When I was a child, I loved the idea of having an adventure. I lived in the country in a time when it was acceptable for a child to remain away from their home for a full day without anyone getting overly concerned. I had freedom in a way that children of today don’t.
One of the favourite places I went with my friends was called the ‘Jungle’. It was made up in part of disused iron-ore mine rubble, rowan and beech trees that had taken root and fought their way through the barren ground and left-over machinery.
The Jungle was about a mile from home. We walked down the road with our bottles of water and a pack of cheese sandwiches. We were part of a brave band of adventurers who set forth to explore new worlds. We found strange creatures, such as newts and lizards. We could hear strange animal sounds coming from a place away from the Jungle (actually they were cows from the farm across the road). We fell out and made up. We changed leaders. We came home tired but satisfied that we had saved the world.
As a very small child, before I was able to wander off with friends, my adventures were still as exciting, but more centred on the house or garden. I remember watching lambs gambolling across the fields at the back of the house. I remember seeing a fox running along the wall one snowy evening. I can remember the sound of birds calling and singing and fighting. I can remember the other sounds of people living their own lives talking, shouting, singing and whistling. I watched the world from my doorstep. I tasted soil, I watched caterpillars, and I heard the wind blow through the grass. It sounds idyllic, but it is nothing we can’t offer to our children today.
Sometimes I think we get too caught up in providing something to occupy children in the form of a plastic toy, a painting activity, a video or a DVD. We feel they have to be busy all the time, apart from when they eat or sleep. As they get older, we send them for piano lessons, we enrol them in the local Brownies or Cubs, and we get them swimming or playing team games.
I know that in future years, they may suffer burn-out. How many of these activities are carried on into adolescence or adulthood? Do we, by almost forcing our children to be so versatile and constantly on the go, create drop-outs because they have no time left just to be themselves?
There is real anxiety about becoming a parent these days. We almost know too much. We hear about the problems. We watch documentaries about the things that can and do go wrong in families. We look to ‘experts’ to help us solve out problems. Our confidence in our parenting instincts is diluted.
Most of us, however, despite all the doom and gloom, in fact do a reasonable job. Once we relax and begin to enjoy these small individuals, we find that we rub along together in an OK manner.
So here’s the first suggestion: sometimes it’s better to do nothing.
When you next take your child to the park or just for a walk around the block, think about the wealth of information they will gain about their community. They will hear sounds, such as vehicles, people, animals, machinery. They will see different people – young and old, male or female, loud or quiet, moving quickly or slowly. They will smell different things – petrol, food cooking, burning, grass just cut, perfumes of garden flowers.
We don’t need to spend lots of money on our children in order for them to learn.
If you have a garden area at home or in the nursery or school, plant safe, child-friendly herbs and vegetables. There is nothing more exciting than watching your plant grow from a seed. It teaches you patience it allows you to understand the importance of nurturing and protecting your plant from too much sun, rain, wind and other children.
Visit your local market. There are exotic smells of fruit and vegetables, incense sticks, fabrics, fast food. Listen to the stall-holders as they encourage people to come and buy from them. Feel the hustle and bustle of the potential customers as they meander from booth to booth, listening and deciding. If your child is still happy in a pram or push-chair, they will also be at dog-level. They will be able to see wet noses and dark eyes; they will smell the dog before you even see it!
Check that they feel secure enough to be at this level. It’s all about knees and shopping bags. They will see other children in similar positions. They will stare at each other, but hardly ever react in any other way. They will unconsciously note accents, voice tones, skin colour, facial features and hair types.
All of this is available on a daily or weekly basis. All you have to do is be there. If it isn’t you, then whoever you pay to look after your child in your place. The next time you take your small child to the shops, spend time just watching them. Even if they want to race round the supermarket ‘helping’ you, watch their excitement. If you thank them and then ask them to look for specific non-breakable items, they will enjoy it even more. Make the event an adventure. Talk about the pictures on the packages. Mention how cold it is in the freezer area. Can they find the apples and oranges? Does the smell of the detergent make their nose tickle? Do they like brown or white bread? Do they like the smell of the barbecued meat?
Enjoy your experience. It may take a bit longer, but allow for that so you don’t feel pressurised to rush an important event. When you arrive home, get some paper and crayons so your child can draw, should they choose, some aspect of their experience. You can count the cans as you put them in the cupboards. You can sort out the chilled and frozen foods. You can talk about the biggest, the smallest, the heaviest and the lightest.
In fact, I feel so energised; I might just go shopping myself!