Hind sight is often such a wonderful view of things, offering great clarity.

For so many years I felt guilty for not offering my preschool aged children the learning opportunities, accelerated academic classes, formal swimming and gym classes that so many other mothers of my time were doing.  This was partly due to not having the surplus money to afford such classes and the classes not being available at times that were suitable for my children. The other reason I chose to go it alone was that I had lively boys that delighted in expressing themselves and not always wanting to conform to a set class format.  Their moods often dictated how or where we played. It gave us freedom to play and learn.

So instead of signing up for every class going around, we did a lot of activities that were free or required minimal outlay.  We went swimming a few times each week, but at a time that suited us and we could stay as long or as short as we liked.  In the summer months we swam at my parents home as they had a pool. I took the boys to all sorts of parks, we investigated many and returned to our favourites. We live in Perth that has fabulous outdoor weather for most of the year, and so many outdoor spaces to explore.  One very wet and cold winter’s day I was spotted by a friend.  A few weeks later she asked me what I was doing  outside on that very wet day?  I explained to her that I had lively boys who thrive on being outside each day, so we put our wet weather gear on and caught a ferry running up and down the river to while away a few hours in the teaming rain.  It is still one of our favourite days spent together.  Instead of the weather dictating what we couldn’t do , we just had to get creative and had an adventure in the rain. We stomped in puddles and watched spontaneous little rivers run down hills, fascinated by what happens when the ground just can’t cope with so much water falling from the sky.

I found that local libraries ran free reading and craft sessions, as did King’s Park.  We could head to King’s Park to hear a story read by a ranger then do craft activities with gluing seeds, sand, leaves and all sorts of things.  It encouraged the children to learn about the flora and fauna around them, then we could head to the adventure playground and play for hours. Sometimes we met friends at these activities, sometimes we just went on our own.  We hosted friends at our home, where the boys had to learn to share their prized possessions and home space. Likewise when we visited friend’s homes, they had to learn how to play well with other people’s things and be respectful of their home. That each home including ours, had boundaries and rules.

As my eldest boy headed to kindy, I would hear of all the classes that his peers had done, or were doing after school.  The guilt was enormous for me.  I felt that I had deprived my sons of great opportunities that would have accelerated their future school life and put them ahead. That I had possibly disadvantaged their futures already. I carried this guilt until only recently. I am now hearing the benefits of nature and free play for young children.  How the benefits of allowing them to learn and play has far reaching effects. I step back a little now and stop giving myself a hard time for my choices. That I now look back at these times we spent together doing these activities as some of my favourites.  That I learned so much about each of my children through their play. Their strengths, weaknesses and what they enjoyed doing, rather than me dictating what they SHOULD be doing.

I am finding some new mums are just not keen to get out and dirty with their children.  I spend a day each week with a toddler to give his mum a break.  We go on our ‘Dirt Date’ and he loves it.  We head to the park, we take buckets, spades, bubble mix, frisbee and have a ball.  My date has learned how to dig and not flick sand around on others.  He has learned how to share his sand equipment with other curious toddlers that come to join us, as well as volume and measurement. I have watched my little boyfriend negotiate rough and uneven surfaces as he has gone from a crawler to a walker, to work out how to go down small kerbs backwards and safely, not by me showing him but just having the time and space to learn this himself.  That his naturally cautious personality has been able to experiment safely and freely and I now delight in his confidence around new people, dogs and negotiating his mobility around play equipment. To see him smile when new people approach us, offer to share his space and equipment and wave good bye as people pass by or leave.   That the discomfort for me a middle aged lady getting down low in a sandpit and shoes full of sand, is far outweighed by seeing my little friend learn and grow in his abilities each week. The silver lining is that he sleeps well after our day out. His cup is full and you can see the contentment in his face.

In case you were wondering, my sons are now sixteen and nineteen. One at school and one at uni. They are doing well and I am learning to let go of the guilt, as the proof is now in the pudding and I have time to remind myself that I did the best I could with the available resources at the time.  It seems I didn’t do such a bad job after all.  My wish is for families to keep things simple, enjoy your children at each age and stage and don’t give yourself a hard time for the things you didn’t do. Praise yourself for being present and doing the best you could on any given day.

I was lead to the following article published in The Washington Post ” The decline of play in preschoolers- and the rise in sensory issues” by Valerie Strauss through Andrew Lines from the Rite journey website.  (www.rite journey.com) While Valerie and Angela are American, I think we can see many parallels to Australian children.  The article covers a post from American Occupational Therapist, Angela Hanscom and what she is finding.