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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In many parts of the world, summer is synonymous with holidays and hours of uninterrupted outdoor play. We read about summer time in books and watch movies where children spend all day riding bikes and swimming in clear lakes. But in Australia summer is different. Australia is a country of extremes. And it’s rarely more extreme than in the summer months when temperatures in parts of the country push 45 degrees celsius.
So if you’re a parent with young children and you want your child to have an active, outdoor life, what can you do? How can you survive the heat with kids?
Before we answer the question, we need to change our mindset. While summer might be the best time for outdoor play in places like North America and Scandinavia, in Australia it is our most tricky season. We’re not likely to be kept inside by snow days or blizzards, but there will be times when hot weather, dangerous conditions and high UV levels force our kids inside, and that’s ok.
Actually winter, when the sun is shining, and the UV is low is the perfect time for all-day outdoor adventures. Even overcast Australian days tend to be mild, so committing to getting outside through out the rest of the year, whatever the weather, and not relying on summer as a golden time for outdoor play, is the important first step.
But what do you actually do in summer when temperatures start rising?
First, you need to establish a new summer rhythm. In our family, we get up early to play but stay inside between 10 am and 2 pm, to avoid the worst of the heat. If you do that, there are then two modes of summer, the indoor summer and the outdoor summer, and within those modes, we can make some choices that will help us make the most of those hot days.
Here are my tips.
1. Get out early and stay out late.
If you can organise rest time and naps around the middle of the day then you can make the most of the cool mornings and evenings.
2. Stay safe.
Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. So being sun safe is extremely important. Invest in good sun protection—hats, long sleeve shirts, a sunscreen you love, sunglasses and a beach umbrella or shelter. Store these items by the front door or in the car, so they’re always ready when you're heading out.
And don’t leave them at home on overcast days. UV levels can be high even when it doesn’t feel hot and sunny. The Cancer Council’s SunSmart app provides an hour by hour forecast of UV and gives advice as to when sun protection is needed.
3. Find some shade.
When choosing a place to play outside, prioritise shade. Parks and playgrounds differ greatly when it comes to how many trees and shady areas they have. This is the time of year to travel a little further so you can find one with the right amount.
Keep in mind that natural shade, provided by trees and vegetation, is far better than shade cloths, because plants transpire, and this can cool the air by as much as ten degrees. The playground surfaces also have an effect on the overall temperature of a space, manmade surfaces like soft fall and concrete are much hotter than mulch and grass.
4. Play with water.
There’s a reason most preschools have water trays or tables. All that running, jumping, lifting, tipping and splashing children do when playing with water is developing their gross and fine motor skills.
A beach or river is the best place for water play. But if you don’t have access to those natural spaces (and your council doesn’t have water restrictions), then water play can easily be replicated in a backyard or on a balcony. A tub of water, a couple of buckets or cups and a small watering can provides hours of fun.
Simple activities like running under the sprinkler or watering the garden are great ways to keep kids cool. And you can switch up the evening bath routine by using a tub in the backyard.
5. Pack a picnic.
Snacks that have a high water content--like watermelon, cucumber and berries--are great for kids in summer. Flasks can hold ice and will keep drinking water cold even on the hottest days. And here’s a tip, if you add some ice bricks to your picnic then wrap the whole thing in an old woollen jumper or blanket (100% wool works best) it will keep things ice cold. Wool is much more effective than plastic cooler bags. With this trick, I’ve even been able to take homemade ice cream to the beach and keep it frozen.
We often think of picnics being a lunchtime activity, but in summer, breakfast and dinner picnics are better. And remember you don’t always have to cook—sandwiches and smoothies are a perfect summer midweek meal.
Even with all those useful tips, in Australia, a significant chunk of our kid’s summer will still be spent indoors. But don’t lose heart, indoor time can still be active and fun.
6. Limit screen time.
While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of screen time every now and then, if we’re turning the TV on every afternoon when the weather forces our kids indoors, they are missing out on other experiences that are better for them.
Colouring, painting, playing with blocks, building things out of boxes, play dough and dress ups all provide better opportunities for learning and development. Inviting friends over to play is the simplest way to make indoor play more fun and exciting.
When it’s really hot, after children have been outside to play, they will need a rest. Nothing beats curling up under a fan and reading, but children’s podcasts and audiobooks are also a great substitute for television, and many are available for free through the ABC Kid’s Listen App or your local library.
8. Use someone else's air-conditioning.
We’ve all done it, a really hot day has sent us running to the local air-conditioned cinema or shopping centre. But remember libraries, art galleries and museums are also air-conditioned and many provide classes and activities for children throughout the year.
9. More water play.
Indoor swimming pools are a great option on a hot day because kids can stay active and cool at the same time. For older kids, indoor ice-rinks and rock climbing centres are a healthier choice than the movies, and can be a great option when the budget allows it.
Finally, in all this, it helps to remember that summer is a season. And it will pass. Go easy on yourself and don’t let the hot weather dampen your attempts to give your kids an active, outdoor childhood.
If you're looking for more inspiration check out this post about how one family plays outside throughout the year in Darwin, NT, where average monthly temperatures sit at around 30 degrees celsius.
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I like decluttering. I love the feeling of carting bag loads of items out of the house, destined for the charity shop.
I love the look of a cupboard that’s just been sorted, the way my belongings seem more beautiful and useful when they stand alone, uncluttered.
But there is one area I’ve found hard to sort—my kid's toys.
And I’m not alone.
Minimalist Facebook groups, blog posts and forums are crowded with questions from parents asking how to declutter toys. How to know which to keep and how many to get rid of.
There are good reasons to reduce our children’s toys and simplify their bedrooms and play spaces. Reasons that are supported by research.
Most famous is a 1990’s project by Rainer Strick and Elke Schubert implemented in a German Kindergarten, where toys were packed away for three months.
What happened to the preschoolers when all their toys were gone? Well, not much really. They quickly came up with other ways to play. They went outside and built dens in the school’s garden. They used tables and chairs to make cubbies and invented pretend worlds with their imaginations.
It turned out, less toys led to more creativity, more collaboration and more imaginary play.
A University of Toledo
The quality of children’s play in each scenario was measured against indicators. And what the study found was that the duration and depth of play was affected by the number of toys. With fewer toys allowing for more sustained periods of play.
At the end of the study, researchers asked parents how many toys were in their child’s environment, at home. ‘A lot’ was the answer given by some of the parents, with others guessing a number close to 90.
And this is where it gets hard. Most of us are overwhelmed by the number of toys our children have, and we don’t know where to start when it comes to simplifying.
What I’ve learnt is that even armed with the knowledge that fewer toys are better for play, If my kids are the main reasons for getting rid of our toys, my best efforts will quickly fail.
Because I know my children will play happily in a room bursting with toys.
And even when they are spilling out of baskets and jammed in cupboards, each toy I pick up has at some point been loved. Each item reminds me of a period of beautiful play.
And deep down I feel if I get rid of an item I’m denying my children the chance to experience that joy again.
Of course, I'm not. It’s the play that is special and play comes from within, it’s not from anything you can buy at a store.
But still, if I’m going to convince myself to declutter toys, I need a better reason.
And that reason is me.
So now before I start a cleanup, I ask myself a few questions.
What kind of life do I want?
Do I want to spend these precious years picking up, sorting and organising toys?
Do I want to feel angry and resentful each time I walk into my children’s rooms?
Do I want it to take hours to get the house tidy before a friend comes to play?
I don’t want my house to overwhelm me.
Instead, I want more time for afternoon walks, trips to the library, and pancakes on the weekend. More money for family adventures and to give to those who really need it.
And more space in our life for connection and joy.
And this realisation makes it easier.
I know the kids won’t notice the toys I take to the charity shop, but I will.
And that’s the best part.
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Two years ago I sat on the balcony of my parents holiday house with a notepad in hand. I had just made a decision that would change our lives forever.
Here’s what I had written on the notepad,
Take my children outside for three hours every day for a year.
My son was three and my daughter was one that day and were riding a scooter on the balcony beside me. All of us were watching the kookaburras swoop down from the scribbly gums trees.
I was nervous about setting out on such a big project when my children were so young.
I was worried about adding more to our already busy lives.
Today I wish I could send a message to that mother on the balcony. I would tell her not to worry.
Because I now know, when you shift your focus, when you make playing outside a priority for your kids, then magic happens.
And here is some of the magic, some of the benefits of shifting things around to make more time to go outside.
1. Happier Children
What young children want to do most is play. And when we let them, when we give them time to run wild, without interruption, they are happier.
2. Healthy Kids
My kids get sick less and bounce back quicker when they do. And playing outside also ensures they stay in a healthy weight range and develop the skills they need to succeed.
My kids run easily and have no trouble holding a pencil. They are strong and have a level of fitness that allows them to keep going, which has increased their perseverance and confidence.
3. Calmer Evenings
When my children are outside for hours, they use up all their excess energy, and our evenings are calmer. They will sit and play quietly, or colour at the kitchen table and the house feels peaceful and cosy.
4. Kids who eat their dinner
Most children snack less outside—they are too busy. And ‘hunger is the best seasoning,’ says author Karen Le Billon. Which is true.
When my kids come to the table hungry they are more willing to try new foods and more likely to eat everything put in front of them.
5. Less sibling rivalry and more beautiful play
Children argue less outdoors. A lot less.
Instead, they have incredible, sustained, imaginary play. And after a day of that kind of play they come inside beaming, and the best of friends.
6. Children who go to bed early
Children who ask to go to bed before their bed time—it seems like a work of fiction, but it’s not.
When children move for hours, when they don't sit immobile in front of screens, sleep comes naturally. And they don’t fight it.
7. A house that stays tidy
Outside my children spend hours transporting sand and water, mixing mud with sticks, and moving branches to build cubbies.
If we stay inside, they play in much the same way. They transport items from the drawers to the floor, they mix lego with crayons and build forts out of all the pillows in the house.
The kind of play that is ok outside, is chaos inside.
Walking into a tidy house at the end of a day of play is still my favourite thing about getting my kids outside.
8. More time together
Unplugging, walking away from the to-do list and going outside together has only added to our lives.
It’s meant more time sitting by a fire, and walking by the sea and afternoons in the garden as the sun sets. It’s meant more connection and less distraction.
9. A brighter life
Back on that very first morning when I decided to go outside for my kids. I had no idea the benefits would be for me too.
I had no idea about the way nature calms you. I didn't know my worries could get lost in the sky.
Now I make tea and drink it on the balcony, I go out to pick herbs for dinner and take a moment to stare up at the star-studded sky.
And I do it for myself. Because I know an outdoor life is a happier, healthier and more fulfilling one.
For my children and me.
When my son was two he was fussy.
Here is a complete list of the foods he would eat: milk, pasta, rice, bread, chicken nuggets and fish fingers, chips, watermelon, tiny teddies and wheat-bix.
We used to tell friends he was a milk-drinking vegan. But that was generous because he didn't eat plants, except the refined white variety.
We had done everything right. I handmade all his baby food, we ate meals together at the table, I always put a variety of things on his plate, and I didn't make special meals for him.
Although over time I started adding fish fingers on the side of our plates so that at least he would eat something.
Then in 2016 everything changed. We made a decision. We decided to stop shopping at the supermarket.
We were going to try eating only outdoor food. Food sold outside, grown outside, that had spent most of its life outside.
I would supplement the market hauls by shopping at a little bulk shop for grains, dried lentils, nuts and tea. But I stopped buying processed food altogether. And I honestly didn't know what my son would eat.
But something amazing happened. And it started with an apple.
‘Try this young chap,’ said Rob, leaning over his stand, handing Ezra a piece of apple. And to my surprise he did.
Then he tried carrot and cucumber from Pete’s organic stand. And he loved them. We started calling them ‘market snacks’. he would remind me in the car on the way, ‘Don’t forget to get me a carrot, Mum’ he would say.
The first time he tasted ham was after a farmer showed him pictures of his grandchildren riding on the back of his fat pigs.
And the first time he tried sausages was when I ordered a side of beef online. The farmers dropped it off at our place on a Friday night. Ezra was waiting up in his pyjamas for him, and the arrival of the white truck was more exciting than Santa Clause.
We stopped buying things in packets. I started cooking snacks from scratch. And because pikelets, crepes and flatbreads tasted so good hot from the pan, he decided fried potatoes and eggs would be nice too.
There was a world of difference between the market food we were eating and what had previously been available to us at the supermarket.
Many local farmers have a deep connection to nature and grow food in a way that regenerates rather than depletes the environment.
Some showed us patches of remnant bushland on their property they looked after, removing invasive species, and protecting new trees and plants from pests. We found dairy farmers who use returnable glass milk bottles, taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of their product.
We learnt about how small-scale farmers use compost and manure to cycle nutrients and fertilise their plants and paddocks. What we hadn't realised was that industrial agriculture has discarded this ancient zero-waste practice in favour of artificial fertilisers.
Artificial fertilisers that are made of petroleum, and are a non-renewable. Chemicals that the destroy the soil’s structure and contributes to erosion and land degradation. We learnt that runoff from these fertilisers, and the pesticides that often join them, pollute rivers and streams, eventually flowing out into the ocean.
The farmers we met used antibiotics sparingly, and many not at all. They didn't need too. They explained that animals who live outdoors and have plenty of space, clean water and natural food rarely get sick. Unlike intensively farmed chicken and pigs who spend their lives indoors and are fed antibiotics daily, to protect them from the diseases which otherwise would be rife in an environment where up to 60,000 hens are housed in a single shed.
Shopping at the farmers' markets changed the way we eat. We now eat less imported food and more of what’s in season, less chicken and more chickpeas. And we love it.
And I now have a five-year-old who eats feta, leek and spinach. Who loves real food and gets excited about a new stand at the markets or a favourite vegetable that has come back into season.
But his fussiness isn't gone completely. The other day in a shop a cashier offered him a jelly lolly. It was lime green.
‘I don’t think I want to try that.’ he said to me quietly.
‘That’s fine’ I said. ‘You don’t have to.’
It’s funny, I thought. How often do we blame our children for their fear of food. ‘It’s developmental’ we say, or ‘they are stubborn.’
But what if the problem is ours? As a society we have turned food into something unreal. We eat food that comes in boxes, is grown using poisonous chemicals, travels great distances and we source it from cold corridors, devoid of life.
In a supermarket, we have thousands of options and even adults don't understand the ingredients in much of what we eat. No wonder our children find it scary.
What I've learnt is if you want to change the way your toddler eats, there is really only one thing you need to do.
Shop for real food.
Food you can't find in the deep freezer of a giant chain store. Or in a packet at the back of a shelf.
Real food is out in the sunshine. Hanging over your neighbour’s fence, growing in a garden, in the back of a farmer's ute or on a trellis table at a market.
There are no self-service checkouts where you buy real food. You’ll have to talk to someone to get it. But it will come with a conversation. With a smile and a story, and sometimes even an invitation to play at the farm where it all began.
And that might be the best part of all.
Hannah and Tim both grew up in Sydney. They are both lawyers and neither of them went camping when they were kids. Then in 2017, they moved to Darwin as a family.
And it changed their lives.
I loved interviewing Hannah for this post and you will love it too. Hannah's boys are three and one, and also happen to be my nephews. Their wild outdoor adventures are sure to inspire you. Enjoy!
On life in Darwin
Darwin is a pretty extreme place. It’s the top end of Australia. The weather is full on. It’s roughly 33 degrees celsius all year, except when it’s storming, and then it drops to about 28 degrees.
Most of the time it feels hotter because of the extreme humidity. The storms are huge and dramatic. And cyclones are a real threat (we just experienced one). Darwin is a wild place.
It’s also very beautiful. There are heaps of birds and every night the sky fills with amazing colours at sunset.
On surviving the heat
At first, Darwin felt like a very difficult place to raise two small kids…so hot and sweaty all the time! And mid-morning visits to the park were just not a good option. But we are getting much better at picking the right moment and the right space for the weather. The play space has to be shaded or wet, preferably both! And mostly our outside play needs to be early morning or late afternoon.
But within those limits, we’ve still found some great things to do. Walking through rainforests, sliding down shady sand dunes, climbing over rocks to find little rock pools along the coast, riding bikes and scooters along the excellent coastal paths, swimming at the pool, and when we need to be close to home: running under the sprinkler, digging in the mud, playing with the hose, hooning around with trucks and buckets during a storm.
On outdoor food
Our standards are: chopped cucumber and carrot, wraps with peanut butter, and a bit of tropical fruit to sweeten the deal.
And always water-bottles!
We also have a backyard garden that mainly consists of native and tropical plants and shrubs, but we try our hand at a few herbs. The boys love to pick the basil and add it to dinner.
We knew when we moved to Darwin that we wanted to get out and explore the NT. We bought a tent, swag and a blow-up mattress at the start of the dry season, from there we have added bits and pieces as we saw the need, and as friends have shown us their tricks.
It’s season dependent. During the dry season last year (May-August), we got out quite a bit, about every second or third weekend. Last year we mainly explored Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks as weekend trips. Hoping to do more of that this year, together with some longer trips to the Red Centre and through the Kimberleys.
When we’re camping, we explore, play in the bush, watch the wildlife, find waterfalls, cook meals around the campfire, and swim if it’s safe (the croc-threat is real.) They boys love camping. To them, it’s a big adventure in which they get lots of Mum and Dad time, and lots of space to run and play.
Tim and I weren't campers before we moved to the Northern Territory. We hadn't camped as children or adults. It’s been a big learning experience. We’ve learnt that most difficult part is getting out the door. From there it’s great. Camping has been an awesome reminder of how refreshing it is to be in nature. We come back tired and dirty, but calm.
It’s also an exercise in living simply. We don’t take any toys with us, but so far we’ve not had any issues keeping the boys entertained. Some sticks for drawing and building, an amazing landscape, and adults to help them explore is all they need. Once we get out the door, it almost becomes an easier weekend experience than if we were at home.
On surviving the wet season
The rain during the wet season actually makes it a lot easier to be outside. It’s not like being down south where the rain makes you feel cold. Here, the rain is no colder than your bath! It’s actually a great time to be outside, run around, ride a bike etc. Obviously we get indoors if there’s thunder and lightning, or it’s torrential. But otherwise, we enjoy the rain.
Yes, sometimes it does feel like there are lots of things in Darwin out to get you. Stingers, crocodiles, cyclones, melioidosis (a soil-borne disease that comes to the surface after the rain), snakes… the list goes on! We try to be aware of the risks and make appropriate choices about where and when we play. For example, we do play a lot in puddles after the rain, but I make the kids wear gumboots (because of meliodosis). We do swim in natural water spots, but we choose spots that crocodiles cannot get to (e.g. up high and surrounded by rocks) and we get outside and run like crazy before the cyclone strikes!
On the benefits of outdoor play
Playing outside wears them out so they go to sleep easier. They are calmer when we do come inside. They don’t fight with each other so much (especially when we are camping and there are no toys to fight over). They are more creative. And they (and we) are more relaxed.
On new persectives
We’ve learnt respect for “country”, in all its beauty and harshness. Places like Kakadu, that are so un-touched, are a striking reminder of how beautiful and awe-inspiring the Australian country is – and what gifted custodians of the land Australia’s First People are.
And we’ve come to value wild, open, natural space a lot more than we did when we lived in the city.
When my son was three, my husband gave him a knife.
He gave him one because at the time our son loved watching his dad pull out his pocket knife and use it to cut pieces of rope or a slice of apple. And he wanted one of his own.
My husband is the tough, outdoorsy sort. So it’s not surprising that he found a little red pocket knife for our son, one that fitted nicely in his three-year-old hand—it’s surprising that I let him keep it.
Because in the past I wouldn't have. I would have said three was too young for knives, that thirteen would be better or seventeen. I used to think that was my job as a mother—to keep my children safe.
‘Nice idea darling,’ I would have said to my husband, ‘but times have changed.’ And I would have been right about that, times have changed.
Safety is a much higher priority for mothers’ today than it was in the past. Germ covers for shopping trolleys, knee pads for crawlers and digital heart-rate monitors are a few examples of the multitude of products that promise to help us in our mission to keep our children safe and dry.
Today’s mums like playgrounds with fences and indoor play centres full of foam mats with no sharp edges. And we like to speak loudly to our children and tell them to stop, put that stick down and be careful.
Because we believe good mothers do everything to keep their child safe. But is that actually true?
Well, I used to think it was. But now I know it isn’t.
It’s more complicated than that—here’s why.
Most of the time we don’t notice it, but we live in a society that is obsessed with risk aversion. We think it’s normal to prevent risk at all costs. Especially risks that involve children.
And we are so focused on banning risky activities; we fail to notice all the benefits we lose when we do so.
Take Thredbo’s recent decision to ban tobogganing at it’s NSW Ski fields. Sure, speeding down the ice on a piece of plastic involves risks, and some of them are serious. But tobogganing is also very good for children.
The best thing about it is all the exercise they get, dragging their toboggan up a snowy hill, over and over again. A pretty significant benefit when you consider the fact that two-thirds of Australian children don’t get enough physical activity and 1 in 4 is overweight or obese.
We are also not as good at assessing risk as we think we are.
When our child is up in a tree, higher than we want them to be, we have a strong response. The idea that they might fall consumes us, we can’t stop thinking about it, and we can even feel physically sick.
But most of us don’t feel like that when we strap our children into the back of a car.
And when we send our children to school to sit in a chair for most of the day, we don’t even consider the risk of inactivity. Even though researchers have found inactivity to be responsible for 7% of the global burden of disease for type-2 diabetes and 10% for both breast and colon cancer. And that overall physical inactivity causes about 9% of deaths worldwide.
And then there’s the fact that allowing children to take risks also does something pretty surprising—it makes them safer.
In 2017 when Australian researchers studied what happened when educators started lighting campfires in their Newcastle preschool. They were surprised that the preschoolers began talking more about fire safety. And even incorporated ideas about safety into their dramatic play.
And a 2015 study from Belgium found that when children aged 3 to 8 participated in 14 weeks of risky play, their ability to detect risks increased. And so did their self-esteem.
When us Mums take over the job of keeping our children safe. We take away our child’s responsibility and autonomy.
But when we allow our children to take age-appropriate risks, we open up a conversation about safety. They understand that we trust them to use their judgement. And we expect them to be responsible and to be aware of their surroundings.
And when we do that we find out our children are much more capable or assessing risk and keeping themselves safe than we thought.
That’s what happened with the pocket knife. We let our son have one. There were conditions, of course. It lived with Dad’s knife out of reach and was used under supervision.
Our son learnt it was a tool, not a toy. He understood he had a responsibility to use it safely. And he loved it. Opening seed pods and whittling sticks made outdoor play more engaging, and his confidence grew.
Now I stand on the other side. And I know how hard it can be to be the mum who lets your child do risky things.
Last week a friend and I took a walk along a local bike track. She pushed her baby in the pram while our four other children rode their bikes along beside us.
Towards the end of the walk our two eldest, both five, decided to ride as fast as they could to the end of the path. It was quite a long way, and at times they were so far ahead we couldn’t quite see them around the corner. But they are sensible kids, we trusted them to keep themselves safe.
An older lady, walking the other direction along the path, noticed our kids before she saw us. By the time she got over to us, she had a stern look on her face, ‘Your children are very far ahead you know’ she said.
But I just smiled.
Because I no longer feel it’s my job to protect my children from all potential harm. It’s to raise them to be confident, responsible and brave.
I’ve decided I’m going to give my children the freedom to take risks. I’m going to let them do adventurous things.
Because in twelve years my son will get behind the wheel of a car, without me at his side. And we both need to be ready for that.
In September 2016 our family turned off our screens.
We went cold turkey. No television, no tablets, and no smartphones, during daylight hours. My husband and I were allowed our computers and phones for work, and we could contact friends and family at night when the kids were in bed. At the time our children were one and three and were watching an hour of children’s television in the afternoon of most days. Plus the news in the morning with Dad and a little bit of iPad time to calm them down before their nap. We thought a screen-free month would we hard, but we had no idea how it would change our lives. Here’s what we learnt.
When our children had plenty of time to play outside, they didn’t need screen-time. The month fell within a year-long family project—Our Year Outdoors. So our kids were spending three hours or more outside each day. And that made all the difference. All that running, climbing, swimming and jumping made them physically very tired. In the afternoon, after their bath, they played cars or blocks or sat in the lounge room reading library books in their pyjamas. And I could count on a couple of quiet hours to cook dinner in peace.
The afternoons were calmer that month and so were the mornings. In fact, about halfway through the month, we noticed a kind of quiet peacefulness descend on our household. The kids played more creatively and argued less. In general, they seemed happier. I was surprised that I noticed a difference when my kids had only been using screens for an hour a day. But I found research that supported what I saw—that even a small amount of screen time can have a negative impact on young children. In fact, a University of Virginia study found that four-year-olds experienced a drop in executive functioning skills after watching as little as 9 minutes of fast-paced cartoons.
I noticed other things that month too. I started to see how our collective dependence on screens is changing the landscape of childhood.
When I was a child my mum read The Little House in the Big Woods to my brothers and me. I remember being shocked by what took place at the dinner table in the little house. In the chapter about their Christmas celebrations, the protagonist Laura explained that she and her sister Mary did not say a word during the meal, because ‘they knew that children should be seen and not heard.’
The concept was utterly foreign to me. At that time I had lived most of my life in a university flat, on the bottom floor of a residential college. My Dad worked at the college and as part of his job he often invited homesick international students to our place for my Mum’s beef casserole and butterscotch pudding. The constant stream of interesting, young dinner guests helped my brother, who was six, develope a budding interest in politics. I was only three, but I was fascinated by their stories and loved it when they told us about what their own mothers cooked at home. Once after a meal at our place, I was invited to a dark-haired student’s tiny dorm room. She gave me lollies and let me sit on her beds and flick through her fat university textbooks. Another day an American student made a cassette tape of stories for my brothers and me. We treasured that tape and his Yankee version of Old MacDonald's Farm, long after he had returned to his homeland.
When I was a child I was included in all the conversations held at the dinner table. Now, I saw that I often used technology to push my own children aside. And it wasn’t only me. I noticed it a lot that September. At a dinner party where the kid's table was set up in front of a Disney movie, a child glued to an iPad in the doctor’s waiting room, and that most familiar gesture—a blinking iPhone passed across a cafe table. I had seen these scenes many times before, I had done them myself. But now I started to wonder. Were we on the road to recreating a culture where our children’s voices were not welcome? Where they would be allowed to be seen, but not heard?
I read a lot that month, and I learnt there were many reasons why limiting my children's screen time was a good idea.
In 2006 a study found that the time children spent on screens tended to take away from the time they spent engaged in creative play or interacting with parents and siblings—two things that are essential for learning and development.
Another study, published in 2015, found that as little as one hour of regular television viewing in kindergarten was associated with an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese in childhood—even when you adjusted for parental education levels and household income.
According to a University of Bristol study, children who spend more than two hours a day on screens also have an increased risk of psychological difficulties.
More recently, in a poll by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, two-thirds of Australian parents admitted they fought with their children about turning off devices on a daily basis.
In September 2016 our family gave up the battle. And the truth is, we have never really had it again. In our house screens are now the exception rather than the rule. And to our surprise, nobody really misses them.
It’s more than a year since our screen-free month, and our children are now three and five. These days we use screens sparingly. My five year old sometimes uses my laptop to type up a story he is writing. My daughter likes using my iPhone to take photos or create text messages full of emojis for her Grandma who lives interstate. But they don't have screen time daily. My husband and I also try to stay off our computers, until the kids have gone to bed. And although we sometimes watch a family movie together on a Friday night, weeks go by without us ever turning the TV on for the kids.
For me, the best change is that I no longer rely on screens to get through the day. I now know if my children are tired, I can put music on and we can dance on the kitchen tiles together. If they are grumpy, I can tell them stories or read them poems or sing them songs. And if, after dinner, my daughter has trouble calming down before bed, then I can carry her out to the balcony so we can say goodnight to the moon. And if need be, I can rock her to sleep—under an ancient sky.
My amazing, beautiful, creative friend Bonnie lives in a Sydney with her husband Dan and their two little girls. She runs a photography business from home, her husband works long hours, and she is pregnant their third baby, yet, somehow she still has the cleanest kitchen of anyone I know. And her kids get plenty of time to play outside.
Bonnie’s apartment is an oasis. She has a lovely leafy fig tree in her lounge room, potted succulents on her windowsills and dried plants on display around the house. And she’s always happy to put the kettle on and sit down for a chat. So that's exactly what I did this week (although this time via Skype) and I asked her for a bit of insight into how she does it all. I hope you’re ready to be inspired.
On living in Sydney
I live on the north shore of Sydney, quite close to a main highway, in an apartment of about nine units that was built in the 1940s. I live with my husband Daniel, Poppy who is three, Georgie who is one and we have another baby on the way.
We love living in Sydney. It’s exciting, daunting, busy and very diverse.
On getting outside to play
Our rule of thumb is that we go out every day. If I go out once a day, I’m happy. If we don't get outside, we do have a little bit of grass near the clothesline, I can take the girls down there in the afternoon. Or when Daniel gets home I send them down there with him. They can have dessert outside or have dinner outside and that gives them a chance to run around.
On apartment living
It’s such a tight space. We also live on the top floor so if we don’t get out I notice the girls are soon thumping around. Georgie still naps so if we get outside in the morning it means that Poppy will have some quiet time and I can have a rest. If we stay inside, it isn't like that at all. We are all on top of each other and no one gets a break. So the strategy is to get outside and tucker them out, as well as make the most of the sunshine.
On Sydney weather
We are pretty lucky. The summers aren't super hot. And the winters are mild. So you can get around year round without having to wear a heavy coat. Sydney’s weather means you can get out most days without too much worry.
On things that make it hard
Our biggest challenges are stairs and parking. I buy our groceries online so I don't have to go to all that effort to get down the stairs and to the car and end up only inside in the supermarket. It’s harder work now that I’m pregnant, but I know we just need to plan and be strategic. We have a pram in each of our cars so we don't need to unpack them each time or carry it up the stairs.
Our favourite places to play
We love the Incinerator Park in Willoughby, Woorongah Park, Clifton Gardens, and Sydney beaches. Balmoral is the particularly great beach for kids.
One of the other places we go to often is Taronga Zoo. We bought a pass this year and there was a deal when we did, so we got some bonus children’s passes which we gave to the girls’ cousins. We go there and just hang out. They have a lovely playground, water play, a petting zoo, animals and the most amazing view of the harbour.
A rule of thumb for me, as a mum, is that wherever we go, there has to be a cafe. A park for the kids and a good coffee for me.
What’s do we pack to eat outside?
Cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, strawberries, blueberries, bananas and grapes. And I’m eating a BAE role and a flat white, of course.
On growing up wild
I actually grew up in Seattle with two older sisters. I feel like my parents were pretty lenient. We had a group of neighbourhood kids, we called ourselves 'the neighbourhood gang'. There were no phones and no parents telling us that we couldn't go anywhere we wanted. There were woods and ravines and so we would trek for hours. We had a dog that roamed free with us as well. These days what our parents let us do would be called negligence. But for us it was wonderful. I think naturally a child wants to explore and it's just that we were allowed to, so we did. We used to go blackberry picking. There was a lot of rain is Seattle but it didn't really stop us. We had to play outside, even in the wet so we just jumped in puddles and played in the mud. My sisters and I still call those years our golden years. We had our woods, we had our ravine and we had our freedom. On some days, I think we even ended up in a different suburb.
The best piece of advice for apartment living…
One big tip I have is stock your boot. If you’re not well prepared living in an apartment, you’ll stay inside. I keep a towel, nappies, wipes, a bucket and spade, their scooters and a blanket in the car. Even if you can’t do that, having it all in a basket by the door makes it easier.
On indoor nature
I love to have living plants around. It’s a way to bring the outdoors in. Something about having life growing around you is really enriching. I talk to my plants as I water them, and so the girls do to. They carry their little teacups around and water the plants like mummy.
I never stop the girls from bringing sticks, leaves or seedpods inside. I even have a little mat and I let them put their treasures there.
We also have lots of books about nature at our place. And because of what we read Poppy will say, ‘Mummy what’s the name of that bird?, Whats the name of that insect?’
I find that having that inspiration for nature when you’re inside fosters the love of it when you’re outside.
Your favourite books?
We like Gecko press, the Big Book of Animals of the World. We also like ‘I spy’ books. We read books to Poppy and now when we are outside, I ask her, ‘What can you see?’ ‘What can you collect?’ And she is happy to go and explore.
Thanks for having us, Bonnie!
All photos by Bonnie Maher, except family photo by Sam Riles Photography.
Check out this amazing nature playground in Sydney.
You might also like these articles: 10 tips to help you get outdoors with your kids more often and Six ways to get outside when you live in the city