Category Archives: Sophie is parenting

Christmas stories

The unschooling diaries: weeks forty-seven and forty-eight

The countdown to Christmas has been speeding along this last couple of weeks, accelerated by the party planning for the celebrations of Arthur’s fourth birthday three days later. I genuinely wouldn’t have him any other way, but a different birth month? I think I’d take it.

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That aside, the whole rapidly approaching festive season has brought with it all sorts of interesting discussion topics – for me and Leigh as well as for us and Arthur.

First off there’s the whole Santa thing. I love the magic of the Santa myth, and got totally sucked into it as a kid. I can see that, with his powerful imagination, it wouldn’t take much for Arthur to get completely swept away by it all too. But I don’t want to lie to him, and I don’t want his trust to be shattered when inevitably the truth is revealed.

So I am trying to find a middle ground – to get him to understand that imagination can be just as real as ‘truth’, and that what you choose to believe in the moment can totally shape your experience.

We have indulged in the ritual of writing to Santa, sending the letter off in the post and receiving a ‘reply’ a few weeks later.

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We’ve been to visit Father Christmas too – on the Santa Express on our local steam train line.

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But Arthur is aware that there is not just one Father Christmas, and we have taken to referring to his various incarnations as ‘agents of Santa’ – physical manifestations of the spirit of giving that is an important part of this time of year. I’m hoping that when the time comes it won’t be too much of a shift for Arthur to see us as agents of Santa too, and to accept that the truth behind the games we play is rather more abstract.

To be honest my main concern at the moment is that Arthur is a little bit too obsessed with the giving of gifts – or rather the receiving of them. For the last couple of years the whole festive period was a bit of a blur, with a seemingly never-ending flow of presents for Christmas and then his birthday. Now that Arthur’s a little bit older I’m trying to pre-empt this year’s bounty by engaging him in the process of gifting to others.

We started with cards, which we made together – heading to the woods to collect ferns which we brought back and used to print little Christmas trees, decorating them with glitter and gemstones.

Arthur helped me take these to the post office, along with parcels for family and friends – which hopefully in some way will give him a context for his excitement when yet another delivery arrives at home!

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I’ve tried to get him to think beyond our friends and family too, to the wider context of goodwill at Christmas time. This is something we’ve tied into the Santa myth: I am utterly uncomfortable with the manipulative rhetoric around the idea that Santa or his elves are watching his behaviour, that if he’s ‘naughty’ there won’t be any presents, but I am trying to engage him with the notion that this is generally a time of year for taking stock, realising how lucky we are, and being especially kind to the people around us.

This has of course brought us back to the original Christmas story, one which for me is as much of a metaphor as Santa given that Leigh and I are Humanist rather than Christian in our beliefs, but one which I think it is important for Arthur to know about.

He started asking questions when we were at a christening last weekend, curious to know who Jesus was. So we told him what we could about what Christians believe, and found a couple of books at the library to help bring the story to life a bit more.

We have even had a go at making our own nativity – something I have never done before, but which Arthur has really loved – and well and truly made his own.

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He was interested in the characters, in the angel and the shepherds and the wise men, but as soon as he started to understand that they had all come to see the Baby Jesus he wanted to give his favourite toys a chance to meet this special baby too. Soon the stable was inundated with lego superheroes and Star Wars characters, arriving in their spaceships to see what all the fuss was about.

I was wholly resistant to this at first, dismissing his hijacking of the Christmas story and wanting to make sure he understood the ‘real’ version. But then I realised that perhaps he’d actually found his own truth at the centre of it all – and that, ultimately, is what this is all about.

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

It was dark and foggy when we arrived back at Exeter station last night, and this one cut quite a figure in his pyjamas and leather jacket, wearing my bobble hat and clutching his new monkey.

He led the way through the empty corridors and back towards the car, where after a weekend of London adventures he fell asleep within seconds – and stayed asleep till he woke up in his own bed this morning.

This boy totally has this travelling business nailed.

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

This one (pictured here admiring himself in the mirror post-bath) has been more than a little bit challenging this past week.

He has been seeming super grumpy, which is totally unlike him – quick to get tearful and to lash out, and extra clingy at the same time. He had a cold that lingered for ages, but I’m sure there’s something else going on.

Tonight he started chewing on his hands, and told me that his teeth hurt at the back of his mouth, so maybe it’s his molars.

Or maybe he’s just levelling up again – it definitely feels that way as I watch him learn and play.

Or maybe it’s a bit of all three.

Whatever the reason, it’s been a real test of our parenting strategies, and our commitment to using gentle and respectful techniques to help him grow.

I think we’ve just about managed to hold our course…

Lego love

The unschooling diaries: week forty-six

It feels like I’ve been writing about Arthur’s love of lego a lot recently, but it is such an important part of his life at the moment that it’s hard not to.

It’s actually been about six weeks since I first focused on his growing interest in lego in depth, and reading back over where he was then it is quite astonishing how much his play has developed. He has fully embraced his small lego now, and will spend literally hours building increasingly complex creations.

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In terms of our unschooling relationship, it’s a really important development: suddenly spaces have opened up in the rhythm of our day when I know Arthur is actively engaged in something he is passionate about and I can turn my attention elsewhere guilt-free. Occasionally I have to take him along with me to meetings, and now he actually has something to do – something that isn’t entirely reliant on the iPad.

Intermittently he will want to show me something he has created, and we talk through his ideas and how he’s brought them to life, and then he will bounce off to develop something else, new stories and whole worlds emanating from the plastic blocks.

He likes it when Leigh or I build with him too – and that as well is opening up a whole other angle on the parallel learning that is central to our aspirations for our unschooling journey. There is something about focusing on those little blocks that tunes out distractions and makes it easier just to be in the moment, together. Occasionally, especially when new lego finds its way into the mix, that togetherness is centred by the attempt to build something that follows instructions, but actually mainly we just use the jumble of pieces from all the different little kits to build the structures in our imaginations.

I think it’s kinda important that Arthur doesn’t feel overly bound to the rules, that he embraces the freedom to make what he wants rather than what he’s ‘supposed’ to. The other thing that’s I love about the way he plays is that he totally accepts the transience of his creations. There were a few hairy moments in the early days, when he would drop something he had made or press too heavily on a brick causing the whole thing to fall apart, and his world would fall apart too. Now, though, he will play with something he has made for a while before choosing to transform it into something else – and if he accidentally breaks it he is starting to see it as an opportunity rather than a disaster.

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He’s starting to articulate this process too. As well as his own advent calendar, he is enthusiastically sharing Daddy’s – a lego Star Wars one. I heard a squeal of delight when they opened yesterday’s window, and a few minutes later he came running in clutching a small TIE fighter. He was so pleased with it, but said unprompted “If it breaks I can make it again – or it can turn into something else!”.

This potential for open-ended play is one of the things I love most about lego, and which elevates it from everyday toy status to something approaching perfection. Coincidentally I came across an article yesterday which was claiming exactly that – celebrating the longevity of lego in the toy market and exploring the ways in which it has changed.

There was much about the author’s enthusiasm that I agreed wholeheartedly with, but her conclusions were not unreservedly positive – honing in on a particular family, she lamented the move towards the very specific kits that now dominate lego’s sales.

It’s a concern I had myself before I watched how Arthur played. Lego was a big deal in our house growing up – my brothers and I would while away whole days building together in the specially constructed playroom Dad had built to maximise the potential of those little bricks. But I don’t remember ever following instructions. I’m not even sure if there WERE any instructions – and there certainly was only a fraction of the variety of bricks that Arthur now has at his disposal.

I worried that by being exposed at such a young age to these complex kits, ones which enabled him to build Spiderman’s lair, or a scale model of a space shuttle, he would not be able to see beyond them to the infinite potential this toy held.

Somehow, though, in the space of a few short weeks, he has decided that whilst the official creations are cool, the things he can create by putting their very specific components to new use are way, way cooler.

And I can totally get on board with that.

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

This boy is so fascinated by cameras.

I suppose it is only to be expected, given that his life has been so carefully documented. He is particularly drawn, though, to the older cameras in my collection – the ones which don’t get used as much as they should since I have discovered the wonders of the iPhone.

I’m not sure he’s quite old enough yet to manage my digital SLR, but I’m tempted to let him have a decent go…

Presents for my almost four year old

The unschooling diaries: week forty-five

Christmas has been creeping in determinedly to our house this week.

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We spied a little tree when we were out and about last weekend, which Arthur and I decided would be perfect for my study – we spend so much time there after all, writing and playing by the fireside, that it’s nice to make it festive.

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It was there Arthur wrote his very first letter to Santa this week. Well, I say wrote – he dictated, and I scribed the words. He added pictures too – the bow and arrow and the spaceship, and a little self-portrait with a woolly hat.

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He very rarely wants to draw – it’s one of the things that niggles at my brain as I worry that he should be doing it more often. It was lovely to see him pick up a pencil for something other than scribbles, and he was so proud of his pictures that I think he might just be tempted to do it more often…

We actually made another tree too, this time for Arthur’s bedroom. Again it’s somewhere he spends a lot of time – often playing there for at least an hour in the mornings before he emerges to start the day. There was a large cardboard box waiting to be recycled in the kitchen, so we decided to put it to better use.

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So far it is decorated with a fairy and some glow stars, but creating some sparkly baubles is top of our list for the week to come.

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Alongside all this, my mind has been mulling over presents. it’s not just Christmas we have to prepare for – Arthur’s birthday is only three days later, so I need to get myself organised for that too!

I’m really keen to add to his inspiration bank at home – it feels especially important because he spends so much time there. His interests have flourished over the past couple of months, so he’s given me lots of ideas.

These are just a few of them…

A book of poems

Arthur is developing a real love for poetry, which began with listening to poems read by Daddy during his bedtime baths.

I love the idea of this book, which has a wonderful selection of classic poems, one for every night of the year.

A little friend

Whilst Arthur’s social skills are coming on in leaps and bounds, he is also very happy to play alone. Recently, though, he’s enjoyed chatting away to his dolly – a Waldorf doll I made him for his first birthday.

I think he’s going to love this Finn doll, from the makers of the child-friendly Lottie. Especially because he’s small enough to not only play with at home, but also to come out and about with us on our adventures.

A marble run

Arthur discovered marbles a couple of months ago, and we’ve experimented with making marble runs from cardboard and networks of tubes in the garden.

This set from Hape looks incredible though – giving him the tools to create his own structures to send his marbles whizzing round. He’s really into building too, so I think he’ll relish the challenge.

A lego community

This love for building has recently exploded with the discovery of ‘grown-up’ lego. He still enjoys his duplo, which we’ve moved to his room to keep him entertained for those early-morning wake-ups, but he will spend literally hours piecing together tiny bricks to give shape to the forms in his imagination.

His selection of mini figures is essential to the process too, inspiring him to create new structures for them to inhabit. I reckon this set of community figures would be a brilliant addition to his kit, and give him all sorts of new ideas about what to build.

A kid-safe knife set

Arthur is always keen to help in the kitchen, especially if it involves cutting things. We bought him a child’s knife last year, but the blade is really not sharp enough to be much use.

This chef set, which includes a peeler too, looks much more effective. And might just have the added bonus of him taking over peeling the potatoes!

I know that too much of a focus on ‘stuff’ isn’t healthy, but I really do take pleasure in selecting gifts for Arthur which he will enjoy and which will help him learn.

(And I’m sure I can help Santa find a fire engine and a spaceship and a bow and arrow too).

I can’t wait for the start of December so Christmas can begin in earnest: choosing and decorating our main tree, and putting up Arthur’s advent calendar!

I do love this time of year.

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

We went to the Advent Fair at South Devon Steiner School at the weekend. It was a lovely event, and a real reminder of how different education can be.

There are still several things about the Steiner approach that make me doubt whether we could embrace it entirely, but Arthur was most definitely inspired. Whenever we’ve talked about school before he has been adamant that he doesn’t want to go, but when I explained to him that this place was a school too his eyes widened: “It’s just like a big boy’s forest school”, he exclaimed. Needless to say, he LOVES forest school.

The highlight of his day came towards the end. I’d got distracted by the stalls, and emerged to find Leigh and Arthur peering through the gate of the forge whilst the school’s blacksmith crafted something in the flames. It turned out that Arthur had got chatting to him and asked for a sword, and the blacksmith cheerfully agreed.

So Arthur watched, fascinated, as the metal was heated and twisted and sculpted into shape, and when it was cool he held it in his hands.

We’ve had some serious chats about the responsibility that comes with such a gift – its end is blunted, but it’s still a solid lump of metal. Arthur chose a hook for it in the kitchen, and we’ve agreed that he will only handle it when we’re there – that he can use it as a prop in his imaginings, but it is not for play fighting.

So far he’s risen to the challenge, and handles his very own sword with the utmost care. It is wonderful to see what these little people are capable of when we trust them.