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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The long wet summer holidays

The best advice I ever got from any of my son's teachers was when he was in primary school, and the headmaster sent home the last newsletter of the year.  The gist of his Christmas message was as follows:

'If your child complains that he's bored during these holidays, my one request to you is that you do NOT take him to the shops to buy ANYTHING.  Saying he's bored indicates that he is not yet bored enough.  When he's bored enough, he'll find something to do.'

Wise advice indeed!! In this age of quick-fix technology and double-income mortgages, it's so easy to just give in and buy the latest toy or gadget, or let the kids play with your iPhone, for a moment's peace. Believe me, the moment you set one of these precedents you're making a stick for your own back. It really is worth listening to the whining for a few hours, a few times, until the kids register that you're not going to jump... and go find something to entertain themselves. If you keep giving in to the quick fix, you're effectively denying them the opportunity to discover their own creativity, to use their imaginations, to explore the world around them.

BUT, you say, what about La Nina? It's supposed to rain all holidays!

No problem.  First, remember that going out in the rain will not kill your children! Take them out on a warm wet day- raincoat optional, gumboots ditto- and get thoroughly drenched jumping in puddles, watching the way the water flows into the drains, counting drips from the roof, filling and pouring containers, seeing if various items float or sink, making dams in the backyard, feeling the wet surfaces with your toes, looking at the clouds and guessing which one has heavy rain in it... huge fun, and interesting. Then come inside and get dry. That took care of the morning...

...but what about the afternoon? What you need is an open-ended rainy day kit, plus a few ideas on how to make better use of what you've got.

I'm an op shopper from way back, and I'm constantly astounded by what can be bought for next to nothing there to entertain children. Get an old box or basket, hide it in your wardrobe and fill it with some fun, open-ended items. When the whining becomes unbearable, pull it out and let them go for it. You don't have to have too much in it- too much choice is as bad as too little for crushing creativity- just enough to share around. You can hide some other back-up items for next time.

A little preparation and patience is needed, of course- you're not going to find everything in one trip to one shop... be prepared to make a fun project of sourcing what you want. Maybe you can get together with some other mums, go on the prowl together and make a kit each, then swap them when your kids are sick of theirs. I'm on the North Coast, so my favourite stores are Lifeline and the Salvation Army in Lismore. If you live in a city, you'll do even better if you go on a day trip to a more rural area, or go looking when you're on holidays- when I lived near Sydney I found some wonderful things in the Gosford area.

The first thing you need is some dress-ups. Off you go to the kids' clothes section; I think I paid $4 each for the fairy and ice princess dresses and $3 for the Superman pyjamas you can see in the photos around this blog. Then there are some animal print items- the Tigger PJs were a lucky find, but if you go to the adult section as well, things like the leopard-skin print top will be lurking in the women's wear ($2) and other women's tops like the pretty cami ($2) and the rose top ($3) can be made smaller by running up the sides with the sewing machine (easy peasy) or by just tying knots in the straps.

Next you need some puzzles, books and special rainy-day-only toys.  Again, you can find these stupidly cheaply in op shops- the most expensive items were the Barbies at $5 each. Throw in some scraps of material, scissors and a little hand-sewing instruction for an older child, and next thing you'll have a junior dress designer.  I found a whole doll's house worth of el cheapo plastic furniture for $12; yes, it's tacky, but the kids love rearranging it and acting out everyday situations with some tacky little dolls! My fairy tale book is a constant favourite; it cost $1.  Truly. The little bus (with the Superman costume) still has the grand price of $1 written on it and has taken countless other toys for a ride, not to mention the roads the kids built for it using masking tape on the wooden floor (including pedestrian crossings- get down there on the floor and teach them some road safety rules! -and take the tape off within a couple of days or you'll be scrubbing with eucalyptus oil, or picking at the goo on the carpet with your fingernails).

Puppets are always appealing too; if you can't find what you want, buy a soft toy or three from the op shop (also super cheap- I got a little koala for 50c), slit the back seam (as much as is needed to get your hand in) with an unpicker (you can find them in most supermarkets in the sewing section) and pull out the stuffing from the body and legs, and maybe a bit from the head so a little finger can fit in- instant puppet! Keep in mind the size of your child's hand- they will have trouble operating very big 'converted' toys.

Your next stop is Spotlight or a similar fabric store, where you can buy some offcuts of interesting, plain material with interesting textures and colours for next to nothing. Op shops also often have a material scrap basket. The big winner for me was a truly appalling rainbow mat, an offcut of lurid fur fabric from Spotlight which I zig-zagged around with the sewing machine to protect the edges from fraying.  It's been everything from a doll's bedspread to a rainbow serpent costume, and the kids LOVE it (must be the hideous Barbie pink!!). Op shop sheets can make cubbies over some chairs; I picked up a blue satin one which has been the ocean, a river, the sky... and some bits of yellow fabric can be the sand... green fabric for the grass... instant picnic! Pillow cases make great sleeping bags for the dolls and teddies, too.

Are you getting the idea? No, you don't need to go and buy a 6-year-old their own iPod or iPhone. You are crippling their imagination if you do (not to mention their hearing- iPods are lethal for young ears).

As for the toys your kids already have- try looking at them with different eyes.  Can you combine the train set and the blocks and make a mini-city? Tell them you want them to surprise you and you're going to put a photo of it on Facebook when they're done. Can you use the crayons and paper to make brass rubbings of anything reasonably flat with texture- real coins (then cut them out for play money), the inlet for the ducted air con, the tiles on the bathroom floor ...? Can you spare some stuff from the first aid kit to combine with the dolls to make a hospital? Can you mix two easy jigsaws together and challenge your child to complete both at once, or turn a really easy one they've outgrown upside down and do it without the picture? Save your cardboard food boxes, egg cartons, toilet roll and food wrap inners and hand them scissors and masking tape- you'll have a truck or a robot in no time. Instead of just getting the paints out, give them a black texta to draw with and THEN get the paints out to colour their drawing- this looks spectacular as well as being fun.

Oh, and one final hint- get down on the floor and play with them for at least SOME of that wet holiday. This is how you build a relationship with your child that will encourage them to still trust you and talk to you when they get to that terrifying adolescent stage.  Don't direct operations, just listen to what they're doing and offer to take a part, or make suggestions when they hit a problem. Make that a priority for half an hour a day, in a technology-free zone, and you're well on the way to having happy, creative kids who know in their hearts that you love them.


  1. Oh how I loathed that advice!

    I would suggest that not all modern goodies are created equal. I think many children will get a lot more out of being given a computer (even an old one) and a chance to fiddle, to program, to experiment, to play games that teach them strategy and history, than by being told to 'go outside and use their imaginations'. Certainly, my tech-savvy friends did, and they have active and vivid imaginations. Imagination works by inspiration! Feed more ideas in and you'll get more out. Buy them books, open-ended toys that encourage creativity (LEGO, for example), games that encourage thinking and social interaction.

    I'm not saying buy them Halo and let them play that all the time, but I am saying that creativity comes in a million different forms. Personally, a lot of my love of history came from strategy games, for example, and first person shooters were, like team sports, excellent for building my social groups and skills for dealing with peers in high school.

    I agree on getting them outside a fair bit of the time, and on damn well interacting with them (I have a love affair with board games for this). Just don't be technophobic!

  2. That's a fair point of view; perhaps I lean over a little too far backwards after watching a 4-year-old with an iPod plugged into his ears become so unaware of the other smaller children around him that he was literally walking over them. Recent research does suggest that iPods at high decibels do permanent damage, and the younger the child, the worse the damage. (high decibels, in simple terms, equates to anything that a bystander can hear issuing from the machine while another person is wearing it.)

    I've also watched parents using precious energy fighting with their children over use of the parent's iPhone, one with a 5-year-old and the other with a 14-year-old; I don't think parents should feel guilty for refusing to hand over their own technology to the kids to use as a toy, nor for failing to buy a second one for them just because it's the latest thing. Parents have rights too. Besides, there is some evidence that electronic interaction can be addictive- small children in particular need to learn a few other things socially before they get hooked on a machine.

    Nor should parents feel obliged to break the bank to provide advanced techno gadgets for the kids that they can't afford- for example it's ridiculous to allow teenagers to run up ludicrous phone bills unless that child can pay most of the bill themselves (in which case it turns around and becomes a valuable lesson in taking responsibility and exercising impulse control).

    However I do agree with you that technology has many advantages in childhood, and some advice for parents in this area would be very useful. Perhaps you'd like to contribute a post to the site yourself? Truly, I'd be happy to publish some suggestions of specific tech play and equipment that you think had a positive impact on your growth- it's so much more authentic coming from someone your age.

  3. I'd love to see Rowan dressed up as an Ice Princess!

  4. Sadly, he probably has the presence to get away with it... but he's too busy to play, as I've set him to writing an article on technology for kids. Should be veeeery interesting!

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