Following my own advice….

So in the spirit of my resurrected ‘less is more’ philosophy and armed with a bag of mandarins and some chocolate brioches, we bunked off swimming lessons yesterday and went to the river instead. We ate a few of the mandarins but mainly used them to practice juggling (we are all rubbish) and play broken bottles ( Cosmo won- he always does, ‘on pain of death’) and then squelched in mud and generally mooched about. Marcus decreed it ‘the perfect last day of being eight’. I think he might have been right. Whatever it was, it was a lot better than sitting in a sweaty leisure centre with a lot of other bored mothers, feigning interest…..

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Marcus and his mean gate vault

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Sunning themselves like cats

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The sinking mud

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And one very cold river

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One very happy, mud-splattered boy

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And another one, on the eve of his ninth birthday ( where is the pause button?)

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When less is more

It’s the first day back after the Easter holidays and I have just dropped the kids off at school. Now I have that sunken feeling. I am not good when they go back to school. Partly, its my (admittedly pathetic) inability to fully cut the umbilical cord – I have never been much good at letting them go and I seem to be getting worse with each child, not better. And partly too, it is because I am really quite lazy. Give me the long mornings, with everyone still in pyjamas at eleven and the complete lack of routine over 6.15 am marching orders and a jam-packed week any day.

But this time, it is also because we had an especially lovely holiday. And it was lovely despite the fact that we didn’t go anywhere exotic, nor did we do that much. In fact, the longer the holidays went on, the less we did. And as we did less and less, two rather magic things happened.

The first thing was that the kids found ever increasing amounts of space to let their imaginations run wild.

I wouldn’t classify myself as an overzealous parent when it comes to extra-curricular activities. Apart from swimming which I consider an essential life skill, I don’t encourage them to do anything in particular. And I have been a parent long enough to know that this is quite unusual.  Many years ago I worked temporarily as a teaching assistant in a pre-prep school in London. While I was there I was shocked- and not in a good way- at how the little Arthurs & Harrys & Alexanders were universally bundled into a car every afternoon by bored nannies or frazzled mothers to be taken from violin lesson and pottery classes to swimming lessons and tennis coaching, often on the same day and aged all of five. Sometimes these mini little people weren’t home before seven, and then they had to read and do spellings. Sure, some of them were violin virtuosos and others amazing artists, but give them a little window of time with nothing organised and they didn’t have a clue how to fill it. What about, I used to think to myself, simple play? When, I wondered, did they get time to mooch about and just make up games? Surely, we should be letting kids get bored. After all, ‘boredom is the mother of invention’ I would often misquote.

And so several years later, when I had children of my own, I was determined that we wouldn’t go down that road. It would be free-play and free range all the way for us. We would spend our afternoons building stick dens in the woods and collecting slugs in buckets. Our games would only get as structured as pooh-sticks. We would spend hours, days even, turning, weetabix boxes into strange creatures and create houses out of shoeboxes. And for a few years we managed it. We had no television, I kept the kids out of school for as long as possible and we took sneaky days- even weeks- off when everyone seemed tired. And yet, despite my best intentions, fast forward a few years, and everyone goes to school full time and we too have weekly diaries that are filled with netball and chess club and swimming lessons and mini-dribblers. Times it all by three and without even trying, I am schlepping at least one child to something almost every afternoon of the week. The sad truth is, our lives are as structured and as busy as the next person’s. We don’t have time to get bored or the space to allow our imagination to run wild.

And then we are handed the gift of an Easter holidays free from plans or a holiday abroad. Admittedly it didn’t feel like much of a gift at first. In the face of a weather forecast that was decidedly arctic for the whole of the holidays, I confess that I spent the first few days cursing my lack of a credit card that wasn’t maxed out (totally irresponsible I know, but it was just a momentary thought). I then made do by planning away the first week . We surrounded ourselves with friends and family, did more easter crafts than you could poke a stick at, bound from one museum and art gallery to the next and spent a fortune on days out bowling and at 3D cinemas. All of which were good fun of course, but in the exhausting kind of way.

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And then, completely brilliantly, we ran out of money and I ran out of ideas.

And I had a lesson in something I had long known but largely forgotten; that when it comes to children, less is most definitely more.

With no plans, and no money to make them, we were left with day upon day of nothing but time. Nowhere to go and nothing to do, just time to fill. Unleashed from their routine or their mother’s diary and increasingly unconfined by the weather, all three of them started doing proper, brilliant, imaginative things that the term never gives them time to do.

As every day past they would breathe an ever-louder  sigh of collective relief when their query as to what we were doing today was met with a resounding ‘nothing’ and then they would skip off to find something to do. And it didnt take long. Depending on the day they were spies, detectives, makers of secret camps or avengers. When I left them all to catch up some admin or put a load of washing on, I would return to find the kitchen looking like an art school, the table strewn with pastels or paints, or a pancake parlour with Skye complete in pinny and the boys the paying customers. Occasionally I would lose them all, only to find them in some far flung corner of the garden, bedecked in camo’ and staking out an imaginary enemy or earthing up a fox skull that then needed serious amounts of cleaning with an old toothbrush. The longer this went on and less I interfered, the more they imagined up their own entertainment and the less they needed any other.

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And then, whilst this wonderful (though arguably predictable) unfolding was happening, the second magic thing happened. I started to play too. Unburdened myself from the dreaded need to multi-task and split my lack of daylight hours between work, child rearing and homemaking, I found I no longer had an excuse to respond to their requests for a board game or a penalty shoot out  with my customary ‘In a minute’ ( which inevitably always becomes five, then ten, then thirty minutes by which time they have given up and I go to check my emails instead).

I would still say my habitual ‘just a minute’ (old habits die hard) only to realise that actually there was nothing especially pressing I needed to do- because we weren’t rushing out the door all day. So I started to play garden football and ‘applegrams’ and hide and seek. And not only did I discover that I am no bad penalty taker ( Cosmo announced proudly that I should play for the England woman’s team- I left him with the delusion! ), but I also discovered that I too love to play. And far from being a chore- which subconsciously I treat it as- it is actually really enjoyable. And the more I played (and I mean properly played, as in not just for five minutes, or not going through the motions whilst actually thinking of something else), the more relaxed I became, and the more I began to feel I was on holiday too. Instead of just them having a lovely time, so was I.

And so, last night, when I tucked them all up in bed and they were lamenting that the holidays were over, I was seriously lamenting with them. Its back to work for us all, for I can hardly play penalty shoot out on my own.