for her teacher) and randomly select who got what, but H insisted she wanted each child’s name on a bag. This demonstrates the joy and pride children feel when something is made especially for them and the joy and pride they feel in being able to do that for others. I hope H is always this excited and secure to share her identity and experiences with others.

Family Friendly May Events


I interrupt my Ramadan 2017 series to bring some very cool family-friendly events to your attention. These are all local (Calgary-based) events that are happening this month. While I’ve attended all of these events in the past, I’m not sure how many I will make it to this year, but I do intend on getting my family to attend!

  1. Nagar Kirtan/Vaisakhi Parade – Saturday May 13, 2017 – Dashmesh Culture Centre: 135 Martindale Blvd NE – Opening Ceremonies at 9:30 am; Festivities from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm

This is the largest gathering I have witnessed outside of Stampede in Calgary. We’ve been meaning to check it out ever since we moved to this part of the city 4 years ago, but didn’t actually make it until last year. It’s a HUGE parade that leaves from the Dashmesh Culture Centre (Gurdwara) at 135 Martindale Blvd NE and follows a predetermined route. Roads are closed to accommodate pedestrian traffic. Even if you don’t join the parade, there is plenty to do in and around the centre. All sorts of delicious (FREE) food awaits and inside the parking lot of the centre and in the surrounding greenspace, there are lots of tables and tents set up with activities and giveaways (and lots more delicious food). You can get more information here. This photo is from the 2016 parade.


These photos are from the 2017 parade.

2. Ramadan Gana Fair- Saturday May 20, 2017 – Al-Salam Centre: 6415 Ranchview Drive NW- 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm

Get into the Ramadan spirit by visiting this free festival (admission is free but bring cash as there will be food and products available for sale). This is the third year this festival is in operation. There will be delicious food, traditional decorations and children’s activities. A great event for Muslim families to welcome the holy month and non-Muslim families to learn more about Ramadan and fasting and experience some aspects of the vibrant and diverse culture that their Muslim neighbours belong to. You can get more information here.

story time (3) edited

3. Calgary International Children’s Festival (Kidfest) – May 24-27, 2017 – In and around the Arts Common/Olympic Plaza: 205 – 8th Avenue SE – On May 24-25, 9:30- am – 3:00 pm; On May 26-27, 9:30 am – 6:00 pm

We’ve been to this festival twice. H was 6 months the first time and 2.5 years the second time. This is hands-down one of my favourite free things to do in the city! There are ticketed shows that you can purchase tickets to as well. Chances are that your child’s daycare or school group may already make a field trip out of it, but if you want to head down with your family, I’d highly recommend it. Past attractions have included giant walk-on keyboards, all sorts of creation stations, free clown shows, large gross motor games and activities, the splash pool, dress up and free snacks. For more information, click here.  Here are some photos from our visit last year: