It’s my stuff

March 27, 2015

As my child gets older, naturally there are more and more things he is able to do himself, like getting his own shoes on, being able to reach things out of the fridge, pour his own juice, that sort of thing. And he loves being helpful too, so it’s not just about what he can do for himself, but what he can do to help around the house too.

autonomyI can see how important it is to him when he accomplishes these small things, and yet at times it’s a struggle for me to accommodate his eagerness. It’s all very lovely, but the trouble is, he’s quite clumsy, and a little too eager at times. He also likes to do things his way, and is not too receptive to suggestions. On top of this, he can get very frustrated and upset when he can’t manage something he wants to be able to do.

Normally, I like to think I’m pretty big on the idea of letting my child figure things out for himself and discover things for himself. I try not to jump in too quickly if he’s playing with some friends and they can’t agree on something immediately. I try to encourage him to find his own way down the climbing frame rather than have me lift him. If he’s about to jump off a wall that I think might be too high, instead of just saying no, I ask him to use his judgement. He’s pretty cautious really and generally gets it right without me having to place my own restrictions. It all seems pretty obvious to me. I mean, most parents wouldn’t just tell their child the answer to the maths problem they’re trying to figure out, would they? And I’m pretty easy-going about him getting himself dirty, loving to watch him play and explore freely without being encumbered by my adult concerns and restrictions.

But when it comes to him showering cornflakes everywhere, or packing the bag with the sandwiches at the bottom, this child-led approach doesn’t seem to come so naturally to me. For a while, when he first started being more self-sufficient, I’d often find myself trying to find a nice way to stop him and tell him I’d do it, keen to either avoid an upset, a mess, speed things up, or just have things done my way. (now, where I have already mentioned this trait?) But I soon realised that however I phrased it, he was missing out on feeling capable, helpful, valued, involved, respected, and from learning to do these things on his own. More importantly, I also realised it was my stuff, and allowing my stuff to get in my child’s way just wasn’t fair.

I remember this dawning on me one summer day when we were getting ready for a day out. I’d gathered together all the things we needed to take out with us, and pulled out one of the rucksacks ready to pack the things into. I always pack things in a particular way, remembering what went where, in which little pocket I’d put the sun cream, rolling up the swimming towels neatly so they took up less space.

Then when I came out of the bathroom, my child announced cheerfully, “I’ve packed the bag mummy”. As I looked at him, so very pleased with himself, so eager for my approval, so keen to feel useful and part of the process, I realised I needed to take a deep breath and let it go. What was more important? My child’s feeling of self-worth and ability, or that the bag was packed just the way I liked it?

So much of parenting is about being aware of our own stuff, and not just the big things like how we react when our children make us angry. It’s all the seemingly little things too, like how we feel about them getting messy, or taking risks, or not wanting to store their toys just the way we would have. And so often, we let our stuff get in our child’s way, or in our own way forward as parents. Plus we risk making our stuff our kids’ stuff.

So every time I identify something that’s my stuff, however small, like being overly particular about how to pack a bag, I feel my self-awareness is my child’s gain.


Free range kids

July 19, 2012

I’ve been noticing a fair bit of stuff in the press lately about how today’s children don’t get outdoors enough, and spend too much time in front of screens or in scheduled activities. There has even been a phrase coined for this phenomenon –  ‘Nature Deficit Disorder‘ –  for which the National Trust blame the increase in gadgets and traffic, and to which they attribute the rise in obesity and mental health problems amongst children.

All very depressing, but what really caught my attention was this article about the Playing Out Project in Bristol, where two mothers sought and gained permission from the local council to close their street to traffic at an agreed time to allow the children to play out on it. The project is now spreading across Bristol and elsewhere. The benefits of this type of play discussed in the article were to me both obvious and a revelation at the same time.

Sure, I remember some great days out, some great family holidays. But the bulk of what really defines my childhood memories are those of just playing out, with my friends, in my village. Favourite hiding places, favourite trees, favourite games. Roaming the village and surrounding woods and fields, unchaperoned by adults. I don’t make this latter point because we took the opportunity to get up to mischief (not that we were perfect either), but because the absence of adults gave us a certain autonomy. We were free to express ourselves, to play games without fear of disapproval or ridicule, to get lost in our own children’s world without the self-consciousness of knowing adults were watching and listening. We climbed trees, made dens, strayed in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, went in search of conkers or blackberries, but most of all played all sorts of make-believe games, sometimes just two of us, sometimes quite complex, organised games with larger groups of mixed ages.

Now, having a child of my own but living in a large city, I’m lucky again to live on a no-through road where the kids play out regularly. My child doesn’t have as much freedom as I did, but reading about the Playing Out Project made me appreciate that the little freedom he does have – being able to step outside his own front door unchaperoned, and play freely on his own street – is an unusually large amount, at least for kids who live in urban areas. And just as I have always taken my own childhood experience for granted, so I have been taking my child’s for granted now. Free range childhoods have become something in danger of extinction, something to be campaigned for and saved.

But what has really dawned on me is that it’s not just about loss of exercise, fresh air, or knowing that apples grow on trees. It’s about the loss of free play. Unsupervised, unorganised, unscheduled free play. It’s not just about getting outdoors, it’s about free range, unobserved, unstructured, spontaneous, creative, imaginative, cooperative play.

A constant source of admiration and wonder for me is just how long the kids can and will play out, with no adult supervision or organised activities, but with just their own initiative and imagination. They make use of whatever materials happen to be available. There have been Saturdays this summer when my child has played out on the street from 10am to 5.30pm, just coming in briefly for lunch. What does he do out there all this time? Sure, the adults facilitate the play to some extent, providing chalk, scooters, balls, and materials to create a messy play area, although even this was not originally intended for the kids, they just made it theirs. But often they’ll just create. Last weekend they spent a good deal of time playing with an empty wheelie bin, for example. Sometimes they come in requesting specific materials to further their ideas. My child came in the other day and asked for a rucksack and an umbrella because he was ‘going camping’. I provided the requested items then watched with interest through the window while he and his friends all trekked with their backpacks 25 metres down the road then stopped to ‘set up camp’ with old blankets, and sat there for some time pretending to read magazines and newspapers under their umbrellas.

This is real play. This is what those kids the National Trust talk about are really missing out on. In real play they learn teamwork, cooperation, negotiation, how to be inclusive, how to share, how to deal with disagreements and fall outs, how to put their ideas forward, how to handle rejection, how to interact with others, how to socialise. The list is endless. And kids need space to do all this. Not just physical space, but space of their own, that they can organise and control themselves, not be subject to the organisation and control of adults.

Kids don’t need to just get out to the park, out on a walk, or some other adult organised and chaperoned activity, but out, on their own, in their own neighbourhoods, on a regular basis. Let’s get behind the campaign for free range childhoods, for reclaiming the streets, for getting kids away from screens and back into the creative, imaginative play that kids do best. The nature of free range play is unique and worth fighting to preserve.

For more on the movement for free range kids, kids play and childhood generally see:

http://playingout.net/

http://rethinkingchildhood.com/

http://www.sustrans.org.uk/freerangekids/about-free-range-kids

http://www.playengland.org.uk/

http://outdoornation.org.uk/


Good old messy play!

May 29, 2012

Some months ago I was moving some old plant pots about, some of them still filled with compost, and being undecided on where to recycle the compost I put them at the side of the house ‘for the time being’ (you know, the way we dump things in the spare room……).

Lo and behold, I have created a messy play area. My child and his friends from neighbouring houses, aged between 3 and 7, love playing with these pots. They have become quite a fixture. Little spades, cups, diggers, and other things have been added, migrated from the sand pit mostly. Sometimes they like adding water, sometimes they move dirt from one pot to another, sometimes they run up and down the street with a toy wheelbarrow, collecting items (mostly stones and leaves as far as I can see) for their potions or soups. They mix with sticks, they serve up bowls and plates of various delicacies. I’m not always sure exactly what they’re doing, but they are always busy and intent and often working together as a team, like a nest of ants, on an imaginary mission of some sort.

They love it, and I love it too – they’re happy, busy, having fun and engaging in some good creative, natural play. What’s not to like?

Well, apparently, plenty. Not all the neighbours* share my love of the messy play area. I’ve considered moving it (for about 2 seconds) in order to maintain neighbourly relations. I’ve heard objections to painting house walls with old paint brushes and toy brooms, objections to spraying cars with water (?!), and most of all, objections to children becoming wet and muddy.

Now, I don’t know if I use all my empathy muscles up on parenting my child, but I admit I’m really struggling to empathise with this one. There are various types of play and ways to play, and the way I see it is that natural, creative, messy play is one of the best. To restrict this is to curb children’s natural creativity and inclination to play, explore, learn and use their imaginations. So before we restrict, I think it’s worth stopping and asking why we’re restricting, and if it’s worth it.

Usually it’s because we know we’ll have to deal with the mess, so it’s about our own convenience. OK, everyone has a point at which they feel enough is enough, we’re tired, we’ve got a zillion other jobs to do, usually also related to cleaning up after the kids, but think about it. Mud washes out. Their clothes will most likely be going in the laundry basket at bedtime anyway. Unless we’re about to go out, what’s the problem? And we can always facilitate the play by providing wellies, or an old coat or apron for example. Do we really have a good enough reason to say no?

On one occasion the kids emptied out a huge pot of compost onto the middle of our drive. Neighbours looked in wonder as they passed. It took 3 minutes to shovel it back into the pot before we could get the car out. Worth it? I think so. And I’m sure if I’d asked them to do it they’d have done so with enthusiasm.

A few weeks ago, I was in the school playground with my child chatting with another mum at pick up time. There was a muddy patch under a tree. It had been sunny that day and the mud had turned into a lovely soft, squidgy consistency. My child was enjoying making footprints and playing in it. My instinct was to tell him to stop, but I caught myself and asked “How long will it take to wipe some mud off his shoes tonight? And he’ll have to wash his hands when we get home anyway, before he can have his snack.” I said nothing, he had fun, and one less command was issued that day

There’s also the issue of creating a general attitude about dirt. Personally, I don’t want my child to be worried about it. I make a point of using second-hand clothes as much as possible. I never buy anything white, and if it’s given to me it goes straight into the NCT sale. (Why design children’s clothes with white collars and sleeves anyway, and whose idea was it for children to wear white polo shirts to school?!) I think if a child is frequently told not to do things because they’ll get dirty they can become preoccupied with cleanliness, suppressing their natural curiosity and desire to explore, experience things and just, well, be kids.

Yes, there’s a time and a place for messy play, but I think we should ensure these times and places are maximised, not minimised. Worrying about dirt and mess is an adult thing. Children shouldn’t have to worry about getting dirty – there’s plenty of time for that later. For now, they’re children, and their business is to play.

*The neighbour referred to was made aware of this post before it was published.