“We Are Not Playing Now We Are Learning”

I was recently observing in a classroom, having being alerted to a child who, at 5 years old, was struggling to complete the tasks expected of her by the teacher.  In fact, in the teacher’s eyes, she was being ‘non-compliant’.  As I observed, the child self-selected a task outside of what the teacher had asked her to do.  As the teacher moved to intervene, she stated to the child “No, we are not playing now, we are learning”.  I was absolutely stunned.  This teacher, in one sentence had managed to contradict the very nature of childhood.  That learning and play are two separate entities, and that one must certainly not engage in play (and presumably any frivolity that comes with it) when one is committed to the serious task of learning.

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This seems to be the prevailing attitude of our current education system.  What stunned me the most with this teacher was that she was young and trained in a degree that covers a student age of 3-8 years of age.  I had assumed that this meant she would have a clear understanding of the work of children, and the literature and research around the importance of play and the subsequent learning that comes from this.  I am forever learning not to assume anything in my work.  There seems to be a belief by society in general that up to the age of 5 years, children can have a bit of a play – a bit of a lark about – but come time for school then that nonsense really has to cease in favour of the important stuff.  The real learning.  The ‘get-ready-for-NCEA’ attitude narrow-minded focus.  It does seem to feel like childhood is a very endangered species.

What is a shame even more than this, however, is that this focus is starting to seep into many early childhood facilities.  Daycare facilities are now re-branding themselves as ‘Educare’ companies, offering to ‘prepare your child’ for school.  While I am all in favour of having children school-ready, it is the definition of this that concerns me the most.  School ready should encompass a level of socialisation, independence, level of oral language and an understanding of the reasons why we go to school.   When a 3 year old is expected to be compliant in the ‘classroom’, this is displaying an ignorance about child development that is difficult to stomach.  Companies responsible for the provision of care to children under the age of 5 should take their responsibilities extremely seriously.  They are in the position of preserving childhood, not extinguishing it in favour of the pressure to have children learning the ‘important stuff’.  They should be advocates for the children they care for, teaching parents and the wider community about the important life-long learning that occurs in these early years, and how we, as families, can assist our children with their milestones.  And above all, they should work hard to correct society’s perception that earlier is better.  That if children are pushed harder, sooner, they will be achieving quicker and better.  And when they get to school at 5, they won’t bother with all this play stuff – they will be busy doing actual learning.

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What 5 year olds need, particularly when they have come through a system such as an Educare facilities, is time to explore, discover, create and connect with the world around them.  To inquire.  To question.  To delight and to consider.  Of all the ‘subjects’ of childhood – play encompasses all these skills.  And so much more.  At 5, students should be in classrooms that have the flexibility to encourage students in their play, not to stop them at the first step.  That are resourced enough to allow children to explore their ideas and create from their imaginations.  This is not in conflict with the need to have children learning to read, write and develop their numeracy skills.  But if in an environment where children are engaged in true play, these tools will be used in context and with purpose.  Children will have real reason to draw on and develop these skills.  They will be learning through their play, not separately from their play.

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Separated Families at Christmas

For many Christmas is a time of relaxation, good food and good family company. Finally a chance to catch up with loved ones after a busy completed year. But for others it signals a logistical and emotional nightmare, as shared contact between separated families is managed. If a negotiated plan is not in place, disagreement and conflict between ex-partners can cause Christmas to be a time of anxiety and frustration, in which inevitably the child is caught in the middle of.

So how can this situation be managed and the stress minimised as much as possible? I can only share our experiences in managing this time with my eldest son’s biological family. When I first became his step-Mum, there was no formal plan in place for the care of him over the Christmas time. Furthermore, his birthday was two days after Christmas, which made it an even more concentrated time of anxiety, as it felt like we had to have a highly concentrated period of contact with his biological family than we would normally have. This said, initially, my husband would simply agree with his ex-partner to her requests, in order to keep the peace and avoid any unpleasantness for our son. But this also meant that our son did not experience Christmas with one half of his family, which was a significant loss for him in terms of his childhood. So, as many parents would try, we began to look for a middle ground……a way to carve up the day so that it had some air of fairness and so that our son could feel he was experiencing how both sides of his family celebrated the day. This was always a cause of great stress in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. What was deemed ‘fair’ was always from varying perspectives, and when having to deal with an ex-partner with their own agenda, this made for a worrying time. It created conflict between myself and my husband, as we debated how to manage the communication around the time. And this was before we had even begun our holiday!

Despite plans being agreed to, the greatest source of stress was the inevitable contact with my sons biological family on the day. Where most of the year we tried to void any concentrated form of the family, suddenly we were having to collect our son from a place where the entire family had congregated! We all had to be nice and pleasant at the point of pick up……despite the preceding disagreements and arguments from throughout the year. It was all about ensuring our son didn’t cotton on to any animosity between his loved ones.

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What made the pick ups and drop offs even harder, however was dealing with the ex-partners inability to be on time. More often than not, we were spending much our Christmas Day waiting. Waiting to have lunch as we waited for our son to arrive and be apart of it…….or waiting for our son to get his things ready as we picked him up, despite knowing of the time we were due to arrive. Or waiting for a phone call to pick up our son which came an hour or two hours after the agreed time. A relaxing Christmas did not seem quite the same. Instead we always had one eye on the clock……and a knot in our stomach knowing we would need to be managing contact at some point in the day.

Another trickle-on effect in having to manage contact between two separated families over this time, is the limitation this puts in being able to travel away to visit other family out of town. In the initial years of becoming a step-parent, this meant if I wanted to spend time with my husband, son and young daughter, it meant my parents had to travel to us, and not vice versa. They lived a five hour drive away and we were not able to do what many families could by saying ‘we’re spending Christmas away’ this year. It became 3 families to juggle….not the usual two. And it was the third family that would have the most to say if they got to miss out on seeing their son/grandson over this holiday time. And while I tried hard for it not to bother me, it did. A family I would have nothing to do with, or nothing in common with, other than my love for their biological son/grandson, were dictating to me when I could see my own family at Christmas time. While I didn’t make this an issue to anyone on the outside, it certainly stewed and stirred on the inside!

The best thing we ever did as a family was create an agreement thought the Family Court. For most people this is a daunting thought – to go to court. But as someone who has come out the ‘other side’ I could, without a doubt, state I would do it again. This process resulted in a very transparent and fair agreement on the arrangements for both Christmas and birthday contact…..and went further to ensure other holidays, such as Easter, long weekends, Mothers Day and Father’s Day etc were explicitly understood. And there were inevitable consequences if one or the other party refused to follow the agreement. Yes, it was expensive, and yes, the stress was excruciating. But what followed was far less stress over the time that mattered.

A further preventative strategy we employed to avoid the anxiety at the point of picking up and dropping off our son was to ensure we were the one doing the transporting. We offered to drop off AND pick up. This meant we footed the bill for the petrol, and the time spent in a car on Christmas Day…….but it also meant we had control over the time. We were able to minimise down our ‘wait’ time, as we were not left wondering when our son was ever going to arrive. And when contact was particularly strained between my husband and his ex-partner, we employed the assistance of family members who were happy to do the drop and pick up for us. We chose family who we knew would not engage in conflict or would not be confrontational, and that would, at all times, be mindful of the ears and eyes watching the change-over. Someone that would ensure our son would continue to be protected from adult conflict. (This usually meant someone of whom the ex-partner was a little intimidated by). All we then waited on was a text to say he had been collected and was on his way. We could breathe easy and look forward to the remainder of our Christmas Day.

So if you find yourself having to manage these additional stresses at the holiday time, it is well worth looking into creating a more formalised and structured agreement between the parties involved. When it is clear and spelt out on paper, it is far less likely to be argued with. If you find yourself having to wait or be inconvenienced unduly, try to become proactive, offering to do the transporting yourself. And in a worst-case situation, look for support within your immediate family – have someone available to assist with the pick ups to minimise your stress, and ultimately any trickle-on effect to your children. These are just some ways we have found got us through potentially stressful moments over the holiday season when managing separated families.

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Magic and Fairy Tales

“If you see the magic in a fairy tale, you can face the future.”
Danielle Steel

I have recently returned with my family from our inaugural trip ‘Around the World’. We entitled it the Aiono Adventure 2013 and it was a much anticipated and focused event for all of the months leading up to our departure. We, as a family of five, travelled for a month to Los Angeles, Washington DC, Toronto, London, France and Hong Kong. Many thought we were utterly insane even considering this level of travel with kids in tow, let alone with one just-turned-4 year old who struggles on a good day to be seated for any length of time. The preventative manager in me began planning for every eventual occurrence. I had wrist labels for lost children. I had a bound activity book tailor made for each child on the plane to ensure their engagement and quiet contemplation. And when that had worn off I had the iPad loaded with movies, tv programmes, talking books and educational apps. I was prepared to circumnavigate the earth with my rambunctious kids in tow. And we were going to get our money’s worth……they were going to see the world!

So when people ask me now what was the most memorable moment of our Adventure, or the highlight, I surprise even myself with what that actually is. We saw and experienced the most amazing things, such as fireworks over Niagara Falls and pain au chocolat beside the Eiffel Tower. We saw and experienced the most simple and humbling of things, such as accepting the kindness of family and friends in accommodation and sightseeing tours. We were taught to appreciate how to slow down and to truly see things that, if we were the locals in the town, we may not necessarily appreciate. We also came to learn a whole lot more about ourselves and how we exist with each other. The moments when we are most tired and hungry through to the moments of ridiculous joy.

So what was the most memorable moment of all for me on our amazing Adventure? The epiphany that occurred to me 3 days into our travel about who my 6 year old daughter truly is. And that, somehow despite all I uphold and value, I had lost touch with the magic that we had once worked so hard to create for her. Day 3 of our adventure involved a second day exploring all that Disneyland has to offer in Los Angeles. We were off to explore California Adventureland after bumbling our way around Disney Park the day before. After a disastrous experience on the Matterhorn ride, we were all becoming a little less tolerant of my daughter who was being very dramatic when it came to anything ‘scary’. We kept reminding her that she was almost 7 and that she had nothing to be afraid of. We considered that she should be able to manage the bigger rides …… her height certainly wasn’t the issue. And it wasn’t like we were putting her into the screaming tower or haunted-type attractions. But it was when the Ferris wheel at Paradise Pier caused more anxious anticipation in the line my tolerance became incredibly thin. After all, what really was the problem….right?

And then we stopped to notice the lack of a queue outside the Little Mermaid ride. So we rushed in, relieved to not have to wait once more. Seated inside a giant shell I figured this would be a little too ‘young’ for my daughter, and my husband seated behind us with my 4 year old would be better entertained. What a mistake I made. My daughter’s eyes literally danced and sparkled. I had never seen her so in awe and wonderful rapture than at that moment. She knew every character and was so thoroughly excited to see Ariel (never mind her robotic nature) that I found myself welling up with emotion. I had forgotten. I had really forgotten all the ground work my husband and I had done while she was a pre-schooler to encourage her imagination and belief in magic. I had forgotten we had been the fairies in the forest writing back to her……we had never discounted the possibility of mermaids or other such wondrous creatures. And we had always said she was a princess in our eyes. That anything was possible. And yet here I was so surprised by her engagement with this magic, I was completely overwhelmed. In that moment I decided that we needed to catch ourselves and slow the pace right down, so that she could be the little girl she was for as long as possible. Her belief of magic and love of fairy tales allows for a kind of innocence that, as parents, we hope will continue for a while yet. As I continued to observe her wonderment during Disney’s World of Colour, I made a silent promise that we would continue to ensure she had every opportunity to believe and continue the magic for as long as she was wanting to do. That it was not up to us to be reminding her that she was growing up and hurrying her along the path. That we would take each step beside her, not in front telling her to keep up.

So that was my life lesson as we circumnavigated the world. We, of course, learned so much more about ourselves as individuals, as a family and about the places we visited. But the most profound learning was just that – my children will grow and continue to grow at their own pace. And that we should never be too old for magic and fairy tales.

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Growing Children’s Brains In Their Sleep

From the day our children were born, and in the case of my step-son coming to live with us full time, we have insisted on a consistent bedtime routine. There were various reasons for why we developed the routine that is still in place today. The biggest reason though, was to ensure that our children knew how highly valued sleep was in our family. This is, in part, due to the fact that we have highly active children (in body and mind) and as such, they required a very clear indication from the adults in charge that there was a definitive difference between their awake time and the time they were expected to be sleeping. It also ensured that the household had both a time each day that was devoted to our children, and then refocused to ‘adult time’ in the evenings. Toys were packed away, destruction cleaned up and the tv channel safely tuned to programs not-for-little-people’s-eyes. Moments of sanity in a quiet house.

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We noticed from an early age that our children were far more responsive, curious and motivated with at least 11-12 hours sleep every single night. Our children also appeared to have an internal alarm clock rigidly set to 5.30am, no matter the time they went to sleep the night before. Because of this, we developed a bedtime routine that began with bath/shower time around 4-4.30pm. By the time bath, dinner and stories were read, the lights were out at 6pm.

It has amazed me, though, the surprise I am met with when I share that my children head to bed at this time. Later bedtimes for children particularly under 8 years of age seems to have been normalised. The idea that children are left to play, or stay up with the adults in the house until 8, 9 or 10pm when the adults retreat to bed is becoming increasingly common. So what, then, is the impact on these children in their brain development and growth when time asleep is becoming less than time awake?

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Ongoing research is now confirming that the amount of sleep a child has is as equally important as the type of diet and exercise they receive. Younger children need more sleep than older children, although teenagers return to needing a considerable number of hours as their bursts of growth needs are met. In general, children between the age of 5 and 11 years of age need between 10 and 12 hours sleep every night. Given that these children are usually making their way to school by 8am every morning, after a hearty breakfast and preparing their school bag, the need for 10-12 sleep would put their bedtime at approximately 6-7pm the night before. By having this quality sleep every night, children will be better prepared to face a busy school day filled with important learning and social interaction – the work of childhood. The weekend should not signal a change to this level of sleep required. Too often children arrive at school on a Monday morning almost in a ‘hung-over’ like state, as the lack of sleep hours received catches up with them.

It is not so simple as packing the children off to bed as the lights go out at 7pm, however. For children to have quality sleep a consistent bedtime routine is vital. This is a time of calming and quietening down, with the inevitable just round the corner. It is also potentially the most precious time of the day between parent and child. It can be that time when your child receives your undivided attention instead of commonly sharing it with their siblings. If, as parents, you are wanting to support the healthy growth and development of your child’s brain…….turn electronics off during this routine. Engage with your children over a story following a bath or shower and dinner. Allow your child’s brain to calm, rather than being overstimulated with the flashing screen of a TV or mobile device. Climb into bed alongside your child and model the joy of reading books with them. The key to the success of such a routine is its consistency. Do this Every. Single. Night.

Your children’s brains will be all the better for it.

For more information read the latest research here.

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The Quiet Abuse of our Modern Children

In the grand scheme of things I have not been working in the education profession for long. I am not a ‘seasoned’ teacher with a significant number of years under my belt. In the time I have worked in education, however, I have worked primarily in an area where one would see the very worst in child behaviour and emotional well being. I have met children with lives outside of school filled with violence, neglect and poverty. Children who, as a direct result of their parents actions, have been traumatised to where their lives will never be the same again. This level of abuse against children has always captured the eye of the media, for its shock and stun factor with the general public. As a society, it is agreed without doubt that this is a completely unacceptable way in which children should experience their childhood years. And so the big sweeping statements from central government are made, the policies are created, the government agencies are sent out in troops and these offenders (where possible) are rounded up with children relocated…..often into equally unsuitable home settings.

But there is a quiet and subtle abuse that  appears to be significantly increasing yet to capture media (and therefore government) attention. Neglectful Parenting will also have life-long, and inter-generational impacts on society that we are yet to fully comprehend. But neglectful parenting does not seem to be understood in its entirety. Neglect comes to the attention of our government agency charged with child safety when children’s basic human needs are not being met. Primarily food, shelter and supervision from adults. What does not seem to be considered as neglectful within these categories is the inability of adults to love and give attention to the children they are responsible for. Yet, anecdotally, there would seem to be an ever increasing number of children walking through the school gates who are experiencing a level of neglect that is having a detrimental effect to their emotional and social well being. They come from a home where they have food, are clean, and have basic clothing requirements (mostly) met. But they do not have an emotional connection to a significant parent. As a teacher, this is by far the hardest level of neglect to address in a classroom.

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Children from these home environments typically struggle to manage themselves socially and emotionally on a daily basis. They are anxious, defensive, reactive and can display what seems to be an overreaction to minor issues. They do not have the resilience that a child from an emotionally-secure background would have. Simply, they are lost. Lost in a world in which adults are not there to provide calm and comfort, love and care. For some, they learn that when they demonstrate a need for comfort (such as crying, or raging) an adult is not there to respond to them and keep them emotionally safe. For others, they may have had this initially, but as they lose the ‘cute-factor’ of babyhood, they have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘harden up’ and so subsequently lose a model of appropriate emotional response to the trials and tribulations of life ahead. Some children are simply so tired because their lives outside of school are either rushed with parents juggling from one job/event/appointment to the next, or because parents are so unpredictable and have little routines at home to communicate a sense of order for their children. And there are a growing majority of children coping with the emotional burden of adult worries, particularly where relationships have broken down and separations have occurred. For these children, their childhood is not only impacted with the loss of their two-parent family structure, but they are then burdened with the care of their (usually) Mum and her emotional needs of company and companionship.

What is of most concern is that there would appear to be a generation of children growing up that simply do not have the skills to cope with the rigors of adult life. As a result of these types of neglectful parenting, they will enter adulthood without a secure emotional foundation on which to build positive and fulfilling relationships with others. They will have needs that will go unmet. And this will then begin to impact on their ability to appropriately parent the next generation. Thus the snow-ball effect will continue. Predictably there may be far reaching effects into areas such as adolescent and adult mental health, crime rates, rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce statistics and so on. If we do not meet the emotional needs of our young, the problem will become society’s as they reach adulthood.

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There does not appear to be an easy answer. It does appear that the snowball has already begun its alpine descent, and is quickly gathering momentum (and size). What would slow its pace somewhat would be a nationwide focus on preventative, rather than reactive care for parents and their families. Making it acceptable for parents to acknowledge that this job is horrendously complicated, complex and damn hard work. Allowing parents to share their struggles without judgment of their abilities. Having a government department not focused just on the bottom of the cliff, but getting in early and providing parents with education around the fundamental emotional needs of children in the first few years of their lives. Providing families in the midst of separation with education around how to not burden their children with the adult problems going on around them. In short, protecting children from adulthood and all that it comes with for just that little bit longer. Allowing children to experience a pure childhood……with a sense of emotional security that ultimately builds resilience and self-identity. All while modelling to children a pattern of responsive parenting that they can then adopt in adulthood as they become parents themselves.

It is time parents were given the opportunity to reflect on the quiet form of abuse that is neglectful parenting. Parenting is so much more than feeding, clothing and sheltering children. It is so much harder than that. It is about stepping outside of yourself and putting your children first. In every part of your day.

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To Any Child’s Parents

There are little eyes upon you
And they’re watching night and day;
There are little ears that quickly
Take in everything you say.

There are little hands all eager
To do everything you do;
And a little child who’s dreaming
Of the day they’ll be like you.

You’re the little tyke’s great idol;
You’re the wisest of the wise;
In that little mind, about you
No suspicions ever rise.

They believe in you devoutly
Hold all that you say and do
They will say and do it your way,
When they’ve grown up, just like you.

There’s a wide-eyed little angel
Who believes you’re always right;
And their ears are always open
And they’re watching day and night.

Source: Unknown

Piggy-In-The-Middle

As a mother, I am most likely not alone in feeling there are never enough hours in the day to give my children the individual attention they need. In having three children, I find the juggling act at times can be a little uneven. Furthermore having the types of personalities innate in my children makes it inevitable that I spend my days and weeks constantly feeling guilty that I am not doing the perfect job of connecting with my children as individuals in every moment that they ask of me. I have recently struggled in particular with my daughter and my ability to spend time and connect with her the most for all of these reasons.

My daughter is my middle child. She, in many ways is a lot like me. And in as just as many ways (as I am learning) she is the opposite of me. In trying to connect with her and understand her individual needs I often make the mistake of applying my experiences as the sister in the family to her own experiences. I see her world through my eyes and what I saw growing up. However I was the first born, of only two children. I was the more dominant personality and was not necessarily comfortable with my own company. In attributing my childhood experience of being the eldest sister I am assuming this is a childhood she is also experiencing. An ongoing error that I am forever correcting, as she quickly teaches me that she is absolutely her own person in her own right and that she is so very different to me. But because of her nature, and because she has on either side of her two boys who have their own set of needs, she is often misred and misunderstood.

She has inherited her creative flair from her father, an artist by occupation. She enjoys sitting quietly, drawing and coloring and entering into her own world of fantasy and imagination. She withdraws to her room and unless we go looking we often will not engage with her for a length of time. Given the rather loud and boisterous nature of her younger brother, her withdrawal can be met with some relief as we are freed up to get other things done as a result of having one-child entertaining herself. But this is perhaps our biggest mistake. Reading her withdrawal, or happiness in her own company as her not having a need for our attention. While she is happy in her own company, she still very much needs our attention, cuddles, laughter and care in those quiet moments. Where her brother is literally all over us demanding our undivided attention, his sister requests our time through sitting alongside her, drawing or coloring, dressing her dolls or painting her toe nails.

Because of her differing personality, my husband and I have had to become much more conscious of the time we spend with her. We have also had to be very reflective around how we manage any rivalry or conflict between her and her brothers. It is too easy to jump to the defense of the youngest child when body language tells us our daughter has wound him up or has been ignoring his incessant badgering to get her attention. At other times, we are drawn into reprimand when her words get too loud out of sheer frustration with her brother’s actions. It has taken a great deal of reflection and distance at times in order for us to look for other ways to connect with our daughter in order to give her the attention she truly deserves. ‘Dates’ with Mum and Dad are a regular fixture now. Toe-nail painting sessions are booked with Mum in the bedroom behind a closed door and away from little brothers. Holding hands in the front seat when out and about in the car. Sitting down alongside a coloring activity and accepting the invitation to join in. Most importantly, erring on the side of caution when it comes to addressing conflict between siblings. Looking to empower her, rather than reprimand, in turn elevating her status in the eyes of her brother. Complimenting her for her maturity, responsibility and specific skills in those moments when we are caught up with managing her younger brother. Telling her every night before the lights go out how much she is loved, how proud we are to be her parents and most importantly how just wonderful we think she is.

Its difficult being a middle child. My husband attests to this having been one himself. It is yet another challenge for parents to reflect upon when being responsive to the individual needs of each of their children. There is a number of schools of research around the impact family placement has on personality and temperament development. Whatever this development is, parents owe it to all their children to recognise their unique qualities and do their very best to connect with their children on an individual level. But, perhaps for those parents who have ‘middle’ children in their families – consider how this placement impacts on a parent’s ability to be able to connect in these ways with their middle child. It may require more considerate and careful planning in order to have that special and important time so as to mitigate the ongoing and life-long side-effects of being ‘Piggy-In-The-Middle’.

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