Still A Good Mom

We’ve been home a lot the last few weeks. First L. got croup, so we were home for a week waiting for the worst of the symptoms to pass. Then it was a long weekend, and then after three days of work, both my and L.’s classrooms were closed due to a positive Covid case. Ever since, there have been more and more cases added on, and now that we’re close to L.’s return date…G.’s classroom found a positive case. Now I’m looking at even more time at home. We aren’t able to really go anywhere; the children aren’t symptomatic, but L. is a close contact so we’re being careful just in case. We’ve gone to the beach a few times, early in the morning before anyone else came. We go to empty parks. We go for drives for coffee and just to get out. But mostly, we’ve been playing at home. It hasn’t been awful. G. learned how to ride her bike. We have a sandbox and a climbing structure and a swing set. We have lots of things to do outside. The problem is, first it was 30+ degrees outside, and we could only handle being out for short periods of time, and then it started raining every day.

This is worst case scenario for my anxiety. Long blocks of uninterrupted play time with my children, with no buffer, no escape. (Isn’t that an awful thought, being alone with my children flares up my anxiety?! That’s a whole other thing to unpack, some other time). The mess. The noise. The chaos. I was dreading it.

In actuality, it hasn’t been awful. We’ve had moments, but that’s it. Just moments. Not days anymore. Just moments.

I have a very specific kind of guilt. When I get overwhelmed, I tend to disassociate. I want to disappear. Usually by mindlessly scrolling. Which means I leave my children to play independently for blocks of time, and then I feel guilty for leaving them unattended for blocks of time, for ignoring them. They usually start to whine for attention, I start to snap because I’m interrupted from my disassociating, and then everyone feels awful. So, I always feel the need to be playing with my kids, which overwhelms me and kickstarts the whole cycle all over again. Cue the guilt. Because we’re home and she had no kids to play with here, G. asks me to play quite a bit, and it all came to a head when she was constantly telling me I was doing it wrong, and changing everything I touched, and telling me what to say, what to do, how to play. I was annoyed, and told her, no. I’m not going to play if you’re constantly telling me what to do. It’s not fun for me to be bossed around. And ever since, she’s toned it down. She lets me join and actually play. It’s so much calmer, and much less tortuous than it had been. It feels wrong, to not like to play when my whole career is based on playing with children. It makes my skin itch, a little. Like sometimes is wrong. But that’s part of the issue. I don’t like to play the games that four year olds like to play.

This issue of independent play still bothered me. I still feel so much guilt for saying No, you can play alone for a while. In an intellectual, professional way, I know that long periods of uninterrupted, self-driven play is important for creativity and problem-solving and brain development, but it was so hard for me to leave them alone to do their work. As much as people knock on Instagram culture for creating unrealistic standards, it’s actually what’s really helped me. In an earlier post, I mentioned an account that I follow, and she had really settled a lot of the contradictions in my head. She laid out how she handles independent play in her house, and it made so much sense to me. She talks about setting time for connection – genuine connection – and then setting time for independence. That’s when she gets her own work done, and spends time on herself. And it makes sense to me. A lot of my children’s behaviours aren’t attention-seeking, they’re connection-seeking. By spending uninterrupted, focused time with each of the kids, they started looking at me to entertain them less and less. They still ask me to play, but they accept the boundaries a little easier when they know that it isn’t forever, that I will be available to them in a little while. And now they play. They play alone, they play with each other, but they play. The screen time detox that I set into place weeks ago has helped (and so has losing the tv remote) and they start their day off with quiet place, and I start my day off in a quiet place, instead of immediate stimulation. And they play, without constantly asking me to join or to help, or to direct. They just come in and out of play. When they need sometime from me – food, a drink, a few minutes of connection, they come, we hang out, and then they play again. It’s been liberating in a way, but there’s still residual guilt with it.

I’ve started telling myself, I can let my kids play alone. I’m not ignoring my kids and damaging my bond with my children by letting them play independently. We find new ways to do things that we both enjoy. My counsellor suggested it, to find ways to spend time together that feels comfortable for all of us. We go for walks. We colour. We snuggle and read books. We make TikToks together. But we don’t really play together. We connect in other ways. It doesn’t make me a bad mom if my kids play alone.

This is my new mantra.

Not playing with my kids does not make me a bad mom.

Not playing with my kids does not make me a bad mom.

Not playing with my kids does not make me a bad mom.

Fantasy play and Screen Time

I am a mom of contradictions.

After a 6 am whining session that ended with L. throwing my TV remote at me, I decided we needed a screen time detox. No cartoons before 9 am. No cartoons for longer than an hour. Only ones that aren’t just bright colours and noise.

And then at nap time G. got her tablet and watched YouTube for 3 hours. C’est la vie.

It’s important though, to have balance. I hear it all the time in the discussion around food. Try not to give junk food power. Don’t make it forbidden, that makes it more enticing. No one food is inherently “bad” or “good”. It’s all just food, the important part is finding the balance. Some food feeds your body, some food feeds your soul, and both should be acknowledged.

In my work, I’m a play advocate. I’m 100% play focused. I don’t do “crafts” unless the kids want to. I don’t do circle time. I don’t have any academically inclined activities like letters and numbers unless the kids are interested in it. My classroom plays and plays hard. I talk a good game about the negative effects of too much screen time on young children. I know how it affects eye muscle development. I know how it affects neural development. I know how it affects speech and language development.

At home, I know that if I don’t get a break, I will lose what little progress I’ve made. Quiet time where I can choose what I want to do rather than follow what my children want to do is important for my own mental health.

However, I have discovered an interesting consequence of G.’s screen time that I didn’t see coming. She has been watching a series on YouTube of a girl who plays barbies and acts out all kinds of scenarios, different characters, different life experiences. Even since, G.’s own dramatic play has grown exponentially. She has new conversations, new experiences, and she’s more willing to play by herself for much longer than she ever has been. She’s always kind of been the kid who wants to roughhouse, who jumps all over everything, who wants to ride bikes and climb and yell and dance. Which is fantastic. I love this about her. However, I have a house full of toys that have never been touched because she had no interest in independent play. Now she’s playing. She’s world-building in a way that she never has before.

There’s a well-known researching on children’s play named Vivian Paley, and I’ve been re-reading her work on fantasy play in children, and it’s fascinating watching it play out in real time right in front of me. She talks about how fantasy play is universal, they follow the same themes and the same scripts. I’ve heard the phrase “mom, pretend you’re… and I’m….” so many times in the last month that I’ve lose count. And it’s the same phrase that Paley observed in her research. There was an interesting point made though – we have lost touch with the story tellers of our culture, the elders and grandparents who used to pass down fairy tales and other stories. Now, children get these stories from the play of others. I’ve also been following a respectful parenting Instagram account that shared a reel about worthwhile TV shows, what makes a TV show overstimulating and how to find shows that are better for your children, and they made an interesting point about how high quality children’s programming can actually build on children’s dramatic and fantasy play skills. This isn’t a point I ever really thought about beforehand. Outside of daycare, G. has no one to play with other than a one year old brother. It isn’t like before, where we played with older cousins, or neighbourhood children. Covid meant that we have been alone for so many months. For such a social child, this has been especially hard for her. In screen time, she has found a new way to play, new narratives to explore, new fantasies to play out. She has found a new source of story telling that wasn’t accessible to her before. Who am I to say that this is a bad thing?

So yeah. We screen time. But, we do it responsibly. And when we notice it’s too much – when they have a hard time transitioning away, when they start to stare obsessively like someone on a heroin high, when it causes tantrums and becomes a NEED – then we take a break and we detox for a little while.

It’s balance. It’s a contradiction. It’s finding a way to parent in a modern world with modern tools and limited access to social supports. It’s life. I’m still going to preach limited screen time, but I’m going to do it in a realistic way, offering realistic suggestions. Because I’ve seen the benefits of how screen time can affect play, and it isn’t all bad. Come join me on the dark side.

The Importance of Watching

I think, sometimes, as an ECE, I forget to use what I know about children in the context of my own home. I have all these play experiences set up, pretty much any kind of toy you can imagine, but I forget to do the rest of it – observing, documenting, reflecting, planning.

Take this week. We were home all week because L. was a close contact to someone with Covid. So, I plan for all this time home. We have sensory bins, cars, blocks, a play kitchen, a ball pit, all these wonderful things. L. just wants to sit and drive his cars, and that’s what he did. G. just wanted the sensory bins. And good lord. I drove myself absolutely nuts with the idea of “She isn’t playing with it right!”

Seriously. What the fuck?!

Apparently there is a right and a wrong way to play with water beads. Who knew?!

After several days of constantly saying Please stop pouring the water beads on the floor! and You’re getting sand everywhere, try to keep it on the table at least!, I gave in and I just watched and I discovered she was baking. She was filling small containers with sand and making cupcakes with bead sprinkles, she was making donuts with and without play dough icing. She made coffee to drink with our sweet treat. I was so obsessed with the mess (that piece of anxiety has a whole other post hahah) that I almost missed what was really going on.

So, I decided fuck it, if she wants to bake, let’s do this thing. That afternoon, I left the kids with the hubby and I went to the dollar store. I bought flour, salt, vinegar, baking soda, baking powder, lemon juice, corn starch, vegetable oil, plastic condiment containers, spray bottles, and little bowls. It was the best 20$ I ever spent.

Of course, I began with the carefully laid out materials, set out attractively, with the mixing bowl and the spoons. That lasted about 36 seconds. Once she realized that she could just do whatever she wanted, it was on. The first round, she mostly just mixed liquids. She added different food colourings, she wanted the oil and water bubbles dance, then she added in some of the dry ingredients and watched how the colours swirled and how the textures changed as she added different ingredients to the mix. In the end, she used every bit of her “science”. Thank god I bought doubles of everything.

The next day, she went with the dry ingredients first, then experimented with how the different liquids interacted with each other. She was thrilled when she learned that lemon juice reacts with baking soda the same way vinegar does (same reaction, less smelly). As she mixed everything together, she told me that it felt like dough, and asked if she could eat it. I told her to go for it, but she didn’t really want to follow through. She watched how the coloured liquids made the dough have different layers of colour throughout, she felt the difference between the gritty salt and the soft flour. It was a full sensory experience.

And that was it. She mixed and she kneaded, and she was so involved in her play that an hour and half went by before she was ready to move on. And honestly, the mess took less than 10 minutes to clean, so I don’t know why I was so fixated on that. Today, she was playing with a set of stacking rings – again, they were donuts. Maybe this week we’ll try to make our own donuts; I’m pretty much down with anything that ends with donuts. Maybe we’ll make our own bread. Maybe she’ll be over it in a few days. Who knows?

I just know, the next time I’m obsessed with the mess, with them not playing with things “right”, it’ll be my reminder. Just watch. Just wait. Something amazing will come, just wait and see.

How it Began vs How it’s Going

L. had a child in his class be diagnosed with Covid19 this past week, so we’ve been quarantining at home for the last week. My hubby was home too, so it’s just been a houseful for the last week. There’s been reno’s and playtime and snacks. So many snacks.

Now that our kitchen is finally getting done, I decided to reorganize our kids supply cupboard. I got new storage containers of different sizes, new squeeze bottles and shakers and strainers, and beads and mini erasers, and all these things that could be set out as table top activities for my kids to do.

Of course, because they’re my kids, they didn’t want to do any of the things I had planned for them to do with it.

The first thing G. did was use the beads for filling the muffin tin, rather than beading because of course. She made me muffins, which I had to eat by dumping back into the bucket – her exact instructions. And then she took the mini playdoh cups and stuffed them full of beads to make donuts, and then she threw the kinetic sand in for good measure. L. took the mini erasers, threw them all on the floor, laughed at the pictures, cried to join his sister, put the playdoh in his mouth, and then ran off to play with his cars.

Sometimes I forget that how my children like to play. I spend all day watching children play, learning their quirks and their likes and their strengths. I forget to do that with my kids. I bring out this experiences that have no meaning for them, or just aren’t something they like to do, or I get stressed out when they don’t do something the “right” way. I forget how much G. likes to bake, and how much L. likes to move things. I should be setting up mixing and measuring stations for her and ramps for him, but no. I have to set up the “proper” play experiences, like puzzles, or blocks, or all these things they have no interest in.

So honestly, that’s what this is. It’s going to be learning stories about my children. I’m going to honour their play experiences the same way that I would any of my children at work. I’m going to relearn who my children are and what they know and all the beautiful things they bring to the table if I just let them be.

Follow along to see how it goes. You’ll likely see my lose my mind, one mess at a time.