Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Encouraging strong spirited, resilient children

 I have a confession to make.  I'm a bit of a cry baby.  I don't seem to be able to tune out the misery of others and if I watch the horrors on the news or if I am around folk going through painful times I feel that knot building in my throat and the prickle of tears behind my eyes.  I don't get how it's possible to turn that off - to watch the pain of others without feeling involved and devastated for them.  It's something that will be derided as weakness by others, but I've come to the conclusion that actually I'm fine.  I'm just empathic towards others and if the world had more empathy then we'd be better off in the long run, even if it might mean a shortage of handkerchiefs and runaway sales of waterproof mascara.

 So, there it is, I'm a sensitive little flower and probably would collect unicorns and rainbows if there was space in my home not covered in books and toys.  But I have also learned to stand up for myself, to stand firm when my instinct is to walk away from failure, to be stubborn - in other words over time I have learned resilience.

Some kids are more sensitive naturally than others, and in our sensitive, naturally empathic kids it is important to give them the skills they will need to survive with their minds healthy in a world filled with everyday failures and disappointments.  For our naturally less sensitive children it is important to foster the empathy for others that they are born with, even if it isn't always so obvious in them as in our 'sensies'.

Take a typical day with a sensitive kid.  They wake up  brimming with excitement about a friend coming over to visit because they love their friends in a way that less sensitive people can't understand, and are already planning out ways to make their friend welcome, what toys they will share and what games they will play.  The friend cancels.  The sensitive child dissolves into a howling mess, sobbing out their grief and a barrage of questions about why can't they come, did they do something wrong and now the friend doesn't want to see them, did you cancel the meet up because they did something wrong, what is the friend doing instead that's more important, if they're sick exactly what is wrong and can they go and look after them, exactly when will they see them again....

How do you answer?  Do you get irritated and tell them to stop being a cry baby, they will see them when they see them? No!  It may be tempting, and not dealing with their upset ourselves may lead us all down that path on occasion, but by invalidating their feelings of grief you are deepening the wound they feel.  They may start to react less, but they are then internalising their angst and letting it fester rather than learning the skills to deal with their feelings, which they will need when disappointment continues to raise it's head throughout their lives.  If they don't learn how to deal with these strong emotions, they grow up to be people who are constantly looking for validation from other people and over dependent emotionally on the people around them. 

Breathe deeply, hold them close and explain as gently as you can that the thing that happened is not their fault, or anybody's fault, it's just that sometimes things don't work out as you want them to.  This is ok, another time will be different and in the meantime there are other great things they can be doing when they feel ready.  It's ok to be sad and angry but we can let it go and move on to the next thing.  Keep holding them while they need it.  Don't try to reason away why they shouldn't feel sad, just emphasise that there are other fun things that can be done when they are ready.  Tell them that you are sad too, but you will both feel better again soon.  If they are really howling, just hold them and listen to them until they are calm enough for you to talk to.  They will not appreciate a lecture on life, just let them know as simply as possible that you hear how they are feeling and it's understandable.  If they are older and stomp off to be alone, give them time to process how they're feeling and then take them a cup of tea when you think they are ready (the universal sign of 'I recognise you're upset and I care, even if I can't fix it for you).

If you have other children around who express concern - even very small kids will often approach to see what's wrong and offer a pat - encourage their natural empathy with praise 'thank you for coming to see if he's ok, that's very kind of you'.  If they do the opposite and laugh at the tearful one, say quietly but firmly that we do not laugh at people who are sad or hurt as it is not kind.

The biggest way our kids learn to be resilient is by watching the role models around them.  Are you able to express that you are upset about something and tell them how you deal with it?  'I'm really sad about not seeing my friend today so I'd like to go for a walk to make me feel better'.  If every time something doesn't work out you react in high drama, then that is what your kids see as being the correct way to react.

Today has been a tough day in terms of disappointments and unwelcome changes, but I'm aware of what I'm modelling for my kids, so instead of going off to wallow in my feelings of upset and throwing my hands up in the air and giving up, I have got my 'work' related angst off my chest to friends over a cuppa and then moved on to start thinking of solutions to the issues that have presented themselves while considering how the changes affect other folks too.  I made a table of problems, solutions and actions.  I suspect this may not appeal to crying five year olds 'but darling, if you just look at the chart you can see that by week two we will have actioned the plan to develop a better system of communication with regards play dates'....

Here's a few things you might like to try with your sensitive child to help them deal with strong emotions which will stand them in good stead as they grow:

1) Art therapy - provide an outlet for how they're feeling, perhaps by painting how they feel now and how they would like to feel later.  It doesn't have to look like anything - scribbling and splatting is good for this and they are likely to associate colours with how they feel.

2) Go outside for a walk - exercise releases endorphins to help them feel good, and being outside, especially in green spaces, is really calming to children and adults alike. 

3) Introduce mindfulness techniques, such as concentrating on blowing a feather gently and watching how it moves, or blowing bubbles, or lying down and placing their hand on their tummy, feeling it rise and fall as they breathe in and out.

4) Give them the vocabulary to express how they are feeling - I produced a little book for use in our Makaton group to introduce simple expressive words like 'sad', 'angry', 'scared' and 'happy'.

5) Be observant - what do they naturally do that calms and sustains them?  If they always feel good snuggled up with a book, then try to sit them down and read with them when they are over the worst of the crying. 

6) If the angst is caused by perceived failure, encourage them to try again.  I enlist the help of TV characters 'Does Mike the Knight give up when he couldn't do x or did he keep trying until he could? Shall we have another go at it now?'.  This can be a tricky one though - there's a fine line between encouraging and putting them off by insisting on too much, you will feel the difference.

None of us get it right every time, and the world can be a harsh place with grief to bear, but at least we can validate our children's feelings and help to guide them towards containment and knowing how to comfort themselves ready for when they're one day an adult and sitting on the floor and howling is going to get them funny looks from strangers.  Crying when the dog dies in 'Marley and Me' is probably unavoidable though, whatever age you are.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Map skills and den building at Sheffield Park NT

After having Matt home for over a week during Christmas we wanted to make the most of the sunshine and do something really lovely for his last day off before it was back to the normal work routine.  We also didn't want to spend much (in additional to the normal Christmas expenses, a stone hit our windscreen on the way to visit family so we have an insurance excess of £75 for the replacement windscreen to stump up this week).

Fortunately we invest in national Trust membership and are in a part of the country with plenty of NT properties, so there is always a great selection of free days out to choose from within an hour's drive.  Much of what we enjoy about the parks and gardens could be achieved through visiting public woods and parks, but to be perfectly honest it's the absence of dog muck that draws us as much as anything else the NT has on offer.  I can't put a price on the freedom for the kids to kick around in piles of leaves and roll on the grass without my constant 'not there, it's full of poo'.

On Sunday we decided to visit Sheffield Park again (which is in East Sussex, not Sheffield).  After exploring the beautiful 'Capability' Brown landscaped gardens and Toby's favourite bridge over a rushing weir we decided to do something new and head out over the fields with the free map provided on entry to the site.  We wanted to build on the boys map reading skills and using the simply drawn, clear map to find the woodland play area was an ideal opportunity.

The countryside surrounding Sheffield Park is made up of gently rolling farmland and small woods and in the photograph the white smoke visible is from a Steam Train on the Bluebell Railway.  The station is a ten minute walk from Sheffield Park, so if you're travelling without a car you can get public transport to East Grinstead and then catch the steamy the rest of the way.

The first job in learning to map read is to orientate yourself - working out which way up to hold the map by looking for things you recognise on it, so this is what we did with the boys, first at the gate to the car park and then at every signpost.  It's a much more complex skill to hold the map with North up and then work out which way to walk if you're not going North than to simply turn the map to the direction you are going in.

The landmarks drawn on the map were all clear and easy to pick out for the boys, including a fence with a gate and small woodlands.  It was also a great place to start map reading because there was zero chance of getting lost with the open site and the provision of regular signposts.  Using a map in the real world builds on from the map games we play at home, drawing maps of the house and then hiding treasure and marking it on the map.

The biggest challenge was helping the boys visualise what they were looking at on the map by frequently stopping and looking carefully at the surroundings.  If you pointed to the woods on the map they would tell you they were woods, but then asked to point to the woods shown on the map in the real world caused confusion about what side of the path they were on.  They picked it up pretty quickly though and we had no trouble finding the woodland which contained the play trail.

 As we entered the wood it was thick with mud and there was no play equipment in sight at first, but then we rounded a corner, the paths dried out and the den building area appeared.  This is an activity the boys will spend all day doing given the opportunity, and they had soon co-opted in other children to help.  A little boy approached Toby and said 'hello I'm Tom'.  Toby looked at him for a minute and then said 'hello Tom, you help me build a fireplace please', which given his history of speech delay was a really exciting moment for me (he used his own name for the first time on his third birthday a few weeks ago - 'Toby' instead of 'beh beh').

We had great fun building, but took a break part way through to take our turns on the brilliant rope swing suspended from a grand old tree.

The National Trust have really embraced the concept of introducing the adventurous and slightly risky activities that children need to develop skills such as balance and risk awareness.

Slipping in mud, balancing on logs, playing with their whole bodies as they climb and swing and run is necessary to children's proper development and as well as the more sedate opportunities to admire flowers and grand buildings, the National Trust has also started to provide opportunities for adventurous play across many of their properties.

It turned out to be a very long day as Toby slept so deeply in the car on the way home that he then didn't go back to sleep until nearly 11pm and spent the evening lamenting the stick he'd had to leave behind, but the mud in the bottom of the bath at bedtime attested to how good a day the boys had, and they were still talking excitedly about what they had done the next day and asking to go back again soon.  I'm sure it is somewhere we will return to again and again.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Science on Sea

 Last week we went to a fantastic free interactive Science Workshop for kids organised by the Hastings Pier Charity.

Hastings Pier was burned down by arsonists a few years ago and the rebuilding effort is being paid for through fundraising by this charity, but as well as working on the pier project, they are also delivering brilliant community sessions including arts and crafts and now science.

The show was run by American born, Sussex based 'science dude' Brad Gross and was the first of a series of monthly science events.

The photos I have taken don't do justice to the activities, but it was tricky getting shots without OPCs (Other People's Children) in the picture.  For better images from the event taken by the organisers follow the link from here and look at the post from the 13th December 2014.

The first part of the show was a lively interactive mixture of science concepts, mainly based around understanding our solar system and an introduction to constellations, but also with a nod to the science of the pier including weathering of the structure.  Each segment had activities for children to volunteer to take part in and lots of audience interaction.  Ollie and Toby had the chance to be planets orbiting the Sun (Ollie is Venus in the picture, Toby was Uranus).

After the first part of the show, the kids then took part in make and take away activities.  The boys had fun producing their very own star chart of the constellation of Orion with stickers and buttons and there was also a beach layering activity using breakfast cereals to try.

Brad paced the show very well for his young audience and hit that sweet spot of getting information across in a fun and memorable way to the children while at the same time making the adults laugh.  The venue was perfect too, accessible, comfortable and with panoramic views of the sea and the work in progress of the pier.

Places are limited at these free but book-ahead shows, so we'll definitely be putting our names down for future shows and hoping to get a place.  Hopefully the success of these shows will highlight the thirst for science education in the local area and we'll be seeing a lot more of these kinds of opportunities springing up in the future.

Science is fun and exciting, and the hard work of staff and volunteers preparing and delivering these kinds of events helps to spread that message to the next generation, so why not have a look to see what is already being delivered in your local area and make sure you go along to everything that you spot, because nothing says 'thank you, we want more like this' than bums on seats.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Music, art and emotional intelligence

 Using music to inspire painting is certainly not a new idea, but is something I have been wanting to incorporate into our routine for some time.  However  musical knowledge is definitely not my strong point.  I can just about fumble my way around simple guitar tunes but have only the barest awareness of classical composers and my CD collection is pretty limited in any genre.  It's a weak point I feel conscious of and I would like the boys to grow up an environment rich in music and art.

There's all sorts of educational reasons why exposure to these things are important for children's development - from shaky studies into increased IQ (don't get me started on the poor science of the study, the media extrapolation to apply it to babies, or the flaws of IQ testing in general), to links between maths ability and musical practice.  Beyond all these 'IQ boosting' claims however I think there is a far deeper reason why music and art are important.

Music and art (and maths and dance...) are important ways in which we seek to understand the world around us and communicate our feelings, ideas and knowledge.  For children, who are just starting to develop their ability to understand how they feel and express it, this exposure to and participation in art and music is particularly important.

The teacher-speak used to describe a child's ability to understand and express their emotions and display empathy for the feelings of others is 'emotional intelligence'.  For a child (or an adults) happiness and success in life emotional intelligence is just as important, of not more so, than traditionally measured academic intelligence.

The activity we did today is extremely easy to replicate.  You will need music, something to play it on, and something to create a piece of art with - collage, paint, crayons it doesn't matter and you could vary the media you use each time you do the activity.

Finding a good piece of music was a stumbling block for me. I knew I wanted something more atmospheric and different in feel to the usual cheery acoustic stuff I listen to, probably something more classical in style, but my previously mentioned lack of awareness of composers left me a bit stumped where to start.

Enter the perfectly timed offer of a CD to review.  The CD, by British composer Lydia Kakabadse was everything I could have wanted for this project and more.  With a diverse cultural heritage herself, this composer has created an album with a range of different influences including Middle Eastern and Russian, which is perfect as it produces a distinctive and mysterious-sounding set of pieces which are just right for inspiring young imaginations.  The album, titled 'The Phantom Listeners' provided a number of different pieces to inspire us and each came with a useful guide in the CD booklet which explained what the piece was about and enabled me to get to grips with descriptions I could use to tell the boys a little about each piece.

We started with a piece called 'The Mermaid' based on a story written by the composer and narrated by the rich voice of Kit Hesketh-Harvey (who you may have heard of for his musical satire 'Kit and the Widow' among other things).  As we listened to the story and the music the boys drew their interpretation of what they heard, and I asked them to tell me about what they were drawing and about how the characters felt.

Ollie drew a very mournful-looking mermaid trapped in the net of a rather scary looking grinning pirate.  In Ollie's words 'the pirate is happy because he can sell the mermaid and get more treasure, the mermaid is sad because she misses her friends and will die away from the water'.  (The hand outline above the boat is a jellyfish, just because Ollie fancied drawing one).

 Toby's picture looks like random swirls, but when asked to tell me about it he told me 'here an island, here a mermaid, here a pirate, here an octopus, here a sea monster' when I asked him if the mermaid was happy or sad he said 'mermaid is sad'.  Ollie adapted his picture as the story unfolded, changing the mermaid's expression and eventually scribbling out the whole picture.  It's important not to interfere too much with what your child produces during an activity like this, if they get stuck for ideas you can try leading questions like 'how does the pirate feel'  or 'does this music make you think about castles or aeroplanes' but if your child wants to make the sky pink, or scribble the face off a character, it's their picture, let them.  I like to take picture as the boys create things so that if they decide to paint it out or scrunch it up, I still have the steps before they did that as a record.

 Some of the next songs had no words and were initially trickier for Ollie to respond to, so I started him off by drawing a happy face and a sad face and asking him to point to the face that was the same as the music.  He picked the happy face and then started to draw and tell me a story about how the naughty pirates were now all locked up in a dungeon at a castle.  He said there were twenty pirates and they were angry because they were trapped and they kept trying to fight their way out of the dungeon.
Interestingly, Toby at this point wanted to climb up onto my knee and drew a castle of his own, this time with a monster locked away in it - he drew lines to represent a cage.  Toby has been worried at night about monsters for the last few weeks after reading the book of the film 'Monsters University', so this seemed to be a therapeutic way he could share his fears and deal with them by locking away the monster. He went on to ask me to draw more monsters for him to 'put in cage' and a picture of him holding the key outside the castle 'so they no get out'.

Art, like play, is a really good way for children to express, think about and deal with their emotions and worries.  Having a strong set of music tracks like the ones on this CD was a really good way to encourage thoughts about sadness or being scared so that the boys could process their feelings in the light of day and in a safe environment and hopefully will be less troubled by them at bedtime.

The boys are already used to listening to storytellers so the mixture of spoken fables and atmospheric music on this CD was a great way to bridge the gap into a new area for us.  Hopefully it will lead on to finding out about other contemporary composers.  I'm a CD fan as it's less faffing about than digital music, but if you're less of a dinosaur than me you can also download this as an MP3.  Click on the image of the CD to find out more and listen to samples.

Note: I got the CD for free to try out, but opinions, ideas and pirate drawing boys are all mine.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Watch the weather

Changes from one season to the next make a great opportunity to introduce simple weather observations to young children.  I chose just four weather types, but you could expand on this as you increase complexity.

 My aim for this activity is to get the kids used to thinking about what is happening in the world around them, so we pause for a moment before we head out of the door to look at what the weather is like.  They can then start making decisions for themselves about what clothing and shoes are needed (if I think they have made a wrong decision I stuff the extra layers/ boots into a bag and take them with us).

Having the chart builds littlest's vocabulary and adds to eldest's acquisition of sight words.  I wasn't expecting the squabbling between the kids that resulted however as Ollie wanted to put the pointer on the actual weather while Toby kept putting it on the hoped for weather (always snow).  The pointer is attached with bluetack, but one of those split pins that lets you twirl things round would be better if you have one.  The chart is just paint on card, but it would benefit from being covered with sticky-back plastic to preserve it (mine is A3 so won't fit through my laminator).

Toby wanted another chart for his play house, so I quickly knocked up another one using a paper plate.  I also made a clock on a plate, with hands bluetacked on, for the playhouse.

We're already getting questions from Ollie about why we have the weather we have, so in the new year we will start looking at the natural processes behind the weather, starting with rain and snow since he already is familiar with concepts such as evaporation, condensation and freezing.

This was a little quick thing I knocked up, but an even better learning opportunity would be to help your little ones to craft their own.  There's certainly no lack of changeable weather in the UK at the moment to inspire them, with warm sunshine one day and freezing cold sleet the next!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre

 Have you ever wanted to ride on a steam train, stream tractor, double decker bus and a fire engine complete with sirens?  Have you ever wanted to do all those things in one day?  Well, my sister in law introduced us to the place you can do all those things when she organised our annual Christmas get together.

Sixteen of us descended on Amberley Museum near Arundel (West Sussex) on Sunday and had a fantastic day riding the engines, playing with the hands-on exhibits, trying out the crafts, enjoying a meal in the cafe and even a visit to Father Christmas.  We were especially impressed that the kids who were 2 years or older were allowed to participate in a one-to-one wood turning session to produce their own Christmas decoration.  My two made a snowman and an elf, which now have pride of place on our tree.  They also really enjoyed being helped to produce a personalised 'Santa please stop here' sign at the printers and trying out all the different plug styles that were in use in Britain before standardisation.  

 The center is largely staffed by hugely knowledgeable volunteers who's dedication to kids having a fantastic experience is impressive.  This is such a brief overview of what is on offer it doesn't really do the place justice, but I'd be here all day if  I was to try to cover everything we did that day, and even then would still miss out the things we didn't have time for that we will be returning in the future to see.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Carpentry for Christmas

A few weeks ago we took a book out of the library called 'Harvey the Carpenter' by Lars Klinting (2005).  In this lovely book the process for making a tool box is explained, along with the tools used and a plan you can use, while the story of the eponymous beaver constructing the toolbox unfolds.  The kids were really impressed.  They had been asking for tools for a while and this book fired their interest in making things from wood.  "Can we make one?" was the inevitable question. "Erm, probably" was my response.  One day while I was home sick and working on a deadline it seemed the perfect opportunity for a bit of Daddy bonding time, so the boys drew up plans for the box using CAD software, with Ollie inputting the dimensions, then they headed off to try to source the materials needed.

Finding hand tools was tough (in the case of hand drills, they aren't stocked by either Wickes or B&Q) and the wood needed wasn't found, so a truly awful piece of MDF substituted for it, but the kids were pleased with their haul of carpentry essentials.  They had fun drawing out the design onto the wood and spent a couple of hours out in the shed creating the box which was to be Ollie's.  They duly painted it his favourite colour and I varnished it for them.

Next it was the turn of Toby's toolbox, which Toby and Ollie helped me make yesterday.  In typically different approaches to things, rather than using the lovely plan they had created and measuring it out, I opted for the quicker option of drawing round things and hoping for the best.  Surprisingly the result isn't much different from the boys first box, and they certainly had a lot of fun making it, and then painting it Toby's favourite colour (he's recently graduated from pink to purple, which caused him a lot of debate when choosing the watch he wanted for Christmas - a pink one with a rainbow on it, or a purple one with a butterfly.  He eventually went for the butterfly).  I also opted for a different approach to the boys first toolbox and did everything in the kitchen, where it was warm, bright and close to the coffee pot and the radio.

What I was really impressed with was how helpful the kids were, especially when in both cases one of them knew the finished product was not for them.  Ollie persisted and completed painting the box after Toby had lost interest (and started gluing glitter to a piece of paper).  Ollie also took the dustpan and brush and cleaned up the sawdust without being asked, and both took turns in handing me nails and using the hammer and saw without squabbling.  They even filed the rough edges off the shapes without filing the kitchen furniture or each other.  Those of you with daughters may not understand how surprising these things are to a parent of small boys.

A seasoned carpenter would laugh at our wonky efforts, but it's more than just a finished product that the boys are proud of (and me too - it's a long time since I built something that wasn't flat packed).  The kids enjoyed the long period of sustained attention to something for them and with them, the shared goal of producing something together and the opportunity to take time to make a gift for each other.  Of all the bits and pieces they have asked for this Christmas (watches, extra train track, torches) I think it will be these gifts to each other that will mean the most to them.

Safety bit: use your best judgement about when your kids are ready for using sharp tools, do it with extreme and constant supervision and read safety info on paints and varnishes.  Keep tools well out of reach/locked up when not in use if there is any chance your kids will go looking for them to do a little  unsupervised DIY of their own. We painted with kids ready-made poster paint (mixed with PVA glue for the first coat), and I followed the instructions on the varnish and applied it in a well ventilated space, using gloves and well away from the kids.