Kids, Activities, Homework and Free Time

Before I had kids, I was what you would call a joiner. If there was an activity I could participate in, a club I could join or a petition I could sign, I was in like Flynn. Once I had kids I had to tone it down a notch. For the longest time, I couldn’t leave the house in the evening, because I had to be home for bedtime. The fact that my husband worked an unpredictable schedule at the time only upped the ante, since I could never guarantee when he’d be around to be with the kids. Even after that abated, I found that my time was just way more limited. My schedule was too tight for me to sign up for everything that was presented to me.

In spite of the fact that as a parent I face a lot of constraints, I’ve still found myself in a position where my family felt overscheduled more than once. My daughter Hannah loves to take classes and join groups as much as I did at her age. It’s pretty rare for her to say ‘no’ to an activity. My son Jacob is younger and so less vocal about all the things he’d like to do, but he’s done some classes he’s really enjoyed and I enjoyed doing with him. If I have two kids, each doing one or more activities, and then I take a yoga class or something for myself, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

More music class fun
Jacob at music class

Now that my daughter is in grade two, school plays a major role in our schedule. Last year a fair bit of work was sent home – there was home reading every day, and then weekly sight words, build-a-word exercises and spelling tests to study for. I found myself spending 20 minutes after school every day playing homework police. All of these little things add up quickly, and cut into family time. This year so far the workload is lower, but there are still weekly spelling tests and other odds and ends to do.

I’m a firm believer that kids need free time, and lots of it. They need time to play, and be bored, and make art, and build pillow forts. All of the schoolwork and extra-curricular activities run in direct opposition to children getting free time. This is why I’m fighting my own joiner tendencies so hard, and trying to keep a lid on kids’ activities.

Upside down girl
Hannah playing around during some free time

At the moment, I allow each of my kids to do one activity at any given time. I could just skip all classes and groups, I suppose, but I do see some value in kids having the chance to try new things. Right now Jacob is taking music classes and Hannah is taking musical theatre. These are things they don’t do at school, and that I couldn’t teach them myself in the same way. There’s benefit to the activities, the challenge is figuring out the right balance, and avoiding a situation where we’re eating dinner in the car as we shuttle from one to the next.

So far, while my kids have done a lot of activities, none of them have really stuck. They’ve enjoyed them, but given the choice between continuing with their existing class and trying a new one, they’ve opted for the new one. While there’s a part of me that watches the Olympics and imagines my kids having that kind of commitment and aptitude, on the whole I’m glad my kids like to switch things up. When a kid really loves something, it can get pretty big pretty quickly. I’ve seen how much time parents and kids invest in competitive sports, for instance. When Hannah decided to take gymnastics instead of doing soccer again, and then opted for musical theatre over another round of gymnastics, it removed any possibility that I would be spending the next 10 years driving her all over the country for games or meets.

Hannah showing her soccer moves
Hannah played soccer when she was in kindergarten

Everything in parenting is about balance. Balancing scheduled activities with free time. Balancing your needs and your kids’ needs. Balancing academics and other pursuits. Balancing the schedule so that you don’t need to be in two places at once. I’m not sure I ever get it right, but I really am trying.

What about you? How many activities do your kids participate in, and what kind of time commitment do they involve? How do you balance those activities with school and free time? I’d love to hear!

Truly Terrible Children’s Entertainment

About a week and a half ago Jon and I loaded up the kids and headed to the PNE. It’s an annual end-of-summer ritual for many Vancouver families, and ours is no different. We eat fair food, ride the roller coaster, play midway games, visit with farm animals and go to shows. On the day that we were there Shrek: Stompin’ the Swamp was playing at the Family Theatre, and my kids were eager to go, so we went. This, my friends, is what parents do – they go to shows that they would rather not go to in order to make their progeny happy.

The good news is that watching Shrek and Fiona dance and sing on stage did make my kids happy. Three-year-old Jacob was especially thrilled at being so close to Shrek. It was, for him, a real-life celebrity sighting, and he was over the moon. If the stage hadn’t been six feet off the ground, I’m not sure I could have stopped him from climbing up and joining in. The other good news is that the show was really very short, and so while it wasn’t my first choice of entertainment, at least I didn’t have to spend all afternoon watching it.

Shrek Forever After
Photo credit: Yogesh Kumar Jaiswal on Flickr

I was especially glad about the shortness, because Shrek: Stompin’ the Swamp may have been the worst show I’ve ever seen. The costumes were large and padded, so Shrek and Fiona could barely move. The plot was weak and didn’t make much sense. The main premise that Shrek forgot his anniversary was really over the head of your average preschooler. And the venue we were in didn’t really lend itself easily to kids getting up and dancing around. Many people left the performance midway through out of sheer boredom.

In my time as a parent I’ve carted my children thither and yon, and I’ve seen a lot of children’s entertainment. Based on my experience I can say that Stompin’ the Swamp is hardly unique in its bad-ness. While there are truly amazing children’s entertainers, fabulous attractions, terrific children’s museums and even top-notch kids’ TV, there is also a lot of truly terrible children’s entertainment in the world.

Shrek at Macy's Parade
Photo credit: Musicwala on Flickr

My children are oblivious to my opinion about whether something is “good” or “bad”. While I grit my teeth and bear it, they are often having the time of their lives. On one level, I understand that children’s entertainment isn’t made for me, so my opinion doesn’t really matter. But on another level, I see that it could be so much better, because some of it is. And yet, drivel is so often churned out simply because kids aren’t as sophisticated as adults. The people creating the poor-quality shows know that three-year-olds (and their parents) will show up either way, so they’re not putting in the effort.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to the problem of really shoddy children’s entertainment. If I decided to boycott it, I would only be making my kids sad. So I put on my grown-up pants and sit through shows that I hate, because I know that a little boredom is a reasonable exchange for really happy children. Afterward, Jon and I laugh about how comically awful it was. Eventually, my kids will become more sophisticated audience members and they’ll demand a little more. And then they’ll have kids of their own, and sit through some really awful shows for them. It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all. If only it were a little easier to watch.

What’s the worst children’s attraction or show that you ever attended? Do your kids usually agree with your assessment of whether a show is good or bad? Let’s compare notes and commiserate.

First Day Fears

Next Monday is the first day of my 6-year-old Hannah’s two-week-long Spring Break. After consulting with her back in January, we signed her up for art camp for the first week. Every day she’ll do a bunch of stuff, including working with clay, drawing, painting, musical theatre and dance. I almost wish I could attend, myself. Sadly, though, it’s only for elementary-school-aged kids. Bummer.

At first, Hannah was really enthusiastic about art camp. She asked almost every day when art camp was starting, and told me she wished it would be here sooner. She was really looking forward to the chance to let loose with her creativity. But as the date approached, she became increasingly less enthusiastic. Now she says that she doesn’t want to go, after all. She’s worried that she won’t have any friends, and that she won’t be good at art camp.

I know how Hannah’s feeling, because I was the same sort of kid. My mother loves to share the story about how she had to carry me kicking and screaming to the car for my first swimming lesson when I was six. I remember that day, myself. I was terrified because I didn’t already know how to swim, and I didn’t know any of the kids in my class. But I also had a fabulous time once I got there, and couldn’t wait to return. I suspect that once Hannah makes it to art camp, she will feel much the same way.

Hannah has enjoyed every class she’s taken. She’s naturally social, and fits in well. She tends to make at least one or two “new best friends” within five minutes of starting a new group activity. She also loves art, and often tells me that she’s an artist. I understand that Hannah’s nervous, but I didn’t choose this camp flippantly. I have every confidence that Hannah will enjoy it, and get a lot out of it.

I should also mention that art camp is non-refundable, except in case of serious illness. I have a little over $200 riding on it. If Hannah truly hates it, I won’t force her to attend. The money’s gone one way or another, so there’s no point in subjecting my daughter to five full days of torture just because I’ve laid it out. But, on the other hand, I’d like her to really try it out. I didn’t spend that money so that Hannah could skip out on art camp, you know? It’s important to me that she gives it a fair shake.

Since I’m not bending on my insistence that Hannah give art camp a go, I’m trying to find ways to make it a little less scary for her. I really don’t want a story about that time I carried my own daughter kicking and screaming to the car on her first day of class, if I can help it. So I’m doing my best to let Hannah know that she is not alone and friendless as she attends her first day camp.

I’ve told Hannah that she needs to go for the first two days, to see how it is. I’ve explained to her that I will take her in every day, help her find her class, and make sure that she’s all right. I’ve also let Hannah know that if she’s having a really hard time, it’s OK with me if she gives me a call. And I’ve told her that she can help choose what goes into her lunch. It seems to have helped, but it’s not a magic bullet. Hannah’s no longer totally resistant, but she’s still somewhat fearful.

So, I think I need a hand. I wonder about your experiences dealing with first day fears in your kids. Do you have any techniques that seem to help them over the hump? Or do you remember anything that your own parents did for you, to help you through the first day of a new activity? I’m all ears!

Halloween Mess

In case you’ve been living under a rock or something, I am here to let you know that it is Halloween this weekend. It’s a fact! All of the kids will be out roaming the streets in their costumes, collecting candy and generally enjoying themselves. Because Halloween is fun for kids. You get to dress up! You get free candy! There are parties and sometimes even fireworks! Yay Halloween!

Me on the patch
Me, doing the pumpkin patch thing

I am glad that my kids enjoy Halloween. I’ve managed to teach Jacob to say, “Trick or treat,” and it’s about the cutest thing ever. I have the kids’ costumes all planned out (Dorothy Gayle and a scarecrow companion). I’ve bought the stuff to make the costumes. We’ve visited the pumpkin patch. We’re all pumped, man! And … that’s about where I am. Still mostly in the Halloween planning stages.

Checking out the turkey head cut-out
Jacob, playing turkey in the kids’ play area at the pumpkin patch

Halloween is in four days. Between now and then I have to:

  • Sew three costumes (it’s a long story, but Hannah needs a crow costume for school).
  • Carve five pumpkins – with ‘help’ from Hannah and Jacob.
  • Bake a cake for the school festival.
  • Sew a pillow using a piece of embroidery that Hannah did.
  • Do my other work.
  • Keep the house from being condemned due to extreme lack of hygiene.
  • Not run away screaming.

Hannah, caught in a spider web
Hannah, caught in a web at the pumpkin patch

When I agreed to all of this stuff, it didn’t seem too bad. I was sure that I could pull it off. It all came just one thing at a time. Could I bake a cake? Of course! Could I sew the costumes? No problem, I always make Hannah’s costume! And we love to carve pumpkins! But looking at this list now, I wonder what the heck I was thinking. Seriously. What the heck?

That’s right, I said heck. You know I mean business now.

Two men and their wheelbarrow
Two men and a wheelbarrow

This is how people get overextended. It’s not so much that someone says to them, “Here are 87 things that need to be done yesterday!” It’s all one little thing at a time, until you’re pretty sure you’ll never get it all done. It kind of sneaks up on you like that.

No matter how I got myself into this position, I need some good thoughts. I need speedy baking vibes, and smooth sewing vibes, and easy pumpkin-carving vibes. And I need to know that I am not alone.

The kids with our haul
The kids and the pumpkin haul

Do you over-extend yourself around holidays? Do you always bake for the school bake sale? Or do you harbour grand visions of family togetherness as you massacre squash, which never quite play out the way you hoped? Tell me all about it! And next year, around October 1, tell me to check out Craigslist for some second-hand costumes. I’ll thank you come October 27 when I’m not way overextended and generally difficult to be around. And so will my family.

PS – October’s Crafting my Life series is about home, and the other spaces we inhabit. On the last Thursday of the month, which just happens to be tomorrow, I will include a link up. To participate, write a post on home or other spaces, or track down a post you’ve written on the subject sometime in the past, and add yourself to the list. Then read everyone else’s ideas and thoughts and be inspired! Check out the link-ups from January, February and March to get a feel for how it works.

Boot Camp for Children

We recently got the Fall Recreation Guide in the mail. I sat down with and scanned the children’s section for classes my daughter Hannah might enjoy. There was Young Chefs, Eco Heroes, Cheerleading and Holiday Day Camp. There was Rhythmic Gymnastic and Fencing and Floor Hockey and Karate and Swimming. And there was Boot Camp for Children. Here is the class description:

Boot Camp for Children
For ages 6-9 years. This Boot Camp will include cardio conditioning, strength, power, agility and much more! This program is led by a qualified fitness instructor.

Boot Camp for Children – for 6-year-old children – stopped me in my tracks. The other classes centered around a specific subject or skill, or just promised to give your child something fun to do over the school break. Many classes involved activity, but activity that happened through martial arts, dancing or sports. Boot Camp, on the other hand, seems to be centered around promising a physical outcome for your child. Cardio conditioning. Strength. Agility. Not fun, teamwork and a non-competitive environment, like Basketball for Children advertised.

I have never taken a Boot Camp class, so I may not understand how they work. I associate Boot Camp with adults getting in shape and losing weight. They often seem to be advertised with taglines like, “Get bikini-ready for summer!” While I chafe at the implications of that statement, I see nothing wrong with taking a structured fitness class to help you achieve your personal goals. I know that I’m much more likely to do something if I have time set aside to do it, especially if that time was set aside by others. If Boot Camp works for you, cool.

But Boot Camp geared towards adults feels much different than Boot Camp geared towards 6-year-olds. And, I’ll go ahead and say it, 6-year-old girls in particular. We spend so much time in our society, so much time, telling girls that they are not OK. They are too fat. Too thin. Too tall. Too short. Their toes look weird. Their noses are too big. They need hair products, skin products, perfumes and the right clothes. They need to buy fashion magazines to tell them what to wear, and then they need to buy the stuff to wear. Otherwise, no one will like them.

Suggesting that a 6-year-old should have fitness goals that include cardio conditioning seems to feed into this mindset. Already our children are getting the message that they need to improve their physical selves. When I think of my own 5-year-old, perfect as she is, this makes me sad. I don’t want her to feel that she needs to take a class geared solely at improving her physical condition. Especially not as a school-aged kid.

I know that kids need to be active, and that many kids don’t get the activity that they need. But an 8-week Boot Camp class isn’t the answer. Getting outside and playing, participating in sports, spending days swimming and cycling, these are the answer. I was a pretty bookish kid. I mostly sat inside and read. But my mom sent me outdoors, or took me outdoors, and some of my fondest childhood memories were formed. I climbed trees, played baseball, rode my bike and waded in a creek until my feet were numb. Once I got moving it was hard to stop me, and I think most kids are the same. They want to play and explore their world, they want to run and jump and climb.

I’m sure that many kids would enjoy Boot Camp. Hannah sees me doing yoga, and wants to do it, too. Even 2-year-old Jacob imitates my poses. If their parents are doing Boot Camp, kids may want to do it, too. This is totally understandable. But maybe the stated goals of the class should be different. I think that there’s a way for kids to have fun and be active without focusing on their bikini-readiness or agility. Our children have enough people telling them that they’re not good enough. I don’t think Parks and Recreation needs to join in, too.

Tell me – what do you think about Boot Camp for Children. Do you think I’m over-reacting? Or do you find it as disturbing as I do? Would you enroll your own 6-year-old? Please share!

PS – July’s Crafting my Life series is about role models. On the last Thursday of the month, which just happens to be tomorrow, I will include a link up. To participate, write a post or track down a post you’ve written on the subject sometime in the past, and add yourself to the list. Check out the link-ups from January, February and March to get a feel for how it works.

Encouraging a Love of Dirt

Today I would like to welcome Dionna, who has written a guest post on gardening with children. She is a lawyer turned work at home mama, and she’s one of those crunchy liberals her parents warned her about. You can normally find Dionna on her fabulous blog, Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler. Today, I have a guest post there. So, once you’re done reading Dionna’s thoughts on gardening with children head on over to see what I have to say on the same subject.

Gardening for me is more than just a way to save money by growing vegetables. It is humbling. Miraculous. Exhausting. It is an exercise in delayed gratification. It physically connects me to the Earth. Gardening tests my patience while strengthening my spirit.

My husband shakes his head at me year after year, wondering why I am so anxious to break ground when I’ve never had (what some would call) a “successful” garden. He doesn’t get it: I like the challenge. And I love working the dirt.

I want our 27 month old son, Kieran, to experience gardening. I want to introduce him to the beauty, surprise, and magic that can be found when you put a handful of seeds in the ground. He may never love to garden, but I want to expose him enough that he has the option.

With that in mind, I have compiled ten fun gardening activities appropriate for all ages of children, but particularly suitable for toddlers and preschoolers. Enjoy!

10 Unique Gardening Activities for Kids

1. Grow a Playhouse: Imagine being three years old and surrounded by gigantic sunflowers towering above you, or crawling into a teepee made of sticks and overgrown with pea pods, or engulfed in a square of moonflowers that open up when the crickets start to sing. Flowering playhouses are easily built (by a parent) out of wooden poles and string. Plant the seeds around the poles, then gently train the flowers to wind around and through them. (1)

2. Grow Something to Wear: Let your children play dress-up with their flowers. Turn colorful blossoms into necklaces, leis, or bracelets. Clip flowers into your daughter’s barrettes or thread one through your son’s shirt button. Save pretty petals to make jewelry.

3. Plant a Rainbow: Find flower seeds in the colors of the rainbow, then help your child plant them in a rainbow shape. Try to find flowers that are roughly the same size and make sure they are all appropriate for the same season.

4. Plant Something Weird: Appeal to your child’s love for the unexpected. Plant purple and red carrots, blue potatoes, or purple beans. Grow miniature or “midget” versions of the vegetables we usually see like peas, corn, or lettuce.

5. Attract Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Create beauty on and above the ground by planting flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. (2)

6. Grow Plants that are Nice to Touch or Fun to Hear: Your toddler will love “tickle me” plants; the leaves curl up when touched. Lamb’s Ears have a fuzzy silvery fur that kids like to touch. If you garden indoors, aloe vera plants are a good tactile choice for small children. You can also try bunny tails and cotton to satisfy a child’s sense of touch. (3)

On windy days, your toddler will love to listen to the sounds made by ornamental grass, the Chinese lantern plant, or the Money plant. (4)

7. Grow a Craft Project: Grow gourds that you can turn into birdhouses or musical instruments. Grow flowers and berries that you can use for their natural dyes, which your child can use for artwork and other crafts. There are even certain plants with beads that can be used in jewelry.

8. Garden in Unusual Containers: Who says you have to plant seeds in the ground? Give your child a fun container (also a great way to garden inside). You can use an old shoe, a discarded toy, or a plain pot with a face drawn on. Or trap a cucumber in a glass jar.

9. Create a Scratch & Sniff Garden: Please your child’s nose with an assortment of smells: plant mint that smells (and tastes!) like chocolate peppermint, ginger, lemon, orange, and apple, and geraniums that smell like roses, lemon, mint, chocolate, pine, nutmeg, and more.

10. Eat Your Vegetables and Your Flowers: Ground cherries are hidden in pods that look like little lanterns. Grow a pizza patch garden full of tomatoes, peppers, basil, garlic, and other veggies and herbs that can be baked into homemade pizza. Apartment dwellers: did you know you can grow peanuts inside?

For a completely new level of edible fun, try growing flowers you can eat: nasturtium, clover, and lavender are just a few tasty varieties.

A Few Guidelines to Gardening with Children

Here are some simple tips to help keep gardening with kids fun and easy:

1. Give your child her own space and tools.
2. Let your child have some control over what he grows. Choose a few ideas/varieties that are doable, then let your child pick his favorite to try.
3. Relax! Let her do her own thing. Don’t worry if she spends more time playing with the dirt or worms than she does pulling weeds.
4. Consider planting a mixture of seeds, seedlings, and full-grown plants. It can be hard for little ones to wait for those first sprouts to pop out of the ground. (5)

Do you have any fun ideas for gardening with children? Detailed instructions for a sunflower (or moonflower) playhouse. Instructions for building your own teepee and ideas for seeds to plant around it. Nature Moms Blog has more ideas for flowering playhouses. There are also two books dedicated to growing sunflower houses.
(2) Butterfly Gardens; Hummingbird Gardens
(3) Check out this article for more plants that react to touch.
(4) Always research flowers/plants before growing them. Some – like the Chinese lantern plant – have parts that are poisonous if eaten.
(5) More general tips for gardening with kids –
*Gardening with Kids has a wealth of information and ideas, including The Basics and For the Youngest Beginner;
*Ten Tips on Gardening with Kids; and
*Toddler Garden

The Ever-Changing Nature Table

It was around one year ago that we created our first nature table. It was a small wooden folding table in our family room, and it worked well. My daughter Hannah was 4 at the time and she could easily reach the table to arrange and re-arrange it. My son Jacob was 6 or 7 months old at the time and not yet mobile. We were able to set our scene without taking him into account at all.

Backing up a little, nature tables are fixtures in Waldorf classrooms. They are changed seasonally or with holidays, and they offer a way to bring a bit of the outdoors inside. There are wooden figures, books, pictures, flowers, leaves, candles, rocks – whatever works for you. Our nature table has held toys, felted figures, treasures that my 5-year-old Hannah discovered outside, seed packets and even Barbie. While I do sometimes offer suggestions, I try to let my kids, and particularly Hannah, take ownership of the nature table.

Hannah and our nature shelf
Hannah offers her suggestions for improving the nature table

Over the past year our nature table experienced a couple of iterations. As I said, it started out on a folding table. Once Jacob started crawling and pulling up, that stopped working so well. He would pull on the cloth covering the table and that would be the end of the scene, which is particularly bad when the scene contains water-filled vases. We moved the tableau on to the shelf immediately above the table, but that didn’t work for too long, either. Jacob’s expanding reach, combined with Jon’s need for a piano shelf, put the nail in that coffin. Finally, we settled on the top of one bookshelf, and it has remained there ever since.

I appreciate that the nature table offers us a place to store the little bits of nature that my child always brings home with her from the outdoors. I also appreciate that it is an ever-evolving representation of the world and our family. What aspects of the outside world are interesting to us right now? What flowers are blooming in our garden? What seeds are we planting? What special occasion are we looking forward to?

Spring 2010 nature shelf
Our Spring 2010 nature table

I am honestly not that good at providing structure or routine to our daily family life. It’s just not my strong suit. Maybe I’m too overwhelmed, or maybe my children aren’t the right ages. Our days can be chaotic and I don’t always spend as much time engaging my children in creative activities as I would like. I appreciate the nature table, as one little corner of my home that is about ritual and routine and engagement. I like making felted flowers or little people out of modeling beeswax with my daughter to put into our tableau. I like seeing it when I eat my dinner. I imagine that it will remain a fixture in our home for some time to come.

How do you bring nature into your home? Or do you? I’d love to hear!

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