Can you still play?

We have talked a lot about play. And about how children play. What they use to play and why. Some of you may have noticed this already – we could go on forever. But right now we want to invite you to do something different –  simply sit back for a while and just observe, but not just your children, observe yourself when you were a child. Magda Gerber talked so much about the ability to observe our children, the importance of observation in understanding them and in building a relationship. Surely this applies not only to children. So how about we observe ourselves for a while? Let’s start from the very beginning – let’s travel back in time.

So let‘s do this. Let‘s sit back. And let‘s talk about us for a moment.

How did you play when you were a child ?

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about fun childhood memories?
What did you enjoy most?
Who did you play with? Your siblings, friends, parents? Or your imaginary friends only?

Maybe if we all do this once in a while, we will look at our children play a little differently. Maybe we will join more often, instead of making sure that their shoelaces are tied properly, or that their hands are washed… maybe even we will be able to discover something in this observation we had long forgotten about? Or perhaps we will be able to work on our relationship with ourselves a bit more? After all, it all starts with observation.

So, close your eyes. Come on, you know you want to do this J Let yourself go back into your childhood. Where are you? What are you doing? And most importantly – are you having fun?

When I think back I see myself in my grandparent‘s garden. It‘s the place of my childhood. Whenever I smell freshly cut grass I am in this huge garden at the end of that small village. Where all you heard all day was dogs barking, chicken and the occasional tractor going by. I see myself walking around on big wooden stilts I got from our neighbor. I see myself collecting tons of acorns from the huge acorn trees or watching the sky from the swing that hung underneath the big nut tree. I am eating carrots I just dug out and I am feeding the rabbits. I am busy wandering around the many sheds that contained soooo many old things I tried to figure out what they were. It was a whole fantastic world of fantastic things and I loved making my own mind up about everything I saw and did.

It took me a while to see what I did when I wasn‘t there. When I was at home in the city living in an apartment block that is so typical for the former East. All I can see myself do there is draw, read or write. Or hang out with my friend who lived three storeys above.

I cannot think of unhappy times. Not during my childhood. Whenever I see myself do things I mentioned above I see a happy girl doing what she loves and enjoys. And a warm breeze of joy overcomes me writing this down. (Nadine)

***

I’m in the tree. I’m so high up I don’t really care anymore (funny, now I am afraid of heights) I can’t see or hear what is going on down below. We climb as high as we can with my cousin and then we rush down as quickly as our legs and arms let us. Finally, we end up lying in the grass under the tree, laughing so hard we can hardly catch a breath. I hear my son laugh like that now sometimes when he runs around – is it only in connection with movement that we can laugh so hard? I remember trees and grass and hay and us running around or jumping or just lying and looking in the sky. I remember the taste of stolen apples and strawberries – picked from the field right next to our grandma’s, even though she had the same strawberries and apples. Hiding from the neighbor who pretended to be angry. We were only alone if we chose to be, and there was always someone ready for another big adventure – a walk after dark, following some older cousins to see what they were up to. There was always some mistery around the corner.(Anna)

Sometimes we wonder too much about what and how our children play. Are the toys appropriate? Are the games educational? Are they hanging out with the ‘right’ kind of friends? Maybe going back to our own memories can help us understand the play of our children.

But wait! This is about us right?

“In psychology and ethology, play is a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment.“ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play_(activity))

So when does pleasure and enjoyment overcome you? Now – as an adult? Is it similar to what you enjoyed as a child? Or has it changed? And if so – when? How?

“What did you do as a child that made hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key.” ~Carl Jung

I had a flashlight I used when I hid under blankets at night and read and read and read. And then, right next to my books there were notebooks filled with poems, stories, both finished and unfinished. I don’t have a flashlight for reading anymore, but I do fall asleep with a book more than once a week. And as for writing? Well, here I am :) (Anna)

***

Considering writing on 5 different blogs I think writing is my greatest passion. This is when I feel big volcanoes of pleasure and enjoyment overcome me. When I feel free and happy. If I‘d be able I would do that and nothing else for a living. And I still like doing things on my own. Enjoying the world and nature around me. So for me not much has changed despite the fact that time is limited. (Nadine)

Quite often when we think about our childhood we think about the relationship between our parents and us. Especially when we have children of our own we look at how things were back then and how we do them now. We hardly ever take time to really travel back in time and remember. But maybe this can help us understand ourselves better. Seeing who we were and what we did. What we loved and enjoyed. And if we had forgotten – maybe do those things again and see if they feel the same now? And surely, if we can understand ourselves a bit better, we can understand our children better as well?

I still love sitting on swings watching the sky and trees above me. But I am getting old and therefore sick on swings so the joy isn‘t lasting. (Nadine)

We have talked about us. Now it‘s your turn. Travel back and then tell us! We are curious to know what really mesmerized you when you were little! What was it that made hours pass like minutes? What put the biggest smile on your face?

Tell us if you want to… or perhaps, tell you children one day :)

Nadine & Anna

Boys don’t cry

sensitivityOne day, when I picked up Leander from kindergarten, I watched him ride a scooter around. Another boy ran into him with a tricycle and Leander fell. It wasn‘t bad, he didn‘t hurt himself much but still he cried a lot. Another boy watched the situation and then came over and said: “You know what I do when I fall?“ “What?“ I asked. “I don‘t cry!“ I was stunned and angry at the same time. And felt somehow sorry for that boy. (Nadine)

 


Boys are tough.

Boys wrestle and play football.
Boys are loud and wild.
Boys don‘t cry.

Right ?

Isn‘t that what society has in mind? What people think of boys? Don’t boys generally get a different look from those around when they cry, than girls?

But instead of serving this picture – wouldn‘t it be great to have a boy that is allowed to cry? That wants to cuddle up. That rather sits back and watches other kids run around and play every now and then? A boy who knows it’s ok to be happy AND it’s ok to be sad. That it’s ok to run around and be wild AND it’s ok to sit quietly in a corner when you’re not in a mood for running.

Well the good news is – maybe you can have both! How? Raise him like a child, not like a boy.

We have been talking about respect a lot. And about sensitive children in general. About acknowledging emotions, allowing feelings to come, responding to a child‘s needs. If you do this you will most likely raise a child who is used to express his feelings and capable of acting in a way that feels his own and not what others expect him to be. It’s hard sometimes, for both you and him. It might be different to what the people around are doing. You might be told you’re raising him like a girl. But he’ll also be grateful one day that you let him own his feelings; that he knows what it means to be happy, sad and angry; that he understands his emotions and when he grows older they won’t overwhelm him.

What the boy mentioned above probably heard from his parents (or peers) was that he doesn‘t need to cry, that he should be tough, be a boy! What he might lose then is his healthy sense of his own feelings and pain. So you might end up with a child that falls, gets back up and keeps running. Great? On the surface, yes. And of course, there will be times in life when he will have to do exactly that – get up and go like nothing had happened. But…

What about when he gets older, meets other people, falls in love? If he is not able to grasp his own feelings how can he understand others? How can he live a healthy relationship with someone if he‘s not capable of saying what he might need, if he does not even know that himself ?

Think about your daughters for a moment. Wouldn‘t you want them to fall in love with a boy who respects her feelings, who is gentle and caring?

But it‘s not about the people he might meet and fall in love with. It‘s also about himself.

Most boys are taught from an early age to act tough and repress their emotions. In particular, sensitive boys learn to deny their real selves in order to be accepted and approved of by their peers. This denial can create fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem. (Ted Zeff, “The strong sensitive boy“)

But won‘t my boy be bullied if he is so sensitive ?

We think – No! By acknowledging, understanding, respecting, responding and empathizing you provide him with strong self-confidence. If he is always allowed to express himself exactly the way he feels right now, if he is always accepted for who he is he will learn to be able to stand up for himself and protect himself. And he will most likely attract and gather around people who are more like him – sensitive, understanding and empathic.

But he is a boy after all – shouldn‘t he be allowed to run around and scream ?

Of course. We are not saying you should raise him to be sensitive instead of loud and wild and … well … boyish. But these things come naturally. Just as we don‘t brush away their feelings we also don‘t force them to be quiet and still when they want to jump and down and sing “Oh Maddo hadda farm eehaaeehaahooowww !!“ from the centre of their lungs.

When Leander enters the backyard of the building we live in some people quickly close their windows. In the U-Bahn quite often I am looked at as “Can you not tell him to be quiet?“ He needs activity and lots of body movement in order to calm down at night and sleep well. But he also needs a long cuddle and quiet space to be whole and happy. (Nadine)

Our task is to provide both. Love and understanding, empathy as well as action and wild play. But coming to think of it – isn‘t that what our recently born girls might need too ?

We‘ll see.

Do you think boys and girls should be raised differently? How? We are looking forward to your thoughts on this one!!

Nadine & Anna

Further reading:

http://www.positive-parents.org/2013/04/parenting-highly-sensitive-boy.html

“The strong sensitive boy“ by Ted Zeff

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-development/201201/the-highly-sensitive-boy

 

 

The Work of Childhood.

I was in the kitchen the other day and wanted Antek to come help me. ‘Can you come a minute?’ I asked. ‘No, sorry. I am busy working. Kalina is working too. Sorry we can’t help you now.’ Antek is three. Kalina is six weeks old. He was building train tracks and she was … well, doing what six-week-old babies do – lying on the floor looking around and smiling. Were they working? Sure they were! (Anna)

‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’ (Confucius)

What is the difference between play and work? Play we do for fun. Work we do because we have to? What about all these people who love what they do for a living? Do we really need to create the boundary between play and work? Wouldn’t life be more fun and more rewarding if we all managed to play for a living?  And if we think of work as something serious… look at our kids at play; look at their incredibly focused faces; consider the time and effort they put into whatever it is they are occupied with at the moment; notice the excitement and enthusiasm – don’t you wish everybody worked like this?

We have talked a lot (a LOT :)) about play, but here is a crazy idea we have not yet discussed – what if we treated our children’s play as their work. How would that change our approach not only to what they do, but also the way we deal with them on a daily basis? Our requests, the way we ask questions, how we approach a diaper change, how we manage transitions…

Don’t disturb me, I’m working!

We hate to be disturbed when working on something, especially something difficult. Everyone is probably the same in a way – so much effort goes into trying to understand and work out the problem at hand, we don’t want to spend any of this precious energy on dealing with others disturbing us, or wanting something from us right now. When writing, if someone interrupts your thought process how do you feel? More often than not, the thought is gone, it may never come back. Grrrr…

Children understand and realize so much, that it still amazes scientists, and there is an incredible amount of work they are doing every day, all day. It might look like nothing much to us, but there is a lot going on when we think they are simply playing with cars.

We want our kids to be creative – developing creativity takes time. A lot of time.

We want our kids to be good learners – they need time to practice undisturbed, develop and test ideas, make hypotheses about the world and have time to test them.

We want our kids to be able to play independently – they need to be allowed to do this over and over again, without our constant interruptions.

We want our children to be able to focus, we want them to develop long attention span – they need time and more time to do this, and the last thing they need are constant interruptions.

When we see someone at work, we don‘t just walk in and talk or even yell from one desk to another.

When we see someone at work and we need something from them we try to:

  • Wait until they are finished before asking a question;
  • Tell them in advance we need something from them, then respect the fact that they need to finish something first;
  • Do not stand looking over their shoulder if they have told us they will be with us in a minute;
  • Do not ask them five times if they’re done yet;
  • Do not expect them to drop everything they are doing immediately and go with us without asking why;
  • Don’t yell what it is we need from behind the door and expect them to listen and follow.

What if we did all this when we approach our children who are… playing? Working?

So again – what if we looked at children’s play as work (which it really is!)? What if they are just observing the ants at work when we think they are just slow and lazy? What if they are right now discovering that this hand above them is their own? What if they are about to finish a piece of art just for you while you are trying to convince them that they need to clean up their room? Doesn‘t it seem fair and right to wait a moment or even walk over and see what is so interesting instead of yelling “Hurry up now?“ Isn‘t it worth that one moment of waiting and quietly asking our baby if you can  pick her up instead of running in, interrupting her play and scooping her up without warning? Is a piece of art made with love not worth much more than a tidy room? Exactly.

Your child doesn‘t need a degree in physics to be a scientist at work :)

What do you think? We would love your opinion!

Anna & Nadine

Raising sensitive children

You may have heard of the term “Highly sensitive person“ (HSP). Those 15-20% of our population who are born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. Since you don‘t become highly sensitive at some point but you are from birth on, there are the so called “Highly sensitive children“ hidden in our world. They “grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously“ (Elaine Aron). They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. Because children are a blend of a number of temperament traits, some HSCs are fairly difficult–active, emotionally intense, demanding, and persistent–while others are calm, turned inward, and almost too easy to raise except when they are expected to join a group of children they do not know. But outspoken and fussy or reserved and obedient, all HSCs are sensitive to their emotional and physical environment.

What these children need is understanding and appreciation for their trait. This is what Elaine Aron, the author of several books on High sensitivity, states and what we certainly agree with. But…

We want to ask you this: What do you think would happen if we raised ALL children AS IF they were highly sensitive ?

And by that we don‘t mean carefully protecting your child from any uncomfortable or overstimulating situation in the world. We mean: when it comes to their emotions – acknowledge, understand, respect, respond and empathize.

Elaine Aron developed a questionnaire to see if your child is highly sensitive or not. It contains questions such as “Does your child startle easy?“ or “Does your child want to change clothes if wet or sandy?“. But it has also questions like “Does your child use big words for his/her age?“ or “Does your child ask deep, thought – provoking questions?“ in it.

Well – you wouldn‘t know until your child was about 3, 4, or 5 years old. What about the 3 years before that? You may not realize that your child is “different“ than others until you become aware of him playing rather quietly on his own than with a group of children, of him talking more or more meaningfully than other children. You may not be surprised by him not liking getting wet and sandy on the playground but see it as something he might get used to eventually.

But the first 3 years of life are crucial. And while we don‘t want to put a diagnosis in your head and consider your child to be highly sensitive we want to raise awareness to sensitivity in general.

Our culture is performance driven. You need to function and you need to function well. There is no time to be wasted to become independent, learn the basics in life and an instrument too. Good manners, the rules of our society and strategies to protect yourself, to compete and become successful. Sensitivity does not really fit in well here. It is usually combined with thoughts of shyness, fearfulness or fussiness. How can a person like that become successful and self-confident?

And so many parents tend to “toughen up their child“. A small scratch, a minor accident with the tricycle or the wrong coloured cup on the breakfast table are said to be “nothing“ and “not a big deal“. Get over it and move on. That‘s life!

But does preparing children for a harsh world by being harsh to them really work?

What if it is true what Robin Grille  (and countless others) suggest – that things like violence and war are not a political but a psychological issue? Wouldn’t it then make sense to celebrate sensitivity in our children in hope that we are raising sensitive people, who understand their own feelings and those of others; who know what they feel and are not afraid of these feelings; who are okay with being sad, angry and scared, as well as being happy and excited?

Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber both advocated an approach to child rearing, where we – parents, caregivers – respect the child for who he is. We believe this also means respecting their feelings and emotions. Even if we sometimes disagree. Even if we don’t understand. Even if they trigger in us something we can’t quite put our finger on, but that makes us uncomfortable.

What would it require us as parents to do?

  • Acknowledge our child’s feelings with respect.
  • Try to understand.
  • Respond, even if you don’t know what it is they are going through.
  • Empathize.

In day-to-day life it would probably mean coming to terms with our children’s strong emotional reactions to things like:

  • Spilled water (on them, on the carpet, on the table, even on someone else);
  • Dirty or wet hands;
  • Wrong kind of shirt. Wrong again. Not this one either;
  • Being too hot or too cold;
  • And countless others.

And while we would more often than not want to say that it doesn’t matter, it matters deeply to our child in that moment. And in fifteen years’ time we will probably think fondly of those moments and want them back. So is it really too much to ask?

It doesn‘t mean protecting your child from any situation that could be harmful. It doesn‘t mean compensating pain or fears with physical contact. It means RESPECTING all sorts of feelings and emotions and RESPONDING to them. It means letting our children do the work of preparing for the world “on their own, with our help”, rather than pushing them to do it faster.

In our recent e-mail exchange Lisa Sunbury says: “I don’t believe you can go wrong with simply validating  and allowing [your child’s] feelings, gently talking with him about what  happened to help him understand, and waiting patiently for him to come  up with answers he feels comfortable with in terms of how to respond  to situations like this. This is his work to do, and yours is to accept him, and offer gentle reassurance …“

‘As parents it’s not our job to toughen up our children to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.’  (L.R. Knost )

Perhaps one way of doing this is by celebrating our children’s sensitivity?

What do you think? We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Origins of Free Play’

Guest post by Elena Marouchos of New Zealand Infant and Toddler Consortium

The Origins of Free Play, Kálló, Éva, and Györgyi Balog. Pikler-Lóczy Társaság, 2005.

‘The Origins of Free Play’ is a delightfully easy read and should be a companion reference for all who work with infants and toddlers. This book not only helps us to understand the value of free play; it eloquently describes the modes of free play, from the time an infant discovers his hands to the manipulation and experimentation of objects until the stage of building things. The detailed accounts and pictures show us that an infant’s need to play is fundamental. It also becomes evident that we can only see the child clearly once we stop prompting and sit back. Attentive observation is where we truly become aware of everything that happens at a physical (gross motor and fine motor) and cognitive level, until one block is placed on top of another. The sequence of how this play unfolds follows the natural development from infancy to young toddlerhood and provides valuable insight as to the learning that takes place, and hence the kinds of objects that are appropriate yet still challenging, for the child.

This book serves as a wonderful reminder that  “a child who achieves things through independent experimentation acquires an entirely different kind of knowledge than does a child who has ready-made solutions offered to him”.  ( Emmi Pikler )

Eva Kallo’s honest account of her own journey as a pedagogue makes this book read more like a journal that a text book …”activities conceived by adults supposed to animate children to play and learn, that mealtimes to be “gotten done with” as quickly as possible in order to make time for what was supposedly the most essential thing: play between teachers and children.  Time where it was thought that a teacher’s role was to demonstrate to children how they should play, to “animate” and supervise them”.   A subtle invitation…as one can’t help but reflect on our own pedagogy over time.

Aside from the valuable knowledge about modes of play, ‘Origins of free play’ provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our role as teachers, perhaps questioning how it is possible to support a child’s development if we do not ‘play’ with the children ourselves. ‘Origins of free play’ shows us how we can create a safe environment for free, uninterrupted play which permits the child to explore and discover the world in their own way and in their own time.     Throughout the book, photographs of very young children engaged in focused play remind us of the fascination that comes when children engage with the most ordinary and simplest of playthings. In its humblest form, this book details the way infants play, simple ideas for appropriate playthings, the play area, and, most importantly, the value of observing play. It’s value, however, lies in how it allows those who work with the very young to reflect, embed and thus articulate our practice.

 

 

 

Changing relationships through changing diapers.

Two hours after our daughter was born a nurse came into the delivery room to check if Mona was ok and good to go home with us. She did what she had to do – measuring, weighing etc. Then my husband took over to dress Mona. I was lying on the bed watching him care for her as if she had always been there. He talked to her, kept close contact and looked in those eyes that could barely see anything. The nurse then looked at him and said: “Well I guess there is nothing else for me to do here. You clearly know what you‘re doing.“ And he did. He knew what he was doing – not just dressing her to keep her warm but also giving her comfort during her first hours on this planet. Bonding with her. Starting a wonderful father-daughter-relationship. (Nadine)

We have talked about diaper changes before in this post, but in response to our recent post some of you have asked: ‘Yes, free play and care moments need to be in balance, that makes sense. In theory. BUT how do we build a relationship on the changing table? Or with a toddler, who is running away the moment he hears the word “diaper”?’

So really, how?

Since there are a few differences and new challenges arising once your child grows older, gets more mobile or even talking and walking – we decided to split this into 3 posts. This one will be about changing newborns and infants and we will then move on to mobile infants and in the last post talk about changing toddlers. All of those have new challenges but also wonderful ways of getting and staying in close contact with your child.

Every moment matters

Diapering matters as much as playing together. Dressing matters as much as reading books. Feeding matters as much as going for a walk together. All those moments of being together are important, and one is not more important, or more valuable than the other.

‘If the adult wants to get over with the feeding, the changing of the diaper, the bathing, the dressing quickly, the child will not only feel the abrupt, mechanical moves unpleasant, but he will also feel that the time spent together is dreary for both of them’ (Judith Falk, MD, ‘When we touch the infant’s body…’)

We don’t have a magic wand, but what we can share with you are our own experiences, and things that so far have worked magic for us… the tricks we have up our sleeve are: slow down (don’t panic, it’s just a dirty diaper, a couple more minutes won’t make that much of a difference); communicate and wait for a response.

One trick that does help is this (sorry, this might not be pleasant): imagine you are helpless, for some reason you need to be taken care of by other people. You cannot communicate with them. You cannot do things for yourself. Just for one moment, one time try and imagine that. How would you like other people to take care of you in the most intimate moments?

Starting a diaper change before you start a diaper change

We usually decide to change a baby‘s diaper for one of these two reasons – we have smelled or heard something happen in there, or we simply think it is time again. Our child, however, might not feel that way and even if he does, he might not think “Oh surely Dad is gonna come and pick me up to change my nappy any minute.“

It is our job to prepare our child. To let her know before we pick her up from her bed, blanket or playpen. Usually there is no rush. Even if there has been a major number two, the world won’t end if we take a couple extra minutes to let our baby know what has happened and what is about to happen. The diaper is already dirty. There is still time for us to slowly engage with our child saying “I think you need a new diaper. I will pick you up now (in a couple of minutes) and take you to the changing table.“

If you have ever followed a newborn’s eyes while carrying him through the flat you will have seen how nervously he tried to follow what was happening with him. Although he does not see very far he feels that he is being carried around and that bright and dark shades change around him. If you tell him where you are going and are walking slowly he will feel much more safe and secure. You are his rock, you can explain the world and make him feel safe – or choose not to.

Talk to me

Communicate. Don’t talk about irrelevant stuff, but do talk about what is going on – your voice, the words and the actions are like an orchestrated symphony. They come together, and slowly begin to make sense. Before you know it, you will see your baby’s reaction to the sound of your voice, and afterwards to the words you say. Before you know it connections will be made, and the world will be less scary, less unexpected.

You are the one who knows it all – sharing it with your baby, communicating and letting them know what is going on, makes your relationship this much stronger. ‘You are reliable. You respect me.’ is the message you’re giving.

Wait for me

Say what you’re going to do and… wait. Wait for the words to sink in, for a slightest reaction. For a response. Wait for your baby to give you a sign she is ready. Not today? Ok, maybe tomorrow. But just because she doesn’t respond just yet, doesn’t mean she’s not trying to understand. So wait. Just a little bit more. You’ll be surprised how soon she will start responding, and letting you know she’s ok with all of it.

Communicating is important, but remember that communication is a two-way street. You and your baby are both in it. Wait for the response, because you are trying to have a dialogue. Some responses just take longer :)

Try to do all this if you can, but …

… above all just try to be in the moment with your baby. This is your moment together, and yes, it might be that this moment is accompanied by a smelly diaper, but hey – that’s also part of life, right? Try to put the phone away for this time, don’t look at other things if you don’t have to. Talk to your baby and your baby only – we have discovered this to be the key, the one thing that can transform a diaper change into a wonderful dialogue with your newborn.

And if one diaper change goes not so very well – that is fine, there will be others :) Many, many, oh-so-many others, bringing with them all those opportunities for connection and dialogue. You’re the best Mom/Dad in the world. Your baby knows that already. ‘It didn’t go so well this time, did it? Wow, we were both really tired.’ Most likely the look you’ll see on her face will tell you something like this: ‘Don’t worry about it Mom. It’s OK Dad. I get it. Happens to the best of us.’

‘The image that the young infant creates of his own body based on the experiences of the first few months, or years of his life will deeply influence his future. His care during infancy will affect his entire life, personality, his self-image, the development of his self-consciousness and […] his adult behaviour as a parent. His relationship to his own body and its functioning depends on the quality of the care, its being pleasant or unpleasant, and the good or bad feeling of the adult nursing him.’ (Judith Falk)

What are the biggest challenges when changing diapers? Do you have any magic you want to share with us? We LOVE to hear from you!

Nadine & Anna

A perfect balance of free play and care times

In response to our recent post (Free Play) we have received a few comments from people suggesting that allowing children to play freely, without our directions, suggestions and guidance (as in our example with the cup, when a child comes running to you with a cup and rather than prompt what it is, or suggest what to do with it you… wait) might mean losing out on numerous valuable teaching opportunities. We respectfully disagree, and here is why…

First of all, let us clarify this: we are not suggesting that children should be left alone to figure out the world, without our help, assistance and presence. Even in play, it is great if we can be around to observe and help when needed. If we can be present, we can then be invited to participate and follow our child’s lead, making sure that the game is their, not our, invention.

But then again – do children need our guidance in figuring out the rules of this daily game of life? Sure. Do they need our modeling of certain socially acceptable behaviors, and our help in acquiring them? Of course. But does this mean we need to do all of this guiding, teaching and modeling while they are engrossed in play? We think not.

Even with very small babies there are plentiful other opportunities that will allow us to do all that guiding, teaching and modelling, and yet leave their play to them. If we allow ourselves to see all those moments, we can then happily sit back and observe how they spread the wings of their imagination, and let the cup be a flying saucer, a turtle, or their best friend.

We believe that the moments of care (feeding, dressing, changing etc.) are those times when we can ask for collaboration and lead, while playtime is the time when we can step back and follow.

This allows us and our children to have the balance we want (and need). To connect in times when we need to be there. To guide and model, and ask for cooperation. To teach the rules of the game. But at the same time, play remains play. No hidden agendas, no teaching language, social skills, or numbers, no jumping the line.

Lead and ask for collaboration in care moments

‘Many people may believe – perhaps […] due to […] taking obedience for cooperation […] – that the cooperation of the infant and young child (in fact his obedience) is important […] because in this way, they can learn quicker how to dress, undress and wash by themselves; and once it runs in his blood in what order he is requested to reach out his hand and feet, he will stretch then out even before he is asked to; once he knows how to take off his T-shirt, how to put on his trousers, the time required for the care activities can be shortened down, and the child will become independent sooner. And by all this […] time that can be devoted to “more useful”, “more noble” goals: like being “engaged” with the child, playing together etc. can be saved’ (Maria Vincze, MD, ‘The meaning of cooperation during care dressing on the diapering table, dressing table, cushion’) [italics ours]

All too often we try to rush through moments of care in order to engage with our children in play. And all too often we want to be so engaged in our children’s play that it might become our play, or that play changes into fulfilling our agendas (like teaching words, letters, numbers etc.). If, however, we choose to see moments of care as equally valuable to all the other moments when we can be with our children, they provide a world of opportunities for all this guiding and teaching we want to do. It is in our nature to want to teach, and want to share what we know.

What can happen in moments of care, if we are fully present, connected and don’t feel the need to rush? We can teach our children:

Lots of language (possibilities are endless!)
How to cooperate
What is ok and what is not
Some social expectations
Respect for their own bodies (and, by extension, those of other people)
What our expectations are, and how far they can push the boundaries (and they can test and test and test…)
How to try again and again
How to approach a problem
How to enjoy being with other people
Respect

In other words, we can give them roots.

Follow and collaborate in play

If we do all that, or maybe if we realize that we are already doing all of that, perhaps the pressure will lift and we can give the babies back their sacred time of play. We will no longer feel the need to teach, lead, model and guide when they play – we are already doing all that in times of care, in those times that are equally valuable, and that provide us with endless opportunities to do just that.

So, is there anything we need to do when our children play? Yes – be there.

If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. (Rachel Carson)

If we are there, present and observing, waiting rather than jumping in with our hidden agendas, our children can learn:

That because they are important to us, whatever they are interested in is also interesting to us
That their ideas are valuable
That their ideas are not wrong, or inappropriate, and that they can share them with us
That dreaming is great, and making things up is even better
That there is not only one correct solution to any given problem
Taking lead, sharing and inviting others to join
Respect

In other words, we can give them wings.

So yes, we don’t think children need our guidance or our teaching when they play. They need our presence.

What do you think? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More interesting, related reading:

A recent article reporting a study on children’s response to directiveness of mothers in play (among other things) is here.
The link to the original article is here.
‘Ten commandments of play based learning’ from Emily at Abundant Life Children is here.

 


 

 

 

Free Play

Over the past few weeks we have been having conversations with lots of people about what it really means to play freely, and what free play is. And why it’s so important. And how to make sure our babies get lots of it. And maybe that we get some ourselves. And why… Can you tell this is one of our favourite things to talk and write about?

More and more research is being published (and hopefully much more is being conducted) that talks about the value of play for children’s development, learning and later life choices. There are many ways to talk about and define play. Our understanding of Free Play comes from the work of Dr Emmi Pikler and later Magda Gerber. And it seems we need to clarify what we mean by this :)

What is Free Play?

We believe there are three key elements to this kind of play – three things that identify play as free:

  • It is self-initiated. Humans have the innate need to play. Babies seem to know what they want to play with, how they want to go about it, and what challenges they are ready for. Self-initiated play means allowing the baby to start their own play in their own way. Without suggesting the toys, placing a new rattle in their tiny hand. Sounds easier than it is done, and we have found this one to be particularly hard for a lot of people, especially parents of newborns and small infants – we often, almost intuitively, want to entertain, to provide, to suggest and to offer toys. If instead we let our babies explore on their own, we can find that what they see as play is not what we would do at all – but we can so easily get drawn into their incredible world of discovery.
  •  It is self-directed. When a toddler runs to us with a cup in his hand, it is nearly impossible (Anna still learning this one!!!) not to jump up and say: ‘Oh, are we having tea?’ But maybe we’re not having tea. Maybe that cup is a flying saucer, or a duck (that’s right!), or maybe he was running to you to tell you he knows what colour it is. Here is the time to explore one of the many ways to use the magical parenting word: wait. Wait and see what happens. Wait for the discovery that your child is making right now to happen, and the joy to appear on his face. Wait for his ideas (not yours) to flourish one after another. Join in and follow, but try not to lead. Be the cast, not the director.
  • It is self-paced. When enough is enough, let it be. Try not to encourage one more try to reach that ball, one more stretch. Babies know how to set their challenges, and in time they will learn to pick their battles, and learn how important it is to know what they can and cannot do. And when. When it’s nearly time to go and they are still engrossed in play, warn them in time, so they are given a chance to finish.

Why is it so important?

If play is self-initiated, babies have a chance to discover the world at their pace. They know their bodies and their interests at any given stage better than we do – after all, they get to live with them. And by letting them choose their own play (even if sometimes we are not sure what it is they are doing, and feel like we would have a better idea of what to put on top of that basket… you know what I’m talking about :)), we are watching as they learn all about their own interests, passions, about the world around, their bodies and set up new and exciting challenges for themselves.

If play is self-directed, our kids have a chance to learn about their own interests, but also limitations. They are able to explore their imagination to its fullest, without us giving them ideas and guessing what it is they are trying to do. They are given a chance to surprise us.

If play is self-paced, we are letting them stop when they want to stop, or change direction when they need to recharge or focus on something else – they are learning when to keep going and when to move on to something else. When to take a break. And when to call it quits. We cannot learn it for them (sometimes we can learn it from them though!)

Mama Nadine just had her little baby Mona two weeks ago, and she is once again discovering the joys of watching a newborn play :) How do your babies play? What is their favourite thing to observe, explore, attempt to do right now? We LOVE to hear from you!

Anna & Nadine

The Healing Power of Play

One afternoon Antek woke up from his nap, had something to eat and went to play in his room. I peeked in to see what was going on, and I noticed he kept throwing his teddy on the floor, then picking it up and throwing it again. He doesn’t usually throw toys, so it had me wonder. I moved closer and was listening. ‘You fell down. It hurt’ he said picking the teddy from the floor. ‘Do you want a hug?’ A little break and the cycle went on again. And again, and again. Until he had enough and moved on to play with his cars. Later in the evening, my husband told me Antek had fallen down on the playground and cried for quite a long time – nothing major happened, but clearly it had upset him quite a lot.

It is often difficult for children to express what they feel. It is probably often difficult for adults, as well. But there is a lot going on emotionally we are working through all the time, and we need tools to deal with it. For children, one of these tools can be FREE PLAY. Free, that is self-initiated, self-led and uninterrupted (as intended by Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber). Of course going through big emotions more often than not requires our (adults’) help. Again, it does not mean to leave the children alone at all times, and let them figure out the world without our guidance – it simply means to be sensitive to when and how to allow play to be a healing tool without jumping right in with our assumptions and expectations.

Given time and space, children, scratch that – people, who are nurtured and whose needs are met, can on a lot of occasions work through their own problems in their own play. Or in their own way. We talk, if we can. We doodle on a piece of paper for hours. We kick things. We scream. We run, or go outside. We lie in the grass, go hug trees, go for a swim. Kids also work through their emotions in a way which helps them cope and understand.

If nobody steps in to stop or ‘help’ in the process, the play itself can sometimes become a self-organized therapeutic tool. There were definitely some emotions with Antek falling down that day. He got hurt. He didn’t like it. He was surprised how much his knee hurt. Had anyone stepped in to stop the throwing, or to ask what happened, the process of going through this could have been stopped.

We have both seen it happen with our children, and time and time again it is incredible to see how capable they are in working through their feelings, fears and doubts. How does the healing power of play work, when we look at FREE PLAY as a tool for dealing with emotions? Here are two things we have noticed:

Understanding and re-living reality

In one of the videos from the Pikler home, there is a scene with one little boy who keeps hiding his toys up really high, where he can barely reach them. He then walks away, looks at the shelf, and comes back to try and reach for the toys. He does that several times, always making sure he cannot see them, and then always returning to make sure they are there.

This little boy, we were told, had not been there for too long. It was still the time when Pikler home was an orphanage. His parents, who could not care for him at the time, came to visit him every week for a little while. After they’d left, he immediately went to play his ‘game’ of hide-and-seek.

Why is this interesting? Perhaps because of the amazing connection this little boy was making between his parents disappearing every week, to appear in the next. Perhaps this game helped him to understand reality, and reassured him that things that go out of sight can be brought back. Perhaps he was testing the permanence of objects, which had affected his life to such a great extent – his parents were constantly in and out of his sight, after all.

Practicing to deal with fear

We have already talked about Antek’s fear of planes, and how he managed to combat it by practicing getting into and out of the plane, sitting down, preparing his bag (http://mamas-in-the-making.com/2012/10/our-boys-and-their-toys/). Going over some things children are afraid of, or have doubts about, often appears in play as a way of making them familiar.

A lot of our fears are born out of a fear of the unknown. If we know what is coming, we can prepare – which is why talking to our babies (even very small) through the events of daily life helps so much in the long run – it makes the world a little more predictable, and through that, less scary.

In their play we often see children doing something over and over, repeating certain actions – sometimes we can make a clear connection to a real-life event (like getting on a plane, or going to the doctor), and sometimes it is too abstract for us to see. But if we manage to allow our babies to develop the habit of free play, they will also use it to deal with their fear of the unknown – by finding their own ways of making it known and familiar.

Have you noticed your child dealing with emotions, fears, or reliving past events in their play? We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

Janet Lansbury talks about ways to encourage free play as a tool for self-therapy here.

 

 

 

No risk, no fun

The other day I was at the playground with Leander who had just started enjoying the slides. So he was busy climbing up the frames or walking up the slides. At some point I watched a woman standing behind him, holding her hands to protect him – my son – from falling down. When he was up there safely she walked around and stood at the bottom of the slides – to “catch” him. As I was just somewhere between stunned and surprised I didn’t say anything, just watched her. Leander went down the slide and she helped him get off. While she did so her own son – age 6 or 7 – climbed up the frame. Slipped. And fell to the ground.

It was a very strange scene to watch. And obviously it did lead to the conclusion that this mother has – with the same behaviour she exhibited towards Leander – saved her own son from taking risks and – in the end – led him to experience such accidents later. If we are always around, surround our kids with the safety of our hands and arms and hinder any fall – they will not learn to estimate heights and distances, risks and what they are capable of doing. And what not. When in a new situation, they will look to us for help. But what if we’re not there to save them? And of course, we cannot always be.

This does of course not mean we let our children run around and not care at all. Streets are dangerous. Stairs too. Here our gentle guidance is inevitable. There is a middle ground between too much control, and none at all – even though in the media (and on some parenting forums!) it would appear that our choices are ‘white’ or ‘black’, ‘helicopter’ or ‘neglect’, ‘authoritarian’ or ‘permissive’, there are in fact a million shades of grey in between. We believe the same is true for risky play.

So all we have to do is to provide a safe play area for kids to explore. In the house, but also outside. We try to choose playgrounds that are made for children our age; use a stroller for long distances along big roads; provide a safe area in which our boys are free to explore. Because only then, once they are free to explore without our constant worry or our ‘saving’ arms, they are free to really learn. And this is when we can step back and learn to trust.

Learning to fall, Learning to trust

Risks are part of the game. As soon as babies begin to move around freely they start taking risks. They roll over one side without knowing what will happen when they are on the other side – on their belly. Their head is still heavy and difficult to control, and usually the first rolling over is followed by a bang on the floor or surface underneath. A crucial moment. Do I jump in and support him, place blankets and mattresses everywhere so he won‘t hurt? Or do I let him learn the Art of Falling? It is not an easy moment for babies and parents, but this is when we make big choices – how do I want my child to feel in the world? Confident and able or helpless and uncertain? And if I ‘save’ him now, am I saving him from all future falls? All bad decisions? Or…

The head to floor distance grows as the children grow and develop. First it is tiny, there might be a bang on the floor when they hit it for the first time, and of course this upsets them (and us!). But if we gently observe and explain, we will see that the second, maybe third time there is indeed… no bang at all. We will be left to admire how skilfully our child has figured out how to support his head, so he doesn’t hit the floor. How they gently pull the shoulder backwards, work those neck muscles, lift the head a bit higher, hold it at just the right height – this is truly art. And to know your own body so well is empowering, and so it gives them courage and confidence to move to the next step. So the earlier we start letting them learn to fall, the earlier we can learn to trust them. And allow them to learn to trust themselves – what a great gift to give, don’t you think?

Let them choose

First step in an unknown situation is usually: Do I WANT to try this? Do I want to climb up there at all? In other words – Am I ready? And we can’t know if our child is ready – only the child knows that. Only he knows if he has the courage, ability, strength and will to try this thing he’s never tried, and only he knows if he can try it right now. You see many parents arriving at the playground, lifting their kids out of the stroller and leading them around the space. “Come on, let‘s slide. It‘s fun!“ Without even once asking the child if she wants to.

When letting your child choose for themselves they might not look at the slide for a long time. This was the case with both of our boys – long looks in the direction of the slide, but no clear sign that they feel they want to go ahead. And then, one day, they walk over and have a closer look. Often the steps up are much more interesting than the slide down. So they start climbing up. If the steps are small enough for them they might go up all the way. If the space between steps is too high, they might try and try. Might struggle and complain. Or simply step back down. All of this is ok and part of the process. Part of learning what they are capable of. And what not.

We shouldn‘t talk them into doing it. All we can do is narrating. ‘I see you want to go all the way up there.’ Quite often this is enough. No need to comment that it‘s too high, they are too small or “not ready yet.“ All of this would discourage them and judge their capabilities that – seriously – we quite often underestimate. More often than not they know better than we do what they are and are not capable of doing.

If the child comes back down – we don‘t need to comment on that. Because she just went back to her own safety zone – she knew what she needed to do to feel safe again. If she won‘t come down but starts to cry or complain you can continue to narrate: ‘You are trying really hard to get up there. I see that.‘ And at some point she will ask for help or we offer help by asking: ‘Do you need my help?’ Usually they want help that moves them up. But that‘s not help, that‘s dangerous. Because this is jumping developmental steps – she will be higher than she can get to herself, which means she will have no idea how high she really is. And you will have taken away from the success that is yet to come and be her own – climbing all the way up by herself. Because surely, sooner or later, she will get there. When she is ready. Simply take her down and explain: ‘I will take you back down now because you got stuck.‘ And then see if she wants to try again or run off and do something else.

Don’t instruct

Imagine you climbed a really long ladder to paint the walls in your house. You are up there and suddenly you feel unsafe. You want to come down but the whole thing is shaking. Your legs are shaking and you are scared of bending down because the ladder could fall under the shift of weight. Down at the bottom of the stairs you see your partner, who says: ‘Just take your right foot one step down.‘ and grabs it. Don‘t you want to yell at him ‘I can‘t! It‘s too shaky!‘ and at the same time shake off his hand from your foot? Because from the safety down there on the ground this person can‘t possibly feel the fear you are going through up there. And even if he can – he would certainly do things differently on the way down. He might take the right foot first, you‘d prefer the left. He might take two steps at once. You want to go one step at a time. Always starting with the left. Very slowly. He might jump the last 3 steps. You will not relax until you are down on the floor.

If a child is allowed to climb up somewhere on his own once he is ready for it, he will find his way of getting back down at some point too. Until then – we do not guide. Not explain what to do. We‘ll simply offer help and take them back DOWN.

Let them be, but not alone

So the golden rule is to let them explore without leaving them alone. To be there but not in their way. To watch and observe without distracting them.

Our balance is partly situated in our inner ear. ‘Balance is a choreographed arrangement that takes sensory information from a variety of organs and integrates it to tell the body where it is in related to gravity and the earth.’ (http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=21685). Balance is a combination of what the work done by your ears, your eyes and your brain. It is our inner instinct to shout and yell “Be careful!“ or “Watch out!“ But it‘s exactly these moments when children do fall. Because at that very moment they stop being careful. Because they heard us shout and turned their heads and attention towards us and away from what they were carefully doing. Because we are taking away the attention of their ear, which should at that moment be busy balancing.

The more you watch your child carefully the more you will learn that in fact he is taking care of himself. So don‘t just step back and let them be. Watch from a distance. Surround them with trust and jump in when they do fall. Help them out of a difficult situation when they ask you to.

Learning to assess risk is learning to judge reality; it is learning what we can and cannot do; it is, above all, learning what to do in a situation when we don’t know what to do. This is a great skill, one that is useful in just about everything we can think of. Knowing how to look at dangerous situations and figuring out what to do to stay safe is definitely something we want our children to learn. Knowing when it is worth making that extra step to the other side might be one of the things that will determine how they fare in life. Essentially, knowing how to take risks means also knowing how to stay safe… most of the time. After all – sometimes risking in life is exactly what allows us to go where we need to go, and maybe find our own path.

Man cannot discover new oceans, unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. (Andre Gide)

For more reading on risk go to:

Aunt Annie’s fabulous website and read these fantastic posts:

http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.nl/2011/10/reaping-rewards-of-risk.html
http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.nl/2012/03/turning-parents-on-to-risky-play.html

http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.nl/2012/06/good-news-about-risky-play-where-magic.html

and also:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/aug/03/schools.children

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/risky-play-is-good-for-kids-even-if-they-break-an-arm-researchers-say/article4615207/