Thursday, 14 April 2011

Holiday entertainment? It's child's play.

Now that the holidays are upon us it is with joy and excitement that I read all the postings for parents about how to entertain the kids on vacation (since a book, a bike or the odd colouring session will not be enough).

This reminded me of a chapter in Spring to Mind in which I mused over the diversity and extent of kid-oriented activities and classes on offer these days. Rather than recast those thoughts here, I thought I would just extract them for you – whet your appetite as it were (mindful that sooner or later the whole book will be republished here for the 17 of you who bother to read this...).

“...I guess the current generation of under 10s is more driven and scheduled than we ever were. I remember pestering Mrs Off-Spring until I was blue in the face to be allowed to do ballet. Every time she said “next year”, knowing I would outgrow the interest. No doubt also knowing it would not be one of my gifts.  All those fat little girls in their tutus and slippers feeling so princessy and demure...

And I wound up with three sons...

Speaking of children’s activities, I had occasion to wonder again whether I am raising backward neophytes, heralding form the 1970s rather than the 2000’s. I overheard some mothers at the gym last week discussing their children’s schedules.  I mean, who under 25, who is not at least a management consultant, even has a schedule.  These children have judo and swimming, French and art, ballet and chess, Spanish and music and cycling proficiency, drama and gymnastics. One child of our acquaintance has such a full week on school days that he has to do his Italian, pilates, rugby, mandarin and science on the weekend, between mass, swimming, lunch and 23.5 minutes free play. Something will have to give when the homework really starts, not to mention the boy scouts, altar serving and volunteerism.

I was really fascinated by the cycle proficiency class.  I think I borrowed a bike from a kid up the road and rode around the cul-de-sac over two Sundays and became proficient that way in those heady, sepia days in the seventies. I was 8 and clearly under achieving since I was not at Cantonese or Pottery at the time, but actually had Sundays available...

Having said all of that, I am not scoffing at the desire to enrich and broaden and expose one’s offspring. Goodness, no. There are clearly a few holes in the market though, which is where I need to step in. Just imagine if we could enhance skills in negotiation, face-to-face communications, street smarts, rapping, tidying up, pocket money budgeting and for the younger ones, bottom wiping.  There is no doubt demand for maximising the effectiveness of the tantrum  - a session on style, another on timing and another where we really hone in on more sophisticated manipulation.

Maybe I could offer sibling packages and cover all the age groups as well as the nitty gritty of sibling rivalry. I could really make a difference in the holiday camp market place.

And for the mums? And dads! Well I need to be pretty strategic about catching the interest in that discerning sector, but couples classes could work, or coffee mornings with a twist, where we workshop some issues of concern. Maybe a series of classes, free latte included in the fees. Topics could include:
How to say “no” and mean it.
I know my child is average and that’s ok.
How to dress you child for their body shape.
Restaurant voices.
Boundaries are cool.
Play doesn’t have to be hard work.

I could have fridge magnets made with little thoughts printed on them, so that whenever the parents glance at the activities schedule for the term or the good behaviour star chart upon which they would magnetically reside, they would be reminded of something useful, such as “if it walks and talks like a child, it must be a child”.

My one-time nanny, Helga, was a big fan of the star chart. She was struggling to get the boys to do as she wanted so we decided the chart might incentivise better behaviour.  It really needed to go in a spreadsheet – there was so much detail. There were at least 10 categories for each child, based on their age (then just 2, 4 and 6) and abilities. And it was a bugger to administer. For example, walking home from nursery, rather than riding on the buggy board, warranted a star. Eating with implements was rewarded with a star. And "please" and "thank you"? Yes - a star. Half the hoped for actions were already mastered and long since acquired habits; the other half were not desirable from any one’s point of view; for example, chopping with Mummy’s scissors.

One day Helga took me aside to say that she was very concerned about Off-Spring Number 1’s maths skills?  He was apparently unable – at age 5 - to do subtraction sums such as 15 takeaway 23 or 9 minus 17.  I had to explain that the negative integers were possibly a little beyond the year ones just yet, maybe in second term.  Fearful that we in the UK were backward and all of the ex-soviet Eastern European children are racing ahead (explains things like arms wars, if they can master the old trigonometry and trajectories early), I did explain that there are numbers less than zero and that they are useful for measuring things like temperatures.  Also handy if you go under the sea and you want to work out your depth in relation to the surface of the water.  He was able to then extrapolate the concept and suggest – “or like if someone is really naughty, they get a negative star on the chart”. 

Maybe Helga is on to something after all.

The learning for me, is that the real world context really aids with knowledge retention and learning.  To that end, I was telling the Off-Spring about a time when I was about 9 and a strip of purple flowered wall paper was ripped off the toilet wall and Mrs Off-Spring had to employ strong arm tactics to break us down and force a confession out of us; culminating in my brother confessing in order to get our TV privileges restored.  

This was by way of explaining the meaning of criminal investigation to the Off-Spring.

Anyway, the star chart was a little unwieldy. There were so many stars on that chart by the end of the first day that I started to fear that local stationery shops would be unable to keep up with demand. While well-intended, the chart was not capable of operating as an incentivisation programme at all.  Maybe in communist regimes star charts operated differently. Certainly, the purpose behind Helga’s was never clear.  It did excite them as they begged for more and more multicoloured stars though, every evening.  I still find one or two in the washing machine every now and then. And I think Helga probably enjoyed ruling all the lines and writing in all the boxes and sitting as judge and jury all afternoon. Star charts are generally baffling I find.  The year one class chart a few years ago may have confused me.  Miss Finucane explained it well though – Off-Spring Number 1 had very few stars because he was a quiet student who was no trouble and got on with his work beautifully.  It seems then that I have had it all wrong. Maybe I need one myself.”


Now it was a couple of years ago, that I wrote that..

Things have changed in many ways since. For a start all of the Off-Spring developed cycle proficiency without lessons - in the old fashioned way - spurred on by each other and the neighbourhood children. I run classes for adults and children now. Communication and negotiation being just two skills we work on (listening and resilience and tolerance prove to be more urgent needs, actually). We have also abandoned star charts some time in the past two years in favour of a points system that allows for demerits as well as merits and which allows for the accumulation of points for behaviour going above and beyond the expected. It works very well. I am currently top of the leader board....

Should anyone like further particulars do drop me a line. 

Best of all, developing, designing and implementing points systems and having the kids describe and present arguments in favour of their preferred one, is a great source of holiday amusement and entertainment. So too is Scrabble, my own favourite, "Writeathon" (to raise money for your school. favourite charity or cause or mother), or just taking it easy for the first time since New Year (the joys of which we will explore in the next post).

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