Back to the 1990s

Technology is a wonderful thing. I have always been a bit of a computer geek in the past. Spending most lunchtimes in the IT suite at school, taking pride in teaching my parents how to operate our computer at home, my evenings chatting to friends on ICQ and MSN messenger and once I began teaching, being somewhat of a pioneer in introducing new technologies to my school. I was one of the few who fell in love with Windows Vista when it first came out (although windows 3.1 will always be my first love) and at one point I even got my friends to show me how to take a computer apart and meddle with the components.

Once they were released, a smart phone was a ‘must’ for me. When the pandemic first hit, I suggested to a group of friends I regularly meet with, that we use video conferencing. Even now, I find my Alexa smart system exciting. However, it feels like the more people are on board with technology the less it interests me. Maybe it’s because when I look around me at the world and everyone always has their phone in their hand it makes me feel a bit sad. Maybe it’s because I have seen people I care about get destroyed by social media. Or maybe it is just because people have stopped interacting properly because online is now an option. The truth is, it has been an option for a while but facetime and zoom chats are indisputably not the same as meeting face to face. My children are very tactile and are either uninterested with talking to a screen, they run around and pull silly faces due to its novelty value, they minimise the conversation and get distracted by someone else available on the interface or simply think they can switch the screen off mid conversation as they view people as similar to characters to their favourite TV show.

So we made a decision: we would remove the smart technology. This was partly to try and deal with the inappropriate ways our children react to everything on a screen but primarily for our own mental health – tying in rather nicely with ‘Mental health day’. Our mobile phones were switched off at midnight on Friday. Instead of being woken by a phone vibrating we were greeted by two sons wanting breakfast. Later in the day we played in the garden, walked to Grandma’s house to collect apple crumble, got creative with playdough, played trains and put new batteries in our toy till so we could play shops. A few times my husband felt a minor frustration about not being able to order a car part or check a fact but by the first evening it was clear that no phone was improving the quality of our family life. If it isn’t visible them the children don’t ask you to use it and consequently you don’t have to say ‘no’ to them unescessarily.

Our challenge was to limit technology for an entire weekend. We decided that some technology was necessary, we didn’t fancy salting food to keep it fresh without our fridge or rubbing stick together to make the fire needed to cook. So we decided to restrict ourselves to items available in the 1990s only. Obviously there needed to be some loop holes. We do have a 1991 Polo but we cannot fit our family of five in it legally as youngest son and middle son still require a car seat. Instead we opted to use our larger car but turn off extra features such as autowipers and tune in the DAB radio to fm stations only. We allowed ourselves TV but channels 1-5 only. This in itself caused some debate as I was able to get channel 5 on the TV my house that decade whereas it wasn’t available where husband lived. In the morning the boys often watch TV before breakfast, we were delighted to find that 3 out of 5 channels have children’s programmes on them in the mornings. They opted to watch the classic cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’ on Citv. We also decided that where an item had been invented e.g. the hoover, we were allowed to use our modern equivalent. 

I was aware that I have an unhealthy addiction to my phone. In fact many people my age probably use their phone more often than they need to. However, when you witness people generations above you get their phone out in the middle of a conversation to look up the concept you are talking about, you realise there is a problem. My son’s school has signs up that read ‘Greet your child with a smile, not a mobile phone.’ I’m in full agreement on that one. I thought about the following list of tasks that I do on my mobile phone: 

  • Transferring money to pay for their childcare. 
  • Playing a game. 
  • Googling fun places to take the children in the holidays. 
  • Ordering Christmas/birthday presents for them. 
  • Texting my friends 
  • Finding out more information about the film I watched last night 
  • Checking the time of appointments 
  • Reading and responding to work emails 
  • Uploading the reading my child has done for their teacher. 
  • Mapping the route to the hospital. 
  • Checking the news headlines for the day 
  • Checking the time (how long until dinner is ready) 
  • Watching a comedy clip 
  • Finding out what time husband will be home for dinner. 

I could continue with the list forever because there is very little you cannot do on a phone nowadays. In the days before mobiles, it was easy to identify which of these were more important or that you would have happily done in front of your children and which you would wait to do in your own time. The problem is that to a child, each of these tasks are viewed the same. 

  • Mummy is on her phone and not looking at me. 
  • Daddy is on his phone and not looking at me. 
  • Mummy is on her phone and not looking at me. 
  • Daddy is on his phone and not looking at me. 
  • Mummy is on her phone and not looking at me.  
  • Daddy is on his phone and not looking at me. 

At the weekend I take my boys swimming. There is a half an hour wait between sessions. In time gone by we have looked through and talked about pictures (memories) – on my phone, had a go at completing homework tasks – on an app on my phone or most commonly they elect to play on their ‘pup pad’ – a hand held device. All these may be fun and they may pass the time but ultimately they involve staring at a screen. I looked around at others in the waiting area. They also had their phones and other devices out. Out of ten tables, there were people talking to each other face to face on only one! So this weekend we took a few packs of cards out with us. I played snap with middle son and I taught eldest the care game patience (which he loved). It felt good. 

Overall I have had a great weekend and I’ve been able to relax far more than usual. We’ve got more done than we ever thought possible (including sorting out items from the loft and reorganising the playroom) amongst calm children. We’ve been for a family swimming session, play area outing, turned homework into a game, had more relaxing family meal times and played a lot of lego. I just can’t believe that is a coincidence. In addition, middle and eldest child have been introduced to some of my old 8+ board games from my childhood – we played ‘Game of life’ and they loved earning money!  I could concentrate on the moment and the family I have around me, instead taking on the thoughts and worries of my friends (whatsapp and text), acquaintances (instagram), colleagues (email), community (facebook groups), strangers (twitter), the nation (BBC news), and the world (google).  

The best part about all this: at the end of the evening when you are chatting to your husband and the focus is solely on the talking instead of checking tomorrow’s calendar. We both agreed that not only were we successful in our challenge but that it had been a very positive experience for the whole family. Where it wouldn’t be practical to do this permanently, as I’m likely to miss something and get into trouble, it is definitely something we intend to repeat. We are happy for our boys to use apps and screens (after all technology is the future) but we also want them to appreciate how enjoyable life can be without them.

It’s never the same twice.

We went back to one of our favourite spots at Soberton. Having learnt from previous occasions, I made several changes: an off road pushchair, an alternative path with no stairs, an extra bag of baby items and swimming gear for the boys. Of course, we still ended up in several pickles but what made it fun was that these were ‘new and exciting’ difficult situations.

After successful parking and accurate navigation we were off to a good start. It didn’t last long. As we walked up a pavement-less, narrow road, a lorry (the size of a small house) drove towards us. When you have the world’s widest buggy, it quickly dawns on you that is no where to stand to the side and prepare to about turn. Luckily, the HGV driver was feeling lovely and reversed a short distance to a passing area. We ran towards it in excitement.

The nettles had teamed up in advance to make it as tricky as possible for a group of people wearing shorts to pass. We survived sting free and did a spot of cheerio racing in the stream (using those that weren’t immediately eaten). However, approximately 3 minutes later, the rain began. We sheltered under the tree over a bridge and contemplated whether it was actually summer and we’d looked at the forecast for the wrong day.

Amusing ourselves as the rain passed.

The rain was short lived. We enjoyed splashing about, running around, launching a tennis ball in all directions and an early picnic. Youngest son was keen to explore himself and fondly waited until middle son was sitting or clinging to Mummy before making a dash towards the river bank. I’m pleased to report that my reaction time is still fast enough to keep the small person out of the water, although apparently not fast enough to prevent eldest son hurling his brother’s changing bag into the river beside me. Top tip: I suggest that if your offspring ever want to play catch with you, they choose a more appropriately shaped object and don’t throw it whilst you have your hands full of toddler!

It seemed like a good time for the littlest to nap so we got dressed and went for a wander. He was quickly asleep and oblivious to the fact that we stopped to throw twigs in another section of river. The bigger boys played there incident free for some time until I told them we were moving on; at which point eldest fell in. He’d already picked up a footprint shaped mud patch on the back of his T shirt so the additional muddy shorts didn’t bother him. The sopping wet shoes and socks did! He ended up wearing his brother’s sandals (only 4 sizes too small) as a compromise. It turns out that if your toes stick out over the edge they are more likely to get covered in mud.

Before he got wet feet.
The feet by the time we got back

This was all before reaching a large stile and realising the youngest was still asleep. We got the pushchair over but in the absence of a third adult we first needed to remove the baby and leave him in the capable hands of a pair of 7 year olds while we lifted it. Needless to say, he didn’t stay asleep!

Strolling down the river

It’s always so tricky choosing which path to take on an adventure. Today, we simplified matters and took the direct route: the stream.

Eldest and middle son quickly scattered. They sought out the muddiest patches and the steepest banks to play on – as you do. The game which materialised first was ‘Bridge making’. This involved our biggest boy hauling the largest sticks he could find and installing them perpendicular to the water. Some fell in; most wouldn’t even take the weight of a squirrel on a diet. In fact, what this game actually acheieved was new hazards for our toddler to navigate past.

Youngest son had plans of his own. Those did not involve holding hands with Mummy or Daddy. He probably didn’t plan to lose one of his wellies in the mud, or the multiple falls in the water. Not that he minded too much, his main concern was wet hands. These he waved at me with a look of disapproval. When there is no hand drier available, you can always use Mummy’s trousers and go on your merry way.

Youngest son choosing to scale a fallen branch while middle son unintentionally does his level best to stop Daddy assisting, by standing in the way.

Things I learnt from this trip:

– Always carry a bag for life. We’d been so good and considered bringing the back carrier to transport youngest on the return journey. What we hadn’t considered was also carrying muddy wellies and dripping wet weather gear at the same time.

– Never give yourself a time limit on a family adventure. It was Sunday and we needed to make it back before 10 to 4 to allow time to nip to the shop on the way home. Then we discovered rope swings. Two rope swings. And almost certain delay removing the children from them.

– If they tell you they don’t need the toilet before you go out, then they clearly do. Actually, ignore the above, I already knew this long before today.

– The child with the shortest wellies will always walk through the deepest part of the stream.

– There will always be that part of a river walk, where a child can fit and an adult can’t follow. It is usually at these sections where the 1 year old picks up speed in pursuit of his big brothers.

– Never try and duck under a branch when you are wearing a large toddler backpack carrier. Happily the toddler was not in it at the point Mummy forgot it was there and got herself stuck.

One final piece of advice: when asking your children for their suggestions as to the best way home, fully expect them to point in opposite directions.

Wetsuits are for wimps

My audacious offspring and I fancied exploring a new part of the Meon Valley trail so picked one of Hampshire’s beautiful little villages that appeared to be located nearby. I made several attempts to find a friend to join the boys. We found someone, who apparently likes to partake in traditional, but wacky outdoor activities as much as my children do.

Upon arrival I realised that my phone battery had only 4% charge left. The phone can be very unpredictable at times, it has been known to last an entire evening on 1% but is just as likely to randomly turn itself off when opening an app to meet up with the husband. Navigation would need to be completed the old fashioned way. Conveniently, we discovered a map at the village church. As a result, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, until our friends arrived – equipped with a professional looking Ordinance Survey map.

How to navigate when google maps is draining your phone battery.

One dead end and two downpours later, we found a route onto the disused railway line and began our adventure. Middle son reached new levels of speed on his bicycle with a new face to compete against; while eldest son tried to cover up the fact he couldn’t keep up, by attempting to cycle up a ridiculous steep bank – a challenge I’m sure even superman would struggle with. This was the first of many pit stops before the discovery of some stairs leading down to the river and its crystal clear waters.

Making a splash.

The boys gradually shed clothing as assorted items were splashed or walked on by pesky siblings. I attempted to tidy them under the pushchair to salvage them from from future unfortunate events. What I achieved, was a a forehead full of stinging nettle as I bent down to retrieve them.

Youngest son contemplating how best to fall in head first without mummy noticing.

Having enjoyed our lunch sat in a muddy puddle (where the water was churned up against the bank then splashed onto the walkway), a lady passing by enquired why we weren’t sat at the picnic area. As it turns out, this was only a stones throw away. It was our next destination. Middle son managed to slip on the way. His only remaining item of clothing was now both wet and muddy! Tip of the day: always carry a towel.

Breaking news: soft play has reopened in our little household!

Normally, when the boys are jumping around the living areas, bringing their toys downstairs in hordes and launching balls into the air like missiles; I get grumpy. Today I encouraged it. Pettit Playland is open for business.

Soft play has always been that activity with a bit of a reputation. My personal viewpoint has changed significantly over time. I remember the excitement when my elder sister invited me to accompany my nieces to one. Running around like a crazy thing, whilst taking on the role of the responsible adult was ridiculously fun – a great opportunity to relive my youth. Then I had a crawling baby of my own and soft play took on a new role: a safe place for him to learn new ways to move and climb. Watching my first born meet milestones and the memory of his little face as he took on his first ball pit, will stay with me. But associating these indoor cushioned playgrounds with magical excitement would not last.

Once my children reached the age where they repeatedly asked to visit soft play, was around the same time I began to dislike it. We always ended up going on the ‘everything is sticky’ day because it was marginally more bearable than the ‘super busy can’t find my child’ days. You’d be dragged by your offspring to a difficult to reach place, attempting to bend your 6ft+ frame around several corners. At the top of a slide, your child likes to start on your lap but soon abandons you and goes it alone when it becomes clear your wide, childbearing hips have you lodged. This is closely followed by the embarrassment of trying not to look like you’re stuck. After freeing yourself you scan the vicinity for your child, initially panic only to later find them by the vending machine pressing all the pretty lights while a small queue of other children wishing to purchase drinks is beginning to form. Then there’s the noise level. (I thought nowhere could be louder than my own kids’ playroom. I was wrong.) You zone out in the deafness and start to consider how many little hands have touched the frame and where else those little hands have been prior to this. In addition the odd used sticker or plaster was a particularly unpleasant discovery.

Then the lockdown came and went. Most other places opened up except soft play centres. They might be closed indefinitely. Maybe they are a thing of the past? Of course, it was at this point that I chose to miss them, mourn these little torturous pits of craziness. Youngest son would miss out on this little experience that his siblings had adored.

All three children occupied and exploring.

So today we converted the dining room to our own soft play centre. Youngest son discovered the joys of a ball pit (with a limited supply of balls) and took the opportunity to climb the wrong way of a slide, enjoying a cushioned landing when he slid down at a peculiar angle. Middle son decided to adorn the area by adding every soft toy he owned. Meanwhile, eldest son took the opportunity to market our softplay. He wanted to create a sign and a reading area. They all loved it and playing there filled all morning on a day when we had nothing else planned. So now, I no longer find soft play areas loathsome. If only I felt the same about the inevitable ‘Operation clean up’, which is bound to involve at least 33% of them bawling that their indoor playground has gone.

Designing the sign.
Chilling out with a book.