THE VALUE OF FREE PLAY IN WILD PLACES.

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Reading this wonderful brief article by Dr Kumara Ward (a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney) is a delight and explains the research surrounding the need for children to develop a connection with the natural environment.

I cannot add more to her thorough understanding in this area (but highly recommend you read her post). I will simply add my own personal experience to her wisdom, and a small solution that we use to ensure our own city dwelling kids do not miss these opportunities to connect with nature.

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BULLY PROOF CHILDREN WITH A SIMPLE AFTERNOON ACTIVITY.

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Afternoons are not a young ones ‘prime time’ and as a result ‘surviving’ the afternoon with tired kids can seem an daunting task. Recently however we made a small change. In the words of Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (authors of The Whole Brain Child) we have changed our afternoons from a time of “surviving” to a time of “thriving.”

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: MUMMIFY AN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN (APPLE)

Mummification is a great science and history lesson if you are willing to venture into the grim topic of death with your tots. Plus, it’s surprising less complicated than you might think:

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First pick an apple. We are lucky enough to have a very prolific crabapple tree, however if your apples are full sized you may wish to quarter the apple for a speedier result.

Once your apple is selected, carve a face in the skin (for ease we used toothpicks to carve ours).

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Grab the scales and measure some bicarbonate soda. (The exact amount you need will depend on how many apples you are covering, how large the apples are and how small the cups you are placing them are.) we used 140g of bicarbonate soda (as it was an easy number to multiply) and this covered 3 crabapples in coffee shot cups.

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Once you know how much bicarbonate soda you have, add twice as much cooking salt (the ratio of 1bicarb:2salt is a good one to work out with the kids – for our 140g of bicarbonate soda we added 280g of salt.)

Mix well. Then place your carved apple in the cup and cover in your powdery mixture.

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We also carved a second apple as a control for our experiment. This one will sit in another cup next to the covered apple (and will likely start to rot, while the salted apple dries out.)

Leave on the bench uncovered for about 10 days and then assess what has happened to each apple.

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You may wish to visit the real Egyptian mummy at Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery while you wait for your apple to mummify. (While other little girls love the butterfly’s displayed in the central gallery, my girls stand next to them pointing at the casket in the dark and announce with pride that ‘there is a dead mummy in there!’ We have had a bit of explaining to do when other kids are with us…)

Here’s a brief history you may wish to share with your tots as you go through this process. (As always, if they have questions make a point of finding the more detailed information together, it is better to model the methods for finding out than to always know the answers!)

Back before the time of the pyramids it is believed that the Egyptians berried their dead in the hot desert sands and the bodies would dry out. At the time this was thought to be good because it was important to the Egyptians that the body remained intact… but there was a problem with wild animals eating the dead bodies (yuck!). It was decided to place the dead in cases so the animals couldn’t dig them up and eat them. This stopped the animals, but meant the body decayed in the box, rather than drying out. Because the Egyptians believed it was important to preserve the body after death they began to dry out the bodies – before burying them. Over time this developed into the sacred art of mummification. It was later that the Egyptians built huge pyramids to house the mummified bodies of their rulers.

A fun fact is that the Egyptians discarded the brain, during the mummification process, but kept the heart – thinking the heart was the organ responsible for thought, and like many religions today; only a pure heart would be allowed into the afterlife.

Now, as I have talked about before, (without my promoting) my kids think about far death more than I expect is average, and this is why I am happy to venture into this topic (to normalise something they already think about.) If you feel this kind of information is not beneficial for your young people, or that it will raise issues that they are not ready to process, then simply save it for another age. Otherwise, happy mummifying!

E – IS FOR EGYPT, LEGO PYRAMIDS AND DEATH

While modern day Egypt is a great topic, this time we’re just taking our Big History concepts and looking specifically at Egypt at the time that the great pyramids were built.

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The physical pyramids themselves are a great engineering tale, it’s a big topic to add to your timeline, and the cultural significance is a brilliant introduction to the concept of death rituals. (Kids are so fascinated by the idea of kings, pyramids and mummification that the idea of a lost life seems interesting, rather than tragic.)

At this grim point I’d like to note that while death might not be on too many early childhood agendas, I approach this as the mother of a child who (in the process of simply removing spent sunflowers from the garden) realised that everyone she loves will one day die, and then proceeded to sob for hours as it sunk in – one grim reality at a time.

It started with a throw away comment that we were removing the sunflowers because they ‘weren’t alive or growing anymore’… And after a series of small logical conclusions eventually brought her to the realisation that she too would die… and so would her whole family…. and all her friends… This was not the intended outcome of our gardening session, but it hit her like a brick wall.

This was one of the most heart breaking things I have ever had to help my children grapple with, and it seems to have stayed with her. As a ‘reward’ after her 4yo needles she asked to visit a graveyard so she could see where the first settlers were berried (yes, we’d visited the invasion room at TMAG) and even a couple of years on (when she had to write a wish on a lantern to release) her wish was ‘not to die before my birthday!’ (Said with a casual smile as though it’s something every 5yo thinks about!)  … Now I swear that I do not direct her anywhere near the topic of her own mortality, or anyone’s for that matter, but it is evidently something that is important to her!

(Releasing the wish lantern to live to her next birthday.)

While I am absolutely positive that not all children take death so seriously, I feel it’s something we need to build a healthy acceptance of (in our family at least, and dare I say it – death is probably a healthy thing for most westerners to feel a little more comfortable about!)

So, let’s get building one of histories biggest monuments to death out of lego! Woo hoo!

(Check this link for a very brief refresher on pyramids so you can add some facts to your Lego game – we were also given the Egypt book from the ‘why is’ series by a dear friend, and that’s lots of fun if you have access to it at the library/Amazon etc)

Ok. The mission is simple. Get your lego and start building a pyramid. For older kids, let them at it and watch them work it out themselves. (For younger kids they may need some assistance to understand how to overlap bricks etc for strength.)

Unlike the Egyptians, you may wish to start at the top of your structure (with a square block) then build out from there with the more common rectangle blocks. As long as you step out each level, this is all you need to repeat until you reach your desired size.

You may wish to leave an entrance at the base (remember to set some soldiers near your entrance to watch out for tomb raiders – that’s what the Egyptians did to protect their pyramids!)

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As you build talk about how easy it is as you click on the uniformly shaped blocks. Ask your little engineers to think about what the life sized pyramids are built out of… how would they personally do it if they were alive in an Egyptian build? (Listen to their answer in full, then remind them of a few obstacles that might come up in their story – ie there were no trucks, the stones were all different shapes, they were a long way from the building site etc – and see how they solve the problem.)

You may also like to set your lego man in his tomb with all his worldly treasure (that he wants to take with him to the next life.) Perhaps spare bringing the slaves, pets etc (unless you really want to end up talking about death and sacrifice with your tot!) We chose a treasure chest and decorated his tomb.

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Next time you are at a rock beach (or any other place with good supply of rocks) challenge your little builders to make a pyramid out of natural materials. See how they interact with the stones after practicing on the lego (do they remember to overlap for strength etc?) and remember to join in as part of their team – it’s quite fun and a challenge at any age!

I hope to post shortly a little more about mummification (still deciding on the best approach for this one!) and we’ll get some tomb art underway shortly.

Enjoy building your mini monument to death (I mean; ‘fun lego pyramid’) and we’ll see you soon for some more grim adventures soon!

AN ANSWER FOR ALL THAT BEHAVIOR. (THE IMPORTANCE OF DOWN TIME).

Long time, no posts.

Almost every culture and religion has sacred time of rest. A variation of the Sabbath that is proscribed across cultural, religious and geological boundaries. A ritual that (in most cases) honors the god(s), but importantly takes care of ones own mental wellbeing and family/community connections by resting and simply being together. To read more on the community and personal benefits of a Sabbath day read this wonderful ABC article by Natasha Moore.

As Natasha points out, it is rumored that Australia is a country that excels at this notion of rest (lovely long weekends, the revered gap year etc) but this part of Australian culture escaped me. I don’t have religion (thus no Sabbath day) and my primary ‘culture’ (though it is sad to say) was my work. (Indeed by the statistics in the report, it seems this is the case for many over worked Australians!)

Personally I went from studying so intensely that the university mistakenly offered me a place before I had finished high school (as my educational record had made me look ahead of my grade). After uni I progressed on to working such long hours that my husband and I took our ‘honeymoon’ on a work trip to Shanghai, the day I went into labor we had to stop in at work on the way to the maternity ward, and on our first day home with baby, a client came to work with us in our lounge room!

Both my husband and I then continued to work the equivalent of full time jobs each (with baby on hip all the way). And it wasn’t until after the arrival of my second child (and with my first needing extra care due to her newly diagnosed arthritis) that I technically took ‘maternity leave’ (meaning I still worked a bit, but was not on call to clients 7 days a week for the first time since I was 19.)

As you can see we are not very good at ‘rest’. In fact even now (when we have toned down our work commitments) – I can count the weekends that we have had off as a family (this year) on one hand. Like most families; even those weekends were full of work calls and birthday parties etc! This lack of true ‘down time’ is not uncommon in any modern family, but it isn’t healthy.

These past Easter holidays I decided to take a true break, to stop, and hide in our house with the kids.

For the first week: we slept in, we pottered around the house, we didn’t clean anything (that we didn’t really have to in order to eat etc!), we didn’t embark on any projects, we didn’t have anyone over, we didn’t even go out to the supermarket.

We did read 100s of books. We watched a couple of movies. We took naps. The kids sat in the sunny spot and played dolls, I drank tea and watched them. Etc.

By the end of the first week we were largely back to the pleasant relaxed family that had somehow got lost during the term.

There is extensive research into why we turned back into a nice family after a little bit of true rest. It’s best explained in these few presentations:

This is a talk by circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster about the neuroscience behind why it is vital to get enough sleep to be a good (and healthy/functioning) person.

This article that I mentioned before is a great look at some of the history behind the Sabbath day. (And a great look at the proven community and personal benefits of having a day of rest.)

And if (like us) you can’t schedule a set day each week – this presentation takes a more whimsical approach to ‘down time’ – designer Stefan Sagmeister talks about how he takes a full year off every 7 years (and the benefits that has for his productivity as well as his own creativity and personal development).

None of these talks are directly related to young children or families, but the principals are easily transferable.

If you would rather take a more fictional look at the subject I highly recommend the 1973 book MoMo by Michael Ende. It is perhaps one of my favorite works of literature about a girl who grapples with the men from ‘time savings bank’ – men who syphon people’s free time to exist (while no one remembers seeing these bankers, the more people try to ‘save time’ the less time they have, and so on). It’s brilliantly clever, an easy book to digest and thoroughly enjoyable to read. (For adults, and children who enjoy hearing picture-less chapter books too).

While our designated holiday rest period is over and we are back to the normal program of activities (albeit a little more refreshed!) we intend to focus on actively on spending more ‘down time’ this year. Our house renovations might not progress as far as they could, we might miss out on a few activities. But we will be able to function and develop at our full potential.

AFTER SCHOOL ACTIVITIES (how are you programming your child?)

Programming is strong language to use when referring to a child, (and as the parent of 2 independent thinkers, I have no illusion that children are robots who will blindly do as you instruct!) but with the ever expanding research into how our brains develop, there is a good deal of ‘programming’ that we do of our children every day, weather we are thinking about it or not. From the moment they are born, what we say, what we do, and what we encourage is shaping our children’s physical brain, and thus determining (in many ways) the way our children respond in adult life.

Of course I fully support the notion that the brain is plastic into adulthood, so I’m not saying childhood experiences fully shape the mind and are irreversible (indeed quite the contrary!) but how our children develop is largely shaped by the experiences that we choose for them.

At 4 and 5 my children are somewhat late starters in the sea of classes. With classes in everything from engineering to dance, lego to piano, chess to soccer, languages to horses riding – the choice is immense, and most of their peers attend at least 2 formal classes each week. To date my own children have had no ongoing formal lessons.

My children have always attended Launch into Learning, or Rock and Rhyme, or Playgroup – and these things have been truly beneficial for my children as they developed. (I might touch on this in another upcoming post). However outside of these ‘parent and child’ preschool activities (most of which encourage free play) we have never partaken in the formal ‘out of school classes’.

This year however my children are ready. They are not too tired at the end of the day, they have plenty of time for free play (something that I believe is essential for childhood development) and they are looking to learn more; they are seeking a degree of formality.

That leaves me with the question of many parents: What should my own children be taught? With so much evidence that experience actively shapes the physical structure (and function) of these young developing minds, the decision has far more impact on their adult lives than just weather they can kick a ball or play a tune.

Of course a common solution is to let the child choose (though parents are often highly involved in selecting what choices their child is offered). Or to partly let the child choose (ie ‘you can choose what ever you like, but you must do swimming as its a matter of safety’.) Another is to go with what the child shows skills for (ie a natural climber might enrol in rock climbing or gymnastics) or in contrast what the child could improve on (ie enrolling a shy child in dance or drama to improve their ability to present.)

Ideally I would like to have my children experiences a range of activities that awaken a variety of different parts of their brain, and indeed to encourage the values I believe to to important. This seems ambitious (especially while keeping in mind that I don’t want to overload my children as I fully support the notion that a child needs free time to develop fully!)

Making concise choices about what to suggest to my own children presents a set of problems that every parent faces… What do we REALY want for our children?

In this presentation by Jennifer Senior she talks of how most parents would agree (regardless of beliefs or parenting style) that the primary thing they want for their children is ‘to be happy’. Senior suggests that the idea of ‘happiness’ is somewhat of an unreasonable expectation of any child (or parent for that matter!) – this may seem like a rather pessimistic statement, but in contrast I actually found it to be quite optimistic in tone and well supported by various studies – the presentation is well worth a watch, I can’t say it better than she does!

After having wished for happiness for so long I found this left me in a difficult position of needing to actively re-define my ambitions for my children as the values that I thought could be taught (indeed with the hope that these may in turn result in happiness as a byproduct of their endeavours, but not happiness as a primary goal.)

What do you value? What abilities or traits do you want to give to the next generation?

For me I would like for my children to have the confidence and self worth that comes from a sense of accomplishment. I would like them to extend their physical skills, as well as their analytical and creative thinking. I would like to encourage compassion for (and a genuine love and appreciation for) other people, animals and the environment they are a part of (man made and natural.)

In order to gain these skills they need to work as part of a team, understand their place in history, spend time with animals, in the environment… The list goes on.

There are many out of school activities that support these things, however the difficulty comes when you need to narrow down a selection to something your children will adore, and will also support the values you believe to be important… all while not overloading the child or sacrificing free play!

My own solution is to address some of the goals through less formal activities (ie camping can be largely child directed, and can address goals of environment and physicality as well as engaging a good deal of creative and analytical thinking – map reading, building, investigating etc).

For more formal lessons we have chosen to space these out over a month rather than have every lesson every week. (Ie music every second week, horse riding once a month and so on). This gives our kids more opportunity to experience a variety of activities without overloading each week to accommodate all the classes. This system gives my children the chance to experience a diverse range of skills (to see where their heart lies) and also ensures that their learning is still largely dictated by them (ie in the extended time between lessons it is their own initiative that drives their learning in each area.)

As my children grow I am sure they will self select the areas that they want to continue on a more regular basis, and the other aspects will fall away to a memory of something they once did. This is our solution to out of school activities. In a generations time we will see if it worked!

EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: MAKE CHOCOLATES FOR FRIENDS!

Each year we set up a small chocolate factory at someone’s house and make simple chocolates with friends – we then divide the creations and give the assortment of chocolates to each family.

This year was a rather impromptu, and on a school day, so the younger members of the families represented their clan in the chocolate making.

If you feel like adding some home made treats to your gifts, then here are our top 3 child friendly chocolate making endeavours:

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White chocolate (melted) mixed with shredded coconut and then simply heaped into blobs of sweet goodness on your foil/baking paper.

We then chose to add some sugar bling to these, just for fun.

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Similarly easy is dark chocolate (melted) mixed with nuts (we like slivered almonds, though any fruit and/nut will do). These then also become blobs of tasty treats on your baking paper.

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Each of these are delicious and very easy for even the youngest hands to master. If you want to get a little creative with an actual Easter egg then you may like to try the following. (Afraid we didn’t do this one this year so there are no pictures to go along with the instructions this time, but it is a simple activity even without pictures.)

  • Obtain a pre-made Easter egg and chocolate chips of the opposing colour. (Ie white chocolate egg with dark chocolate chips, or dark chocolate egg with white chocolate chips.) The colour of your base egg will be the primary taste, so choose as per your gift recipients tastes!
  • Open your Easter egg and sit in an egg cup.
  • Melt you chocolate chips in a separate bowl.
  • Using a paintbrush (suitably clean for edible artworks!) simply paint your own pattern onto the existing egg (using the melted chocolate chips of the opposing colour as the ‘paint’).

If you are ‘painting’ with white chocolate you can even add a little colour paste to your chocolate (just as you would normally when colouring chocolate) and this gave us a range of coloured ‘paints’ to work with. We did this last year and even added a few edible sparkles to our eggs.

Of course once you have finished your chocolates let them set while you make a card to accompany the chocolates, and lick the bowl clean!

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Enjoy your Easter creations.

CONFESSIONS OF A CRAZY PARTY MUM (AND WHY WE CHOOSE TO CELEBRATE BIG).

When I first had my children I was among those who openly looked down on those talked about ‘party mums’, believing that the party was more about their own status as a mother rather than the child. I would joke about people who hired an entertainer and a pony for a first birthday etc!

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But as my children have grown I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that most people probably see me as one of ‘those party mums’ and to embrace the role without feeling shame. I have grown to love kids parties more than is normal.

Ridiculously, we start preparing for parties about a month in advance, my kids and I work on costumes, decorations, games, gifts, invites. It is a whole family affair and the sibling of the birthday girl is just as active in party-mania as their sister. We make most of it ourselves and our life just becomes a little world of whatever theme they have chosen. We’ve had Bugs, Dinosaurs, Monsters, Princesses, Fairies, Circus, Solar System, and Beatrice Potter Parties. This year Elka wanted Under the Sea, so we made jelly fish, and mermaids, and sea stars, and pirate ships, and transformed our lounge room into an ocean with shiny blue streamers and LOTS of sticky tape.

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We collected shells so our friends could make mobiles and necklaces, we gathered driftwood, we sewed (and glued) fish for print making kites. I honestly think that the preparations are probably enjoyed more than the actual party itself. But what is this doing to my children?

Sure, they are learning during the preparation process (I don’t mean about how to host a party, but about their chosen theme and a range of practical hands on maker skills). But what is it doing to their sense of celebration, and indeed their expectations of what birthdays are about?

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When I first had children and criticised those vain party mums for spoiling their children and making the party into an event rather than a celebration of the child’s birthday – I used to think that it was better for the child to have a quitter birthday that was more focused on them.

Now I see my children planning a party for their friends. Their birthday is, in many ways, about their friends more than it is about them. They think about what games their friends will like to play, they make things for their friends to take home. They actually think very little about what they will receive for their birthday, because they are so excited about the party we are throwing together. I have come to think that this is healthy for my children. I wish I could install the same philosophy about christmas (but this involves a larger cultural shift that I have less power over!)

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I might be growing children who are disappointed later in life that celebrations are not as overt as they were in their childhood, but instead I hope that they continue this playful giving nature around their own life celebrations. That they are able to share their future milestones with their friends, with out feeling self-conscious about celebrating their own life.

PADDOCK TO PLATE WITH KIDS.

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We are lucky enough to know a lovely couple who invited us to their small home farm for a day of fruit picking and pie making. If you don’t happen to know such a lovely couple with a farm, then there is apple and pear picking at Sorrel Fruit Farm (as we did earlier this year for strawberries) or another PYO farm will do just fine!

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We pilled in the car and headed 40min South. It has been a year since we last visited and but during our drive the girls recalled so much of our last visit (explaining it to us as though we hadn’t been there!) and looked forward to re-living each moment of it this year.
When we arrived we were greeted by smiles and fury friends who’s happy tail wags could brighten any day. My young ladies instantly wanted to start the harvest so we headed first for the blackberries, then the pears and apples, then the tomatoes.

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It is wonderful for the kids to see how much this productive garden progresses each year, and indeed how much food it yields. (With our own vegetable garden still being constructed, it is the perfect opportunity to see how much we can grow and eat ourselves – indeed it wasn’t that long ago in our big history that home grown was the norm!)
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With old varieties of apples, and tomatoes fresh of the vine the taste is so different to the supermarket varieties, and for every spare patch of soil the kids want to know what will be planted there next.
Next it was off to the kitchen to make some pies (and indeed, we even tried our hand at ice-cream making to accompany our pies, though we have not quite mastered this one yet!) Each made (and then ate!) their own special pie (and of course the adults had a good share too!)


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On our way home we stopped by to feed the fallen apples to the calves that the girls had chosen names for last year; Haha, Hoho and Alice are all growing into beautiful bovine. The girls asked after the calf they fed on their first visit (pictured below) and we explained that he had been sold on to make way for the new calves, and that the land could only sustain a certain number of cows healthily. Introducing farming practices in this gentle environment is the ideal way for children to grasp the early concepts needed to understand some of the larger environment issues that face our growing population who loves so much farm intensely so we can have steak for dinner every night!
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After a busy weekend, this was the perfect way for the entire family to re-set for the week ahead. Thank you Jane and David for your wonderful hospitality!