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Giving kids time alone

In recent years I’ve realised how easy it is to get caught up in after-school activities, weekend sport commitments, play dates and the various other obligations that come with having young children. All of this can result in overstimulated, exhausted children.

It can also result in children expecting to be entertained and occupied all the time. When our eldest son first started kinder, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to spend individual time with our toddler. For the first few weeks, I devoted most of our time alone to playing with him. I soon realised this wasn’t practical or in his best interests and decided to lessen the time I spent with him.

At first he really struggled to occupy himself even when I’d set up activities for him. He’d become whiney and wanted to be picked up frequently. It took me a couple of weeks to establish a better play routine. I found he was fresher immediately after kinder drop-off, so I’d encourage him to play by himself at that time. While I took care of the household chores, I’d talk to him and let him help me if he wanted to. Gradually he was able to play on his own for longer periods of time, and I discovered I could sit and play with him for 15 minutes, set up a new activity and he’d play again on his own for a while.

The bonuses of boredom

Older kids can also become dependent on being entertained all the time. I believe children need time to rest, potter and investigate things in their own environment without time pressures. I also think it’s great for them to be ‘bored’ occasionally. Often, this is the only time when our kids seek out new interests, design games of their own and maybe even participate in the household chores without being asked to!

Allowing children to have time when they ‘don’t have anything to do’ can lead to positive results. It’s at these times that I see our kids become really creative with their play. They may build amazing constructions out of LEGO or from recycled materials. Sometimes they use this time to find a good book and read. Most importantly they learn to operate at a slow pace. I’m all for productivity and efficiency, but it needs to be coupled with rest and relaxation, and as the parent I like to make sure I’m taking the lead in slowing things down.

Scheduling play

Along with the joys of a large family come additional complexities such as finding time to play despite the increased workload, spending time with each child individually and finding activities that will interests all the kids.

Building play into the everyday

One of the beautiful things about play is that it can be done almost anytime, anywhere, and with no resources or with an amazing array of objects. In the busy bustle of our days, without some conscious effort it can be easy for play to be overlooked. This is not only to the kids’ detriment, but to mine too. It’s surprising how invigorated and happy I feel when I take even a short time out to play with my kids.

It’s possible to include play in our daily routines without too much difficulty, which makes a huge difference to my relationship with the kids, and my mood. The list below includes some examples of how I’ve turned repetitive aspects of daily life into playful fun:

Morning tea. Take a blanket outside and have a picnic. If it’s a rainy day, make it an inside picnic. Enlist the children’s help to gather the supplies.

Cleaning. Vacuuming the house can be a lot of fun if your children aren’t frightened of the vacuum cleaner. As the vacuum cleaner is making its way around the house, it can go out of control and suck up little children! My children often try to dodge the head as I push it around the carpet. It may take me a bit longer to get the vacuuming done, but it’s fun.

Laundry. While sorting the laundry (mine does pile up at times), you can hide a child underneath a pile and pretend you can’t find them. While hanging towels and sheets on the line, you can also play peek-a-boo.

Lunch. Play ‘Restaurants’. Create a menu. Select a chef and waiting staff; then set the table and enjoy lunch at your home restaurant.

Tidy up. Allow toys to take on personalities and help them find their homes. For example, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine is sad. He needs to find Annie and Clarabel — let’s find his friends so he can go to sleep’. Or ‘Teddy is confused. He thinks his place is in the bathroom, but does he belong there?’

Bath. The bath can be a great place for play: pouring water, blowing bubbles and splashing, for example. We have a range of pouring toys such as jugs and tea sets in the bath and the kids often make me cups of tea.

Making the effort to take a playful approach to household chores lightens both the kids’ and my mood. When the kids are in a better mood, there’s more cooperation and less fighting.

Individual time with each child

Making sure I spend enough time alone with each child with the sole focus of playing is my biggest challenge. As a mum of five kids I do expect my kids to entertain themselves, but I also believe they need regular time where my attention is fully focused on them individually. The more children I have had, the trickier this has become, but there are some ways to make it a bit easier.

I don’t implement all of the strategies every day; however, during most weeks I’m able to achieve individual time with each of the kids. There are those weeks when the toddler is sick, or I have a number of commitments and don’t spend as much time as I’d like one-on-one with them. It’s not possible to ‘catch up’ on this time, and I’ve learned not to stress over this. I just take the next week as a clean slate and try again to spend individual time with each child.

Scheduled bed times

Our children’s ages currently range from two to 12 years, so — as I mentioned earlier — we have different bed times according to age. As each child goes to bed, it’s easier to spend time individually with the remaining kids — it can be something as simple as reading their bedtime story with them or having a chat.

One-on-one play time

I schedule one-on-one play time with my kids and I find it’s a wonderful thing to do. The way it works is that I allocate 20 minutes to each child, during which time they can choose what they want to do and what they’d like me to do. This time is completely child-led. The kids can also choose to let the other kids play with us. Sometimes the activity they choose may naturally preclude the others from playing as it’s a two-person game, such as chess. However, if it’s an open activity such as dress-ups they may be happy for their siblings to join in, but they still lead the direction of play.

I actually set the timer on my phone and the kids know that once the timer goes off, that’s the end of the session. This really helps with the younger ones, who would love me to continue playing all day. Sometimes they still take it hard when their play time comes to an end, but it’s important for them to understand that each child deserves a turn.

School holidays are the perfect time to schedule play time. Weekends can be too, depending on what we have on. The kids’ behaviour is often a cue for me that I need to do more playing. Constant complaining, grumpiness and other testing behaviours generally indicate that the kids need some time with their dad or me on their own.

Unplanned opportunities

There are times when our toddler is asleep and the older kids are playing happily or doing something together. I take this opportunity to spend time chatting or playing with our preschooler on his own.

Or, in the case of our early-rising toddler, some mornings I take advantage of everyone else being asleep and use that opportunity to play with him.

Play time for different ages

With the age gap between our eldest and youngest children being so great, organising fun time for all our kids takes a bit of organisation. Choosing activities for school holidays, outings on weekends and what we watch on TV are just some of the challenges we face when deciding how to entertain all the age groups at the same time. Some strategies we use for managing this are:

• letting the older children stay home

• splitting the family up

• having separate activities in the same place

• organising family activities.

Letting the older children stay home

There are times when I’m happy to leave our older boys (nine and 12 years old) at home on their own. If we have a short, local gathering (such as a preschool reading session or a craft lesson) to attend nearby that’s not suitable for the older children, I’ll let them stay home and only take the younger ones.

Splitting the family up

There are times when the family splits up to attend events and activities. For example, my husband may take the older boys to a night game of football. As it starts at 7.30 pm and is in winter, it doesn’t suit the younger kids. I’ll stay home with the younger ones and we do something together, such as hire a DVD and eat popcorn.

Separate activities — same place

This is a more recent strategy for me, and it’s heavily dependent on where we are. This works when we’re at events with activities that are suitable for a range of age groups. Instead of dragging everyone to each activity and having either the younger or older kids wait the activity out, I let the older kids go off by themselves. I take the younger kids to their activity and then we meet up at an arranged time and place.

For example, I once took all five kids to the Moomba festival on my own. The activities that suited the younger kids were not at all appealing to the older boys. To ensure everyone had fun, I stayed with the three youngest while they had turns on the clowns. The two eldest boys went to line up for a roller-coaster ride. Once we’d finished at the clowns we waited by the roller coaster for it to finish.

Parents have differing comfort levels when it comes to allowing their kids to do things on their own. It’s always important to take into account the personalities of the kids and the environment they will be in.

Family activities

There are also outings to places of interest to all ages that can be enjoyed together as a family. These include:

zoos and animal sanctuaries

art galleries

parks

bushwalks

the beach or pool.

There are also activities you can do at home that can be tailored to suit all skills and abilities, such as:

LEGO

construction with a glue gun and/or nails and screws

hide-and-seek

bike riding

footpath chalk drawing

football and cricket.

Expecting understanding

There are also times when you have to attend events that don’t suit everyone. I talk regularly to all the kids about the need for understanding in our family and that we have to balance competing needs. It’s important to remind the older boys that their younger siblings have been tagging along to their activities since they were born. I also remind them that when they were younger they didn’t have to do this, and that the younger children deserve the same opportunities. When we do attend an event for the younger kids, I allow the older kids to bring a book to read, if appropriate, so that they’re occupied. I also remind them that it’s important for them to allow the little ones to enjoy themselves without having to put up with their complaining.

Organising the kids’ toys

For kids, a big part of play is their toys, and it’s amazing how quickly toys accumulate! Finding enough suitable places for storing different kinds of toys where they’re out of everyone’s way and easy for the kids to access can be quite an ask in families with several kids.

Tip: Storing toys

While I can’t ever say that I have the kids’ toys fully under control, I have worked out some strategies that help me manage them better.

Toy shelf

Due to the floor plan of our house, we don’t have a playroom as such. Toys are kept in cupboards in the children’s bedrooms and we have a toy shelf in the family room. The older kids can easily access the cupboards to choose the games or toys they want and then (hopefully) return them. Selected toys belonging to the two youngest children are stored on the toy shelf.

The toy shelf is a successful storage solution for the younger kids’ toys because:

there’s a finite number of toys on the shelf. Too much choice is often difficult for younger children to manage. They’re more likely to want to have a go at everything and this just adds up to additional mess, without any real value for the kids. Limiting the number of toys available makes selection easier and reduces mess.

the kids can choose their toys by themselves. When I sit down with them to play, or if they’re playing by themselves, they can easily make a decision on what they want, find it and take it off the shelf.

there’s a place for everything. Although I don’t expect each toy to go back to the exact spot where I put it, the shelf makes it easy for the little kids to remember where they took the toy from and where they should put it back.

it makes rotating toys easy. I can draw from the stocks in the cupboards and rotate the toys. The kids get excited about having new toys, and the toys help keep their choices fresh and appropriate for the developmental stage they’re at.

Miscellaneous pieces bag

It seems that the older the kids get, the smaller the pieces are for their toys. Once they’re over the age where they could chew and swallow small pieces, the kids have toys that have many small parts. Even when they pack up their toys, I always find stray bits and pieces of toys and games. I used to spend lots of time finding the right game and returning the pieces to their respective homes. (I have a slight obsession with making sure the toys and games all have their correct pieces.) It then occurred to me that the kids never worked out they hadn’t packed up properly because the next time they grabbed a game to play with all the pieces were there.

At a family meeting I explained to the kids that from that point on when I found stray parts belonging to games and toys, I’d be placing them in the drawstring bag that I’d hung on the wardrobe door handle and that they’d be responsible for putting them back in their rightful place. The kids seemed happy enough with this, mainly as it didn’t mean any immediate work for them.

However, they quickly worked out that this system provided a shortcut in their tidying-up process! Within a few weeks the bag was bursting full of all sorts of things. Not to be deterred, I then informed them that each time the bag was full they’d have to empty it. Everything from the bag had to find a home or get thrown out. It took the kids more than an hour to empty the full bag the first time. That experience has significantly reduced how much stuff the kids put into the bag.

Pre-Christmas cull

Each year around October the kids and I undertake a massive reorganisation of all the toys. We go through the toy cupboard, pull everything out and determine what:

⇒ needs to be fixed

⇒ should be kept

⇒ could be thrown away

⇒ can be given to charity.

This process gets us prepared for the new toys and games that inevitably arrive over the following months for birthdays and Christmas.

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