There are many situations in life where you have to laugh or you’d cry. (I used to work in a nursing home, which was the perfect training ground).
I find it absolutely essential to keep a sense of humour when dealing with other people, especially little ones. Maybe I haven’t quite grown up yet, but if being a responsible adult means I can never see the funny side, I’d rather be a child. And anyway, I think it helps children gain a sense of perspective when they see I don’t take life’s ups and downs too seriously.
We all make mistakes along the way, and being able to acknowledge with a smile that you’re having a ‘dropping day’, or are a bit of a ‘forgetty-pants’ (as the four year old puts it when I’m being scatty) can help children accept their own limitations with less frustration.
One day I was preparing supper whilst dancing to an Abba CD with the three children, who were two, four and six. As I waved a bag of frozen peas above my head, it suddenly burst open and a cascade of peas showered over me and the floor…right on the spot where the new puppy had done a poo earlier. It was actually incredibly funny (judging by the childrens’ reaction) and I had to laugh as the cold peas ran down inside my bra. Suddenly I found myself spontaneously changing the lyrics of ‘Dancing Queen’:
“Lots of peas, covering meee, running everywhere! …. Yeah, I’ve lost my peas, oh where can they be, do I even care? Oh yeeeah!”
As the song changed to ‘Mama Mia’, my lyrics became a song about sweeping:
“Dearie dear, here I go again, sweeping, all those naughty little peas!”
I hammed up my performance, revelling in the lack of self-consciousness that the company of small children can release. The kids cavorted happily around me, hooting with laughter at my pea song .
It crossed my mind as the kids joined in with their own songs while helping me scoop up peas, that not only were we acting as a team engaging in cooperative helpful behaviour, but they were learning about rhyme, rhythm, metre and performance, as well as attitudes and ways of responding to an accident. If I had become upset or angry over the waste of peas or the inconvenience of having to clean up when I was busy, I bet I wouldn’t have had any happy little helpers. And what a different message I would have conveyed: that cleaning is a tedious chore, accidents are very upsetting, and fun stops when somebody makes a mistake. Instead, the pea mishap had turned into a joyous occasion of shared laughter and performance art.
It was very liberating.
I have also found that since play is the way kids relate to the world, I can make better relationships with them if I join in.
Children have a highly developed sense of the ridiculous and will turn anything and everything into a game. They don’t need expensive toys. Which is why I always save bubble wrap. They love it even more if I join in with the game and make bubble wrap outfits for them. Sometimes I think laughter is the fuel kids run on.
On a deeper note, shared laughter is incredibly strengthening, healing and intoxicating for kids. It releases a flood of happy emotions and endorphins that bind you all together. Laughing together at something she says or does (coupled with lots of hugs and physical play) gives your child the powerful internal message that she is worthy, accepted, loved and strong together with you. It promotes resilience and self-confidence for the future: no matter what the world throws at them, they know they are strong and loved.
Every child, at some point, will hit you with one of those Big Awkward Questions of life that we tend to dread. You know the ones: “How did the baby get into your tummy?” “Why can’t I see God?” “Why do some people have different colour skin?” “Why did Jesus die?” “Why is poo brown?” Children really want to know everything, don’t they?
Lots of us feel a bit nervous about what to tell young children about the facts of life and such sensitive subjects, how much detail to go into and when is the right time to begin. The last thing we want to do is corrupt their innocence. I have been asked by several mums what is the right thing to do.
Of course there are very many opinions, and you must do what seems right to you. But if you want my opinion, here it is.
How many moments in a day can you count that could become infested with whiny boredom? Those times and places when, as adults, we are used to quietly sitting still, but small children simply don’t have that ability… and have yet to develop the resources to create their own amusement…
~The school run, stuck in traffic with a brood of bickering kids.
~A crowded waiting room with a fretful child when the doctor’s running late.
~A long bus or train journey when the novelty is wearing off.
~A rainy winter day indoors when fighting seems to be their preferred method of interaction.
~Queueing for ANYTHING.
~Unexpected delays in airport departure lounges.
~Mid-morning in the school holidays, when you want them to get outside and run off some energy before they tear each other to bits, but they are whining that the garden is boring.
~You’re out, have forgotten to bring a snack, toy or book, you have no resources at all and the kids are getting really bored and starting to hit each other.
What can you do?
You already have everything you need for these moments if you have a little cache of ideas in your head to kick-start the childrens’ creativity. You don’t need to shout, snap or get irritated with the bored, whiny little people you are supposed to be keeping under control. Simply use distraction and engage their curiosity or imagination.
Distraction and diversion are undervalued tools that small people are particularly susceptible to. Their attention will follow wherever you lead. It’s amazing what you can ‘sell’ them with a bit of enthusiasm!
I’ve divided my ideas into approximate age groups so you can zip straight to the right ones for your kids.
Sillies and Sensibles
This is a great game for the school run or those who live in a busy town. On a rainy, cold or snowy day, look out the window at the passers-by. Each child chooses whether to count ‘Sillies’ or ‘Sensibles’. Each child who spots a Silly or Sensible gets a point. ‘Sillies’ are anyone without a coat/hat/boots. ‘Sensibles’ are those wearing appropriate clothes for the weather. It also works on a sunny day with spotting sun-hats.This game boosts number skills, memory and teaches appropriate choices.
Stamp on My Shadow
This is excellent if it’s sunny, they have a bit of space to run around and you need them to get rid of excess energy, but they don’t seem too inspired to do more than mooch about. Simply shout excitedly, “Quick, his shadow is really close to your foot, stamp on it before it gets away!” Instant chase. You can vary it by trying to make finger ‘bunny ears’ on the head of your opponent’s shadow.
Guess What They’re Doing
A good one for playing in the car. Look at passers-by interacting with each other, give them funny names such as Mrs Collywobbles or Mr Smartypants and try to guess what they’re saying to each other or how they’re feeling. Or if they seem sad or grumpy, think of ways to cheer them up. It also works with passing pigeons! Or look out the window at the garden on a rainy day and tell the children what the birds in the trees are doing and saying to each other, pretend they are playing hide and seek etc. (I’ve kept three kids under six entertained for half an hour with this one.) Great for building intuition and empathy as well as teaching about nature.
Licking Tongues (up to age 8ish)
This sounds so wrong (and is pretty unhygienic) but it’s so silly and yucky that kids really love it! Simply say casually, “I wonder if you two are brave enough to lick each other’s tongues?” For the next half hour sit back and listen to loud giggling and screams of laughter. You’ll find that actual tongue contact is minimal (unless they are under 3, in which case they find licking people perfectly natural and nice.)
Word Chain (3+)
Even more simple, this is a fun one. Go round the group, each in turn says the first random word that comes into their head. The words that spring from the previous word association can cause lots of laughter! This can also form the basis for a story game, if each child in turn contributes a word to each sentence.
Choice and Challenge (age 3-80!)
This is a fairly new one we developed that the kids all love playing and it can be fun for adults too – I think there is now a radio show based on a similar game. They take it in turns to ask, “Do you want a choice or a challenge?” and then make up a suitably hard but amusing choice or challenge for another child. It can be nonsensical or relatively sensible.
“What would you do if you were being chased by a mad elephant?”
“How could you get happy if you broke your arm and everyone else was doing handstands?”
“Would you rather cut off all your hair or climb up an iceberg?”
“Would you rather eat a kangaroo or ride a tiger?”
It has a practical application: they have lots of choices and challenges in everyday life and it is really useful to practice creative decision making. Then if you have a real-life choice such as “Would you rather wear your glasses or go blind?”, “Would you rather put on your eczema cream or itch all night?” or “Would you rather choose your raincoat or snowsuit for this weather?” they will already have the neural pathway to process the required thinking, plus will associate the request with their game and so find the task more fun than stressful.
I Am God (age 3-6)
One for reasonably nice weather, or indoors if bad weather. This was invented by a 6 year old so I really can’t take any credit. The older ones can take it in turns to be God and the younger ones his followers. All you need is a bunch of kids and a leader to get them started. Just lead them around with lots of exaggerated arm and leg movements, shouting enthusiastically, “I am God and I’m taking you to the sun for a holiday! Have you all got your suntan lotion? And your sunglasses? And your hats?” etc, miming putting on the relevant items. Then pretend you’re all incredibly hot, burning and sweating. Move to the next amazing place, like Heaven, another planet or “Now I’m going to heal all your owies!” Describe what you see in your imagination and act out the experience. Get really involved. Then let one of the kids be God. They love the power trip.
A variation on this theme is “I’m in Heaven” where they can be whatever age and do whatever they wish. E.g. “I’m in Heaven and I’m gonna be eight and ride a bike without stabilisers and give Grandpa a ride on the back!!!” All mime along to this scenario, then another child has a go and all copy him.
We’re Off to Africa
Good for car journeys. Children take it in turns to choose a destination, then invent modifications to your car to avoid traffic jams, fly over sea, land on water etc. Think Wacky Races. Suggestions:
~Pop-out wings instead of indicators
~Rocket boosters (warp speeds 1-6, like the Starship Enterprise)
~Skis, for landing on the Swiss Alps
~Retractable wheels for flight and boat mode
~Stilts to enable you to glide over other traffic
~Time Travel button
Be as specific as you (or they) like with all the workings. Then simply keep them going with a storyline involving flying above the clouds, going to Heaven to visit God, or to Bali to see a chocolate farm, or to prehistoric times to tame a dinosaur…etc. Let them tell as much of the story as they like, and just chip in if they start to falter. You can focus on driving better that way.
Really quite educational, incorporating geography, history, engineering, vocabulary building and creative invention!
Staring without Blinking (age 5+)
A classic old favourite you may remember playing yourself. Challenge two kids to stare at each other without blinking. This one can last ages and is great fun. You can add in point scoring and counting how many seconds they can keep going for. Child 1 gets a point every time child 2 blinks.
Variation: See how long they can stare at each other without smiling. A smile gives one point to the other child, laughing is 2 points. Simple but hilarious.
Storytelling (age 5+)
Fabulous for teaching grammar, sentence construction, turn-taking and developing imagination. Lots of variations here. You start them off, e,g:
“Once upon a time there was a princess. One day, she was walking along when SUDDENLY…….Your turn.”
Each child in turn gets to contribute a word, or a phrase, or a sentence to a story you are all creating. You can help the youngest avoid degenerating into “and then Mister bum bum poo wee wee” by suggesting a direction for the story, e.g. “Tell a story about a princess having a birthday”.
Blind Champions (age 6+)
Blindfold a child or children and give them a task, e.g. tie your shoelaces, put on a jumper, hop on one leg, guess a face by touch, guess who’s coming by listening to their footsteps. This shows children how clever they are even if one if one of their most important senses is removed. It also gives them a whole new respect for blind people.
Squiggles (age 7+)
If you have just a pencil and a piece of paper (or a steamy window) this is my game of choice. Children over 7 and up to teens get really into it. The first child draws a random squiggle (with eyes shut and their left hand if right-handed). The second then has to make it into something recognisable. Then they swap round. This game can be made extra fun for older kids (especially boys) by adding points for creative invention, artistic ability, cool character building or funnyness. If the drawing makes others smile they get a point; a loud laugh gets two points. You can make it even more educational by getting them to write an amusing description of their drawing underneath. E.g. “Angry bear with a really bad cold sneezing all over himself”.
Good And Bad Story (age 7+)
One really fun and useful variation on storytelling that I use with kids over the age of 7 or so, to teach optimism, ingenuity and resourcefulness, is the good/bad story concept. Two young storytellers have an opposing task each: one to make a happy story, and the other to make a sad story. They take turns with a sentence each, creating a continuous flow. You can start them off the first few times till they get the idea, or take the part of one of the storytellers yourself. You might develop a storyline something like this:
“Once upon a time there was a dear little squirrel who lived happily in a cosy hole in a tree.”
“Then a horrible thunderstorm came and flooded the whole wood, breaking the trees, filling his hole with muddy water and making him homeless.”
“So he decided to start a boat building business and made himself and his friends houseboats out of the fallen tree branches. He was soon able to make all his friends lovely houseboats and they all gave him lots of nuts to say thankyou.”
“But then there was an earthquake! All the squirrels screamed and swam for their lives!”
“But luckily as the earth cracked open, all the flood water disappeared into the hole and the wood started to dry out again.”
You get the idea.
Guess What I’m Thinking (age 7+)
This is a much more engaging variation of I-Spy, and is great for developing thinking and reasoning skills. Rather than simply challenging them to guess the word for something they can see, this one can be as wide or narrow as you like. The Thinker thinks of an object – anything at all, a unicorn, a skyscraper, a racing car, a relative. The Guessers have to ask questions to which the Thinker must reply only Yes or No… until someone guesses correctly. Useful questions to ask:
“Is it alive?”
“Can it move?”
“Does it make a noise?”
“Is it smaller than a cat/mouse/ant?”
“Is it bigger than a cat/horse/elephant/tree?”
“Is it made of metal/wood/plastic?” etc
“Is it red/blue/yellow?” etc
Try carrying round a laminated list of these ideas to refer to, and see how many more you and your children can invent! You’ll soon find that you’ll always have something fun to divert them before they start whining and causing mayhem, and they will realise they can use their imaginations constructively to amuse themselves when they feel bored.
Eventually you should end up with a more creative child who becomes able to take the lead and inspire others. 🙂
Here’s the list. Cut it out and fold it in half so Younger is on one side and Older on the other, then laminate it and put it in your purse or handbag.
Sillies and Sensibles
Stamp on My Shadow
Guess What They’re Doing
Choice and Challenge
I Am God
We’re Off to Africa
Staring without Blinking
Good And Bad Story
Guess What I’m Thinking