Time to learn

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh


What you can do with a little patience

When I do bad parenting, it is because I have run out of patience. Or perhaps I woke up without any to start with. Impatient Mummy says: “Oh for goodness sake, it’s not that bad, get up off the floor.” She meets tantrums with anger, dawdling with manhandling, reluctance to eat dinner with ultimatums and pestering in the kitchen with “Get out of the way, go sit on the sofa and watch Numberjacks!”

Impatient Mummy often surfaces, I have noticed, when the Baby is providing the background music. Her post-modern minimalist compositions like “Ode to Hunger” and “I am being Ignoooooored” bore into the brain and render me incapable of rational thought. Sadly, the Toddler bears the brunt of my frustration.

This post, however, is about what happens when I approach his obsessions, tantrums and wheedling with a calm and reasonable frame of mind. It is about the moments I am proud of.

Regular readers will know that my son’s number-obsession has found its natural outlet in a love of the Numberjacks. (He’d known it all along: numbers are alive! They go on secret missions and solve ploplems!) For the past month or so I have had the greatest trouble persuading him to play with anything non-number related. One day this past week, determined to do something different, I put out the puzzle pieces of his former favourite Maisie Mouse puzzle out on the floor ready for when he got up from his nap. It has numbers on it as well as pictures, so I thought it would hopefully still catch his interest. I brought him downstairs and he surveyed the pieces on the floor.

maisie puzzleS: Messy Mummy! Puzzle floor.
Me: Mummy wanted to do the puzzle, but she couldn’t without your help.
S: Try Mummy.
Me: I think maybe these go together.
S: Yes, Mummy. Amazing! Try 9, Mummy.
I pick up the puzzle piece that has the number 9 on it.
Me: Ooo, where does it go? Can you help?
S: Nex-a 5, Mummy.

He took over then and finished the puzzle off himself. Then he gleefully described what he saw in a wonderful bilingual Toddler-stream of consciousness: “10 nex-a 9. Maisie eendjes eten. Eendjes hap-a bread. [Maisie ducks feed. Ducks munch bread.] Maisie plant. Glijbaan . Maisie too happy!”

And so I learned Lesson 1: Patronising your Mummy is more fun even than watching Numberjacks.

Another brilliant new game that he loves and will play even if Numberjacks is on offer is ‘Mama poes [cat]’. We discovered it on a day when I managed to unglue myself from the sofa and relinquish my dignity. I crawled over to the Toddler on all fours and gave him a little nudge with my nose. He turned around in delight and exclaimed: “Hello mama poes!”

I meowed and gave him another little nudge. We had a little conversation where he asked me questions and I meowed in reply, which he thought hilarious, and I ended up reading him one of his favourite stories entirely in meows.

A week or so later I was having another good day and became ‘mama hond [dog]’. This turned out to be an even better game. The Toddler clearly knew that dogs like water, so he went into the kitchen with a pot he’d emptied of magnetic numbers and pretended to fill it at the tap.

S: Shhhhhhh. Here you go, mama hond. Drink.
Me: Woof!
I pretend to drink while he sits on the kitchen floor and observes with rapt attention.
S: Very loud, mama hond. Oh! Ding dong! Can that be?
He runs to the front door. I follow on all fours, wondering what is going to happen now.
S: Hello Joanne! [one of my friends] Come and see.
He runs back to the kitchen.
S: Mama hond, drink?
… and the game starts all over again.

And so I learned Lesson 2, which I should have learned in labour really: Get down on all fours. There is no place for dignity in motherhood.

My final bit of model parenting involves dealing with undesirable behaviour. Just so you don’t think I have swallowed Penelope Leach, my normal response to playing with the washing machine/throwing balls indoors/tearing pages out of books is “NOOOO! GRRRRRRRARGH!” followed by me stomping around doing damage control while the Toddler weaves between my legs saying calmly: “Mama cross.”

Today, however, when the Toddler picked up the receiver of our house phone and started dialling, I found myself saying the following: “I understand that you think the telephone is very interesting, but it is not a toy. You must not touch it. Why don’t we make you a telephone to play with? Shall we do that?” I held my breath while he considered this offer. Then he said: “Ah… yes!” We made a telephone out of an empty box with pens and sticky tape and a ribbon to connect the receiver to the phone. He used it to ring me in the kitchen and inform me that he wanted apple juice.

Lesson 3: Patience makes for better parenting. Craft is always fun.

Linking up to Magic Moments.

Things I have done to avoid watching the Numberjacks

The Toddler is obsessed with the Numberjacks. No longer do I get a “Hello Mummy! Nice-a see you!” in the morning. Now it’s “Ah, Mummy. Nummajacks onna way?” All day long he follows me around begging to see our recorded episodes again and again and again. There are only so many times that you can – or should – watch the same four episodes of anything. Sadly, he is in that phase of development where he truly believes that if you just keep asking the same question over and over again, eventually you will get the reply you were hoping for.

Not wanting to relinquish all parental control and have my Toddler sit in front of the TV learning about cylinders all the live long day, I have tried everything I could think of to prise him away. These are all the things I have done to avoid watching the Numberjacks:

1. Re-enact Numberjacks episodes.
This has been quite effective. We have made numbers out of playdough, and the Toddler has gleefully danced them all around the house, ‘looking-a seven, looking-a seven, found a seven!’ Sadly, he has played with them so much that the playdough is going dry and they are starting to crack and fall apart. Every few minutes now he returns to me with a squished handful of playdough: “Mummy, want a three. Make a three Mummy.” It is getting harder and harder to resurrect the numbers, they now crumble in my hand. The result is a very sad Toddler, shrieking “want a threeeeeeee!”

Number 6 supervises a craft activity

Number 6 supervises a craft activity

So I drew him all the Numberjacks on paper. Then we spent quite a bit of time making a house for the Numberjacks in an empty box: gluing on bits of wrapping paper, colouring the inside with felt tips, sticking on glittery number stickers, gluing a picture of a DFS sofa on the inside and then sticking numbers on the sofa. Then we stuck all the paper Numberjacks onto squares of cardboard for durability. This is now a favourite toy and can distract him from the TV for a good fifteen minutes at a time.

Some of his re-enactments are not so great, however, like when Spooky Spoon suddenly turns up in the middle of dinner and there is no longer any eating, just a flying spoon. Sigh.

2. Playing with magnetic numbers.
He hasn’t been in the mood for sticking them on the fridge, but he has spent a happy half hour resting the appropriate magnetic numbers on the cover of his big number book. We have also put them in toy cars and raced them around, and made a miniature ballpool for cuddly toys out of all the magnetic numbers together.

3. Playing Numberjack games on the CBeebies website
This is not my favourite distraction technique, as it means I can’t then use my laptop at all, as he will see it and want to play games instead. But he has in fact learned to use a mouse pad by playing Numberjack games in the space of about twenty minutes.

4. High energy games
While suggestions of nice quiet games are all rejected when he has Numberjacks on the brain – “No, not Duplo. Not Happyland. Not cars. Not drawing.” – running, chasing, racing, football in the garden and dancing are always popular. The trick is not to ask. Just start doing it and he will join in, laughing gleefully. It’s just very tiring for weary parents…

5. A taste of his own medicine
The only time I have managed to get him to actively agree to playing instead of watching the fateful show was when I got incredibly fed up and resorted to acting like, well, a toddler. I threw myself onto the sofa and whined: “I want to play! I want to play!” Requests for Numberjacks stopped instantly. The Toddler rested a very grown up hand on my back and said: “Oh, okay Mummy.”

I had finally spoken to him in a language he understood. Sadly, as this is exactly the kind of behaviour I am trying to discourage in him I won’t be able to use this technique regularly.

Game for a two year old and a five month old baby

Regular readers may have noticed I have started to post regularly on Mondays and Thursdays. I am adding this bonus post because I had to share this lovely moment:

The Toddler announced it was “picpic time”. I sat down next to him. He ceremoniously held his shopping basket with groceries on his lap.

“What are we going to eat?” I ask. “Can I have a green cabbage?”

Yes, yes, I know, not traditional picnic fare, but I panicked, okay?

“Plates, Mummy!” the Toddler said. I went to the kitchen and got three paper plates. “One for you, one for me and one for the Baby,” I said.

I got the Baby and sat her on my lap. She was first offered a plastic lemon, but it rolled onto the floor.

Then, the Toddler invented the Best Game Ever. He took his paper plate and started to go: “Flap flap flap!” I followed suit with my own. “Birds!” he laughed. The birds swooped and flew and bumped into each other with big theatrical bumps.

From my lap, I suddenly heard a new sound. It was giggling. I looked down to find that the Baby was watching the paper-plate-birds, enthralled, beaming – and laughing.


“Look, the Baby is laughing! She likes your game!” I excitedly told the Toddler. “Let’s give her a plate and see if she wants to join in.” I held the third paper plate near her, and she dutifully grabbed it.

The Toddler snatched it back out of her hand and told me sternly: “Very little, Mummy.”

And that was the end of that.


It occurred to me the next day that we could make an actual bird out of the plate.

paper plate bird2paper plate bird1
Made in a minute, yay!

Improvised Tea Party

You don’t need a tea set to have a tea party.

The Baby, The Toddler and I are staying at Opa and Oma’s house in Nininand (The Netherlands). There was great excitement this morning at seeing his special toys again – though gaps between visits are long enough that he plays with them differently every time we come. “Blocks!” the Toddler shouts, making a beeline for a trolley with coloured bricks. He builds a tower with all the cylindrical blocks and then another, separate tower with all the rectangular ones.

Then he hands me a block and keeps one for himself. He pretends to munch on it, keeping a gleeful eye on me to make sure I’m joining in. I, too, munch on my block. “Mmmm, kerlucious!” he models for me. It is apparently a delicious brick. Then I am given a flat brick. I ask him whether this is a slice of ham, but he uses his own flat brick to scoop something out of the other one.

“Ah, are we eating yoghurt?” I ask.

He nods. “Yoghurt.” The flat brick: “Pleepel.” [spoon] We eat our pretend yoghurt and it is good.

Then his eyes light up with an even more exciting plan. He runs to get more blocks and sets them up on the sofa next to me. “Opa.” They are for grandpa. He sets up an identical set on the armchair. “Oma.” Those are for grandma. Neither of them are present in the room – they are at work. Then he goes to get Teddy and carefully sits him up.

“Teddy zitten billen. [Teddy sit (on your) bottom] Back soon.”

The Toddler gets Teddy the right bricks and arranges them in front of him. Then he decides more is needed. “Goo Teddy, dlinken.” [Good Teddy, drink] Teddy gets another brick to drink. Slowly the wooden delicacies pile up around Teddy. The bear is clearly very hungry and thirsty.

I sit there watching while sip my cup of tea-block and wonder why we bother buying him expensive toys.


Teddy joins in the tea party