A question of balance

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-six

Finding balance is at the heart of any parenting journey, whichever way you choose to do things.

But I feel like having headed off down the unschooling path there’s a whole other challenge to be faced – because it’s not just your own views and needs and desires you’re trying to factor in, and those of the people whose opinions you value, but those of your child(ren) as well.

I thought, when Arthur was just a hypothetical, that I knew exactly what kind of parent I’d be. My experience as a teacher had taught me that I was likely to be fairly child-led, but I also knew (or thought I knew) that I would eschew screen-time in favour of more ‘wholesome’ pursuits, and envisaged hours spent elbow-deep in arts and crafts (to satisfy my own desires as much of those of my hypothetical child).

It turns out that, apart from in very special circumstances, Arthur’s not super keen on painting and gluing and sticking. And he really, really loves his iPad. I guess that’s partly my fault for letting him loose on it in the first place, but there was always a niggle in the back of my mind (birthed both by my genuine belief in the power of cinema (teaching again), and by the residual resentment left by my own television-starved childhood) that suggested that maybe moving image (and video games) has a potentially vital part to play in the development of a modern child.

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So he watches things. Movies, mainly – and more recently a few TV shows. I favour retro offerings: there’s something about modern editing that reminds me a little too much of the addictive appeal of drugs – hallucinogenic, exciting, but ultimately leaving you hollow and empty. And so yes, I curate the range of films and TV shows I give him access to.

I also refuse to let him sit and watch as much as he might like to. For most parents I imagine that’s not especially controversial – the idea of setting strict limits on the amount of screen time a child should have is pretty much a given – but in the unschooling community it’s enough to make me at the very best an outlier.

It comes back to the whole addiction thing though, for me. To that innate human tendency (maybe not all humans, but certainly lots I know) to do the thing that’s bad for you even when you know you’d be better off doing something else. With Arthur, I see the switch from real engagement to glazed-over eyes, the prickliness when I ask him if he would like to do something else, the closing down of perspective on the ‘real’ world as the virtual world becomes increasingly compelling – and it is then that, for better or for worse, I intervene.

I get the whole unschooling thing about letting kids find their own way through the multitude of distractions on offer. I get that it has huge payback for their self-efficacy to genuinely get to choose how they spend their time. I get that I might not always get it right when I make a choice for my son – and that the impact of that on him goes beyond my simple error to something deeper in his developing personality.

And yet, I will still push to get him outside. I will fight his desire to stay cocooned on the sofa on a sunny day, because I know that once he crosses the threshold he will remember how good it feels to breathe fresh air and have the space to run.

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We had a day like this last week. Arthur basically wanted to hibernate: stay in his pyjamas, cover himself in soft things, and hunker down in his nest. And we did that, for a bit. I hunkered down with him – because more than often when he wants to sit and watch a movie he wants one of us to watch it with him – and we watched Peter Pan, and we talked about it.

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And then he wanted me to to put something else on, and despite the fact it was getting close to lunchtime he wanted to stay in his pyjamas: and I said no.

So instead we got up, and got dressed, and got out of the house. We took the aerobie to the green, and raced each other through our giggles, and looked for blackberries. And it was awesome. And he loved it.

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And part of me thinks (or at least thought, in that moment) that we should be doing that all of the time, because of course being outdoors is way better than being cooped up inside with a screen. But then part of me knows that his imagination is relishing in the inspiration it is getting, day in day out, from its exposure to the Disney and Studio Ghibli back catalogue.

Ultimately I have to remind myself that it is all about balance. And my balance won’t necessarily look like yours, or my mum’s, or my friend’s, or my sister in law’s.

But that’s ok, because if there’s one thing that I am learning about this parenting business it’s that we all get to do it the way we want to – and it’s only when we’re persuaded to make decisions that we really don’t believe in that the trouble really starts.

 

 

Lido love

I have loved to swim outdoors for as long as I can remember.

I didn’t often, when I was growing up: my first seven years were spent in the middle of the Welsh countryside, and after that, Birmingham. My over-riding memories of swimming during my childhood were the nights spent coughing with an aching head and burning eyes after spending the afternoon at our local leisure centre, contrasted starkly with the freedom of swimming outdoors on holiday – in outdoor pools, the sea, lakes – it didn’t matter, just as long as I could escape the cloying claustrophobia of chlorine-filled air.

I moved to London aged sixteen, and soon after discovered the Oasis sports centre in Covent Garden. It was a bit of a revelation. As often as I could, I would step off the grey and dusty streets and into its little outdoor pool – it was surrounded by tower blocks, but up above there was a rectangle of sky, and that made all the difference.

Several years after that, having gravitated towards East London, I found the lido on London Fields. It had only recently re-opened, and I was instantly won over by the brightly coloured poolside changing rooms and the trees peering over from the park. It was a relief from the city heat in summer, but it was in the winter it really came into its own: stripping off the mummifying layers to swim lengths between the warm water and crisp, cold air. It made me feel so alive, clawing my soul back from the S.A.D. that threatened to engulf it every year as the darkness crept in.

It’s not surprising, really, that I have found myself so consumed by Shoalstone since I moved to my new house by the sea.

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There is, after all, a narrative to continue: but it was only by listening to inspirational writers, artists, campaigners and fellow lido lovers speak at the first ever National Lido Conference last weekend that I realised it had always been there.

It felt a strange thing to be doing as I headed up to Portishead on the train and the bus: two whole days discussing outdoor pools. I mean, I loved my local lido, but I was always a little self-conscious about how much it meant to me – I’d never quite been able to put my finger on the reasons why.

And then as people began to speak I realised that there was a whole tribe here to which I very much belonged. This wasn’t just about pools. It wasn’t even just about swimming. It was about community, about equality, about inspiration, about freedom. It was about finding meaning in the chaos, about connecting with people and with nature, about the very essence of what it is to be alive.

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I had gone to the conference with a very specific and practical hat on: that of local councillor and chairperson of Shoalstone Pool. That persona, which sometimes feels accidental, is almost entirely separate to my writerly one, however much my town has begun to inspire my writing.

It soon became clear though that my other hat was just as welcome here – the one that dreams of better worlds, and tries to make sense of this one through carefully crafted words on a page. More than that, the weekend helped me to make sense of my entire self – the self that I’ve become – and to see how it has been woven out of the strands of my past that I thought I had long since left behind.

I realise that all sounds a bit bonkers. Maybe the euphoria was simply the result of that age-old therapy of immersion in water. As part of our weekend there was of course the chance to swim – in Portishead Lido, and in the nearby Clevedon Marine Lake.

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Both were wonderful, in their very different ways – as was bobbing along next to almost-strangers, deep in conversation about this love we shared and how it might shape our futures and that of the pools we have taken guardianship over.

I know I have returned with a new passion for making Shoalstone the best that it can be, and with a sense of being part of a community that I never really knew existed. But I have also returned with a stronger sense of myself as a writer, of someone with stories to tell and a bubbling desire to get them out into the world.

Not bad for a day and a half of lido chat – and even better for the fact that all it will take to reignite this passion if ever it begins to fade is to slip beneath the waters of one of the many outdoor pools we have at our disposal in this country. First stop: Kings Cross Pond this afternoon, and hopefully Parliament Hill Lido tomorrow too.

Arthur and I are on our way up to London on a far less exciting mission than seeking outdoor swimming opportunities, but one other thing last weekend has taught me is that they are never far away – and I intend to take advantage of them whenever (and wherever) I can.

 

Writing Bubble

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

This weekend, whilst I was getting off getting inspired at the first ever National Lido Conference, Arthur and Leigh went to Dadfest: a weekend of camping and outdoorsy events for Dads and their kids.

It was a pretty intense experience by all accounts, but Arthur was full of excitement when I saw him last night.

Most exciting of all he got to try archery, which is one of his current favourite things. Just look at the concentration on that little face…

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

Marbles! And more…

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-five

It’s awesome how things can begin to escalate when you go with the flow.

This particular run of exploration began during our ‘goodbye summer’ barbecue at the pool, when the lifeguards decided to entertain Arthur by fixing him up a tube to drive his cars down.

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He LOVED it, and it wasn’t long before we’d rigged something similar up at home: Leigh took him to a hardware store to search for inspiration, and both the process and the prize were well worth the trip.

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For a few days Arthur would wake me with the request to get his ‘super slide’ up and running in the garden, and it kept him entertained of hours.

And then…

One morning, when I was trying to tempt Arthur away from the iPad, I thought I’d get out the marbles. I bought them a while ago with a view to doing some painting, but suddenly in this exciting new world of ramps and trajectories they seemed just the thing.

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He was instantly rapt, and it wasn’t long before he’d found a tube to introduce into the equation…

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From there it was a tiny leap across to our very first marble run.

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Arthur was intrigued, but soon wanted his marbles to go further and faster… Enter the super slide.

We spent pretty much a whole afternoon experimenting with various blocks and tunnels and ramps. So cool.

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The exploration is as you might expect ongoing, and in the meantime the marble run has found a vital new role as home to Arthur’s lego star wars robots – they were loving it in there today!

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It’s a fascinating process, this opening up and letting go.

So often still I think I know the best activity to do to spark Arthur’s imagination, but it turns out that the very best ideas come from the kid himself. I’m so glad I get to come along for the ride.

Close to home

There has been something incredibly satisfying about working on a novel over the past couple of weeks that draws its inspiration from the town I now call home.

I’ve been here five years, but the first two novels that I wrote at my desk overlooking the sea were based on a very different life. Their plots and characters were woven from memories which, as memories do, have faded as my distance from them increases, and whilst there is nothing wrong with seeking inspiration from the past I have found my present a much richer source of detail.

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It’s kind of ironic, really, given that this third novel is historical, playing out its story between the 1970s and the dawn of the new millennium, and thus further away temporally than each of the others. The world I have created within it is not the same as the one I live in now, but that has not stopped my senses seeking out the experiences it needs to strengthen its authenticity.

Going back to edit the draft, its stifling seventies’ summers conjured in the winter months, I brought to bear another layer of experience from the summer just passed. My love affair with life by the sea has inevitably found its way onto its pages, and I believe that it is an altogether better novel for it.

There is something in that journey that feels good for my soul, too. To be living and breathing the words that I write rather than tearing myself between my current reality and another, far removed, that I am trying to make true.

This past week’s writing, now that I have submitted that draft to my agent, has focused in even more on the experiences that define me now. When I am not trying to carve out this niche for myself as a writer, a large amount of my remaining energies go into my local lido – both in swimming whenever I get the chance and in working to help run it, restore it and preserve it for years to come.

On Saturday I took part in a fundraising challenge, swimming thirty lengths alongside other lovers of its watery charms. As I swam my 1500 metres, a longer distance than I’ve attempted in many years, my mind worked on a story I’ve been developing to answer a call for submissions for new writing from lido lovers. I finished writing the first draft of that on the beach yesterday afternoon, and after a few hours of polishing emailed it off this morning.

I can’t guarantee that my next wave of inspiration will come from the water that surrounds me here – and in fact it would be an impoverished body of work that was too insular in its outlook – but I think perhaps I needed grounding, and it feels like these projects have achieved just that.

It will be interesting to see where they take me next…

 

Writing Bubble

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

Arthur has been trying to master ‘rock and roll’ since he was first introduced to it at a gig in early summer.

At least once a day, when he is bubbling over with enthusiasm and excitement, he will pause, and concentrate, and try to manipulate his fingers into shape before asking in frustration for help to make the iconic horns sign.

We’ve talked him through the process, which fingers to fold in and which to hold up straight, and then on Friday, as we were sitting down for family sushi at the end of a long week, he finally cracked it for himself: with his right hand first, and then immediately with his left.

He was so immensely proud of himself; sometimes it really is the little things.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

A natural playground

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-four

Arthur loves purpose-built play areas as much as the next kid, but it’s watching his growing confidence as he interacts with the natural world that really makes me smile.

He is especially keen at the moment to clamber around on rocks. The seawater pool that I help run is perched (when the tide is right) on the most incredible coastal moonscape, and whenever we venture down there Arthur is desperate to climb.

I had a meeting there yesterday, and unusually was organised enough to leave early so that Arthur could have a serious play before he had to sit and listen to me discuss pool business. Even though the tide wasn’t super low, there was still plenty of the rocky terrain exposed for him to have a good explore. In fact the encroaching sea forced us to explore round the corner a little bit further than we usually venture, which I couldn’t help but find fascinating too.

Arthur’s main objective was to practise being Spiderman – running across the uneven ground and leaping over gaps between the stones. I had to bite my tongue even as my heart was skipping beats at times – and in doing so found myself marvelling at his ever-increasing agility and balance.

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He loves his gymnastic class, but there is something about the irregularity of this natural playground that really pushes him to the limit I think.

And he did, at one point, fall. He grazed his knee and hurt his finger – not badly, but enough to force him to pause for a cuddle. And then he ventured down to the rocks again – not leaping so confidently this time, but slowing down to notice the rock pools and the seaweed.

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It was one of those moments when I could not help but revel in the beauty of the place that we call home, and swore that we would do this every day – just get out and breathe in that sea air, communing with the landscape that we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep.

It’s not always easy as the storms roll in and the days become darker, but there really is no better place for us to learn.