i don’t understand my three-year-old’s play

OK, so I know play is important. Develops social skills, helps kids make sense of their world, bonds them with their parents, yada yada yada…

I have no problem with play. To an extent. Games? No problem. Jigsaws? I could do them all day. Books? Love them. Basically, I’m pretty good at things which have a definite outcome. As long as I know what we’re aiming for, and when we’ve reached it, then I’m happy.

And it’s not as if I have zero ability with open-ended tasks either. I’m a musician, for Pete’s sake. There is no ‘answer’, no ‘end point’ with the arts. And I can deal with this. I can paint, draw, cook, bake and make with my children – no obvious outcome, no sign of when we’re near or when we’ve reached it, but that’s OK. I can do this, and I even enjoy it.

The problem is that old chestnut of imaginative play. Friends with babies or bumps or not-quite-bumps, let me draw you in to the world of what it’s like to have a three-year-old. Today, to give an example, we started off – quite happily – with a good old role play of Mummies and Daddies. She is the Mummy, I am the Daddy – a role I’m happy to take, as it mainly involves sitting and watching Mummy do the work, occasionally suggesting improvements to the routine, but never actually having to implement them myself. Fine. And it’s an easy playtime as we have all the Gear. No sooner had we got rid of our baby bath, highchair and pram, than we were obtaining these things all over again in doll form. So out comes the dolly bath, the dolly highchair, the dolly prams, plus myriad outfits, dummies and weaning paraphernalia, and we begin.

But then – then it all turns kind of weird. With a very determined, matter-of-fact look on her face, Missy guides me through all manner of scenarios, locations and Things To Do. We have two upturned umbrellas in the lounge – I know not why – and these, amongst a random assortment of other items, become a kind of barricade, beyond which we’re meant to lie down and go to sleep. Or do our sticker books. (Hooray! A task with a definite outcome!) Then I’m supposed to go and kill the baddies – which, I have to say, I perform with great aplomb, using a wooden dagger and a gun crafted for me out of Duplo. (All that obsessive Twin Peaks watching recently has stood me in good stead for moments like this.)

And then there’s a lot of time where Missy struts around the lounge, as if looking for something very particular, occasionally gracing me with a sentence or two which doesn’t really make sense out of context. And there is no context. Is this how she feels, when I faff around doing household chores, occasionally muttering something out loud – fully comprehensible to me and my train of thought, but totally bonkers when spoken aloud as a single comment?

I’m pretty rubbish at this kind of play. I never know what to say or how to respond. But I’ve realised that the best course of action is simply to be there. To put the phone away, to sit amidst the chaos and listen and nod when Missy outlines her plans. And, of course, to observe what she’s doing, spotting which parts of her world she’s trying to make sense of as she brings them to life in role play. And it’s bloody fascinating.

If not just a little strange.

—–

*For any confused souls who know me in real life, I’ve started using pseudonyms for my children’s names to protect their identities.

her smile is unravelling…

2014-07-16 21.15.32Daisy is her pride and joy. She gets taken everywhere – to bed, to parties, on holidays, to gym club. Since Daisy arrived in our family two Christmases ago, she has rarely been put down. Recently, she spent an accidental three-month-long holiday at Granny’s – and jubilant was the reunion that occurred a few weeks ago.

But, just recently, I noticed something:

2014-06-28 10.04.33

Daisy’s smile is unravelling.

I was initially frustrated (Another Job Which Won’t Get Done) but then breathed a sigh of relief – after all, the most well-loved soft toys are the ones with loose thread, or a button sewn on in place of an eye, aren’t they? Daisy has always been loved – but now she’s starting to show it.

***

We have always been loved – but as we grow in realisation and understanding of that love, we may find that we start to become unravelled too. Our seams that we thought were so strong in holding our fragile lives together start to tear, gently at first, and then all of a sudden there’s a rip, and a hole, and a great big wadge of stuffing pokes out. Don’t we become desperate to poke it back in? Desperate to cling to the security of our former lives?

If your smile is unravelling, if your seams are bursting, if you’re getting a little grubby round the edges, then take heart in knowing that you are well loved. The breaking, the coming apart, the changing – it hurts a little (or a lot). But the God you cling to loves you and is changing you to look more like the well-loved child of God that you are. The process may be painful – but the end will be glorious.

***

Daisy’s smile will eventually go. There will be a short period of expressionless Daisy, and then I’ll most probably find a permanent marker, and draw the smile back on. Perhaps eventually her nose will be replaced, and her eyes. Maybe her stitching will need to be fixed. Daisy will never be the same again – perhaps she will not look quite so perfect – but she will be stronger and more resilient and just as loved.

If only I would let my old self crumble in the hands of my all-loving Father as easily.

reflections on running a church toddler group (1)

This post is long overdue. In September 2012, two friends and I set up a new toddler group at church. In July, I handed over leadership to one of these friends, having been expecting to be relocating, and intended to write some reflections on what I’d learned through its leadership. However, it’s taken me three months to eventually get round to it, and my friend Izzy is now well established as the new leader. (Is there any point apologising for my tardiness anymore? You’ve come to expect it, right?)

Tuesday Tots was set up because we wanted to bless families in York with a safe, joyful environment in which children could play and parents could connect. From the start, we were keen to make it a place where our faith could be talked about in an open way with those who wanted to know more. But here lies a delicate balance: how do we incorporate our faith without ramming it into people’s lives? Because, after all, families don’t come to these sorts of groups to discuss religion – they come so that their kids will learn how to socialise and get to play with different toys. Parents come to gain some adult company, make new friends, and receive support in their parenting endeavours. They come because to stay in the house all day with a small child can be unbearable.

But they don’t come to hear about Jesus. Why would they?

And yet if we believe anything as Christian parents, it’s that God is interested in our parenting, that He longs to refresh us after sleepless nights and comfort us when we feel sad about some aspect of our child’s development or attitude. He longs to wrap His Fatherly arms around us and tell us we’re doing a great job, that our children (and us) bring Him such immeasurable delight, that He knows the sacrifices we make daily for our children – and that He’s hugely glorified by them.

In other words, to try and encourage families using just our own resources can only go so far. Ultimate refreshment, peace – or whatever these families need – comes from God.

Through hearsay and experience, I know that some church toddler groups make those with no faith feel pressurized and isolated – whilst others tiptoe around their faith, assuming that those who come to their group couldn’t possibly ever want to know about something so stressful and disengaging as the gospel (you know, the one that tells us we’re unconditionally loved and forgiven by the grace of God…), and if they do want to know, well they’ll just work it out for themselves through us being nice to them.

No – from the very start, the Tuesday Tots leadership team was clear: we wanted the group to be an oasis for families in our city, somewhere they would find acceptance, value, encouragement, peace, joy, hope, love and coffee in unlimited quantities. And, because these things come from God (yep, even coffee), we wanted there to be opportunities for those who were interested in God to find out more.

Looking back over the last year-and-a-bit, it seems the initial vision has worked. Our families know we’re Christians. (For to be secretive about this would be deceptive, and deception to those we’re serving would be unthinkably disrespectful.) We start with a sensory/interactive Bible story, which seeks to engage the little ones whilst making our beliefs clear as crystal to the grown-ups. But those who aren’t interested just rock up later – no sweat. They don’t mind that we’re doing a Bible story, and we don’t mind that they don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to force our beliefs onto people: we don’t need to. God’s pretty good at changing lives.

There’s also a lending library for the grown-ups available throughout the morning. I think it’s an incredible resource. We parents often feel a bit brain-dead in these early years of parenthood. We may be off work (temporarily or permanently), and not feeling like our minds are being engaged by anything much. Free books are a great way to say “Look, we don’t think you’re stupid. We reckon you might be looking for something to get stuck into for you. Go on, take a book and carve out a few minutes of luxurious reading time for yourself. You deserve it!” Many of the books are to do with marriage and parenting. Some are novels. Quite a few are Christian books. Again, there’s an opportunity to explore faith. But unforced. Jesus didn’t force anyone to believe.

I currently have the privilege of running an Alpha course at Tuesday Tots. It’s something we were praying about for a while, and suddenly everything came together to be able to offer it to our grown-ups this term. Funnily enough, once we started to advertise, it seemed that quite a few of our grown-ups wanted to do it. What do you know – God actually has a decent sense of timing.

The delicate question of “How Christian do we make the group?” is one we are constantly thinking about, chatting through and praying over. I think we have it right, in that our regulars include Christians, Atheists, and everything i nbetween – but we’re always keen for feedback. Ultimately, our aim is to bless families – not to preach at them. But if we can be a forum in which those who are interested can learn more, then brilliant!

I have just added a ‘1’ to the title of this blog post. Oh dear. There will be more to come, but I’ve just spotted the word count. Over and out for now.

cheap spiritual tat

This year, for the first time, we allowed Mister to choose how he spent his £10 birthday money. Last week we trotted off to the shop and perused the toy section, looking at the options.

I was keen for Mister to spend his money on a small box of Lego, which I felt offered good value for money. He was keen for an overpriced plastic Monsters University toy with no useful features, as far as I could see, apart from hinged arms.

“Don’t you want some more Lego? I just think you’ll play with it for longer, it’ll last forever, and you might get bored of that monster… Think of all the new things you could create with the Lego!”

But no – Mister had made his mind up – and the monster was bought. He didn’t let it out of his sight all day – but, shortly before teatime, he let out a cry and ran up to me.

“Mum – I was just jumping him up and down, and the teeth fell out.”

Sure enough, there was a hollow space where Jonny’s teeth had been, and I could see them inside the toy, impossible to get out. The toy was nothing but overpriced tat, made from cheap materials and not designed to last.

This little incident made me wonder how often I reject what my heavenly Father offers me, opting instead for cheap, spiritual tat which won’t last and definitely won’t satisfy. He offers me an intimate, satisfying relationship – and I replace it with the rhythms of organised religion, going to church on autopilot and trying to hit a target with my personal devotional times, like it’s some sort of competition. As my Rock, God offers me total security – and, instead, I opt to put my faith in material possessions. He offers me grace – yet time and time again I replace it with my own works – the cheap, spiritual tat of trying to earn God’s favour through doing good things.

Of course, I could have insisted that Mister buy the Lego. It’s a good quality toy, designed to last, with infinite creative possibilities. I imagine Mister would get several years’ use out of it. But that wasn’t the point. We gave him the choice because we love him, and want him to learn about money. How else will he learn if he’s not allowed to make mistakes, and live by them?

God never insists that we spend our lives on Him. He loves us too much for that – and He wants us to make the choice ourselves. Each time I choose a cheaper god, I am ultimately dissatisfied. For every wrong choice I make, I’m learning to make better choices in the future.

We returned the broken toy and exchanged it – not for Lego (to my disappointment) but for Lightning McQueen and Mater. They’ve lasted nearly a week so far, so here’s hoping…

toy storage

Not the most glamorous title, I know, but it’s something I’ve been chatting to friends about recently, and it seems we all struggle. One friend reckons toy storage should be taught in antenatal classes, it’s so tricky. I have to agree. (At this point, apologies if you don’t have kids. You will find this post immensely dull. Don’t even try. I hereby give you permission to stop reading now and go and have fun instead.)

How to store toys in a practical, space-saving and easily accessible way, without having them take over your house (life), is something which occupies my brain far more than it should. I’m not sure I’ve cracked it, but I have learned a few helpful things along the way, and I offer them now as nothing more than somewhere to start. Each family’s lifestyle and home-layout will be unique, so I’m not claiming the following tips to be generically useful to all, but maybe there’ll be one or two nuggets in there…

This is ‘tidy’ at the end of a Thursday. (Note, the definition of ‘tidy’ gets progressively more creative as the week goes on.)

Never attempt to sort through toys when your kids are around. It just doesn’t work – I’ve tried it. Always chasing a democratic household, I offer Joel a choice as to which toys will go upstairs, and which will stay downstairs. The former pile is non-existent, while the latter grows. Toys he hasn’t played with in months – or ever – suddenly become his new favourite thing. Sometimes a dictatorship is the only way to go.

Be honest about the toys your kids are actually playing with. Not the ones you’d like them to play with (because they were expensive/look nice/came from the cute toy shop on Gillygate/all three).

Make the most of ‘wasted’ space (e.g. under beds/cots, tops of wardrobes…) to store less-played-with toys. A good investment for us was some under-bed storage boxes on castors. They’re easy to get out, so the toys are still very accessible, but it frees lounge space for the ones that are played with regularly.

Charity shop unplayed-with toys. Unless you’re saving them for a next child. Even then, be selective. Does your next baby need 16 different teethers?

Group like toys together. Again, an investment in some sturdy plastic boxes, or storage baskets, will pay dividends. We have boxes and baskets for musical instruments, cars, Duplo, animals, to name a few.

Drawstring bags!!! I’m excited by these. Can you tell?! We have so many toys which consist of multiple small-ish parts – an indoor croquet set, Mr Potato Head and his various facial features, jigsaw puzzles and so on. We need a way of keeping the pieces together (as much as is reasonable to expect, in a household containing under 3s) – but boxes are bulky and take up too much space in a toy box. Bags need some way of closing, so things don’t fall out, but also need to be easily opened by your kids. Drawstring bags are the solution! I’ve made loads of these for toy storage, and they work brilliantly. Instructions to follow in a future blog post…watch this space!

Remember: toys migrate. They just do. No point scolding your kids about it – toys are just constantly on the move from one room to another, and so far I’ve found I can do absolutely nothing about it. My solution? Have a box in each room into which toys can be thrown when attempting to tidy up.

Travel bag. We have a plethora of small toys which get lost at the bottom of toy boxes: party bag gifts, free toys from cbeebies magazine, etc. Our kids LOVE these tiny things, but often can’t find them in a (relatively) huge toy box. A seemingly unrelated problem is that whenever we’re going on a long-ish journey, or to a place where we know there won’t be toys, we scramble round the house, desperately trying to find suitable small toys to take with us (whilst simultaneously changing nappies, finding lost gloves, Google-Mapping the route etc.). My solution is, when I find these toys, to pop them in a bag which we keep in the hall. The tiny toys don’t get lost – and we have a ready-made bag we can grab quickly on the way out the door when we need to. Two problems solved.

Our travel bag. Yes, that really is a Smarties tube in the top left hand corner. Don’t ask.

Dump and run. At the end of the day, we all need a ‘dump and run’ toy box – something into which all the miscellaneous items can be thrown. A box, if you like, with no agenda. This is our main toy box in our lounge. It has a lid and, although I rarely slim down the contents enough for the lid to fit, the idea was always that it would help to make the space a bit more ‘adult’ for the evenings. The thought’s there, anyway.

The ‘box of no agenda’…
…with the lid that barely gets used.

Finally – flexibility. Kids change – learn to adapt. Every few months I find myself needing to re-assess things. Younger-age toys must be put away, space needs to be found for new things my children are getting into. Don’t get comfortable.

Those are my tips – what are yours?

three is the loveliest age

Each year, as my children get older, I shall probably change my mind about this – but, for now, I think three is the loveliest age to be. Today Joel turned three. He had just the right level of awareness – enough to enjoy his presents, his party, his friends and family; enough to keep him bubbly all day – but not so much that it turned into the giddy hysteria I imagine he’ll suffer from in a couple of years’ time. (You know the type: it’ll start around 5am when he’ll bound into our room, demand to open presents now, and perform a trampoline display on our bed…)

Today was perfect.

He enjoyed all his presents. He actually did. Ours was a joint present for him and Lois, a labour of love which I’d intended to finish a week or two back. It finally made it into the lounge on Saturday morning:

Something about my kids inspires me to get creative. I’m not very good at making things – kind of like a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but without the ‘all trades’ bit – more like a ‘jack of two or three trades’. But it’s fun to have a go, and it’s fun to see the look on my kids’ faces as they see, for the first time, a handmade toy, card or cake. Here’s the card I made for ball-mad Joel:

And the cake:

Notice the dip in the middle – classic sunken sponge. Classy. See previous paragraph.

Joel had a ball party – what else? The second toy he ever played with was a colourful, noisy soft ball, which he still has. As a small baby in the bouncer, he loved to kick this ball around with his knees. Once he could walk, he developed a penchant for football – no idea why, as his parents can’t stand the sport. More recently, he has discovered a plethora of other ball sports: tennis, cricket, basketball, croquet, skittles, table tennis, badminton, golf. I set up a few of these round the house for the dozen little people who came to celebrate with us today.

We ate ball-shaped food – mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, blueberries, dough balls, sausage balls, chicken pops, Maltesers. We played ‘Pass the Ball’ – a variation on Pass the Parcel – and Musical Balls. Predictable but fun!

I made some not-so-disastrous cake pops for the party bags. They were intended to look like tennis balls and basketball balls (basketballs? I never know). The tennis balls worked – ish. The basketballballballballs fell off the sticks as soon as I tried to pipe the lines round them, so I gave up. Here are the tennis balls:

Notice the real ball in the background. Not a bad colour match, eh?

The day ended with church – our congregation meets at 5pm. Originally, this was a tricky time of day to get used to, but now I like the fact that Sundays end with celebration, particularly today. I take nothing for granted – many children don’t reach their third birthday. Tonight I praise God for giving us Joel, and for sustaining him thus far. Happy Birthday, little man!

A post-party golf swing. With obligatory post-party carpet stain.

yummy mummy, letting things slide

Recently I scanned one of those ‘what’s hot/what’s not’ columns at the front of a lifestyle magazine. Under ‘what’s not’ I was interested to read that ‘yummy mummies’ were on their way out, because they were more prone to depression than ‘working mums who let things slide’. Oh dear, I thought. I’m a stay-at-home mum who lets things slide. Where does that leave me? My house is one dusty, crumby, snot-filled backdrop for a toy-bomb which explodes daily – and I don’t even have a paid job I can blame.

Seriously, stuff just gets deposited round my house and I know not how. I spend my days tidying and tidying, only to find that at the end of the day the house looks worse  – or, at best, the same as when we woke up. A friend recently told me how she feels most of her days are spent keeping mayhem at bay. Nothing really moves on from the start to end of the day, but nothing gets significantly worse. That’s a win.

Our bedroom, successfully illustrating my point. It’s always the last room to get attention!

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Much as I love the decision I’ve made to stay at home with my kids, it doesn’t come without sacrifice. The last thing I want to do in ten years’ time is look back and regret this period of my life. If I’m going to forego my career for a while, I don’t want to forego my children too.

And the truth is, some things have to slide. I just can’t spend proper time with the kids whilst also keeping up with all the housework. As part-and-parcel of Al’s job, we get a large house – a great perk, but totally overwhelming in terms of keeping it immaculate. There are enough times in the day when I have to say “Not now, Joel”, “In a minute…”, “I just have to do this first…” because of housework that needs to be done (preparing meals, loading/unloading dishwasher, laundry) that engaging in any additional hoovering, dusting and general cleaning would surely be at my children’s expense. Things I clean today will be dirty again tomorrow, whereas time I spend with my children today will reap huge benefits tomorrow. It is massively important to me that my children and I have a good, communicative relationship. If I don’t sow the seeds now – then when?

So, on the one hand, I’m riled by the assumption that it’s only (salaried) working mums who let things slide. But on the other hand I’m comforted by the suggestion that this more laissez-faire approach to life has its advantages. Whoever we are, mummies or not, setting overly-high expectations for ourselves is not likely to result in much peace.

Oh, and for the record – I dislike the term ‘yummy mummy’ in most contexts. If you think I spend my time shopping, lunching with friends and frequenting spas, while my husband earns mega-bucks and someone else cleans my house, then I have two words for you. Clergy wife.

The happy little monkeys. They don’t mind a bit of dirt.