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.

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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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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.

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…

Parental Guidance

I struggle to find films that all my children can enjoy together: there isn’t much that pleases a 3-year-old and an 11-year-old, and if there is we’ve probably already watched it, which means that the 3-year-old would like to see it seven hundred more times, please, and the 11-year-old never wants to see it again. The only ones that have really worked are animated films (visually entertaining for the littler ones) with a few this-one’s-for-the-parents jokes and references to keep the oldest interested: the Despicable Me films, Sing, Inside Out, and so on. But since the youngest stopped napping, we can sometimes get him to bed at 6pm and let the three older ones watch a film together, which is a very slightly easier task since the 5-year-old is keen to be counted as one of the Big Children so won’t complain even if she’s bored or lost, if she’s being allowed to watch with her sisters.

A friend was telling me the other day that, based on fond childhood memories, she sat her smallish children down in front of Ghostbusters, only to spend the whole film having to explain things, or strategically distracting them from the really inappropriate bits. I found this hard to believe – Ghostbusters was a kids film! – until my husband and I watched it (without children) and took about twenty seconds to agree that we wouldn’t be showing it to the children any time soon. Anyway, you’d think this would have reminded me to be a little more careful… but when I saw Little Shop of Horrors in a second hand shop, I remembered really enjoying it many years ago. Vague memories of song and dance routines, a gigantic plant, aliens – and it’s PG, so it must be fine. Once the littlest was in bed, we got settled in so I could paint the children’s nails (holiday treat, because school doesn’t allow nail varnish) while they watched. It took a while to get going, but they liked the singing and dancing, and didn’t pay too much attention to the fact that Audrey’s boyfriend keeps attacking her. Then we spent a while with the sadistic dentist, who I’d totally forgotten – the two oldest have both recently had to have dental work, but didn’t seem too worried by the violent man with the scary tools, though a bit baffled by Bill Murray as the masochistic customer. Then there was a little bit of murdering – I had a vague recollection of the plant comically gobbling a person up whole, but had wiped out the attempted murder followed by accidental death, then dismemberment with an axe. All done in a very silly and overblown way, and much of it offscreen, but not the thing to be dwelling on just before bed. Almost in unison, the three of them said “This isn’t very nice, is it? Can we turn it off?”. Which we did, and tried to find a nice episode of something cheerful on CBBC to take the taste away, but unfortunately out internet connection was playing up so we settled for eating Easter eggs while putting the final layers of glitter onto their painted nails.

Previously I’ve found www.commonsensemedia.org really helpful, and just didn’t think to check this time because I thought I remembered the film well enough. Oh well, everyone has gone happily to sleep with multicoloured fingernails, so no long-term harm done.

Bedtime stories

Some of our books are due for a little holiday.

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I really don’t have anything against any of these – in fact I really like The Troll, and I enjoy how Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book comes full circle, and the details in the illustrations. But my two-year-old has been on a Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler binge for a fortnight now, and I have to call time. He loves Pip and Posy – really, really loves. To a toddler, it seems there’s nothing quite so compelling as an exaggerated drawing of a sad face, and on that front Pip and Posy deliver every time. So I read the books again, and again, because I can put up with a bit of boredom in exchange for my son’s pleasure in telling me, with his mouth turned down at the corners, “Pip sad. Pip SAAAD. Pip cry, cry, cry!”.

But there comes a point where, even to indulge this slightly disturbing delight in other people’s suffering (totally developmentally normal, honest), I just can’t do it again. So all of these are sneaking out of the pile of bedtime books – just back onto the ordinary bookshelf where they’re a bit less conspicuous – and in their place will go some books that don’t make my heart sink. How is it that some books I find it tedious to repeat, and others I have honestly never felt bored with? Some of these books I’ve been reading for ten years now and I still enjoy them even though I am word-perfect without looking at the pages. The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig can make me laugh out loud even the hundredth time around.

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(There Are Cats In This Book by Viviane Schwarz, Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, Kipper’s Birthday by Mick Inkpen, Clip-Clop by Nicola Smee, Olivia by Ian Falconer, The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr).

These are my old friends: some of them I discovered as a parent, some were stories I listened to as a child, though most of my own books have fallen to bits and been replaced (because they were “very old and broken like Mummy”, as I try not to say too often).

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(Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Full Full Full of Love by Trish Cooke, Mog the Forgetful Cat and Mog and the Baby by Judith Kerr, Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough, Penguin by Polly Dunbar, I’m Not Cute by Jonathan Allen, Please Baby Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee).

I’m always looking for new books to read, and despite having more books than we really have space for, we borrow half a dozen from the library every week. Very occasionally, one of them will hit that magic spot where I know I could read it again and again without getting tired of it – I can’t put my finger on what it is about these books, but to get me through the “More! Again! MORE!” toddler months, I cling to them.

Other options to deal with tedious repetition: my daughter wanted Rapunzel read to her every night for what felt like a decade; I found as many different versions of the story as I could get hold of in libraries and second hand book shops and in fairytale collections that we already owned, so there was at least a little variety in our nightly reading. And when another daughter went through a Gruffalo phase, I was happy to read it as long as she’d let me do different accents for each character; I was entertained by the terribleness of my voices and had to concentrate enough to keep track of which voice was whose, and she got her story, so we were both happy. Usually. If she was tired or grumpy she would demand that I “read it in Eng-er-lish”.

See more book ideas here.

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