Top 5 parenting pitfalls to avoid

March 3, 2016

Childs-smileThere’s no such thing as the perfect parent. We all make mistakes. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to do the right thing, we can beat ourselves up when we know we’ve done the wrong thing. Parenting isn’t easy or straightforward.

But here’s what I think are the most common mistakes we make. The hardest habits to shift. And awareness is the first step to change.

1. Our response to children crying

It seems that invariably, when I hear a child crying, they are accompanied by a parent who is either telling them they’re OK really, or attempting to berate and threaten them into silence. Neither is helpful. Once and for all, can we please get over kids crying? Kids will cry sometimes, sometimes a lot. It’s normal, they’re allowed to (or should be), and it’s not bad behaviour. Deal with it.

Newflash: Kids have feelings. They will at times feel sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed etc etc. It is unreasonable to expect them not to have these feelings like any human being. Further more, they are still learning how to process these feelings, and so are more likely than a mature adult to cry or have a tantrum in response to them. Allowing children to experience their feelings fully, express them, and then move on from them in their own time, allows them to learn emotional regulation. Threatening or distracting them into silence earlier, because we can’t handle the expression of feeling, short-circuits this process and does them a disservice. It also teaches them that their feelings are unacceptable or unimportant, and to simply put a lid on them, or as Dr Laura Markham puts it, stuff them in their ’emotional backpack’. This only stores up trouble for later. Cue; more tantrums.

Seeing our child crying can be upsetting, or annoying. It triggers us in different ways. But it’s our stuff. Get over it, and let them get on with it.

2. Validation

So when a child is crying, instead of distracting, or trying to fix things, we need to validate and empathise.

Lost that stick they were carrying home from the park? Instead of, “We’ll find another stick”, “It was only a stick, don’t be silly”, try, “You really liked that stick”, “You’re sad you lost your stick”. Really.  A child’s not going to say, “Yes, you’re right, it’s just a silly stick, I’ll stop crying immediately”, or somehow see the error of their ways of thinking or feeling. They are quite entitled to feel sad about something even if you don’t.  If you think it’s silly, bite your tongue. Naming feelings helps children to recognise and process them. Validating makes them feel like we’re on their side. All feelings are valid. As with the first point above, the goal should not be immediate silence. In any case, they’ll usually get over it quicker with a bit of validation. Trust me. And they will get over it. Patience. And validation.

3. Over-scheduling

It seems that these days it’s the done thing to have our children’s every hour spent in a scheduled, adult organised activity. The assumption seems to be that they will be learning and developing more quickly if they spend as much time as possible acquiring and practising various skills, be it sport, music, languages, whatever, as long as they’re seen to be learning.

Actually, the best thing we can give our children is time for free play. They don’t need to be told how to play, it’s just what they do. Give them time and space and it happens so easily and naturally, it’s just meant to be that way. This is how they learn. Free play, using their own ideas, imaginations and creativity, without unnecessary adult intervention, is how kids learn and develop.

Play England‘s report, “Free Play in Early Childhood” describes the benefits of free play as follows:

download“All aspects of development and learning are related in play, particularly the affective and cognitive domains. When children have time to play, their play grows in complexity and becomes more cognitively and socially demanding. Through free play children:

  • explore materials and discover their properties
  • use their knowledge of materials to play imaginatively
  • express their emotions and reveal their inner feelings
  • come to terms with traumatic experiences
  • maintain emotional balance, physical and mental health, and well-being
  • struggle with issues such as birth and death, good and evil, and power and powerlessness
  • develop a sense of who they are, their value and that of others
  • learn social skills of sharing, turn-taking and negotiation
  • deal with conflict and learn to negotiate
  • solve problems, moving from support to independence
  • develop communication and language skills
  • repeat patterns that reflect their prevailing interests and concerns
  • use symbols as forms of representation – the use of symbols is crucial in the development from learning through the senses to the development of abstract thought
  • practise, develop and master skills across all aspects of development and learning.”

OK, enough said.

Yes, it’s nice for a child to have a few hobbies and to pursue some special interests, but let’s not go overboard, especially when they’re still young.

4. Interfering in play

I find children’s play fascinating to watch. So if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to wind me up, it’s the sight of an adult interfering with children’s play, getting overly involved, being unnecessarily directive, coming up with all the ideas; quite simply, behaving as if the children just wouldn’t know what to do without the direction of an adult. Actually, our input only takes away from all the beneficial aspects of play, so stay out of it as much as possible.

It’s their play, not ours, and they’re the experts, it’s what they do best. Let them come up with their own ideas, solutions and ways to do things.

Kids on tree

And this includes allowing our children to take some risks. Don’t curtail their play opportunities unnecessarily. Risk needs to be part of play, part of learning, part of life. We parents need to delegate some of the risk management to our children. Because how else will they ever learn to manage it if we simply remove all obstacles from their paths and protect them from all potential danger, make all the decisions for them?

So let them climb those trees, and let them get messy. Risk assessment isn’t about eliminating risk, it’s about weighing up the risks against the benefits. The benefits of play-fighting are worth the risk of a slight bump. Children need challenge, they need opportunities, they need fun. Give them a break.

5. Failing to recognise the power of role-modelling

Lectures, nagging, prompting will only go so far. Not very far actually. Want your child to learn to be polite? Be polite. Want them to learn how to behave when they feel angry? Here’s a hint: Don’t shout. Want them to grow up being kind and considerate. Be kind and considerate. We won’t get it right all the time. Like I said, no-one’s perfect. But we really do need to keep this in mind because it’s that simple; kids learn by example. They spend a great deal of time attempting to mimic adults. Let’s harness that tendency. Be the person you want your child to be.


The Health and Safety Excuse; another restriction to children’s play

May 14, 2013

There is a care home on our route home from school. They have large gardens, and a pair of gardeners visit every week. On the very edge of the garden, against the low wall, they have created a heap of leaves, grass and hedge cuttings.

queen of the worldMy child has found that by climbing onto the wall, which is about two feet high, he can then step onto this pile of cuttings and climb to the top of it. It has become one of his rituals on the route home from school, along with climbing on another higher wall to get behind a large cable box and sell imaginary ice creams.

With Spring finally upon us, he has been delighted to find his ‘mountain’ of cuttings has grown considerably, and continues to do so each week. Not a naturally confident climber, he is very pleased with himself when he reaches the top.

“Look at me Mummy, I’m a mountain climber”.

On a recent occasion, he had just descended from his mountain and was standing on the wall next to me, when two workers from the care home approached us.

“You alright?” one of them asked.

I interpreted this as a polite way of saying “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” but responded literally,

“We’re fine thanks. He likes climbing up this pile of cuttings.”

“Well be careful because we can get in trouble with Health & Safety” she responded.

What?!

“It’s OK, I’m watching him”. Hopefully they interpreted this as it was meant; a polite way of saying, “Piss off and stop making a fuss, I’m his mother and have decided the risk is minimal, he’s just a child playing, and I have no intention of asking him to climb down”.

Now technically, it’s their wall, and the pile of cuttings is on their property, so they could quite legitimately ask me to prevent my child climbing on either, on these grounds. This, I think, would be pretty mean-spirited of them, and perhaps it was a consciousness of this that led them to try to hide behind ‘Health & Safety”. Or was their response just typical of the wider attitude these days? And that’s what really bugged me about the incident.

Would everyone please stop using Health and Safety as an excuse for placing unnecessary restrictions on children’s freedom to play?

My childhood was spent climbing goodness knows how many walls, trees, piles of cuttings, sand, gravel. Everything was a playground; I can’t recall any incidents of being reprimanded for climbing on someone else’s wall or pile. Such pettiness didn’t seem to exist then. So where is it coming from?

Is it because the norm is now for children to be protected from the tiniest risk, so it’s no longer common place for them to be seen climbing on walls or piles of cuttings? Because it’s not just organisations themselves waving the Health and Safety banner; parents seem to have picked up on this drift and are saying no to anything that might lead to the tiniest bump or scratch. Yet, in doing so, we deprive our children of the opportunity to learn about risk, to test their abilities, to use their imaginations, to have fun, to play, to be children.

Here’s an extract from a statement issued by the Health and Safety Executive last September,

Key message: ‘Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’.

HSE fully recognises that play brings the world to life for children. It provides for an exploration and understanding of their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever-present. The opportunity for play develops a child’s risk awareness and prepares them for their future lives.

….Key message: ‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.’”

Yes, that’s right. This is from the HSE. So there’s really no excuse for hiding behind Health and Safety.

I wonder if those workers from the care home have asked the gardeners not to block the pavement with their car, causing my child and I, and others walking home from school with small children, to have to walk on the road; a considerably more prominent risk to safety and breach of the law than a child climbing up a pile of leaves and twigs? But no, of course they haven’t. Because they’re not really concerned with Health and Safety. Their response was just a response to today’s trend – children are no longer permitted to climb on walls or anything else. It’s just not the done thing anymore, except, it seems, by radicals like me. And that’s very sad.


Three cheers for the natural learning process!

March 14, 2013

There are so many activities available to sign your child up for these days. If you don’t guard against getting carried away, your child’s weekends and the short time after school each day, can quickly become booked up with various classes.

Being a great believer in allowing plenty of time for connection and for free play, and a bit of a sceptic to boot, I’ve guarded against this carefully, taking a very cautious and minimal approach, discarding the majority of letters and fliers that come home from school.

But I always wondered about swimming lessons. Every child needs to learn to swim, right? Should I not sign up for these as soon as possible? But somehow I never quite got round to this either.

A regular swimmer myself, before I had a child I used to watch the mothers and babies in the Baby Swimmers class when I was at the pool, and imagine that if I ever had a child, I would join this class as soon as my baby was old enough.

Sure enough, when baby finally materialised I began taking him to the pool regularly as soon as possible. I got as far as enquiring about the mother and baby classes, but never quite felt ready to start them. We were having such a lovely time together in the pool already you see. It was always such a connecting activity which we both enjoyed. The timing of the classes never quite fit into our routine of meals and naps. And what would we do in the classes that we weren’t already doing in the pool together, just the two of us, sometimes with my good friend Wendy with her support and enthusiasm, who told me to ditch the baby floater seat and the arm bands?

Boy in Swimming PoolI’ll start him in lessons when he’s a bit older, I decided eventually. I then revisited the issue again, annually probably, always on the brink of signing him up, but then always putting it off ‘for a little longer’. The lessons were frequently taking place in another part of the pool when we were swimming. They always looked so regimented. The children never looked particularly happy. The teachers had a shouty, bossy tone. My child loved going swimming, but didn’t like putting his head in the water. I didn’t want him to be pushed into this, but wanted him to do it in his own time. I was afraid he would be ‘put off’ swimming. In short, I didn’t trust anyone else, didn’t want to hand over the job to other adults who might not be so sensitive to his particular needs.

So we have continued visiting the pool every week and having our swim together, and so we continue now my child is six. He is now swimming unaided, a little further each time, and is no longer afraid to go underwater.

What’s really struck me is that I haven’t had to ‘teach’ him at all. It’s been a remarkable testament to the natural learning process. Everything’s just happened so spontaneously as his confidence grows and he gradually tests out and discovers through our antics together in the water what he can do, watching other children and trying different games and challenges.

Too often we are apt to assume that learning must take place through instruction, by adults imparting knowledge. Yet my child’s development in the pool has been a great demonstration of learning just by doing, by playing and having a go at things. And he’s enjoyed doing it all at his own pace and on his own terms. Yesterday he wanted to play at ‘diving’ and retrieving objects in the baby pool. It’s fascinating to watch how much he is teaching himself through this simple game. He experiments with how long he can stay under the water, what he can do under there, how much he can see. It’s all training of course for doing this in the big pool. I’ll take my cue from him as to when he’s ready.

What’s more, it’s been a journey we have shared together. It’s been wonderful to be right there with him to share those special moments of achievement, his delight the first time he jumped in without me catching him, the first time he found he could swim unaided. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up these moments to someone else anymore than I would his first steps or first words. It’s been my little bit of home-education that I always wanted. Learning that’s child-led, play-based, individualised, following my child’s instincts and interests, taking the natural course of things together. My child enjoys going to the pool more than anything else. Even more, perhaps, than playing out on the street with his friends. And that’s saying something!

So if there’s an activity you enjoy, and you think your child would enjoy too, think twice before signing them up for classes. Why not just do it together?


5 tips for facilitating free play

February 28, 2013

Girl jumping over boyFree play isn’t just beneficial or important, it’s essential. It allows children the opportunity to learn by exploring the world around them, to use their imaginations and creativity, and to develop social skills and emotional resilience through their interactions with other children.

But in order for children to reap the rewards of free play, adults need to know how to facilitate it. There are the obvious things like placing restrictions on screen time, and not over-scheduling our children’s lives into organised, adult-led activities. But there are also the less obvious things.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Don’t interrupt

Let sleeping dogs lie. Let happy children play. Whether playing alone or with other children, if they’re busy, leave them be whenever possible. Very young children will develop their ability to focus on things for longer. Older children engrossed in a game clearly don’t need our input. If we have something we want them to do, can it wait until later? Be flexible.

Don’t make suggestions

My child never does anything I suggest. He will go out of his way not to. Everything must be done his way. I think he’s a bit of a chronic case, but the principle still holds: children like to come up with their own ideas and invent their own games. We need to trust in their ability to do this.

Having said this, I do sometimes subtly leave things lying around that I think my child might play with when he sees them. Often I keep packaging like bubble wrap, polystyrene, or cardboard boxes. Once I gave my child and his friends some carpet off-cuts. But I didn’t make any suggestions as to what they should do with them….

Don’t over-direct or micro-manage

Free play means free of adult direction. Butt out. Let the children make up their own games, their own rules, and come up with their own solutions to problems. They can do it! Occasionally an adult does need to intervene, especially where younger children are involved. Perhaps the children need reminding to make sure everyone gets a turn, perhaps feelings are running high and a situation needs defusing. But give them the chance to resolve things on their own first. Every time we step in we deprive kids of the opportunity to exercise their judgement, their ability to come up with ideas, to manage conflict, and to just, well, play on their own, which is kind of the whole point.

Don’t stress

Allow some risk taking. Children will only learn to manage risk by experiencing some level of risk. Again, we need to trust them to use their judgement, and use ours a little more when it comes to deciding if it’s really necessary to step in or to restrict something. Our risk-averse culture prompts us to step in far too often.

Allow play fighting. Whether wrestling or playing with pretend weapons, we really need to get over it. It’s normal. Trying to ban it is a mistake. Wrestling kids probably will take the occasional bump, but it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisation. Remind them of some basic rules if you must, like no biting or kicking. Observe the play closely. As long as both children are happy, both are willing participants, and the stronger child is holding back some strength, then all is as it should be.

Allow kids to get dirty

When we dress ourselves in the morning we choose our clothes based on what we’re planning to do that day. Don’t we? So if we’re going to do some decorating or gardening we don’t put on our best suit or dress.

Kids are probably planning to play most days. So dress them for it, and don’t stress about it when they get dirty. More importantly don’t project your stress about it onto your child. Children need to be free to explore and have fun uninhibited by concerns over their clothes or appearance. This is childhood. Adulthood comes later.

“The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.” Karl Groos


Is child’s play just for children?

October 26, 2012

Over the last few months I have become increasingly interested in the issue of the loss of freedom in childhood today;  the lack of free play children engage in due to the rise of screen technology, the trend towards over-scheduling children into organised classes and activities, the introduction of homework in primary schools, an increase in traffic, and an increased fear of ‘stranger danger’. By free play, I mean children playing imaginatively and creatively, without adult supervision and direction, with each other or independently, and without the use of screens. I have written more about this here and here.

My conclusion is that this type of play is of vital importance to children and needs to be promoted, facilitated, and preserved. This is something I’ve started to feel increasingly strongly about.

Also of vital importance, however, is spending time with our children. Yes, we need to give them space, but there’s a balance to be struck here. A recent study reports shocking numbers of children saying that they wished they could spend more time with their parents, and shocking numbers of parents admitting to spending shockingly little time giving their children their full attention, and somehow I suspect that this is not due to the children spending too much time engaged in free play.

There are many different ways to spend time with our children. We can engage in activities like baking or cooking together, reading, or playing board games. But whilst these things all have their value, they can be quite restrictive, controlled and adult led. A more free, child-led play, however, has a special quality. When we play with children we are joining them in their world, meeting them at their level, on their territory. The value and benefits of simply playing together cannot be over-estimated.

Get to know you

One of the many ways I feel play benefits my relationship with my child is that it enables me to learn more about him, especially now that he’s at school and spending more hours away from me, but even before a child begins school, there is a lot going on in their heads that may surprise us, and playing can give us some real insight.

Imaginative, make-believe, role-play based games can be really fascinating. If I let my child come up with the ideas and lead the way I can learn what has made an impression on him, what has been going on at school, and what he is needing to process and is trying to understand. Play is a great way for me to help him do this. Play can help him work through issues, things that might have upset him, that he’s struggling to come to terms with. We can re-enact things like going to the doctor, or getting hurt in the playground.

Get rough

Rough and tumble is important play particularly for boys who use this type of play to bond with each other and play out aggression. For parents who find this type of play worrying, what better solution than to practice with your child? We can help teach them some basic rules and to figure out their own strength, and when they need to hold back or stop. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D, author of the fantastic book, Playful Parenting, has also co-authored a whole book on this one topic, The Art of Roughhousing.  In it he writes;

“Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination.”

Get some therapy

Play can even be used to help children with particular problems they might be having, as play therapists around the world will attest. Maybe your child needs a little bit of extra nurture, reassurance of their value and your love. Maybe they need some help giving up a little control, or practice following instructions or taking turns.

For more on this, see my previous post on Theraplay.

The single most valuable aspect of playing with our children though is simply bonding and connecting. Staying connected with our children is essential for successful parenting, and playing with them is one of the best ways to achieve this. Putting the household chores and everything else aside and giving a child our undivided attention also tells them how special and important they are to us. Just half an hour a day can make a world of difference.  Sure, kids need space, they need free play without adults muscling in or hovering, and they need to be able to play independently too, but the value and benefit, indeed, in my opinion, the necessity of playing with our children should not be forgotten.


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.