I was sitting in the bank waiting for the teller to call my number. We’d been there at least five minutes, and my two-year-old was bored. So I took out my phone and handed him Peppa Pig.
The man sitting beside me smiled, ’We didn’t have those when my boys were little,’ he said.
It wasn’t a criticism, just a friendly comment.
But I took it as a reminder. There are other ways to keep a child entertained.
And while there are reasons we often reach for the device first (we usually always have one, we know they work) they may not be the best choice for our children.
And here’s why:
Screens don’t provide an opportunity for language development. They are one-sided. They talk to the child, but they don’t give the child a chance to talk back.
Cartoon pigs also keep children perfectly still, which is the opposite of what they need for healthy development.
Finally, screens distract our children from the business of play. Part of the reason a toddler gets in trouble in the bank is they want to play with everything. They want to climb under the chairs and draw with the pens for writing cheques. And that play, which engages a child imagination and thinking is good for their brains.
When we give a child a screen, we shut off that process of learning.
But if not a screen then what? What can we pack to keep our children quiet and calm in the bank, at the cafe or in the doctors waiting room?
1. A Picture Book
Unlike a device, a book offers two-way communication. It encourages the child and parent to have a conversation. A high-quality picture book can facilitate hours of discussion. And books are like magic—they keep even the loudest children quiet.
2. A Ball
Who said you had to sit in a waiting room? If it’s not busy, there’s no reason you can’t find a corner and roll a ball together. Or maybe there’s a little patch of grass outside Dad’s work and those five minutes waiting for him to come out can become time for catching practice.
3. Coloured Pencils and Paper
Children love to draw and make marks on paper, and this activity helps them develop the skills they need to learn to read and write. Toddlers tend to do better with thicker crayons and pencils, but if you have a few in your bag, you’ll always have something for them to do.
4. A Soft Toy and a Muslin Wrap
Most of us have too many of these items at home. But one of each is a great thing to pack in the nappy bag. Children love wrapping and carrying their ‘baby’, a lovely quiet game that helps to develop a child’s language and empathy.
5. A Small Car (or Three)
A little collection of cars in a canvas bag provides hours of fun. Every place you visit is a new place to explore. There are patterns on the carpet and chairs to drive underneath. And another child might join in with this play, which will make it even more fun.
5. A Hat
Once you notice it, there is nature everywhere. There are grassy hills to roll down, fountains with water to splash in and trees dropping colourful leaves. If you have some simple sun protection, there is never a reason not to stop for a few minutes and play outside.
And sometimes a ten minute run around outside will help give your child exactly what they need to handle the wait in the bank.
I wish I could find that Dad and thank him for his comment. It’s changed the way I parent.
I now view those moments of boredom as opportunities—little snippets in our day for play, fun and connection.
Not worth giving up.
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My mum calls it the celebratory cup of tea. It’s the one you drink at the end of the day when the kids are in bed. Maybe for you, it’s a glass of wine or some ice-cream. But if you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure you know the moment.
The way the house is so quiet and calm, when they're finally asleep.
And yet the hours before bed can be anything but peaceful. It can feel like everyone is tired, but no one will go to bed.
It used to be like this in our house.
I’d put the kids into bed, but that was just the start.
My son wanted another story, a chat with Dad, a glass of water.
My daughter needed someone to lie with her, and at one stage, give her a foot massage as well.
It was exhausting.
It wasn’t uncommon for it to take an hour for my children to become calm enough to fall asleep.
And then something changed.
In May 2016, we made a decision. We decided for one year to take our children outside to play, every single day. And not long after they started doing something we’d never seen before—asking to go to bed.
My son would ask during dinner,
‘I’m tired. I’m ready for bed now.’ He’d say.
My daughter was only 18 months old, and one night, she fell asleep in her highchair, her hands still sticky with rice and vegetables.
Before Our Year Outdoors, they would play and muck around during story time. But after, they were different. They’d curl up beside me, quiet and calm. Once I’d tucked them into bed, I wouldn’t hear another peep.
It completely changed our evenings. I stopped dreading bedtime.
I could plan to do work or catch up with a friend at night, confident my kids would be asleep by seven.
If you'd asked me what changed, this is what I’d say. All the active outdoor play— the running, jumping and climbing made their bodies very tired. And tired bodies became heavy, like a weight which held my children down and kept them calm and quiet.
And research supports this connection, between what our children do in the day, and how they fall asleep at night.
In 2015 a small Australian study found that reducing screen time and increasing outdoor play could improve children’s sleep.
A study of adults from the University of Groningen found that exposure to light in the daytime contributed to both the quantity and quality of sleep.
Scientists think this is because of the way bright light helps establish our circadian rhythms, the internal messaging that tells our bodies when to sleep.
The truth is, most of us don't notice how much of the day we spend indoors. Or how we aren’t moving our bodies as much as we should. And that may be part of the reason our children struggle to go to sleep at night.
For our family, playing outside every day has made a huge difference.
Bedtime is no longer a battle.
Instead, for my children, it’s a natural rhythm—a peaceful end to our bright and beautiful days.
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