Keeping the small ones busy over Christmas

The problem with blogs about what to do with your kids over the holidays is that they usually come off a bit prescriptive. The aim of this post isn’t to tell you how to parent your kids in the holidays. Rather is to give you a box of tricks.

I’ve been teaching for around 20 years and in that time I have learnt that the real skill of teaching is not delivering a predesigned curriculum, but in your box of tricks. The lesson is usually part of the curriculum and it is written with the aim of teaching a kid of X age X skill. The box of tricks on the other hand is what to do when the kids don’t care about the lesson. The box of tricks is what you do – pull out your sleeve – when the lesson ends 10 minutes before the bell.

The value of learning at home

The box of tricks at home differs from the box of tricks in the classroom because when you’re a parent there is no time for writing a curriculum and lesson plans. But you are teaching a similar set of skills too those you model in the classroom. At home the skills we demonstrate to our children include but are not limited to: concentration, consideration, collaboration, independence, curiosity, imagination etc. These are processes. Teaching these skills is about teaching process and not product. By process, I mean teaching them as a skill involves letting your kid/s play with materials and not worry about what they do. Within limitation.

I’m not in favour of letting kids re-paint your house, but it is fine (critical really) to limit mess and set up boundaries. Often this only works with older children and the best thing you can do with little children is limit the amount of materials you let them have access too. And use trays, which helps signals to the child the area in which the play / exploration takes place. They are also useful for transferring everything that needs putting away after away from the kid, until you have time to deal with it. As when you’re a parent teaching skills happens while you’re trying to do everything else, which can make enjoying it a challenge.

How to do it

The trick to enjoying time at home with the kids, I think, is giving up the desire for your kids to create an end product. There will be nothing to show for your efforts. Keeping your punks occupied is not so different from feeding the birds in winter. You set the seeds out, sit back and wait for the birds to come, observe, and try not to interfere too much. Allowing your kids to work uninterrupted takes practice and is an ongoing process. The bird feed will run out eventually, so you need to build setting out the seeds into your daily schedule / routine. It really doesn’t take long to learn how to differentiate, develop or customize each of the following three categories that overlap: Invitations to create, quiet time boxes and sensory boxes. Each of which require materials that are likely things you have at home already, or can easily acquire or make (clay, dough, water, sand, tape, beads, beans, magnets, ice etc).

Of course, my boxes of tricks is not the definite box of tricks. These activities / ideas are drawn from sources in books and online. I think they would work well on children up to the age of six when children have gained a little more independence. I am currently learning and practicing how to manage the box of tricks with 2 kids of different ages (1 & 4 years).

Invitation to create

An invitation to create means that you set up an activity, or you invite an activity by laying out a set of instruments, materials or whatever on a tray. They should be tempting, so that the child looks at them and the child/children cannot resist having a play. Activities might include: painting, sculpting water/clay/dough/sand play. This can take a little bit of time to set up (if you’re not good at coming up with ‘invitations’ and need to google them, like me). But once you’ve got into the habit of ‘leaving them’ for your child/children you do get quicker and better at knowing which works for your kids.

Quiet Time Boxes

I think the original idea for this was that it was a box of toys you give your punk when it stops napping so you can keep having a break in the day. I don’t use them at a set time everyday, but at times of need (shower time, when I am cooking, need to unload the dishwasher etc etc). It is essentially a box of toys that my punks do not have access to all the time. I rotate the activities in the boxes and the toys inside them are open ended, age appropriate, and safe to be done independently. I wouldn’t put pom poms or paints in them for example. These boxes are out of sight, out of reach and I have separate ones for each child. They include things like: scratch art books, colouring books, puzzles, magic water colour books, sticker books, magnetic books/dolls, blocks and construction toys. I have no set time of using them, unlike the original idea.

If you want to try out this idea, my advice is twofold. 1. Don’t bother buying new toys for it, just box up toys that can be played with independently or which you have duplicates (such as 2 stacking toys). 2. Don’t attempt to make your kid play in a room alone first off. Introduce them as simultaneous ‘work’. I.e have them play with them at the kitchen table while you’re cooking. Or folding the washing or whatever. Be there, but be working on something else so that you teach them that these are toys they ‘work’ with while you are also ‘working’.

Sensory boxes

 They are in essence boxes, containers, trays full of things that help a child to develop their senses. They also aid the development of gross / fine motor skills. Without doubt the messiest of all of the above but possibly the most versatile. If you don’t have much money/space in your home then you can use a baby bath or cooking pots/pans. But it needs to be big enough to fit two (or more) children’s hands. If you want to splash out I’ve heard good things about tuff spots, but I use a water/sand table.

You fill the container a given material i.e. wet/dry paper, anything in your pantry (oats, flour, pasta, rice, beans etc) or doughs, sand, clay, beads, pebbles, ice, blocks, cotton wool, mud, balls, slime, water or anything that you can imagine. You can add to the material cups and potato mashers, or spoons, or anything that the child can use to manipulate the material.

If you go this route my advice is: use two containers. Kids like to transfer from one container to another, so the second container will be the floor, if you don’t provide one. You can limit mess by using a plastic mat underneath the containers. If your child/children are older you can also introduce “small worlds” into the sensory table/box. These are good especially for talking about changes coming up (a scene with an aeroplane going between two houses for example), or talking about what is going on at day care / nursery / kindergarten. Or anything else.

Give it a go

As I said at the beginning, the focus of this kind of process play is to foster creativity, concentration, independence and gross/fine motor skills. Not to create an end product. It is a good idea to do the last category of activities (sensory box) supported by an adult (not while you are cooking). You want to be available to help kids use the material and also provide them with the vocabulary they can use to describe what they are doing (not what they have done). Avoid giving your kids validation, you’re trying to move them away from needing your praise for product. Focus on how they do things, how they put things together, the colours they chose, how they developed the activity. And of course, encourage your kids to tidy up after themselves. Bribe them with chocolate if necessary 😉

Happy holiday folks.

About the author:
Nim Folb
PhD Education
Expat mother in Aarhus, Denmark

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