Holiday Fun For All The Family

14th July 2017

Or is it? Summer holidays mean extra free time for children, but possibly extra stress for parents. If you’re worried about how to entertain your little darlings over the summer, Lisa Botwright has these suggestions…

Oh, those lazy, hazy days of school summer holidays… filled with sunshine, optimism and spontaneous adventures – or, as in my household, with squabbling siblings, extra-low boredom thresholds and mild panic about how to re-jig work commitments around childcare. Mine are older now; I no longer arrange playdates for them – instead they fill their days via WhatsApp arrangements and their own Oyster cards – so I confess to more than a little rose-tinted nostalgia about picnics in the park and splashing in paddling pools. But I still remember that vast expanse of time stretching ahead and asking what on earth people do to fill all those empty weeks?

I discovered that there were people who baked cakes with their children, who had an endless supply of glue, glitter and creative ideas; those who would willingly hand over paint and paintbrushes to their offspring, who would laugh over crayon drawings on walls, and plasticine in hair. I always admired them, but their insouciance made my anxiety over my cream carpets and Laura Ashley soft furnishings look like maternal failure. I was never Blue Peter presenter material; my leanings were always towards Monica from Friends.

That’s why I sympathise with the temptation to use the ‘square nanny’ to entertain your children. Screens are so much part of our lives now, that it’s easy to let their omni-presence dominate. The average 5-7 year old spends four hours a day in front of the television, even though the British Medical Association advocates just an hour.

But if we limit screen time, what do we offer in its place? “Nothing” – or at least don’t feel you need to schedule every minute – says Dr Teresa Belton, a senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning, who argues that too much external stimulation can hamper children’s creative development. She interviewed a number of authors, artists and scientists in her exploration of the effects of boredom, and says: “When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased. But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or simply observing the world around them.”

It’s a tall order to continually come up with exciting activities for your little one, and it’s easy to feel guilty when they complain they’re bored. How reassuring to know that when we shoo them away and tell them to go off and play, we’re actually fostering independence and resilience.

Lorraine Allman, author of The Can Do Child: Enriching the Everyday the Easy Way, suggests that it’s all about balance and looking at what you want to get out of each day. As a working mother, she understands that “sometimes, you just need to get on with things”. If that means you take a couple of hours a day to work and answer emails, or to do some housework or ‘life admin’, then encourage the children to make positive choices about what they do while you’re busy – and praise them for it. Then make sure to carve out some family time, when you can be fully present to engage with your offspring.

Include them in the thinking process and ask them about what they’d like to do over the holidays. If their suggestions err on the expensive side, negotiate. Perhaps they can help you with household jobs, but instead of earning pocket money, they can exchange time spent doing more mundane tasks with ‘vouchers’ towards a day trip to the seaside, the zoo, or an adventure park.

Lorraine has an entrepreneurial and business background, as well as an education one, and was motivated to write her book in response to the worrying body of research, including Dr Belton’s, that indicates children are growing up less enterprising and less resourceful than ever before: hence the ‘can-do’ part of the title. She cites a study that says 88% of businesses believe school leavers are unprepared for the workplace, with many lacking soft skills such as team working and resilience.

Her three-Es approach to raising a can-do child – enjoyment, engagement and enterprise – is grounded in everyday play activities, including those controversial screens. “Technology is here, it’s part of family life,” she says, but offers that it’s about being ‘smart’ with screen time. I love the idea of giving younger children a quota of lollipop sticks or marbles that they can swap for half an hour watching television or playing on the tablet. They gain a degree of control and learn about how to manage their day or week.

The Can Do Child is full of marvellous suggestions for activities, from nurturing children’s own interests (‘pastime passions’, she calls one of these games) to ideas for elevating the usual walk to the swings – plus lots of creative role play tips, all with the common theme of cultivating critical thinking, curiosity, problem-solving and tenacity. “I know parents face increasing pressures on their time, but would like to increase the quality of time they do spend with their children.”

Smart screentime means rejecting passive play (sorry, Candy Crush) and instead using technology that will stimulate creative and thoughtful enjoyment. “Like using the family iPad to make a video together,” she suggests. “Take it in turns to go in front of and behind the camera to create your own nature documentary; or dress up and make a scary movie”.

Lorraine is also a big fan of geocaching (geocaching.co.uk), a modern take on treasure-hunting, or Swallows and Amazons for the 21st century. It involves finding an item, or a container holding a number of items, that’s been hidden at a particular location for GPS users to track down by means of coordinates and often cryptic clues posted online.

“Overall, it’s just like ensuring sure your kids eat a balanced diet,” she explains. I take this to mean that Candy Crush is your junk-food – okay in moderation – but with more creative games making up the vitamins and minerals your body needs to thrive.

Dr Amanda Gummer, a leading child psychologist, and author of Play, underlines the message that giving children the opportunity to create their own entertainment isn’t just about the joy of living in the moment, but is an essential building block for a healthy brain. “Play has evolved over aeons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable.”

Dr Gummer has established Fundamentally Children (fundamentallychildren.com), an organisation dedicated to helping children develop skills through play, and fantastic for a little bit of parental inspiration. The website includes the Good App Guide, for example, offering suggestions for positive play experiences broken down into skills and age brackets. Helpful advice, when the choice can be so bewildering.

So when your child starts to complain that they’re bored, instead of switching on the tv, hand them an old sheet to make a den, or give them a scrapbook to make a holiday diary. When they look at you like you’re crazy, smile beatifically in the knowledge that when the sulking stops, they’ll come up with activities miles better than we adults could ever invent.

However, if you want to stop short at handing over control of the glitter and poster paints – inside the house at any rate – rest assured that I’ll completely understand.

READER OFFER: Optima Magazine has teamed up with Lorraine Allman to offer readers a 20% discount on the £15.95 price of her ‘Can-Do Child activity cards’, fully endorsed by Fundamentally Children, and available for ages 3-5 years and age 5-7 years. Purchase from www.candochild.com/toolkit and enter the code OPTIMA20 at checkout.

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