The never-ending laundry

Laundry is ever-present in my life: the sorting, washing, drying, putting away, and planning so that the right things get done and nobody runs out of pants. One of my children needs some encouragement to accept that, if you try on three t-shirts before settling on a fourth, the first three aren’t so contaminated by their fleeting contact with human skin as to need to go through the laundry before they can go back in the drawer; another tends in the opposite direction and would prefer to keep yesterday’s underwear on, or at least on the bedroom floor, and needs somebody keeping a discreet count to make sure the appropriate amount of clothes are getting into the laundry basket.

Managing the laundry is a vast network of processes, some simple and some surprisingly subtle, and my interest is in transferring as many of them as possible to the children. I’ve been thinking recently that the older children are ready to be a bit more involved in the laundry, partly because there’s just more of it than I can manage right now, and partly because I’ve been reading books by people with large families recently: “The Duggars”, “Cheaper by the dozen”, “Windows to our world”, “A sane woman’s guide to raising a large family”. All of them have fascinating lists of who does which chores at what age, all working on the assumption (unavoidable in a huge family I suppose) that everyone does as much as they’re capable of, to contribute to the running of the household.

I had been focusing recently on getting my children to tidy up more often and more effectively, but reading those books reminded me that I haven’t asked them to increase their contribution to the laundry recently. Now I think of it, my two-year-old doesn’t do anything, but could easily start to develop the habit of putting dirty clothes in the laundry bin, and could help sort clean clothes into the drawers (at his age everything is hard wearing and mostly stretchy fabrics so I don’t fold much, which means he could easily put t-shirts and trousers into the appropriate drawers). My five-year-old is actually pretty good at folding and putting away in drawers, though not great at hangers yet, but I should start prompting her to put her laundry away each day instead of letting it pile up for a week. My eight-year-old hates putting laundry away above all other domestic tasks, and we’ve been working through a huge backlog of it together, so there’s no point me trying to encourage her to learn new skills until she’s got a clean slate. On the plus side, she’s getting lots of practice at sorting and folding! And I know my ten-year-old can work the washing machine with some help, so I think the time has come to get her doing a load a week, maybe with some help from her siblings to peg it out and sort it into each person’s pile when it’s dry.

I’m happy to pass this off as laziness on my part – and it would be great if I could entirely delegate the laundry to my children – but the truth is that they are learning habits that they may keep as adults. If you’ve always put your pants in the wash basket, you probably won’t suddenly start putting them on the floor just because you’ve left home; the opposite is also true. The habits that are so ingrained they do them without thinking will be the ones that they effortlessly continue with throughout their lives. I’m just trying to make sure that they’re good ones.

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The never-ending laundry

Laundry is ever-present in my life: the sorting, washing, drying, putting away, and planning so that the right things get done and nobody runs out of pants. One of my children needs some encouragement to accept that, if you try on three t-shirts before settling on a fourth, the first three aren’t so contaminated by their fleeting contact with human skin as to need to go through the laundry before they can go back in the drawer; another tends in the opposite direction and would prefer to keep yesterday’s underwear on, or at least on the bedroom floor, and needs somebody keeping a discreet count to make sure the appropriate amount of clothes are getting into the laundry basket.

Managing the laundry is a vast network of processes, some simple and some surprisingly subtle, and my interest is in transferring as many of them as possible to the children. I’ve been thinking recently that the older children are ready to be a bit more involved in the laundry, partly because there’s just more of it than I can manage right now, and partly because I’ve been reading books by people with large families recently: “The Duggars”, “Cheaper by the dozen”, “Windows to our world”, “A sane woman’s guide to raising a large family”. All of them have fascinating lists of who does which chores at what age, all working on the assumption (unavoidable in a huge family I suppose) that everyone does as much as they’re capable of, to contribute to the running of the household.

I had been focusing recently on getting my children to tidy up more often and more effectively, but reading those books reminded me that I haven’t asked them to increase their contribution to the laundry recently. Now I think of it, my two-year-old doesn’t do anything, but could easily start to develop the habit of putting dirty clothes in the laundry bin, and could help sort clean clothes into the drawers (at his age everything is hard wearing and mostly stretchy fabrics so I don’t fold much, which means he could easily put t-shirts and trousers into the appropriate drawers). My five-year-old is actually pretty good at folding and putting away in drawers, though not great at hangers yet, but I should start prompting her to put her laundry away each day instead of letting it pile up for a week. My eight-year-old hates putting laundry away above all other domestic tasks, and we’ve been working through a huge backlog of it together, so there’s no point me trying to encourage her to learn new skills until she’s got a clean slate. On the plus side, she’s getting lots of practice at sorting and folding! And I know my ten-year-old can work the washing machine with some help, so I think the time has come to get her doing a load a week, maybe with some help from her siblings to peg it out and sort it into each person’s pile when it’s dry.

I’m happy to pass this off as laziness on my part – and it would be great if I could entirely delegate the laundry to my children – but the truth is that they are learning habits that they may keep as adults. If you’ve always put your pants in the wash basket, you probably won’t suddenly start putting them on the floor just because you’ve left home; the opposite is also true. The habits that are so ingrained they do them without thinking will be the ones that they effortlessly continue with throughout their lives. I’m just trying to make sure that they’re good ones.

Give children some credit

I had to take our car to have some minor thing done at the garage, and as it worked out I needed to take my 9-year-old and 6-year-old with me. I warned them before we left that we’d have to wait at the garage for a bit while the work was done, so whatever they’d been planning to bring to do in the car, they should make sure they had enough entertainment to last a bit longer.

When we arrived, the woman at the desk took the car keys and offered us a seat in the waiting area, which had comfy chairs, a table, and a load of car sales bumph. There was also a TV, switched off, and the woman quietly let me know that we were welcome to switch it on if we wanted to.

The sales display included a bunch of tiny cars, painted to show customers all the available colours, and the children got very interested in these. They spent about twenty minutes using them as the starting point for debates: if you had a car which of these colours would it be? What about if you had to choose one as a nail varnish? Shoes? And so on. Then the older child settled down to reading the book she had brought with her, and the younger one started talking to me about what she was going to do. She had a notebook and pencil, and was asking me for suggestions of things she might want to do while we waited.

Just then, a car salesman spotted us in the waiting area and strode over. “Do they watch TV?”, he asked me, loudly. I mean yes, they do, there are programmes they like and we don’t have any particular restrictions on watching, so I said yes. “Girls,” he announced, “there’s the remote. You can watch anything. Anything you like.” They scrambled to grab the remote, and he laughed and said something about how much all kids love TV (though personally I’d assumed it was one of the Laws of Siblings that I’m gradually working out, being an only child myself: you must be the first to lay a hand on any kind of device that controls anything, from lightswitch to pedestrian crossing button to computer keyboard). He strolled away, satisfied with his role as benevolent deity of electronic entertainment, leaving the children to scroll through the channels.

Now, it was 10am on a Thursday. So what they found on TV was five variations on “buy an antique and try to sell it for a profit”, five more basically the same but with houses, some obscure soap operas, any number of cookery programmes, a dozen adult channels thankfully not broadcasting at that time of day, and two children’s channels. One of them was showing a programme for toddlers, and the other an episode of a series they have never seen before. They settled for the latter – what else, really? – and we sat for twenty minutes watching characters we didn’t know doing things we didn’t care about; because once a TV screen is on it’s hard not to watch it, and even I ended up putting down my book to focus on watching some strangers in a situation I couldn’t decipher.

In case you’re wondering, here are some of the ideas I didn’t get a chance to suggest for what to do with a notebook and pencil. Draw a picture. Write a story. Start a picture and hand it to me to finish. Start a story and hand it to me to finish. Play boxes. Play sprouts. Play Hangman. Play picture consequences. Play story consequences. Take it in turns to draw squiggles and turn each other’s squiggles into pictures. Draw a dot-to-dot picture for someone else to join up. Make up a secret code and write a message. Interview your sister and write down the answers. Make a flick book.

I don’t mind screens, and I don’t do a lot to limit how much TV my children watch; they watch films and programmes they like, when they’re in the mood to watch, and do lots of other interesting things the rest of the time. What I mind is the assumption that two children in a room with a TV in it are automatically longing to switch it on and watch it, even when there’s nothing on that interests them, and even when they’re already entertained by doing something else. When we assume that Children are basically lazy and incapable, and treat them as if that were true, we take away their opportunities to prove us wrong. When we extend them some credit, they show us what they’re capable of.

Games for slightly bigger children

The only thing worse than playing Snakes and Ladders, in my opinion, is playing Snakes and Ladders with a four-year-old. I love to play board and card games, but any game that’s just roll, move, roll, move makes me want to weep with boredom. I admit to sometimes saying “I’m going to the toilet, can you have my next go for me?” and trying to work out how long I can stay away while the children play on my behalf. Add in the difficulty for a child of remembering which way you’re meant to be going, if you don’t quite know your two-digit numbers yet, and the occasional tantrums over the unfairness of landing on a snake when your sibling just landed on a ladder, and you’ll understand why I’ve got rid of all the many sets of Snakes and Ladders that had somehow come to live in our house. Actually, I kept the one from when I was little, whose snakes and ladders taught children the outcomes of various vices and virtues, with the help of a little key in the lid (a ladder showing that Diligence Leads To Reward, a snake to show that Slovenliness Leads To Despair, and so on); also a cool 3D one, though most of the pieces of that are lost because my youngest child just catapults them across the room, but my point stands.

It’s been a huge pleasure, as my children have got older, to start playing games with them that we all really enjoy; no longer doing things with them to entertain them, but doing things that I would really choose to do. Also, I hadn’t anticipated this, but one of the things that brings me most joy as a parent is to see the relationships my children have with each other without involving me: when I walk into a room and find two or three of them happily chatting, or engrossed in a card game together, my heart leaps. At the very least, I’m working on the principle that however terrible I am as a parent, at least they’ll have each other to commiserate with, so they’d better keep nurturing those sibling relationships.

These are some of our favourite games for children aged four and up. My criteria are that they have to be fun for everyone – not an adult scaffolding a child to have a good time; they don’t give a gigantic advantage to older, faster children; they take minimal set-up, space and clean-up; and it’s possible to play them without triggering a gigantic “it’s not fair” meltdown.

  • Uno is such a simple card game, and children can play as soon as they can recognise numbers, but it’s fun for all ages. By the time my youngest was 3, all the children could play this together; quite often now, the older two will play a few rounds of it while I get the others ready for bed.
  • Dobble There is a junior version, which has clearer pictures, though my four-year-old manages ok with the regular one. There are lots of ways to play the game, some quite complicated and competitive. Little children can join in with the simplest versions of the game, though may need some kind of hints or taking turns if they can’t spot the matching pictures as fast as everyone else. One of my children plays this as a solo game, which is also fun.
  • Quirkle at its simplest is a pattern matching game, though if you play for points it can be a really complex game of strategy. With the children, we never keep score, and focus on getting complete sets and intersecting lines.
  • Jenga can be fun as soon as your child is old enough to remove a block without knocking the whole tower over. Until then, there’s…
  • Toppletree: a balancing game, building single and double branches gradually into a tree until the whole thing tumbles.
  • Pit is a very noisy game for three or more people – it’s basically just a lot of people yelling at each other, but that happens in our house anyway so it’s just that, but with cards. Children need to be able to recognise letters well enough to tell whether the cards have the same or different words on, though they don’t need to be able to read as such.
  • And finally, an honourable mention for Exploding Kittens. This is too difficult for very small children, but playable from six or seven, and the illustrations really entertain small children with a taste for toilet humour (if that’s not your kind of thing you almost certainly won’t like this). It took us a while to get the hang of this, not because the rules are complicated but because it’s deceptively simple. After playing a few times we started to include all the Special Combos and discovered some sneaky tricks, and it’s a much better game than we initially thought it was. The only problem is that the original set has enough cards for five players, so we’d better get an expansion pack (more and different cards) before the youngest is able to read well enough to join in.

For more ideas of fun things to do with children, and lots more, take a look at my book, available now in ebook and paperback.

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“Becoming a parent can be confusing and overwhelming. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, your baby moves on to another phase, and you’re lost again. If you have another child, at least it feels like going back into familiar territory, but now you have to work out how to apply all the lessons you learnt first time, while simultaneously taking care of an older child.”

I’ve made lots of mistakes and wrong turnings over the years, and I make no claim to have it all sorted now (my children would certainly tell you otherwise), but I have a lot more experience, knowledge and confidence now that I wish I’d had right from the start. So I’m doing the next best thing: I’ve written it all down so that other people can have it. I’ve collected together all the ideas and information that has helped me, and other families, through everything from pregnancy and babyhood right into older childhood. Not all of it will work for you, but I promise you’ll find something you’ve never read before that makes parenting just a little bit easier.

Available now in paperback and ebook on Amazon. Please read and review, and contact me with any comments!

Games for toddlers (that bigger children can enjoy too)

There’s over 8 years between my oldest and youngest child, which means that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to balance the needs of different age groups. A lot of time this means asking the older child or children to be patient while the younger one does whatever they want. Lots of games and toys that are endlessly fun for toddlers are unbearably tedious for older siblings – and, let’s be honest, for parents too. It’s such a delight to find a game that’s actually fun for both little ones and older children,

Busytown is a great game as soon as children are old enough to count and move the pieces along the board. It’s for four players, who are all trying to get to the picnic at the end of the board before the pigs eat it all. When you spin the spinner, you may get a number of steps to move, or the pigs may eat a piece of your picnic, or you may get a Goldbug Challenge, where all the players collaborate to find things in the huge picture on the board. However many wheelbarrows, letterboxes, kites etc you all find, everyone can move that many steps forward. All players race along the board like a normal game until they reach a boat at the end of the board, which can’t move until all players are on board, so however far ahead you are, you all arrive at the end at the same moment. It’s a collaborative game that still allows everyone to do their own thing, and everyone can contribute at their own level, for example to finding the pictures or operating the sand timer. When I went to look for the link, I noticed it’s really expensive in the UK right now, but keep an eye out for it as we got it a couple of years ago for a reasonable price.

There are lots of versions of Balancing Moon, and various similar balancing games, which are as much fun when you succeed in balancing things as they are when you knock the whole lot over. With older children you can complicate the game by using a dice to determine which colour each player must use next, or making up rules about not touching another piece of the same colour, but the basic balancing task is simple enough for a small child (and good practice for fine motor skills).

Shopping List is one of the first real games that my children played and enjoyed together, and it’s one that I now often give as a gift because so many children enjoy it. Each player has a shopping list, and a trolley to put the things in, and all the playing pieces are face down on the table. If you get something from your list, add it to the trolley; if it isn’t yours, put it back, and whoever it belongs to should remember where it went. This is pretty easy with two players, particularly if the older players make a big deal out of putting the smaller player’s pieces down in obvious places, and gets harder with more people playing (or all the pieces from the unused lists also laid out). You can buy extension packs with more lists and playing pieces, if more than four people want to play; there are spare blank cards to replace the bits you inevitably lose. The best bit, as far as I’m concerned, is finishing the game by getting the children to ‘blip’ their bits of shopping through an imaginary checkout into the box, so it all gets put away without a fuss.

The only difficulty with Shopping List is that very little children want to place their playing pieces on top of the matching pictures on their lists, instead of in the empty trolley, and there isn’t really space. If your child finds it easier to match a picture on top of another picture, there are many versions of Picture lotto which could work well. If you’re feeling energetic you could make your own, either with readymade boards like these or using family photos (print on paper and stick it to card or laminate it for a simpler version.

Tummy Ache is a similar game: you have to pick up pieces to fill your plate with a balanced meal, avoiding the Tummy Ache pieces which are foods with bugs or insects of various kinds crawling over them. You can tell which pieces you need by the shape of the plate/cutlery in the picture, but it can be harder for younger children to work out which pieces they need. Also, they may just insist that they want or don’t want certain pieces because they do or don’t like the food on them; or, like one small visitor to our house, they may insist on keeping the glass of squash with a frog in it because they love the frog. If other children are happy to be flexible about younger players following the rules, I’ve found that older children and adults quite enjoy collecting and swapping pieces to get a meal they would like to eat. We play slightly differently from the instructions, laying all the pieces face down rather than always taking the next one from the pack, as we found you can get stuck with the last few pieces and nobody getting the piece they need. This also makes it more of a memory game for older players, or you can make it easier by putting the Tummy Ache pieces away in the box as each player manages to bump them off their plate.

Colour or picture dominoes can be great for toddlers, and if they find it difficult you can get them to play with all their pieces visible so you can try to set them up with a move when it’s your turn.

Cookbooks for older children

Following my last post about cookbooks for young children, I wanted to follow up with some for older children. Except… we don’t have many. We have two “family” cookbooks and one aimed at teenagers, but in practice they’re used by adults more than children in this house; maybe that will change as the children get a bit older. I’ll tell you about them anyway, because I think they’re good books.

The River Cottage Family Cookbook claims that it’s for “anyone in the family” to use, and that children aged 10-12 and upwards (isn’t that the same as 10 and upwards?) should be able to cook from it without help. The recipes are divided onto rough groups by main ingredient – flour, milk, meat, sugar etc – and there are some useful basics in there like soda bread, pizza dough, Victoria sponge, to name just a few from the Flour chapter. Personally I think my children might be more inspired to cook from it if there were pictures for each recipe and a bit less chat in between, but as they get older they might be more inclined to sit down and read the whole thing until they find something that interests them.

The Family Cooks is aimed at parents, but I’m including it here because it’s all about food that children might realistically eat at normal mealtimes, and plenty of the recipes are extremely simple because they’re designed to be put on a weekday dinner table within ten minutes of walking in the door. Each recipe has one clear photo of the finished product, and a set of tips at the foot of the page on how you could vary the recipe and on which bits of the process are best for involving younger children. It’s very much focused on cooking from scratch using wholefood ingredients, and has been helpful for coming up with new ways to eat vegetables that we get tired of (cauliflower popcorn, kneaded kale, and sweet potato soup with miso are some recipes we’ve loved).

Cooking Up A Storm is endorsed by Jamie Oliver and has some of the same “wotcha, geezer” style to it, which grates a bit. The recipes themselves are good, though, clearly explained and realistically cookable and eatable by the target audience. There are plenty of pictures but, one of my bugbears in cookbooks, I’d rather see more photos of the finished dishes and fewer of the chef having a laugh with his mates, or juggling oranges, or dressing up for a party. Is it weird that I want all the pictures in a cookbook to at least have some food in them? Also I’m fighting the urge to go through the book with a permanent marker and cross out all the stupid banter about “girls’ food” and mums fussing about and all the rest, leaving only the perfectly serviceable recipes.

In practice, when my oldest daughter (nearly 12) wants to cook, one of three things happens. One, she decides what she wants to make and we find a recipe on the internet. Two, she wants to make one of the things that we regularly cook and eat at home, so she asks me to stay with her and give instructions, and makes me promise not to interfere. Three, she uses something from the collection of written-out recipes that she’s been collecting since she did her Cook badge at Brownies four years ago. I know there are many more high-tech ways of collecting recipes, but an A5 sized ringbinder of bits of paper with recipes handwritten on them works fine for her (and for me; I’ve got my own very similar folder, though the recipes in it are a bit different). It’s been really useful for her to have some basics written out in detail – white sauce, vegetable soup, even how to make a cup of tea. Her collection is the kind of things that I can now make without a recipe, and that I use all the time. Maybe she should compile them into a cookbook…

Cookbooks for young children

I’m cross-posting this with my other blog, Lick The Plate, where I write about food. I haven’t posted here much recently because I’ve been writing a Have The Fourth One First book, so all my best ideas were going straight into there, but I’m on my final proofread so hopefully I can get back to posting on this blog more regularly soon. If you’re interested in simple, practical cookery, particularly cooking from scratch and reducing food waste, you can follow the other blog and get nearly-weekly blog posts delivered straight to your inbox.

I’ve always been keen to get my children involved in cooking, both to get them engaged with food and to get some extra help in the kitchen, though it takes a few years of not-very-helpful help to get to the point when they’re actually helpful. Mostly they join in with whatever I’m doing, but as they’ve got older they’ve wanted to use recipes and cook more independently. Ordinary cookbooks often don’t give enough detail for anyone who isn’t used to cooking – when I’ve tried writing recipes down for them, it’s really shocking how long it takes to spell out the steps involved in doing something like “heat the stock” or “dice the onion”.

Rrally good children’s cookbooks are hard to come by. The recipes are too simple, or too complex, or not well explained, or heavy on cupcakes with little everyday food in them. I’ve picked out a few that have really worked for us: the ones I’m listing here are great for young children just starting to cook, and next week I’ll suggest a few for older children.

The Usborne First Cookbook

Our copy of this is the one I had as a small child, now in tatters and still in regular use. By the age of 12 I had cooked basically everything in it. I love how it has really simple recipes (suggestions for sandwich fillings, ice cream sundaes, stuffed jacket potatoes) sitting alongside things that even adults find a bit intimidating (soufflé, profiteroles, pizza from scratch), without any flashing warning signs that we’re now Doing Something Difficult. There are some useful basic recipes in there, and it’s still my go-to source for chocolate brownies, chocolate mousse and the aforementioned profiteroles. It has line drawings rather than photos, showing all the intermediate steps. It does use some cookbook jargon but has a glossary, so older children (maybe 8+ if they have some cooking experience) can use it independently.

Pretend Soup and Salad People

These are aimed at very young children (4+) cooking under adult supervision. Every recipe is written twice: first as a regular recipe, then over the page a children’s version, with each step simply explained and illustrated with a drawing. You do need to look through the adult version first to get some of the specifics, but once that’s done and the ingredients and equipment are ready, a child who can read can follow the steps unaided. The recipes are a useful mix of main dishes, vegetable sides, puddings and drinks, though this often means that my daughter (recently six) wants to cook four different recipes simultaneously to make a full meal, which complicates things a bit. Still, to get a really young child to feel they’ve cooked some proper food, which other people actually want to eat. As a UK reader I do sometimes have to translate the US terms and swap ingredients for what’s available here.

Honest Pretzels

Another book by the same author, aimed at slightly older children. This is my nine-year-old’s preferred cookbook, and the style is the same: full recipe on one double page, followed by a step-by-step illustrated version on the next double page. The recipes are more ambitious, for example quite a few variations on making bread dough.

How To Cook In Ten Easy Lessons

This is such a great idea, and would work really well for anyone starting to cook, child or adult. Each chapter introduces a new cookery technique – chapter one is “using knives”, chapter two is “peeling and grating” and so on. The technique is introduced with photos and drawings and text explanations – so for example “using knives” tells you about safety, and shows in detail how to chop and dice and julienne. Then there are a few recipes using the new technique to make some sensible everyday things, like minestrone, hummus or pavlova.

Children’s World Cookbook

This is less of a “what’s for dinner?” cookbook and more of a “let’s have an adventure”, though no worse for that. It takes one country at a time, tells the reader a little bit about the place and its food, then for each country there is one simple recipe. It works well when children are doing projects on other countries, or when the World Cup or the Olympics has got them interested, and could be a great starting point for finding out more about a particular place. The individual steps are illustrated with drawings, and there are wonderful bright photos of the finished dishes and of each country’s landscape and culture. Unfortunately it’s wildly northern hemisphere-centric, and I have a huge issue with “Africa” being a single entry, and “the Middle East” another, when for example Sweden and Norway get an entry each. The recipe element is good, despite the problematic geopolitics.

If in doubt, throw it out (of the window)

We’ve passed the halfway point in my children’s summer holidays, and it’s not going too badly. Sometimes I decide in about May that we’re going to have a really relaxed holiday, mainly pottering about at home, and I picture myself doing a bit of sewing while the children play board games, read books, or invent projects to entertain themselves. Or I overestimate my own ability to be spontaneous, and on the basis that “there are loads of fun places to go”, I don’t book any organised activities and imagine that we will visit parks and museums and so on. Those years, we end up not doing much, and the children get a bit bored and tetchy – don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for getting a bit bored, but they need to get out of the house a lot more than I’m really inclined to go out with them, left to my own devices, and they aren’t really old enough to do much without adult accompaniment.

When we have a summer like that, the following year I start searching for summer holiday activities by Easter, and am poised over the keyboard for the day when booking opens. By the time we get to July, we’ve got something booked for every day of the holiday. I then remember that they also need a few days at the very beginning to do nothing, and some free days for buying school shoes and running other errands and also just a bit of hanging around at home doing not much.

This year I think we’ve got closer to the right balance. I did book a lot of activities and day trips with friends and family visits, but I managed to leave two weeks (not consecutive) entirely empty, as well as a few days at the start and end. Organised children’s holiday activities are tricky because the older children (aged 11 and 9) have far more options than the younger ones (5 and 3), and it’s very rare that they can all do the same thing at the same time. Thanks to Essex Outdoors, the older ones have done some amazing things like canoeing and caving; thanks to Chelmsford City Council they’ve all done some sports that they hadn’t tried before. And we’ve had some playdates and family trips, and a week away with grandparents.

And there’s been a bit of time spare for hanging around at home, and even what you might call pottering. Two children have been working on quilts that they have nearly finished (well, they’ve nearly finished the patchwork tops, and have a fair bit of hand quilting ahead of them). One has started sewing clothes for her siblings’ cuddly toys, and has also reorganised her bedroom. One is “researching the history of sport”; this seems to mean “reading some books”, which is fine with me. And today, after several days of discussing it in the car on the way to and from other activities, we rigged up a parachute out of a cot sheet, safety pins and string, and took turns throwing cuddly toys out of the top floor window. We did this when the oldest was very small and she has been talking about it ever since. I helped them get set up then kept half an eye on them, just to make sure nobody was following through on their questions about what would happen if they used the parachute themselves, while getting on with making dinner. Maybe a different parent would have encouraged them to, I don’t know, time how long each different toy took to fall, try different fabrics and rate which one worked best, whatever, but they had a good time despite (or because of) my negligence.

Other good leave-them-to-it activities have been a big storage box in the garden with sand and shells and spades; a pile of cardboard boxes and scissors and sellotape; a couple of wonderful board and card games that miraculously suit all four of them, age-wise; and some old favourites like face lego and play dough. Now, they’ve been amusing themselves while I typed this so I need to go and help them wash off the full-body facepainting that happened while I wasn’t looking…

The apogee of three

My son, who is three and a half, was having one of his favourite conversations with me: “Mummy, what ‘bread’ means? What ‘Goldilocks’ means? What ‘toothbrush’ means?”. And so on, with the three-year-old’s relentless pursuit of meaning, to a degree that would have had Plato snapping “sometimes things just DON’T MEAN ANYTHING, OK?”. It’s not that he doesn’t know any of these things – he likes asking for the meaning of a familiar or unfamiliar word, or one he’s just invented. He just likes the process. And I was, as patiently as I could manage, answering his questions: bread means a type of food, Goldilocks means that girl in the story with the bears, toothbrush means what you clean your teeth with, etc etc etc. And then he asked me the second most three-year-old question ever: “Mummy, what does ‘means’ mean?”.

It delighted me to answer him that “‘Means’ means ‘means'”, and I took a little moment to enjoy the grammatical beauty of that sentence and, if I’m honest, the thirty seconds of silence from my son. But he trumped it with the very most three-year-old sentence possible: “But Mummy, WHY ‘means’ means ‘means’?”.

That must be Peak Three, right? And that means we’re past the worst of it, and it will be a steady stroll from here to a reasonable, sleep-all-night, “OK Mummy if you say so”, four-year-old. Please?