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Staying Home

Playful Learning

From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 2, 2009, pp. 40-42

"Staying Home" is a regular feature of the magazine New Beginnings, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of New Beginnings to help parents who choose to stay at home with their children. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

I enjoy being home with my children, but I struggle with knowing how much to entertain them. Should I be teaching them things, playing structured games with them, or letting them play independently? They do play well on their own, but not for very long. It's nice when I can get other things done, but then I often feel guilty for neglecting them! How do other moms find a balance?

Mother's Response

It took me a while to realize that things I thought were important before children were not so important once the children arrived. I know my limitations, I cannot have a spotless house with ironing up to date and home cooked food on the table and happy children.

As the children have gotten a little older I ask them to help with some chores, and my four-year-old loves to sweep the floor. It is not done to my standard but at least she tries. Feather dusters are great fun. They know that if they help me out then I can do fun stuff with them. We can sort the socks together, which usually turns into a sock fight with missiles being launched across the lounge, but little people love matching the pairs.

Cooking a meal can be a fun family activity and a learning activity at the same time. Baking cakes involves science and math. We are growing vegetables and fruit to eat and the children are learning about nature. We can have another science lesson when we find a woodlouse or a ladybird. The children are having fun growing sunflowers -- it looks like the youngest child in the house is going to win the competition for the tallest one this year.

Amanda Dunbar
Tyne and Wear, GB

Mother's Response

I have also struggled to find a balance between spending time with my toddler and getting things done around the house. My most successful solution has been to involve my 19-month-old, Jack, in most of my daily chores. Our favorite activities are laundry, unloading the dishwasher, preparing meals, cleaning the floors, and washing dishes. When Jack was younger I would wear him in a pouch sling for most of these chores and talk or sing to him about the activity. Once he could stand on his own he became an active assistant in most of the chores.

When doing laundry, we start by pushing the full laundry baskets from the closet to the laundry room. Usually these "laundry trucks" will go "vroom, vroom" around the hallway for a few minutes before they arrive in the laundry room. I will hand Jack each piece of laundry and he will throw it into the washing machine. We identify some of the articles, "Daddy's socks," "Mommy's shirt." We talk about the swirling water and the bubbles. The same routine works well for getting clothes into and out of the dryer. Sorting the laundry takes some time, but it is fun to joke about me wearing Jack's little shirt or Daddy wearing Jack's little socks, and often an impromptu game of peek-a-boo results.

When unloading the dishwasher, I remove all the sharp utensils first and then Jack picks out the other utensils for me, one by one, Now that he is also learning the meaning of "careful," he will sometimes hand me the small plates and bowls, as well. I say the name of each as he hands it to me and thank him for being such a great helper.

When cutting or mixing for meals or snacks, I bring the items to the table so Jack can watch from his highchair, or down to the floor so he can help a little with the mixing. Sometimes when it is a particularly messy job, I will give him his own little bowl and spoon so he can mix his own batter instead of getting the main dish all over the kitchen. Jack's imagination is starting to expand and he surprised me the other day by putting the dish in the cupboard to "bake." He pretended to turn the knob on the cupboard to turn on his little oven and waited a few seconds before announcing that it was "all done." I reminded him to get an oven mitt because the bowl was sure to be hot. He pulled the oven mitt out of the drawer and retrieved his masterpiece from the play oven. All the while I was able to get the real meal on the stove to cook.

When Jack was about ten months old we went to the store and bought two little brooms with dustpans. I told him one was for him and one for me. I let him carry one around the store and when we got home reminded him that it was his broom and put it away in the pantry. Even now after every meal and snack I ask him to help me sweep the floor. He scampers to the pantry to get the little broom. Even though the crumbs are still not making their way into the dustpan from his broom it keeps him involved and busy so I can really get the mess cleaned up.

Washing dishes in the sink is becoming one of Jack's favorite chores. Filling and pouring can capture his interest sometimes for 30 minutes at a time. I will pull a chair up to the sink and flip two additional chairs around so their backs are against the chair he is standing on. I fill the sink halfway with warm water, a little cooler than I would use if I were doing dishes on my own, and make sure we have lots of bubbles. I will keep all the breakable dishes and sharp utensils out of reach on the counter and give Jack a few spoons and cups to wash on his own. I will wash the non-toddler friendly items alongside him in the other sink, while he washes and plays in his sink. Now that I am becoming more confident that he will be careful on the chair I will let him continue washing the dishes, while I wipe up the counters and finish clearing the table.

I have found including Jack in many of my daily activities around the house to be very fulfilling for both of us. The tasks take considerably more time than if I were trying to whizz through them during nap time, but the learning and cooperation are very valuable. Including Jack helps me to be more present during the activities, instead of letting my mind race to the next thing I need to get done. Jack is learning that the daily tasks of running a household are valuable and can be enjoyable. Through the tasks he is also learning colors, shapes, sizes, similarities and differences, and probably many other things that I do not notice.

I enjoy being able to be with Jack all day and still feel that most of the household chores are being completed. Quite often during Jack's nap I am able to rest, read, or do yoga because the house is mostly in order. Overall, this arrangement has made our time together more peaceful and purposeful. We are expecting a new baby this summer and I am hoping that Jack's interest in household activities and willingness to help will continue!

Ashleigh Renard
Warrington, PA, USA

Mother's Response

We have nine children. Some have already left the nest, some are in school, some are home schooled, and others aren't yet old enough for school. What I learned a long time ago is that schooling should begin far earlier than most think it should and indeed it does. We begin teaching our children from the moment they are conceived and the schooling continues from birth. Every moment is a teaching moment.

We can only use teaching moments when they work for both mother and child. I allow my children to determine how long our interaction is to last, without taking it personally when they are ready to play on their own without me. They always come back for more when they are ready and I make it a point to stop what I am doing (if possible) and spend time with them. If they are ready and in need of my time but I can't stop what I am doing, I try to involve them. There's always something they can do to help. Getting things done is nice but it's nicer when little hands are allowed to help.

Angie Taylor
Mesa, AZ, USA

Mother's Response

It is important to remember that things like the housework will wait; your children will only be little for a short while. With that said, we also know that sometimes there are things that must be done now. In these situations, it may be possible to include your children in your chores in a fun and educational way or perhaps you could have a cabinet or basket full of toys that you can provide for your children to play with only at these times.

If you have a young baby, perhaps you can invest in a baby carrier or sling. Often being in a sling will lull a baby to sleep while you get your work done. Of course, independent play is an important skill for children to learn, too. Your children's ages will determine how much time you can expect them to play on their own. You may also find it necessary to set the stage for your children's play. Sometimes, if you sit down with them and start a game, you can open the door for their own imaginations to take over and you may find that they will play on their own or together for a fairly long stretch of time, allowing you to get your chores done.

In today's busy world, even our youngest toddlers can be stressed out by too many scheduled activities. Children are always learning, even if they are not engaged in formal instruction. If you are feeling that your children need some sort of educational or structured activity, you can't beat reading to and with them. Reading is something you can all enjoy and can be a learning experience without being in any way formal.

No matter what you do or how you do it, you may feel that you are not doing enough or that you are neglecting your children. While acknowledging these feelings is okay, it is more important to let them go. You are the expert when it comes to your family -- your children want you, however you choose to give yourself to them.

New Castle Area, La Leche League Mothers
New Castle, PA, USA

Mother's Response

We all need a balance of structured activity and time to "do our own thing." I found the simplest things were often the best and the most fun way to entertain my children. Even just talking with your children about what you are doing and where you are going is important for learning. Children play what they experience so a visit to the dentist or shopping for shoes can inspire a whole afternoon's game of dentists or shoe shops, which is independent play but might be started off by you.

A giant cardboard box with a door and windows cut in it was a big favorite of my children. So was setting up a toys' hospital with plaster casts made of tissues and sticky tape. And even painting on the patio with a big brush and a bucket of water! One activity they loved was box modeling and we still keep a box of bits and pieces in the garage for this. Once they were started on the game they would often keep on playing without needing me. Of course, there were always times when we enjoyed structured games and activities, too -- and these are valuable for learning things like taking turns and using scissors.

Sue Upstone
West Sussex, GB

Mother's Response

It can be difficult sometimes being home with small children all day, particularly when you have no adult conversation. I know I often find it a challenge to keep my small ones entertained. I find it helps to have some structure to the day and to get out of the house, even if it is just to do some grocery shopping. There are always things outdoors and in the stores to talk about and of interest to young children, no matter where you go.

Having another mother over with small children can be fun for both you and your children, giving you some adult company and your children some playmates and opportunities for learning together.

Sometimes I think we mothers try too hard. We don't have to put on any sort of slick presentation for our children to impress them with our teaching abilities! For most children having a mother who is present and wants to engage with them is entertaining and enjoyable. You might not think you are teaching your children much because it is difficult to remember that everything is a new experience to a young child, no matter how mundane it may seem to you.

Fiona Raleigh
Wellington, NZ

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