Tonight I am announcing lock down for our country, do you hear me, my people? These were the words that forced us to remain in our homes. No outdoor exercise, no schooling, only essential services available such as food and health care. We all grabbed what we thought we needed before the lock down day started - toilet paper, food and booze. We hid in our homes hoping for the virus to pass over like the plagues of old. It didn’t, and lock down was graded into 5 stages.
Another announcement “Lock down four”. We could exercise between 6 and 9 am. We woke up early on the first morning and rushed outdoors, so excited to be let out of our homes, like restless caged animals. There was a sigh of relief, we could breathe and see outside. Counting down, lock down three gave more freedom of work with restrictions of masks, physical distance and hand hygiene. It has felt more like being locked up than locked down, with the longings for some sort of ‘normal’ life rising up. This blog is about some of the things I have longed for during this lock down season.
Lock down has been a very serious time, and this virus, lock down and consequences thereof are no joke. I have missed the spontaneous laughter from the many interactions and relationships of my life before lock down. Fortunately I have a dear friend, who laughs from the belly at jokes that aren’t even really funny. His laugh is so infectious that everyone laughs with him and not at the silly joke. I phoned him and expressed my longing for laughter. He asked what I wanted to laugh about and there was really nothing funny, but I said I needed just to laugh. So he counted down, “Five, four three, two, one, laugh!” We laughed and laughed, laughing for the sake of laughing. Nothing was really funny except the joy of finding a friend who knows how to laugh from deep within his soul. I felt so much better after laughing. Apparently happy hormones are released when we laugh, and I am going to believe that.
I have also missed conversations and interactions with others, particularly strangers. One of my previous blogs was sparked by a spontaneous conversation with a petrol attendant called Blessing. (See https://www.thepreciousyears.co.za/blog/my-name-is-blessing.) I was excited to be let out for an outing to a hardware shop. I stood in the queue, on the line markers, mask in place, following the rules of physical distance. At the entrance to the shop, I was met by the gatekeeper security guards and was sprayed with hand sanitizer. Long ago, before lock down, security guards were looking out for criminals, now their focus is on protecting a shop from this small virus. I then had to pass to the next station, where another security guard aimed her temperature gun at my forehead while I stood motionless but feeling vulnerable and exposed to what my temperature might reveal. She told me I was okay, my temperature was 33°C. I looked at her confused as I know that I should not be alive with such a low temperature. Am I still alive, I asked her? She frowned and smiled sweetly, and continued to shoot the temperature of the man behind me, who was laughing and saying that I needed a hospital urgently. I walked down the aisle feeling more alive than ever.
There have been many longings, for a haircut, coffee chat with friends, walking in nature, shared meals, group meetings and the list goes on. There is also a deeper longing, though, that this lock down has uncovered, for a better life for all, equal access to health and education, respect for black lives, and real care for vulnerable women and children. I long for new systems that put kindness towards others as the goal rather than profit, outcomes and income. I long for a system that values care for each other rather than power hierarchies.
What would your longings be? Could our longings that we make into reality become the dreams we have for our children?
Let us find the courage to be aware of our longings.
Let us make choices that live out our deepest longings.
Let us show kindness to others as we listen to their stories.
Let us be part of making this world a better place for all.
Bullies are everywhere. Many of us have experienced their unpleasant games and tactics. Bullies are seldom invited and make their presence felt when least wanted. Bullies are astute and choose their targets carefully. They seem to know the weak spots and how to expose the raw vulnerabilities of a person or group. We find it hard to talk about bullies just in case our conversation is overheard and unnecessary consequences follow. Our own story about bullying may just be too difficult to discuss.
This novel corona virus, or SARS-Cov-2 virus, feels like a global bully in our midst. It is adaptable and has moved to live in a bat then a pangolin and now in the human body. The threat is that it will continue to adapt again and again. The virus is so small that 500 million of them can fit on a pinhead but its power does not lie in its size but rather in its ability to disturb and destroy life. The virus needs a host and can wait, even up to five days on a metal surface, until a human touch finds it. This virus can spread wildly from one person to another in order to survive and multiply further by making use of a human host and the host’s need to connect with others.
Responding to any threat or danger, such as a bully or the corona virus, is so hard. The consequences of the threat, such as the lock-down or isolation and a dreaded disease or being hurt is a real possibility and fear. There are seldom simple and clear solutions to dealing with any threat or danger. The first priority is to keep ourselves and others safe as best as we can and for each of us this may mean or require something different.
I thought it may be helpful to understand how we keep ourselves safe and protected when facing any threat or danger, for example from a bully. Our survival responses of flight, fright or fight are the most common and expected in such situations. Fighting against a bully with anger, rage and hitting back is often a first response and although the rage releases some of the stress we feel, it seldom removes the problem, and the anger and frustration may stay under the surface, erupting when it all gets too much. Flight is the need to get away from the situation by either running away, denying or ignoring the reality. This helps us to avoid the issues in the vain hope that we can escape from the dangers without having to face them. For some of us, a fright response, seems like we are frozen, stuck and unsure, and the way in which we cope. It is all too much for us and so overwhelming that we are left standing, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed yet not knowing what to do. None of these response should lead to judgement, as they are what they are, simply responses. We are all different and we each have our own experiences and stories that are behind our coping with a threat.
The uncertainty and not knowing the consequences of this pandemic may seem to be one of our greatest threats to our (perhaps false) sense of safety and security. The reality of bullies is that they adapt and change and hardly go away. They just seem to come back in another form and time. We do, however, have the freedom to choose a different response to keep ourselves and others safe. I want to share a few thoughts about surviving this corona-bully-virus by choosing a different response:
To be an advocate as a parent captures the essence of parenting for me. I am not using the word ‘advocate’ in a legal sense but rather from the original meaning of the word: to give our voice to, to add to or to call to one’s aid (advocare). Words such as supporter, protector, upholder and champion may be similar words to communicate the same message.
I have been pondering about what this actually means. I have been remembering Yvonne’s story in my book ‘The Precious Years’ (page 218). This relates to her experience with her son Berend who was born with a condition called Down syndrome. I want to share part of this story with you as it speaks so beautifully of being an advocating parent.
I have learnt to be Berend’s advocate, and to help people into acceptance. People are not bad, they are just fearful of what they do not know. Berend has taught me so many lessons in life - how to love without boundaries and preconceptions: noticing all the small things we take for granted; patience I never knew I had. These are all good things.
Yvonne speaks so beautifully of what she has learnt from her son. When we start to listen and understand our children, they begin to teach us. We can only be the voice for our children when we understand them. Yvonne is able to voice what she has experienced through living with and knowing her son, learning through Berend ‘how to love without boundaries and preconceptions’. Wow! Such pure truth from a child’s perspective to which a sensitive mother has added her voice in a powerful way. Thank you Yvonne for being an example to all of us. If you read Yvonne’s whole story you will see that finding a voice after being told about a genetic condition in one’s child has not always been easy, but
“the experience has been invaluable. I will never be the same again, just better for the many things I have learnt. Berend has helped me to look at the world differently”
At this time when we are ‘locked down’ in our homes with our children, we have some choices in the situation, regarding how we protect, support, listen to and therefore relate to our children. This lock-down could be a gift of time with our children to listen to their perspective which may just be simple truth. This lock-down could also be a time of great vulnerability for children whose parents choose not to support their needs. In this time, our actions will reveal our true nature.
To be honest, I am quite unsettled by a national lock-down, not only in South Africa but in many other countries. Routines will need to change and this is unsettling. I am not even sure how to process this all as it feels way too big. But I do know that it is by listening to ourselves and our children that we begin to hear. We can only add our voices to the experiences of children when we have truly heard them.
Let us listen and be kind to our own needs as parents
Let us listen to and try to understand our children
Let us see the world through the experiences of our children
Let us make an extra effort to hear the voices of children who are most vulnerable
Let us find the courage to be quiet and listen to our children
Let us find and add our voices to all our precious children
Our children need a better world than the present one, a world that is respected and loved; in return the world can heal from climate change and misuse of resources. Together we can create a world that teaches everyone ‘how to love without boundaries and preconceptions.’
I love rest and holidays; it is a time of less pressure and more sleeping, eating, chatting, laughing, playing and just enjoying oneself and life. I am tempted to stay longer in holiday mode. But the lure of work is that it also gives one a sense of purpose. The reality is that we need both rest and work. As we start this year, I thought to write about greeting and welcoming all into 2020.
Greet and welcome known stories of 2019 and unfolding ones of 2020
Greet and welcome achievements and disappointments
Greet and welcome abilities and struggles
Greet and welcome losses and gains
Greet and welcome who we are and yet to be
For new beginnings are in all things
2020 is a new year and, although I don’t fully understand the gift of new beginnings, it is a new season for starting again and having another chance. After a rest it is much easier to start again with renewed energy. This is perhaps why little children need so much sleep during the day, a little recharge before starting again to play and learn. I wonder if there is a link between when the day sleeps are dropped and general exhaustion and irritability becomes more common. Is there enough evidence to justify a short daily nap time for all of us, especially parents and carers of young children? You have guessed, I am looking for reasons for more rest, but I do know that rest and meaningful activities are both important for well-being.
I love the energy of little children who want to play and practice new skills over and over until they become better at it. It is not surprising that first words include ‘more’ and ‘again’. I am not too surprised that this energy fades as expectations for ‘doing it right’ are placed on our children.
As we go forward in 2020, let us have the courage to greet and welcome all of life’s experiences. This is a time of remembering that it’s okay and actually even good to start something new or do it over again. I wonder whether, in starting again, or doing something again, we can learn that good can come out of ‘bad’ and that joy and difficulties are not so clearly separated. But most of all I hope that for each one of us, we can learn that new beginnings are not just at this time of year but can be anytime.
For new beginnings can be in all things and anytime.
Children who feel safe are able to learn and develop more freely. We know this from research studies and also from our own experiences and observations. We are able to learn better when we feel safe. Yet, many children in our communities do not feel safe. Some adults, especially womxn, have expressed their daily experience of not feeling safe. I have struggled to write this blog after hearing so many stories of people, including children, who do not feel safe. My idealized images of ‘safety’ have been shattered by reality.
Let us re look at our homes as this should ideally be a safe place. A home may have different places for different purposes. Let’s have a look with ‘new eyes’ at each place and how they are used for nourishment, cleaning, rest, fun and learning.
The kitchen is our central space and perhaps the most commonly used meeting place for our family. We all need the kitchen place to be refueled with water for thirst, food for hunger and company for sense of belonging to others. It is also a place where much work is needed to make this happen – providing fuel, preparing food, and washing up afterwards.
We also have a place for rest and sleep. Rest and relaxation is an important part of our well-being. A safe home is a place for rest and regaining energy for life. I have been reminded over the past while that most of us do not get enough sleep, which may have an impact on our well-being and even memory functions.
We also need a place for becoming clean. Getting dirty is expected in any day of work and play. We get messy interacting with others as well. Hurtful words can dirty our thoughts, and the process of cleaning or letting go of the dirt helps us to be refreshed. Becoming dirty and washing is a daily process both in body and in mind.
Some of us may have a place for learning new information and to gain understanding. We can also learn through fun and playing games. A lounge or TV area could be a place for family games and chatting etc. Games often connects family members together, except if there is a bad loser.
If we see our communities as a big home, there are different places for different purposes. We need safe places to buy food and eat to renew our energies. We needs safe places to rest and relax, such as the beaches and parks. We need safe places for recreation and having fun, such as sports fields and cinemas. We need safe places for nourishment and eating, such as restaurants and taverns. We need safe places to become clean, such as dams and religious places that symbolise cleansing and healing. We need safe places to learn new information, such as schools and libraries.
Let us each create safety for us to become our best self
Let us each create safe places in our homes for our children to learn and grow
Let us each create safe places in our communities for all children to become their best self.
Let us remember that all our children are precious and deserve to feel safe in their homes and communities.
Supporting children keeps them rooted, healthy and developing to their best potential. Giving enough support to the whole child and not just the selected favourite parts could be a way to gaining a fruitful and productive life.
Nature shows us that different support is needed at different times for different plants. Support needs change with different seasons and growth patterns. Each child needs different support at different times. All children however, need support to grow into their best. Every seed planted has a potential for growth and produce with different support at different times.
Some plants need complete support to grow and produce fruit, such as grapes, granadillas, and beans. The grape vine has a fragile skeleton on its own and relies on support from a trellis. Grapevines fascinate me because at this winter time of the year, they look barren and yet are pruned. The trellis gives support through the different growing, rest and pruning seasons. Many children go through very difficult experiences, poor health, neglect and abuse, disabling conditions, mistakes and tough home circumstances. Each of these may be just another season for a child, but they need to lean on someone during that period. Let us be brave to give enough support to all our precious children through all the seasons of their lives, the autumn shedding, the winter pruning, the spring flowering and the summer fruiting.
Tomatoes, eggplant and pepper plants need to be staked for upright growth and to hold the ripened fruit. Gardeners need to watch out for hungry caterpillars and snails who also enjoy the plants and may affect them negatively. Observing and listening to our children’s stories and thoughts is deeply supportive. I always feel so much better when someone has really heard my story. There does not need to be encouraging words but even a quiet and understanding nod may say enough. Let us see our children for their endeavours to grow and learn. Let us really listen to our children’s stories without judgement but holding their growth of ideas and experiences.
Trees take many years to grow into maturity and planting a tree can be a long term investment for the next generation Trees need stakes that are changed with their growth patterns through the years. A stake tied too tight and left too long can grow into the stem of the tree and throttle growth later on. Too much support can stifle growth and the strength of the tree stem which if unsupported could break with the first gust of wind. Our children are a huge investment for our future generations. Let us give children the support they need, just enough to grow stable and withstand winds of influence but not too much to stifle their growth.
Some shrubs don’t need a stake for support and are happy to grow and flower while also being blown by the wind, warmed by the sun and showered with the rain that is available. These plants don’t seem to carry heavy fruit, nor flowers but can just be their carefree selves in the wind. There are a number of resilient plants that have survived the drought in Cape Town. Some children are able to survive the toughest circumstances and experiences, which we could call being resilient. However, I can’t help wondering about these robust children whose potential is lost in the drought of kindness and compassion. How could these resilient children thrive and not just survive with the support of others? Would better support lessen the need for belonging to gangs and criminal groups? Let us give the support that each child needs and want more for our children so that they do not merely survive but thrive.
We all need enough support. It is not about the best support, which may be too much or too little, but rather just enough support to thrive. Enough support may differ according to the character and interests of the child. Enough support may differ in quantity; some children need more support and others less. We all need enough support to produce the fruit of our best endeavours. Let us give enough support to our children for their best growth and development. Let us notice how support helps us to grow through all the seasonal cycles of life.
Winter is fast approaching, bringing with it cold nights and the need for blankets to keep us warm. For some time I have been thinking about blankets and their significance. I was recently part of a wonderful wedding celebration that brought family and friends together. It reminded me of a traditional culture of giving blankets as a warm gesture of connection to the new family. Since then I have also had to say goodbye to a dear family friend. There are no words but the comfort of a blanket can bring some relief to this loss. Could the symbol of blankets connect us to both joy and loss?
Blankets have always been part of my life. While I don’t have a memory of my own baby blanket, I have knitted some for my children. Blankets are a part of my home, including crocheted square blankets from my mother-in-law and a mismatched blanket pieced together from her left over wool. For me, there is nothing better than to lie under a blanket to watch a movie or take an afternoon nap. Blankets tucked around sleeping babies are always a peaceful sight. A baby held firmly by a blanket on a mother’s back also emphasizes a tender moment of union between mother and child.
Each blanket has its own design and could be woven, knitted or crocheted. Handmade blankets are special and unique. Although blankets are different, all are made up of different threads that are connected through a process of knitting or weaving.
The threads of blankets originate from different sources, like each of us with our unique genetic material. Wool goes through a special process, including sheep rearing, shearing, spinning and carding. Other fibres, such as cotton, bamboo and synthetic ones, have their own processes to become threads. I am amazed that in a family with the same parents, each child not only looks different but also behaves differently, probably as a result of their own unique experience of family life. We all have different origins and experiences, stories and processes. It does not mean that one thread or person is better or worse than the other. Each of us in this world of nearly 7 billion people is unique and different. Is it be possible to nurture children in a way that they value differences in another’s origins, experiences and stories? If only we could accept that no thread in a blanket or genetic origin and experiences in a person is better or worse than any other, just different, we could create a community of contented children.
A single thread does not make a blanket but there must be many threads woven together. In fact, a single thread can easily break but a group of threads is much stronger. So it is with people who come together; they become stronger. This can be seen in families who are supportive of each other; their togetherness helps them to be stronger, especially during tough times. The same is true for communities. Threads, like people need to be connected with each other to form a blanket or group as in a family and community. As humans we need to be connected.
I am always amazed that when groups of people meet, they mostly find connections with each other, whether it be a mutual friend or relative, shared journey or experience. I recently became aware of the idea that the solution to any addiction is not just sobriety but, more so, connection with others. Our children so need connection, to know that they are appreciated and valued. In this age of technical connectivity, we all need to make active choices for our wellbeing relating to how we connect with others and especially our children.
At this time of the year when we need warmth from the cold, let us use our blankets as a physical reminder of the value of each person’s unique differences and experiences. Let us also be open to connect with others as in this way we become stronger. Let our relationships with others become a source of warmth.
Sometimes I wonder if developmental milestones should be called developmental millstones as this topic causes so much anxiety for parents. I want to thank Nielen, a first-time mother, for sharing her story. She writes:
It feels like the first words I heard after meeting my baby daughter was “watch out for those milestones”. Yes, it’s probably a slight exaggeration, but it’s definitely the phrase I remember hearing most when she was younger.
Many parents feel overwhelmed by the thought that their precious child may not reach their developmental milestones. The idea of milestones has been around for ages. The milestone story comes from long ago when stones were placed along a road to mark a mile as a simple way of measuring. Developmental milestones have been worked out as average markers for a child’s development broken down into areas that can be easily measured, such as sitting, walking and how many words are spoken at what age. Other milestones, for example empathy, kindness and sharing with others are more difficult to measure, and are therefore ignored even though they may be as important for life.
An uncertain journey
Many children reach developmental milestones naturally, with ease and subsequent joy. Each milestone reached by the child is celebrated as if it is the parent’s own achievement. Yet this can also be an uncertain journey of hopes and dreams as there is no real knowing the future, as Nielen explains here:
Every first-time mother (and often father) I’ve ever met is hyper-aware of her child’s milestones. Discussion boards and parenting groups are rife with questions like ‘is it normal for your child to not walk by 13 months?’ The power of Google has opened rabbit holes of anxiety surrounding every small issue.
My daughter, our first child, was born at 30 weeks, 10 weeks prematurely. She spent almost seven weeks in the neonatal ICU (NICU). Other first-time mothers were lovingly posting pictures of their children at 3 weeks, all swaddled up at home. I was trying to take pictures where it wouldn’t look like she was in an incubator.
Being a ‘good’ parent
As parents we tend to measure our own parental ‘goodness’ through our children’s achievements and reaching their developmental milestones. We all do this as there is no easy way to know how to measure being a good parent. We allow fear of not being good enough to guide us rather than love itself. Yet, we know through research that children who feel loved and secure explore more and are therefore more able to learn.
I wasted a lot of my daughter’s first few months of life by being petrified. I was scared of her getting hurt in that NICU, but to be honest, I think I was more petrified of what was waiting for me when I should leave. I wasn’t certain I would be a good parent in the first place, much less with a child who wouldn’t follow the ‘normal’ route.
We so easily waste energy dwelling on and living out our fears that our children will reach their milestones, rather than investing time into how best to support a child through the tough and good parts of life. It may be paradoxical but children are more likely to reach their milestones if they feel supported.
Focusing on end goals
The celebration of reaching a developmental milestone may make it seem as if children just stand up one day and walk. This focus on the end goal may cause parents to forget the many times children fall and get up again to learn another step. It is apparently ‘normal’ to fall a thousand times or more before achieving the walking milestone. Each fall may demand much more love and support than the final achievement of walking. For in this a child learns that a journey of both the ups and downs are important to loved ones. Parents can learn that the ups and downs are both equally valuable for learning lessons.
Milestones remind me of the long wait for my daughter to finally start smiling. We were told she was born 10 weeks early and would take 10 weeks longer to reach ‘normal’ milestones. For some reason, maybe because it’s one of the first things a child learns to do, I was hung up on getting her to smile. I was literally counting the days, petrified of her smiling only after that 10 weeks permitted. Would that mean she was doomed forever? Would everything be futile if she smiled at 11 weeks? I certainly believed so. She did eventually smile, I think within that 10-week time frame, but I’ve learnt to be a bit gentler on myself and on her. It’s not easy and I think I struggle more than I let on, but I think it’s crucial.
As parents it is easy to focus on a developmental milestone or end goal. We do need to appreciate that skills, effort, falling and learning through mistakes is also necessary to reach any milestone, and may even be more important than reaching it. The process of achieving developmental milestones should not be a competition among parents in regard to whose child is better and will reach the goal first, but rather a celebration of learning and growth.
Let us learn to be gentle with ourselves as parents.
Let us learn to love and support our children through all of life’s ups and downs.
Let us learn that all our children are precious regardless of reaching developmental milestones.
Gifts vary in shape, size, wrapping and content. This is the delight of gifts, the unexpected surprise. Children with their individual uniqueness are our most valued gifts, an unexpected and unknown that is revealed with time. This mostly cannot be planned or even controlled. I have asked Michelle to join me in sharing our stories about giving and receiving gifts.
Michelle writes: As a child, I always made a mental ‘wish list’ of toys and books I would love for a birthday or Christmas gift. My secret hopes were mostly on the most extravagant gifts. When I was 12 years old I lost my heart to a hair styling curling iron and expressed this to my parents on a wish list for Christmas. I would spend hours looking at curling irons in shops, imagining my beautiful bouncing curls. On Christmas day I scanned my pile of presents, my gaze beamed on a curling iron shaped gift with my name. I saved the best for last and ripped open the gift and there was a book of short inspirational stories to ‘warm a teenager’s heart’. My hopes were crushed. The disappointment was tangible and I could hardly look at the book. I somehow managed to thank my parents as they taught me to be grateful and see the intention behind a gift. I pretended to like the book with a poker smile and some comment about reading before bed.
Through the years, my wish lists have changed but I still put much thought into the things I hope for. My siblings remind me and I can laugh at my 12 year old disappointed self with curling iron hopes. However, that unexpected book became one of my most treasured possessions. This was the surprise.
Two years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter. Six weeks after her birth I was told that she had severe brain damage that would make most tasks we take for granted unattainable for her. In the moment I felt many emotions. I was crushed and disappointed that the gift I had imagined receiving would never be. I felt the same pang of guilt and sadness grip my heart as I wished for some way to fix my ‘gift’. Just as my 12 year old heart had managed to accept the book for Christmas, I was thrust onto a very slow journey to understanding the gift of my daughter. Perhaps like the book, time together, reading the story, loving and honestly appreciating my daughter’s being and presence will make this another most treasured gift.
Jacqui writes: Travelling by plane for me comes with some sense of anticipated anxiety. The last time I flew I nearly missed my plane, and last weekend I had a mishap with my luggage. The pottery bowls I had made and carefully packed for my hosts broke. I was so sad and had no other gift for them, just myself and a few broken bowls that could become the next upcycling project. However this experience made me aware of my intentions in giving, to show fondness and appreciation of my hosts. I felt the vulnerability of showing my broken bowls to my hosts realising that the gifts we give to others comes with some fragility. A gift that is given might be used or not, exchanged for something better or enjoyed and appreciated. There is no knowing how a gift will be received and used.
I am sure that there is no perfect gift nor intention in giving and receiving. We just do our best and hope that this is good enough. I have a feeling though that the value of our gifts is not so much in what is seen, such as the curling iron, book, broken bowls or child, but in the unseen, unknown and unexpected. This could be in the joy a child brings, the love expressed in a handmade bowl, the long term view of inspirational stories and the journeys of growth and love through giving and receiving. Each child is a gift, with a particular story, genetic material and experience of life. Each child has their own gifts and also imperfections, some obvious and seen as in a physical condition or delayed developmental milestones, others not seen as in emotional struggles. There is no knowing how a child’s life will unfold, but with time together, sharing love and life experiences, we find the treasure in each child.
At this Christmas time of giving and receiving gifts, let us be open to the unexpected surprises and unknowns in each gift, including our children. Being open may not always follow the hopes of our imagination but there is greater value in learning to appreciate the surprise and unexpected gift in each child. Each and every child, no matter the wrapping or contents is our most treasured gift.
Have you ever felt that awkwardness of saying something to a group of people and the response is complete silence? Not a word, not a smile, only quiet. Even though the silence may not be long, the waiting for any response drags giving you time to think again about what you have just said.
This happened to me after giving a short talk about ‘The Power of Play’ for the Western Cape Department of Health First Thousands Days network meeting. I waited in the silence wondering what I had said that caused such a still response. Could it have been that I ended my talk with the words?
“If relationships matter, play is the medium”
The First Thousand Days programme is a national initiative promoting the well-being of infants from conception to two years. The three pillars of the programme are Grow, Love and Play. As with so many programmes, the focus is on nutrition and survival as first priorities. Attachment and bonding have been added as part of love. Play sits poorly defined in a space that is not clear, as it is not seen as an equal priority to other more complex and demanding needs. Play is seen to be so simple that everyone must obviously know about it and thus it is not given the attention it deserves.
The theme that “Relationships matter” has become key in the First thousand Days campaign and also the recently launched WHO Nurturing Care Framework. My reason for making the simple and yet strong statement “If relationships matter, play is the medium” is that play connects humans. When the group members at the First Thousand Days meeting emerged out of their silence, their first response was, ‘yes!’ Play connects even strangers and diverse people together in a fun and equal way. A story was told about a new group of mothers from different backgrounds who were meeting for the first time. They were standing around uncomfortably looking at each other - until they played a simple game, which was ‘Stand up if your baby has messed all over you’, and ‘Hands up if you are tired from sleep deprivation’ etc. Standing, putting hands up, laughing and recognizing that each had a similar experience immediately connected the group.
Then, after my presentation, stories about play and memories of positive play experiences flowed out of the silence, such as cooking with grandmother, playing with sand, clay and water and making things out of scrap. Play forms our experiences and relationships with each other. This forms us into the people we become and the memories that we treasure.
Play is the link between the other two themes in the First thousand Days programme, which is Grow and Love. Family meal times can be an important time when stories are shared, jokes are told, tears are shed, and food is enjoyed (if there is food available for which we must always be thankful). We can no longer afford to encourage adequate nutrition or the survival of young children without also promoting development and play. Surviving and thriving in childhood go hand in hand together.
Play is not only for children. We all need to play. Play is good for everyone. Adults who are involved in play, such as sport, creative arts, music, and dance, are more likely to be better connected to other people and have a more positive outlook on life. Team building exercises are mostly playful and bring relationships together.
There is much to be said about playing with children because of the joy that playfulness gives to adults. Inter-generational play is special. It has contributed towards better and positive aging and well-being in elderly people. Many studies have been done of preschool children playing with the elderly in old age homes with positive results. Play connects adults and children across generations.
Play is the starting point of creating an imagination for acting out what children see but also what they cannot see or ‘thinking out of the box’, without fear of making mistakes. This is play. I have a feeling that adults who can imagine and think differently are those who are pushing boundaries and changing society. Think of the Wright brothers for their play that developed over time into aeroplanes. We learn through play. Play is so often underestimated for its role in learning, that we limit play to focus on reaching learning goals.
Let us be open to the simplicity of play that helps us to find ourselves and each other, no matter our age and ability.
I have different roles; occupational therapist, mother, wife, friend and sister. I am curious about life and how little children grow to their potential with the support of parents, families and the wider community.