Friday, 7 March 2014

Following their lead - the importance of underscheduling

Earlier on this week I had a newsletter editorial meeting that lasted all morning, during which Toby very patiently played with his toys, occasionally brought us things and was beautifully behaved when he joined us for tea and scones.  Ollie was at nursery so when the meeting was over I thought it would be a great opportunity to spend some real quality time doing the things that Toby wanted to do.

How often do we get a chance, or the will, to follow our child's lead for any real length of time?  Life with kids can become
a hectic race from one planned activity to the next, with unscheduled time being mostly taken up with chores.  I make a conscious effort to take time out to spend time sitting on the floor playing with the boys through the day, but I have to admit that it often isn't for very long stretches as I notice more jobs that need to be done from my new vantage point on the floor.  Some days we seem to be in constant transit, from nursery drop off, to playgroup, to grocery shopping, back to nursery to pick up Ollie, home to play for 10 minutes before starting dinner, then dishes, bath time, stories, singing and bed.  This must be even more pronounced for parents with kids in school every day, or who work outside the home, or who schedule every free minute with ballet, music, swimming etc...  Yet despite the advantages we want to confer on our children from having a broad curriculum of activities and playgroups, we don't do them any developmental favours by over-scheduling our time with them.

 By engaging in the play that they choose, we are encouraging our children's creative play and emotional intelligence.  By taking even  fifteen minutes out in between activities to play the way your child wants to, you are validating the importance of their opinions and wishes.  Letting children know that their decisions matter to you and putting them in the role of leader builds self confidence that helps them to be emotionally open but also resilient as they grow.  Conversely, bouncing constantly from one thing to the next can leave everyone physically and emotionally drained and lead to increased stress all round.

The kids love their playgroups and activities, but the most I hear Toby laugh out loud is when I'm laughing along with the things he's doing spontaneously.  So that day we spent the afternoon playing for a long long time with his train track, clipping his colouring pens end on end and tapping them on the stairgate until they flew apart over and over, throwing the pens up into the air and laughing as they crashed on the floor over and over, playing outside in the yard shaking the bamboos, moving pebbles around and drawing on
the patio with chalk for almost an hour.  In between these I flew through the necessary chores such as getting laundry and dishes done, but the focus was very much on Toby.

The confidence they gain from this approach really pays off when they go out into the world one their own.  Ollie's key worker at nursery wrote in his home journal this week that he had built a big castle out of wooden blocks and when another child knocked it down Ollie said 'it's OK, I can just build it again'.  She seemed surprised at how relaxed he was about it.  This kind of relaxed attitude to the incident didn't happen overnight or come naturally to Ollie.  It would previously have provoked a storm of grief stricken tears.  The development to a more relaxed attitude happened because of the time we sit down with the boys to play and model good play etiquette - when something goes wrong and one of them is upset we give cuddles and explain that it's OK to feel upset, but that the problem can be fixed.  We don't get angry and tell the child that caused the problem off, instead we ask that they give a cuddle and say sorry that it happened, and we say 'It's OK, we can build that again/fix that/make a new one'.  It's those time when we can really focus on what the kids are doing that we can head off trouble as it starts and give the boys the emotional and verbal tools to deal with problems when we're not around. Hopefully then when they play with each other and other kids without us, they know how to react to accidents and upsets without getting angry or upset, because we have modeled a better way for them to follow.

It doesn't always work, sometimes they're tired, or we're tired, and everyone gets grouchy with each other, but I firmly believe that taking time out to do the things they want us to do builds a good relationship all round and makes us closer and happier.  So next time you're sat on the floor drinking the 80th cup of pretend tea or that endless game of hide and seek when they 'hide' in exactly the same place each time, you can give yourself a pat on the back that this is just as vital for them as any of the organised classes and play dates you might decide to take them to.

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