This morning, on the school run I had a moment, a moment of panic and vulnerability. My boys were behaving like the world was ending and I was paranoid about what all the other parents thought of me. It wasn’t the first time.
So why am I writing this? Purely because I feel like there is one or more aspects of parenting that I fail at – daily – and it’s taken me five years to establish that it’s normal. Talking about where/when/how I mess up helps me put it in perspective: it’s really not that bad. If I manage to make someone else smile along the way then that’s a bonus. I’m Natalie and I’m Mummy to three amazing boys – my lovable, little rogues (ages 5, 3 and 0). They are very active and love to be outdoors. Staying still is not an option! Some days I’ve attempted to survive 12 hours simply by entertaining them at home. Big mistake. We need to explore somewhere everyday. Even if it’s raining. Even if it’s somewhere mundane. Even if it’s not for long.
The hardest part of taking the boys out on an adventure is often finding a starting point – somewhere we haven’t been before. With two infant school aged boys, the activities often plan themselves once you arrive somewhere new (as long as it is outdoor and has ample opportunities to get mucky). If there are arrows to follow, even better.
Today we decided to tackle the Hangars Way. This is fairly local and I was delighted to find that it’s divided into eight different trails. We elected to explore the section between Buriton and Butser Hill, knowing that there’s still at least 7 more adventures to try another time. I say “at least” given that we didn’t complete the route, we were too busy discovering exciting distractions.
We nearly didn’t even make it past the pond that we’d parked next to. The boys got a little over excited when they saw the ducks and appeared to be on the verge of jumping in, while I was still getting youngest son out of the car. They selected our route around the pond, opting to go clockwise over a mini walkway – barely wide enough for feet let alone a pushchair. So I decided to improvise and pushed the pram through the shallow stream in order to join them. Once on the other side, my intrepid children began testing out some stepping stones. I had visions of them slipping in and coating themselves in the stagnant looking pond water. Knowing we were close by to the car and armed with an old towel (for situations such as this), I let them take the opportunity to practise their balance. Only one wobble from eldest son meant getting a foot in the water. Although this was so uneventful, none of the duck community even noticed. Persuading him not to wander off back up the stream was a little trickier, because as he put it, “One of my shoes is actually wet anyway.”
Only at this point, did we begin the trail itself. Within minutes the boys had found three steep paths to convert to slides and a railway bridge. Middle son was thoroughly amused when two trains passed over the bridge. We also saw the old quarry path and an obsolete mine cart. Mario Karts is a current favourite of my big two. They love the Wario gold mine track, so this rusty, disused transporter was always going to capture their attention. The steps down to it meant we continued south along the same path.
On this occasion, Grandma had joined us on our adventure; she requested that we took a circular route, coming off the Hangars way and circling around the Buriton chalk pits instead. Not only did this route seem practically vertical in places but the multiple tree roots and rock hazards made pushing the buggy was similar to an army assault course training facility. We began running parallel to a hard surfaced road path and established from passing hikers that this was part of the South Downs way. Having an extra adult to hold the baby, meant I could lift the pushchair up and over a number of tripping hazards, brambles and undergrowth to reach it. Eldest and middle son followed and we reunited on flatter ground, beginning our descent and stopping only for a snack in the sunshine. Adventure incomplete on this occasion but I’m already planning to returning with the husband and Littlelife baby backpack.
On too many occasions husband and I have said to each other, “How is it they have a playroom full of toys, yet the only things that take their interest are Daddy’s watch, a roll of toilet paper and the kitchen cutlery?”
I’ve narrowed it down to the following possibilities:
1) Things are more interesting if they are in front of you.
2) Things are more interesting if you haven’t seen them for a while.
3) Things are more interesting if you see someone else using them.
4) Things are more interesting if they don’t require any effort to start a game with them.
5) Things are more interesting if you know you aren’t allowed them.
A friend of mine set up all her duplo for her children and watched them play for hours. I decided this was an excellent idea and combined it with the idea of toy rotation. Every evening, after the boys are in bed I set up a different arrangement of toys for them. When they wake up in the morning they have a game ready to go, giving mummy some quality ‘lie in’ time. Well in theory that is. In reality, she is usually removing youngest son from the many peculiar predicaments he finds himself in.
This method gives them the chance to play with toys that they haven’t used for a little while. It also gives them new ideas for ways to use objects e.g. wooden blocks as garages (instead of car tracks or stacking towers). The best bit though is designated time to watch them play – something I find fascinating.
I’ve now set myself a challenge to try a different set up every weekday this summer (excluding the week we’re on holiday). It’s a great way of addressing points 1 to 4 (of the list above) at the same time. If anybody has any tips for how to get round point 5 then I’d love to hear them.
My children love to explore. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re just not keen on walking any distance in order begin an exploration. Yesterday, we were only going to the nearby woodland, but ended up having to begin a scavenger hunt outside the front door to motivate them enough for the ‘long’ 400 yard trek.
Walking on its own is “just boring.” All walks must be converted to an adventure. Perhaps the simplest type of conversion is by adding an object hunt. I’m often feeling lazy and choose a nature one from online (but equally you can make your own seasonal one themed to the area you are visiting).
When going for a coastal walk, I find myself appreciating the scenery far more when I’m half looking out for random boats, benches, seagulls and ferries sailing towards the horizon. Eldest son is quite inquisitive so we often end up discussing some items from the list at length – such as the black lighthouse (that isn’t actually a lighthouse but an old mill). There have been other conversations such as the one about sea barriers and flooding; it only occurs to you later that your child is likely to announce something along the lines of, “I know what a dyke is.” It’s then you cross your fingers and hope that this happens when looking at a picture of sea defences and not as a random announcement.
Another favourite of ours is a number hunt. For this, you need nothing but a sheet of paper with numbers on, although a pre prepared hundred square is even more convenient. This is suitable for any walk around town or simply when you are trying to get from A to B in a suburban area. In the words of the CBeebies show, ‘Numberblocks’, numbers really are everywhere: telegraph poles, road signs, houses and bus stops are all excellent places to start searching.
If you have a bit more time, or walk the same route often, you can generate clues for the children on the way. This is quickly becoming a hobby of mine and now I can’t help but spot different shapes or coloured mini landmarks to become part of a treasure trail.
I often think how great it is that my boys are close in age, as they share many interests. However this often means many disputes too. Today they elected to bake a cake but completely disagreed about which cake to make.
My solution was as follows:
1) Let child 1 choose the picture/recipe they fancy. Let child 2 choose the colour and edit recipe to include closest matching food colouring.
2) Take it in turns to press the ‘reset’ button on the weighing scales.
3) They get a wooden spoon each. If you only own one wooden spoon in your kitchen, I suggest entering a quiz or competition (and losing).
4) Divide the top of the cake using Kit Kat fingers so they can decorate their own section.
Child 1 chose blueberries (because it matched the picture). Child 2 chose banana and sweets. I went for strawberry and chocolate chips. That left us with one quarter left. Baby is too little for cake so we let Grandma decide on the last topping. She was most unoriginal with her idea, copying my strawberries but leaving off the chocolate element.
I’ve deduced that my children have magnetic properties. They naturally repel any activity that is calm, slow paced and results in them staying clean and dry. In contrast, they attract to water. The muddier it is; the stronger the allure. We’ve only reached day four of the summer holidays and they’ve found themselves soaking wet every day so far. First there was the outdoor pool that beckoned to them, then there was the enticing sea waves, yesterday was a rainy day complete with multiple puddle splashing opportunities. Finally there was today…
We’d gone for a family adventure down the Meon Valley trail. This beautiful trail was perfect for us to explore on our bicycles, because not only was the setting pretty idyllic (when you’re in need of a bit of freedom), but also fairly flat: eldest likes to whine about not being able to keep up with his brother, if faced with the slightest of inclines. As steam train enthusiasts, my boys were also excited to learn that this path was actually an old railway line and we did a little detective work, searching for evidence of this. We found two original sleepers at the end of the track and an unidentifiable metallic structure suspected to be from a set of old ‘points’.
Husband expressed mild agitation at the amount of times the boys felt the need to dismount, abandon their bikes (usually in the middle of the path) and explore something new. It would seem there was a lot to explore. Points of interest included a new ‘humps and bumps’ discovery, the collapsing arch held together with wire, picture clues from one of their books at home, and a path to nowhere. Every bridge we passed underneath immediately turned into a quest to find the way up onto it, leaving mummy waiting below with the deserted two wheeled transport.
At one point, middle son found an interesting looking slope and was eager to see what he might find at the top, so he set off with husband in pursuit. I stayed watching eldest son, who was in the process of disappearing behind a tree up the opposite bank. Unable to follow him as youngest son was sharing my bike with me (and unsurprisingly his legs don’t reach the ground), I asked my first born to go slightly higher up the bank past the tree – so I could see him. His response: ‘I can’t’. Upon further inspection, I become aware that the ground he’s standing in was not nearly as solid as the rest of the vicinity and significantly boggier – unlike anywhere else we’d passed (give or take the odd muddy puddle). Except this was no puddle, it was a vast quagmire! Eldest son was fairly centrally placed, doing his best flamingo impression. By the time it had dawned on me that the mud had pulled his shoe off and he was probably not far away from toppling and obtaining a face full of sludge, husband and middle son were back on the scene. Obviously middle son’s instinct was to try and join him – this predicament looked ‘fun’ apparently. We persuaded him to stay on the path, while Daddy began the rescue mission. He maneuvered several solid sticks into stepping stones to prevent meeting a similar fate himself and retrieved eldest son minus a shoe. A return to the incident epicentre and accuracy with another stick ensured the remaining, elusive piece of footwear could be returned to its rightful owner.
Our next discovery was a clear, running stream. It caught the boys’ attention and they were quickly down the bank investigating. Middle son requested a turn on the rope swing, while eldest gently threw pebbles to make ripples. He’d discovered a little beach type section where he could be level with the water. Of course the temptation was too great and it wasn’t long before he was paddling. His theory was that this was essential in order to clean the mud off his shoes. This small section of water was so exciting the boys didn’t want to leave. I find it peculiar that my child, who removes his T shirt or trousers completely if they have a tiny splash of water on them, was content to plunge his feet into this stream while his shoes and socks were still on. Middle son managed not to fall in but he did manage to pedal through all five of the sparse puddles scattered throughout the whole route we covered. In doing so, he got stuck in one of them and took the opportunity to spray mud splatters right up his back in the others.
The trip ended with both of my bigger boys caked in mud and with exceptionally soggy feet – just what you expect when you go for a cycle on a gravel path on a sunny, dry day.
Some days I’m convinced that all three of my children are part of a highly tactical game. Not only have they not shared the rules with me, but I suspect that the aim of this game is to keep me moving and alert at all times. If it wasn’t for the fact that they’ve been playing this for pretty much their whole lives, I’d assume that they are simply supporting the government in encouraging me to follow the first part of their current three part slogan. Despite being completely unaware of the official rules, I have established the following:
Points are awarded for converting a simple task into a chaotic one.
There is no finish square. The game is ongoing.
Children play as a team. Usually they tag in and tag out at select moments to lead Mummy into a false sense of security.
Usually children take turns, but they regularly alter the order of play to provide maximum confusion.
If at any point, Mummy appears calm and is danger of either completing a job or finishing a sentence, then immediate action must be taken by one of them.
You win bonus points by throwing yourself on the floor.
This morning my children were definitely playing. I was feeling super positive when I woke up this morning. This feeling of optimism was maintained for at least the first six minutes of the day. Then youngest son played his first move: the cry and wriggle. This is where you cry and refuse to be comforted. The louder the better – this way you have more chance of waking your brothers. You don’t want milk, you don’t want to play with your toys and you don’t want cuddles. You do want to be held in a standing position, in the kitchen, with a plastic spoon. It only took an hour or so for Mummy to establish this and make her comeback.
Eldest son wasn’t hanging around though, and quickly made his move: the whine and stall. This involves taking a standard situation, such as putting your socks on then adding more drama to it than you’d expect from an Eastenders Christmas special. He played well, successfully delaying us just long enough to mean he got to take bike to school instead of walking, but not so long that he would miss any of his cherished school time. While my eldest was was having a tantrum about not wanting to wear his raincoat (on a rainy day), his siblings were being saintly. Youngest son smiled sweetly at me as if to say that he would never sulk like that (conveniently forgetting a moment earlier) and middle son was ridiculously obliging and polite, whilst simultaneously providing a running commentary about the good things he was doing in contrast to his naughty big brother.
After an extended school run, complete with mini adventure, I took middle son to his beloved playball session. Within minutes of starting, he decided to take his turn: the squawking magnet. This move is one of his personal favourites and involves getting as close to Mummy as possible (parents aren’t entitled to their own share of oxygen after all) and forgetting how to use any sort of independence. It starts simple, you simply run over to Mummy every 2 minutes or so at full speed – just to see if you can catch her off guard and knock her to the ground – a loving type of rugby tackle. Around this point, his voice goes all high pitched and instead of using standard sentences, he precedes everything he says with the term ‘Mama’, in a manner which only his baby brother would be proud of. It then progresses to Mummy needing to be within 30 cm of you at all times. This is particularly difficult when Mummy blends in amongst a group of preschoolers in much the same way as a shark would blend in amongst the goldfish in your fish bowl. It also makes running, jumping and striking a tennis ball rather tricky. Finally, he moved on to the third stage, refusal to comply with any instruction and expecting everything to be done for him – perfectly acceptable when you are 4 months old but a touch mortifying when you’re 4 years old.
Luckily for me, breaks in play are as essential in this game as they are in an extended version of monopoly. Therefore the boys are currently back to their lovely selves. One is playing beautifully on his own, one is exploring the room managing to insert only toys in his mouth and one is at school – possibly doing maths – his happy place.
With the husband working shifts, I’ve found that adventures during lock down are like buses. You haven’t been on one for a while, then they all come together. Being able to use the car to visit to new places has really made a difference. We are exploring different locations again and it’s exciting. Driving somewhere pretty to avoid people is much more fun than simply ignoring the locals!
On this occasion we went to Catherington Downs – as a child this doubled up as my ‘extended’ back garden. It would appear to be a happy place for my children too. There was joy on their faces as they ran around in circles. Also, many possible directions to explore in: bumpy tracks, steep slopes, narrow twisty paths and overgrown walkways. I let the boys choose our route. After releasing an initial bout of energy, eldest son made reference to ‘going home’ so we opted for a tactic that my parents had deployed when I was young. I had a rainbow striped teddy bear when I was very small. Prior to my gorilla obsession, it was probably the stuffed animal that I’d loved the most. Therefore any talk of ‘Rainbow Ted’ was automatically of interest to me. Like my son, I also refused to walk anywhere ‘for fun’. The point of going for a walk was to get somewhere and on so many occasions we’d just end up back where we started. My parents introduced a neverending search for ‘Teddys Mummy’s house’. What had previously been a boring walk was now a vitally important quest! Being close by to where I grew up prompted this memory and like so many previously adopted parenting strategies, I stole this one too.
Eldest son has had two bunny rabbit plush toys since he was tiny (one blue and one white), imaginatively named ‘Blue Bunny’ and ‘White Bunny’. So our adventure became a search for Bunnies Mummy’s house. Luckily for us, rabbits are native to the English countryside, unlike Grizzly, Polar, American Black or even rainbow bears. This meant we were able to convert our adventure into a nature trail too, hunting for plants Bunny’s Mummy may have eaten, examining partially dug out areas of the hill and investigating the position of perfectly spherical rabbit droppings. I felt like I was trying to track something on the ‘Lost’ island – if you remember that television series. The excitement was back! Who’d have thought that a detailed examination of grass, dirt and excrement could be so much fun?
Our search led us to a wooded area where we encountered a strange looking tree that appeared to point across a lane and up another field. After establishing that it had a public footpath through the middle we set off in that direction, assuming that Bunny’s Mummy had left a clue for us. Every time we reached a gate we also had the added thrill of ‘getting into the airlock’ using only Mummy’s feet to open it. This made an excellent disguise from the standard response of avoiding touching due to the threat of Covid-19. Upon reaching the meadow, we quickly established that this was triggering the husband’s hayfever. (Interestingly, when we were out driving the day afterwards, middle son would ask “Daddy, are you going to sneeze?” every time we drove past a yellow field.) At the top, there was much to be discovered and a beautiful view but we still hadn’t found what we were searching for.
It was all a bit too much halfway through the return journey and between us, the husband and I ended up carrying all three small people back up the incline on the other side. Then Daddy made a momentous discovery! Below a lonely bush the ground had been disturbed. But this was was not like previous sightings. Here, the divot led to a burrow, which let to a potential warren and the home of Blue Bunny’s Mummy. We’d found it! A good job too given that this unexpected discovery led to the boys suddenly being empowered to motor up the final bank, renewing their energy levels just enough to forget they’d insisted on being carried only 5 minutes before. In fact, holding Mummy’s hand for that last section of the walk was all middle son needed to get him back to the car.
The exercise of choice for my boys at the moment appears to be cycling around the block. Ours is not a very big block. As much as I love fresh air, it can get monotonous. The boys seem to like perfecting their route though. Add in the extra fun ‘social distancing’ element – when you see someone and call out ‘person coming’, then you all turn around and go around the block in the other direction – you can find yourself roaming the same four corners at least ten times in quick succession. The house on the corner has a flagpost. The excitement about which flag might be flying is surpassed only by the discussion on the subject every time we pass.
With Daddy not at work yesterday, we decided to go for an adventure at our local wooded area instead – a welcome change. We looked a bit odd. We’d all worn shorts but the sunshine had been deceptive, so grabbing the jumpers nearest the front door seemed sensible. Except eldest son had found a jacket that clashed impressively with his shorts and middle son and I had selected long woollen cardigans – not the best choice to complement the rest of our outfits. Perhaps what completed the image was our footwear. I’d just washed the boys shoes, so only their wellies were available. I elected to wear fluffy walking boots, after all we were walking. Husband was thoroughly embarrassed by us but luckily slightly reassured knowing that we wouldn’t be going close enough to anyone else for them to notice our bizarre mix of garments.
Within a few minutes of wandering we’d found a stream. Disgruntled that their game of pooh sticks had been unsuccessful (due to the water level being so shallow), they played at finding different ways to cross it instead. When they both ended up in the water, I silently commended myself on taking their normal shoes out of the equation. That was until husband pointed out that at least one of the Wellington boots leaked! I was fully expecting eldest son to want to leave immediately, as he can’t bear wearing damp clothing. Thankfully, he was distracted by a fairytale character that he’d found pinned to a tree. Onwards we ventured.
The area isn’t that large. Normally when we visit, we stick to the paths but on this occasion we ‘off-roaded’. As a result, it seemed a lot larger. We even lost track of where we were, before identifying the sound of the main road to reestablish our position. Each time a new person was in sight, we’d hide behind trees and trek through the undergrowth in order to make a secret pathway where no one else would be. Although at one point we were spotted – need to work on the camouflage.
Daily exercise complete. Fallen trees climbed on. Childhood unplugged.
I’m sat nursing youngest son while the sunshine beams through my window. Upstairs I can hear the conversation between my big two as they play. Currently they are putting on different voices for assorted underwater characters, as they set off on a mission across the playroom. No additional entertainment required.
It’s no secret that my children have always preferred structure over imaginative play. For them, the more rules a game had, the better it was. Eldest son in particular, has always found creative games difficult. He regularly informs me that a grown up is required for maximum enjoyment. Lego is strictly for use with numbered instructions only. Train characters remake Thomas the tank engine plot lines. All games are better with a Mummy shaped audience.
Middle son does play happily using his own ideas but prefers company. Like so many children, he is always eager to share his ideas, so Mummy would be required to sit and watch the paw patrol assist the octonauts in getting through the spooky woods (for an hour or so). I appreciate this sounds like I’m making up some feeble excuse for not getting my housework done. It is, in fact, the reality. Well it was.
This lockdown seems to have changed all that. The big two children appear to enjoy playing together, using their imaginations and combining ideas and without an audience. The irony of it is that I’m so proud of them I almost want to watch.
Edit: I drafted most of this post in the early part of last week. We’ve had a minor regression in patience skills since then. Facepalm.
I’m not a gardener. Plants have a habit of dying on me. Whenever I’ve been given flowers or seeds as gifts in the past, I’ve had instant guilt. It’s like I’ve let them down, like they deserve a better life. Therefore my idea of gardening has primarily been removing weeds from our “picturesque” patio (think large slabs of uneven concrete). The larger, more destructive jobs in our garden, such as kicking down a wall or two, shearing the large bramble bushes back to nothing and taking a sledgehammer to the old rotten shed were completed, but general maintenance not so much!
It used to be my little gardening friend who inspired me to at least try, However, these efforts saw me getting no further than the garden centre, where eldest son was promptly distracted by the soft play. Then the boys got older and started taking an interest. Both eldest and middle son have previously come home excited from preschool, with their homemade bird feeders. We lovingly positioned them on the plum tree. They were quickly abandoned (really hoping we made at least one bird happy in the meantime). The boys’ grandparents live in a flat – with no garden – so last year they started an allotment in ours instead (growing raspberries, rhubarb and blueberries). Suddenly, we had two avid gardeners in our midst, as the boys insisted on going out to pick fruit daily. I would be presented with a bowl containing five and a half berries and I’d be expected to bake something instantly! Then reminded to buy ice cream. That was last summer.
Now we find ourselves in strange times. The weather has been beautiful, yet the only outdoor space we can go is our own garden. I told eldest boy about food shortages in shops, so he is dutifully watering the bare raspberry plants. Middle son also joined in – his input was to share his water with the plum tree by pouring half his cup on to its trunk. Further learning about how trees take in water is required; in the meantime the tree in our garden looked like a passing dog has had a wee up against it!
We’ve also got the boys a climbing frame as they are missing the park already. Their Nanny has been very generous. She knows how active they are. The frame itself is pretty much going to take up the entire garden (minus the allotment). First it requires assembling though. The guide time is 6 hours for construction so I’m aiming for completion in 6 days. That said, 6 weeks is probably a more accurate target for us! The husband likes to procrastinate and the children like to make frequent interruptions. First job: level the garden area it will be stood on.
So despite looking like something the Groundforce team could make a week’s worth of episodes out of, we’ve spent a lot of time in the garden this week. I get out a few garden toys, some chalk and their old bikes and the big ones seem to amuse themselves far better than they ever do playing indoors! Even youngest son seems content enough to sit on a picnic blanket and play. A combination of helping level the soil in the corner and a rock hunt led to an idea for this morning’s project: an Easter garden. Middle son found some sticks, which I tied together using an old daffodil leaf to make the crosses. Youngest son kindly lent us the large toy lorry that he’d been eating, to transport stones and mud across the garden to our masterpiece. Middle son had already began selecting flowers by the handful. (In this respect it’s probably a good thing that the only ones growing in our backyard are wild flowers.) Eldest son took the construction process seriously, he even went to the trouble of running inside to get his children’s bible. He considered it essential that we pay attention to detail when selecting a suitable stone for the front of the empty tomb.
Garden now complete. It would appear I am capable of gardening after all – when the garden in question is no more than 12 inches square.