The sweet sound of play

It’s Sunday morning and I’m writing this whilst D is playing downstairs.  I can hear him chattering to himself whilst he makes his trains go choo.

This is such a big step forward.  More than a step – it’s a huge gigantic humongous gargantuan leap.

You never think when you have children of the things you take for granted.  The developmental steps that you just assume they will take.  That whilst you know play is good for children – you have never really given much thought to the why.  And you never imagine having a child who doesn’t ‘play’.

He did play – just not in a way you would expect. He has always loved being outside – getting a dog was one of the best things we ever did.  So most of his early play involved being outside.  Mastering his scooter, then his balance bike.  Learning to overcome the limitations of his coordination to climb trees and navigate the bumpy bike track.  These are some of our happiest times with him.  But he didn’t play at home – and rarely independently.   The play he wanted to do was usually very physical – building ramps for the balls to go down, swinging on hoops, bouncing on balls, play fighting.  But nothing that involved imagination.

You see a deficit in imaginative play is a deficit in the mind.  It means that your child’s brain isn’t functioning the way it should.  Imaginative play skills are inextricably linked to brain development.  They form the foundation of communication.  They help a child to role play and therefore start to make sense of the world.  Even before imagination, they build a strong sense of personal narrative about the real world around them.  Going to the shops, playing doctors, buying tickets at the railway station.

Gradually over the last few years we have worked on these skills for D.  Moving from very structured and rote learned role plays, where the interactions would be the same every time – over and over.  And over and over.  And over and over.  The same thing every time – until you wanted to scream internally with the boredom of it all.  Gradually he would let you change something – maybe letting the train go to Grandma’s instead of the shop.  Slowly, very very slowly things started to change.

For a very long time the only books he would read were a very small number of mostly factual picture books.  The same books over and over again. Read in the same way, with you making the same observations.  It was a carefully executed dance.  There were possibly 2 fiction books – one about Chu the panda with a big sneeze and the other Tabby McTat. Both of which have been read in amounts probably getting into multiple hundreds. But we keep going – gradually introducing bed time verbal stories about his day. Talking to him about day to day stuff.    As his understanding of narrative in daily life grew – he allowed us to introduce new fiction books to his repertoire. And with this increase in the number of stories – his sense of play started to develop.  He really is the boy that words built.  First though vocabulary and then through the power of the narrative structure.

You see I believe in the power of the story.  It’s what makes us human.  The ability to be part of a story.  We do it in every aspect of our lives.  We construct narratives about who we are and who we want to be.  It is the basic building block that underpins everything we do.  I’m not talking about losing yourself in a world of fiction or being able to create magical worlds in your head. I’m talking about even just basic things like talking about your day.  Explaining how an argument with your friends has made you feel. Stories are powerful – they construct our everyday lives.

And play is a very big part of this.  So listening to my son pushing his trains around a table whilst talking to himself about what he is doing, shows me that his brain is making sense unprompted of the stories in his head.  He’s going off piste and off script.  He’s really and truly doing imaginative independent play.  He’s telling his own stories.

And there is no sweeter sound I could be listening to right now.

WillyGate

Before I had D I was probably (in fact certainly) one of those people who thought that bad behaviour in children was caused by  ‘THE PARENTS’.  That’s right folks – every time I saw a badly behaved child screaming on a bus, pushing another child in the playground, shouting in a cafe – I would inwardly sigh and hoik my judgey pants just a bit higher.

Until those judgey pants  eventually strangled me.

My child became the one who exposed his penis in the playground.  (and in the supermarket and walking down the street and on the bus)  He had recently been taken out of nappies and suddenly he was free.

Consequently I had to endure the school run walk of shame every morning and afternoon.  No one said anything to me directly – but their disapproval was felt in other ways.  Conversations that stop when you come into view.  Ushering their precious children quickly past whilst on the school run.  Children who stop and point and proclaim ‘that’s him.’

D at this point had no concept of what he was doing.  In fact the squeals and screams and shocked faces of everyone around him caused him to think this was a great thing to do.  Cause and reaction – perfectly normal for a child of his emotional age.  But he was a 3 year old trapped in the body of a 5 year old, in a mainstream school environment.

At home we banished the problem by ‘ignoring and moving on’.  At school and out in the real world we needed a different plan  (because we had no control over other peoples reactions to him).

Luckily he had a support assistant who just wasn’t phased by this development. (The same cannot be said of some of the other ‘adults’ in the school).  And the very simple answer to our problem – dungarees!   Hastily I sourced a few pairs of dungarees and for a few months this was all he wore when out of the house.  This presented a few challenges of its own – being that we were also toilet training at the same time – but it worked.  The penis stayed put and we were all able to breath a sigh of relief.

Putting him back into normal trousers went smoothy over the summer holidays and WillyGate was over. (for now)

WillyGate taught me many things.

(1)     A barrier solution can be pretty effective when dealing with a child whose ability to reason is dysfunctional

(2)    Some adults in educational settings need to grow up and remember not to project ‘adult’ reactions into a child’s world

(3)     Working in partnership can make change happen quickly

(4)    Mainstream settings struggle with special needs children – setting behavioural expectations that are defined by their peer group – not their delayed development. (In fact I wish they were academically inclined to do the same!)

(5)   Look for the simple solutions in life.

(6)    Don’t judge other parents – you don’t know what they are dealing with.

A week in Provence

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Just back from a wonderful week with the family in the South of France.  It was a much needed break and a time for us just to spend time together as a family. It was the first holiday where we actually felt like a cohesive family.  We were able to spend time together as group – not just in the swimming pool – but on actual days out and even to visit historical sights!

Provence was stunning.  The light is just amazing and everywhere there is the scent of lavender on the breeze. And of course life feels so much better with some sunshine.

We splashed together in the pool (M and I even got to sit on a sun lounger for possibly a whole half hour while the children played), we explored the back streets of Avignon (under the guise of looking for the train station) and we even managed a long family meal out at a proper French restaurant (thank goodness for iPads…).

The little boy marched over Roman aquaducts, paddled in the Gard, ran through Papal Palaces and clambered over rocks to a ruined chateau.  There was only one tantrum like meltdown – and that was when we wanted to stop and taste some wine! (boring adult alert…)

A got lots of quality time once the little boy was in bed – it turns out she’s a mean chess player.  And she was a star – looking after her little brother and for the first time really cementing a relationship with him.   Along with asking some really interesting questions about the world around her and trying out new foods.

It’s taken a little while (5 years really…) but it finally feels like we have accepted who we are as a family and have adjusted to our here and now.  I’m sure there are still rocky roads ahead – that’s true of any family – but for now I’m going to revel in the memory of the laughter of my children and the scent of lavender on the breeze.

 

For my dear friends on their (re)wedding day

As you prepare to catch the no 43 to another part of your life – these are a few things I want to say.

Give your love freely and be open to that love in return.
Ask for help when needed and share your joys and your sorrows.
Support each other in your endeavours and chase your dreams.
Try to understand each others needs and accept that sometimes you might fail – and that’s ok.
Continue the amazing work you do together for the good of your community and humanity as a whole, never missing a chance to stand up and be counted, continuing to challenge prejudice, inequality and intolerance wherever you see it.
Enjoy creating a home that will continue to be a source of strength to you, your family and your friends
You already know how the nature of love and relationships change over time, but learn to trust the ebbs and flows of that love, knowing that it will continue to change.

Continue to be wonderful, bohemian, unconventional and so very North London.
Drink single malt, eat quinoa and smoked tea chocolate, roast aubergines, order sushi, microwave your rice and then wash it all down with a modicum of irony.
Sing songs around fire pits until dawn and at the end of the night hug your friends, kiss your children and collapse under your duvet – together, happy and wishing the clock didn’t already say 4am!

You have both been on such a journey and you are about to embark on another.  I wish you a life filled with love and laughter, and I wish you strength for the times that are rockier than we would like them to be.

Life isn’t simple – we wouldn’t want it to be.

Good luck my very dear friends. Have a wonderful day.

 

Bluebell Woods and a Midsummer Nights Dream

Last weekend was magical.

One of those weekends where simple pleasures and family life combine to create beautiful memories.

On Saturday night I took A to the Globe to see a Midsummer Nights Dream.  It was spectacular and enthralling.  She complained loudly all the way there about how she was going to have to stand for 3 whole hours… We played the mini game on the bus, she won.  She complained some more about standing.  We had a lovely meal and a drink on the Southbank.  She complained some more about standing.  We found a great spot near the front with the other ‘groundlings’.  She continued to complain about standing – until the magic of the evening and the performance did something special.  As the sun set and the actors transported us to a magical forest where sprites make mischief with love potions,  my daughter forgot all about her poor aching 10 year old legs.  She got caught up in the mystery and beauty of the theatre around her. And as we walked back down the Southbank at night, her conversation flowed and her eyes sparkled with the wonder of it all.

The next morning bright and early we took the dog up to Goblins Wood (actually Gobians Wood – but we renamed it years ago).  This year has been a bumper year for bluebells and the woods did not disappoint.  Swathes of beautiful bluebells under the canopy of the trees.  D got to search for sticks, J (the dog) gets to chase those sticks, and A actually now appreciates the wonder of the Bluebell Woods – I wonder if she makes the connection and imagines Titania in this wood. That convergence of art and nature – doing subtle and wonderfully creative things her young head.

Then we had a perfect late summer lunch with family to celebrate their recent nuptials. (and I wish them all the very best as they start this part of their life.)

And I have the pleasure and the privilege of sharing these moments with people who mean so very much to me. A set of treasured perfect memories.

Things my son does with Makaton

1  He sleep signs instead of talking

2 He makes mistakes with signing that are similar to when toddlers get words wrong.  So his sign for ‘pepper’ is the sign for ‘paper’ because they sound the same.

3 His sign for Sobell Centre is Bell House

4 His most used sign is Mummy

5 Closely followed by What? Closely followed by Food

6 My favourite sign is double-decker bus

7 Closely followed by Mmmm Yummy

8 He wakes me in the middle of the night to ‘talk’ to me – but gets upset when I don’t answer because I can’t see him signing

9 His signs are dramatic and fully expressive and often feature the full force of his personality

Memories – First books

I love to  read.  I love words and the endless combinations writers can employ to engage me, the Reader.   For as long as I can remember I have read.  The first book I can remember reading was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Rapt, holding my breath – I followed every step of Charlie Bucket’s journey, rapidly turning each page. Consumed whole by the story, I felt that I was Charlie Bucket.

I wished for days, months, years after that – that I would find that Golden Ticket and be transported to a land of chocolate waterfalls and square sweets that looked round.  Even now when I open a chocolate bar – my inner child recalls the memory of that book.

My home life was difficult and in the pages of each book I read I found new and different worlds I could escape too.  I was one of the Famous Five, travelling to Kirren Island.  I joined Mrs Frisby Mouse on her encounters with the Rats of NIMH as she looked for a solution to save first her poorly child and then the Rats themselves.  I crept through dark passages with Bilbo Baggins, endlessly transcribing the runes and writing my own secret messages.  I suffered terribly with Katy when she fell off her swing – and marvelled at her resilience and how she just kept on going.  I wept with Anne when she first arrived at Green Gables, identifying with just how out of place and unsure of herself she was.  Every book and the characters in it became my friends and guides.

In the pages of those books I found me.  Looking back I can see how those characters helped to shape my own.  There are reoccurring themes of resilience in the face of adversity and difficulty.  That you as an individual are responsible for the outcome of your own life – no matter what obstacles you might face.  But also, the recognition, as in the story of Charlie Bucket – that when an opportunity comes along, you have to grab it with both hands- because you never know where it will take you.