Ideas for Free Entertainment


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.

AGE 2-6ish

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.

AGE 3-7ish

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.

AGE 5-10ish

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
Licking Tongues
Word Chain
Choice and Challenge
I Am God

We’re Off to Africa
Staring without Blinking
Story Building

Chin Monster
Blind Champions
Good And Bad Story
Guess What I’m Thinking

Natural Consequences and Positive Discipline

Natural Consequences and Positive Discipline

Are you at your wits’ end trying to control your naughty children? Are they going through a maddening phase of ‘testing the boundaries’? How come they are little angels for their teachers at school? Are you starting to wonder if there is anything different you could be doing to make them behave better? Surely there has to be a better way than time-out, ‘naughty chair’, bribing and shouting?
Is there a different approach or a change of attitude that might help?
Repeat and Wait
Trying to instil healthy moral values and self-discipline into young children can seem like a never-ending task. I usually reckon on about a thousand repetitions for any new piece of learning to take hold. Waiting for their brains to mature sufficiently to understand and put it into action seems to take forever. Sometimes it is only by looking back over the past year or two that I can see any progress at all.
There’s no getting around the fact that it does take a huge amount of energy and consistency to train children to be well-behaved. As they get older and it all sinks into their developing and maturing brains, which become able to put it into practice, I am exploring less energy-intensive tactics.

To this end, I’ve recently been reading a couple of fascinating books called Positive Discipline, and the Science of Parenting. I’m starting to understand a lot more about how a young child’s brain operates. It seems a lot of irritating behaviour is simply age-appropriate or driven by tiredness or low blood sugar. The immature brain can’t do stuff like self-control and sitting still. And apparently, according to these books, we can do away with all the nagging, shouting, bribing and coaxing that we usually resort to in an attempt to make our kids behave. Using kindness and firmness gets much better results in terms of cooperation.
There’s one very memorable phrase in the book Positive Discipline: “Where did we get the idea that children have to FEEL WORSE in order to DO BETTER?”
How do you feel if you are shouted at for making a mistake? Resentful, angry, defiant, defensive? And how do you feel when you are praised or encouraged? Happy, empowered? Motivated, eager to please and do more?

Control, humiliation and punishment or blaming and lecturing lead to defensiveness, resistance and sneaky rebellion. The children’s problem-solving skills get used to find ways around our restrictions instead of finding positive solutions to misbehaviour. Punishment does not improve behaviour long-term. For good behaviour, you need a head that is calm, happy and thinking clearly. Distress and anger switch off the rational brain, which is immature under the age of 5 or 6 anyway. Treating children with dignity and respect shows faith in their ability to cooperate. The fact is, children need to feel better in order to do better.
So what works best for a child? Carrot….Or stick?
OK, so how does ‘carrot’ work in practice?
Good Foundations
Children are immensely intuitive and can sense your mood, understand your body language, and even on occasion read your mind! If you can relax and keep a clear and calm head, a stable, happy atmosphere is far more achievable. The child takes his cue from you. If you are calm and relaxed, the child is contented. His rational (thinking) brain is in charge and so he can reason, think and accept direction from a gentle tug on the reins. If you are stressed and snappy, he will ‘play you up’, as he protests the turbulent atmosphere you are creating. If you shout, he literally stops being able to listen to you, because stress causes his rational brain to switch off and revert to a primitive animal mode. His emotions rather than reason dictate his response and he becomes defiant or defensive. This is why shouting at children to control them rarely works, and a quiet word is often more effective.
Jumping on them too hard, especially while they are very young, can either go over their heads and desensitise them, or result in a cowed, quiet, timid child with little visible personality. It does nothing to teach personal responsibility or conscience. Allowing the child to control you results in a demanding, whiny spoilt brat. It really is a balancing act.
They Give What You Expect
If I tell a child what I expect from him, he will usually deliver. He has no real concept of himself yet, apart from what he sees mirrored in my eyes. Self-image builds up through the reactions of the adults in his life. If I tell him he is naughty, he will act naughty. If I tell him he is kind, or beautifully behaved, that is what he will deliver. My lovely neighbour has five children aged 1-9, and she reacts to any sibling rivalry by saying, “I can’t accept that you just hit your sister, because you’re such a sweet, kind, gentle little boy.” She gets much more positive results this way than by shouting, “Stop being so naughty!!” Her children know they are good children who just occasionally act in silly ways. So it’s important to believe in a child no matter what. He might be having current behaviour difficulties, but it doesn’t mean he is a bad child. Never give up with the positive messages and reinforcing every bit of good behaviour with praise. Eventually you will see results.
You Decide
Sometimes, when the kids are being naughty, disobedient or stubborn when I ask them to do something ~ like running off and hiding when I say it’s bath or bed time ~ I remember an old tip I read once. I take a few deep slow breaths, swallow my irritation and tell myself, “Well, maybe you can’t control what they do. But you can choose what YOU will do.”
I think about the situation, how important it really is, is it worth fighting over or getting angry? Will I lose face or their respect if I let them get away with it? Or is the issue more important than that? Is somebody getting hurt? Must I impose sanctions to get compliance? If a sanction must be imposed, I try to make it scrupulously fair so as not to appear vindictive (a trait I do not wish them to learn). So if one child takes another’s favourite toy and throws it into a ditch, I might quietly go up to her bedroom, take her favourite doll from her bed and say to her calmly but firmly, “How would you feel if I threw your dolly away? No, you can’t have her right now. I will put her up on top of this cupboard until you have gone into that ditch and got your brother’s doggie back for him. Then you may have your dolly back.” I would hope that this will teach her how her brother feels, and remember this next time she wants to do something unkind.
Teaching Right from Wrong
Rather than imposing my will on children, I try to teach the notion of personal responsibility. This helps them develop a conscience of their own, rather than waiting for me to tell them what they’ve done wrong all the time. At the girls’ school they teach about “Personal Power, Good Choices and Bad Choices”. This seems to be having a very positive effect. I do a similar thing, combined with stickers. I’ve made 2 charts of good choices and bad choices, with little pictures. If they do something from the Good Choice chart, such as sharing or helping, they get a hug, praise or a sticker. If they do something from the Bad Choice chart, like hitting or stealing, they must do something to put it right, or face a fair sanction. “You made a bad choice, so you must put it right.” I love the idea of being able to try again and get it right. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn.
Winning Cooperation
The book ‘Positive Discipline’ advises showing empathy and understanding for how the child feels and for his point of view. Tell your child about a situation when you felt the same when you were his age. Then say how you feel about the situation now, and invite the child’s help in solving the problem by asking for ideas that focus on a solution. Use a caring attitude to create an atmosphere of closeness and trust. Asking, rather than telling, helps the child feel capable of helping solve the problem with you.
For example, “I used to hate my little sister too. It seemed like she was always getting me in trouble. But now I understand that my mummy loved us both very much and was only trying to protect her. What can we do to help you get on better with your sister?”
I’ve developed a few ideas myself after trying out numerous tactics over the years.
Put It Right
One positive technique I’ve developed is the “put it right” approach. If a child misbehaves, makes a bad choice or has an accident, for example scribbling on the wall or spilling her juice, I aim to stay calm and say, “You made this happen, so it’s up to you to put it right.” I ask the child what she could do to put it right. This shifts the emphasis off anger or punishment onto a mistake being a learning tool.
I tell her, “We all make mistakes, that’s how we learn. Well done for putting it right. What might you do differently next time? Did hitting him help him share with you? How did your cuddle make him feel?”
This step-by-step acting-out of the resolution process teaches children vital emotional skills for solving difficulties.
Make It Better
Another tool I often use is Making it Better. This is like ‘Put It Right’ for deliberately hurtful actions. It allows a ‘sinner’ to undo the consequences of his ‘crime’ by doing a positive, caring, kind act for his ‘victim’. I hope it helps the children understand more about repairing relationships than an empty hollow ‘sorry’.
If one child hits or hurts another, first I separate the warring siblings into different rooms and take a minute to speak to each, or comfort the injured party. I suggest a cooling-off period to think about how to make things better. When the ‘aggressor’ suggests a way to make things better again, I praise her for good thinking and encourage her to try it out. This usually involves hugging the other child. I congratulate her: “Oh good, look, now he knows you love him really, you stopped him crying.” It’s a win-win: they both feel better, and she feels empowered in a positive way.
I also help an older child look for an opportunity to make amends in a more active way. For example, to make up for pushing her brother down the steps, I suggested the older sister wash his hair and body at bathtime, help him into PJs and get him ready for bed. This worked really well, as the act of gently caring for him helped her realise that she did like him after all. It’s helpful to bear in mind the AIM. Are you trying to teach them to feel ashamed of themselves, or capable and kind?
Start Again
Sometimes if a child acts impulsively and the action is plainly unacceptable, e.g. snatching or destroying another’s property or becoming angry and aggressive if they can’t get what they want, I will say, “Woah, hang on. Let’s rewind here, go out of the room a moment and come in again. Now, how would you do that differently if you were being really polite?” The hope is that by actually replaying and acting out the desired process, it will embed into the neural circuits and become a learned behaviour. I let them demonstrate to themselves that the polite way works better, then ram it home with a comment such as, “Wow, that worked much better – he gave you the pen when you asked politely! Well done!” The child hopefully begins to understand and take the lesson on board.
Natural Consequences
It is sometimes useful, rather than impose a punishment or think of amendments, to simply allow a natural consequence to take effect. If I take all the responsibility for their actions, in an attempt to save them pain, the kids never get to learn cause and effect. These consequences are immensely helpful to their development. It shifts the emphasis away from “the nasty grownup who punished me” to “I made this happen myself”. It removes the ‘not fair’ factor. Thus, by deliberately not protecting a child from the effects of his behaviour, you teach him how life works. This takes a lot less effort than nagging and is massively more helpful to the child. To learn “I made a mistake, but I can find a solution myself” is so much more helpful than “I got it wrong and mum will punish me.”
for instance, a child spills his drink on his homework. Instead of blaming, shaming or shouting, I could say, “Whoops – what do you need to do about that?” The child fetches a cloth and wipes it up, then has to redo the homework. Job done.
If a child leaves his jumper at school, the natural consequence is being cold next morning.
Rather than battle over putting a raincoat on a reluctant child, I could let her get wet in the rain. It won’t kill her.
We tend to protect our kids from this kind of reality check, don’t we? But learning is always much more effective when derived from experience. Could we trust them to make their own decisions based on what they remember happening last time?
Can you think of examples from your own life where you could use consequences as a teaching tool?
Hit and Run Away
The Science of Parenting talks about the small child’s ‘stimulation hunger’. A bored child impulsively provokes someone to get a reaction. He just wants attention. I had noticed myself always protecting the youngest, who was 2, from his sisters’ angry reactions. I had tried to teach them restraint and gentleness 100 times, because he was “too little to know any better”. But having watched him run up to the 4 year old, impulsively hit her and run away laughing at her scream of anger, I decided it was time to change my tactics. I started allowing her to chase him and hit him back. (I did say to her, “I can see he’s being very annoying. But you’re old enough to ignore him, aren’t you?” hoping one day it might be true.) Then I told him each time as he came to me for comfort, “When you hit people it makes them angry, doesn’t it?”
I’m also doing all I can to encourage them to play together nicely. I lavish praise on every instance of cooperative play or kindness.
I’ve started noticing he’s being annoying a lot less often now! He’s learning about cause and effect – the hard way, yes, but sometimes the only way. Now he’s 3 and she’s 5, he rarely does ‘hit and run’ anymore and she is starting to be more restrained and ignore provocation, or come to me for help instead of immediately hitting him. Hurray! 😀
Here are a couple of links to buy these two books on Amazon.

The Power of Music


Have you noticed what a powerful effect music has on children? Within minutes, soft peaceful music can calm them right down, or loud music with an upbeat tempo will instantly transform them into mad creatures wildly springing round the room.


The School Run

Music is amazing at creating a mood. It seems to enter their brains at a subliminal level and speak to the unconscious mind. I often put soft peaceful music on the car stereo on the drive home from school, to quell the irritability brought on by tiredness at the end of the school day. It seems to take the edge off all the sneaky pinching and kicking in the back seat. Simon and Garfunkel fit the bill nicely. But I can’t play it on the way to school, unless I want them to lose the ability to walk, and all whine to get in the buggy at once!


I use classical and meditation music to soothe the little one to sleep at naptime. He has been conditioned to it from the time I became his nanny when he was a baby (I used to play him a couple of specific ‘sleep CDs’ that I’d made for him while I gave him his naptime bottle and cuddle). He will now nod off whenever he hears his ‘sleep music’! This makes balancing his energy levels really easy and means he makes it through to bedtime without any tears or upsets.


I find music a really powerful tool for creating a specific atmosphere. At mealtimes, when they usually tend to bounce up and down shrieking rather than eating, I find it helps a lot to play something soothing like Aled Jones singing ‘Walking in the Air’ while adopting a measured, genteel tone of voice to deliver a story. (Speaking like the Queen tends to encourage Manners). This subdues the energy ‘high’ brought on by the ingestion of food sufficiently for them to eat at least part of their meal. I suppose it’s healthy to stop eating once you’re no longer hungry, but after all, they do need to put back some of the calories they’ve been burning off zooming around all day!


Children are often fascinated by musical instruments – real ones, not plastic fob-off baby ones. As this six year old played the long-drawn-out ringing note of a Tibetan singing bowl, her four year old sister expressed the effect of the dreamlike meditative quality by murmuring, “This makes my mind go away…and my soul seeks off to a faraway land!” (We’ve been discussing souls quite a lot lately.)


Children love to explore the sounds that can be made with real musical instruments, and will learn far more naturally, joyfully and intuitively from being immersed in a musical environment than from formal music lessons. Often, a child with musical parents will believe he too can play an instrument, and will learn quickly and easily from handling the instruments.




I saw this principle in action recently in the form of an amazing band of young musicians who were jamming together effortlessly and spontaneously at a folk festival while smaller children danced. The musicians – aged from 8 to 13 – had learned the language of music from early childhood as effortlessly as a spoken language. A couple of them played more than one instrument, switching naturally between them like a bilingual child.

There is a wonderful website I’d like to share with you, called Myriad Toys, that sells real children’s instruments. It’s listed in my Favourite Websites section to your right.>>>>

Time to Dream


Have you ever wondered, “What’s going on in there?” when your child looks like she’s a million miles away? 

Keeping Busy

It seems to be widely believed that children need constant exercise, stimulation (and expensive extra classes) if they are to become intelligent and to sleep at night. However, I have read many articles about children’s lives being too crammed full of scheduled activities, with no time to just relax and ‘be’. 

But what do children actually do with ‘me-time’? Do they even understand the concept? Surely they will get bored and restless if we don’t give them things to keep them busy and amused? And, you might ask, are they ever voluntarily still and quiet?!

Free Time

A child who is given space and time for free play, to choose what she will do from moment to moment, is enabled to develop her own inner resources. She is free to relax or explore at her own pace with no expectations placed on her.


A child sitting in the sunshine with a vacant look on her face is not necessarily just drifting aimlessly, nor is her brain suffering from under-stimulation. Children (unless they are mentally impaired) are pre-programmed before birth to instinctively seek whatever they need from their environment. They are learning in every second they are awake. But all the rapid learning and growing they accomplish needs time and space to integrate into the developing circuitry. Every now and then they just need to pause to let it all sink in.

One Thing at a Time

Children’s brains have to process simple concepts before they can understand more complex ideas… it’s like building a wall one brick at a time from the bottom up. Worth knowing if you might be tempted to push advanced learning on them before they are ready. It is much better to keep explanations simple while they are young.

Pattern Matching

During sleep, new learning that has happened in the day ‘beds down’ and is added to existing knowledge. And during waking periods of daydreaming when it looks as if nobody’s home, children are processing new information and connecting it to patterns of learning they have previously internalised, like adding more beads to a necklace. Seeing, speaking and hearing needs to be temporarily suspended so that new knowledge can be digested. (Which is why teachers should take it as a compliment when their students daydream in lessons – it means they are taking it all in!)

When you see a child’s eyes go far away, he is looking inside his head…searching his internal database for a match to connect the new information up to. Building up a storehouse of knowledge about his world, one brick at a time.

You can liken it to a computer saving data. You get that little egg-timer icon and a message saying, ‘Please wait’……

It is good to respect this and allow the child a few moments of quiet while they focus their attention inwards. Sometimes this ‘trance state’ lasts only a few seconds before they spring off again with a new idea. Learning is never theoretical with children; they need to put everything into practice immediately.


In a Trance

Sometimes you see this entranced look when you are telling them something new and they’re trying to connect the dots, searching internally for a matching picture piece for the puzzle. Or when they are dreaming up a new idea for themselves. A trance, after all, is simply a focused state of attention, during which the person appears to ignore what’s going on around them. If your child seems at times not to hear you, she’s not deliberately being annoying; it may be that she is simply focused very intently on her internal world.


I love to watch the internal cogs turning as a child dreams up some new imaginary venture. What can I do with this leaf? It could be a caterpillar…or a kite…or a hairy monster!

Given a new object or idea to contemplate, a child retreats for a moment into her own private universe to weave her own magic around it. This child holds a painted and glittered stone – her treasure. Who knows what flights of fancy are going through her head in this moment?

Often when we present children with a new experience, we unwittingly put pressure of one sort or another onto them to respond in certain ways. Sometimes we don’t realise that they may be having a profound inner response that may not be readily apparent. They could be dreaming about what they might do one day in the future… or imagining an adventure… or simply absorbing the magic of the moment. A little peaceful time to reflect is important.

Stories and Role Play

Given a role to play, children take it very seriously; in their own minds they actually become that character. Many children have a rich fantasy life. (I know I did. I was Queen of my own world inside my head. :-)) They adore the chance to act a part and pretend to be somebody else; even if they are doing little more than dressing up, most of the ‘acting’ is taking place inside their heads! I am sure these two are imagining themselves proudly giving birth to the Son of God and riding a camel laden with gifts.


A child listening to a story, or taking part in a play, or even watching TV, easily and naturally enters a trance state, as she absorbs what has focused her attention. She is so caught up in the ‘reality’ of the situation that she switches off her awareness of all else around her. This is a highly suggestible state, in which the child deeply absorbs what she hears into her unconscious mind. Well worth bearing in mind when choosing children’s books, the plays they take part in and what you let them watch on TV!



New Sensations

Sensory experiences can be another trigger for this ‘daydream’ state. While the hands or mouth are busy feeling a new sensation or taste, the brain is absorbing the experience. Again, this is a kind of trance, with the attention closely focused on what the senses are feeling. It is as if, while something is going in, nothing can come out.



Taking a Break

Another kind of ‘time-out’ occurs when a child is ‘full up’. The children I look after often pause in their energetic play to come and sit on me for a cuddle and a rest. At such times they often ask for a snack or a story; I think they are just refuelling. Unless they are highly excited, children will often instinctively know when they have had enough stimulation and need to balance it with a calm interlude. A child will take himself off at such times and seek out a quiet room or corner where he can digest in peace, or curl up in a den.

A baby may not know to give himself a break and will become fretful and fussy from mental exhaustion if overstimulated. It is up to us to judge for him when he’s had enough to be going on with, and take him to a quiet darkened room for a rest or a peaceful cuddle to calm him down. Otherwise he might resort to screwing his eyes tight shut, flailing and screaming to block out the sensory overload.

The Autistic Trance

Autistic children often have extremely oversensitive hearing, sight and other physical senses, and can’t shut off unwanted input. They don’t have the neural wiring to make sense of the world, make connections and link patterns of learning. So they flap, spin and rock to create a self-soothing trance state. This shuts off the overwhelming barrage of incomprehensible sensory overload. They are actually behaving perfectly appropriately based on their perceptions.

But that’s a whole other subject for another day….

The Magic of Stories


Childhood Memory Stories

How often have your kids asked you, “Tell me about when you were little”?

Do you, like me, remember how much you loved hearing stories about your  mum’s and granny’s childhood when you were young? The three children I look after also love hearing tales of my youth. I have a stockpile of childhood memories (real and fictional) ready to bring out on any occasion.

If you are the parent, these stories can give a sense of shared history that helps your child feel rooted and securely connected to his family. But even as a nanny, my childhood tales are asked for again and again. Maybe just hearing the tale of a child in another time and place who had the same issues these children have, is comforting and helps them feel understood. I definitely find that a well-timed story or anecdote (with the truth tweaked here and there for maximum benefit) really helps the three nanny-children through their little ups and downs.


Stories can be a helpful distraction from upsets of any kind. One day, the five year old lost sight of me at a kids’ club, panicked, and began to cry. I held her close, praised her for doing absolutely the right thing by standing still, and told her the story of how I got lost at the beach when I was five. She soon cheered up on hearing how my situation had been far worse than hers – running about screaming hysterically – and how much braver she had been!

And after the two year old had somersaulted off the sofa onto the floor and hurt himself, I scooped him up and started telling all three of them a story about how children in the rainforest can climb like monkeys….until I noticed he’d fallen asleep on my lap!

Life Lessons

Stories, which you can customise to your own purposes, can be a useful way to teach important life lessons such as how to share and be kind, what to do if you’re lost, or the importance of honesty. They can also be an invaluable way to prepare a child for a new experience (Topsy and Tim seem to cover all bases there!) Children can understand and relate to the characters and are a lot more receptive to anything if it is presented in the form of a story.

The latest favourite of the three children I care for is the cautionary tale of my little childhood friend Nancy who was a despicably vile spoilt brat. The children find her highly amusing, and yet at the same time educational in social skills! I have a lot of fun acting Nancy, stamping my foot and doing the whiny voice demanding “I want it NOW!”, letting the children see and hear how horrid it sounds and how it doesn’t get you what you want. Because it is not a lecture directly aimed at them, and because it makes them laugh, they take it on board much more readily. (Especially when I call her ‘Antsy-Pantsy Nancy’.) I often now hear them say to each other gleefully, “Oh, you’re acting like Nancy!” or I whisper to them, “That’s just how Nancy used to behave”, if we see another child throwing a strop. Nancy has become a useful self-correction tool. I also read them the story of the Selfish Giant and the Selfish Crocodile at intervals, just to make sure the message is hammered home!

autopilot’! S

Stories for Mealtimes

If your child has a tendency to whine, shout, jump around, keep getting up and down or pick at his food at mealtimes, maybe the tip I got from a friend with three young children could help. Just read or tell them a story while they eat. I have noticed they’re so busy following the story that they forget their meal is “yuk”, and instead sit quietly and just go on eating. Sometimes (if the story is particularly absorbing) they do forget to eat, in which case I have two options: feed them myself, or do a little playacting. I either say, “another bite, another page!” or make a big show of finding it really hard to turn the page until everyone has taken another mouthful, or pretend to collapse with exhaustion, dropping the book, until they have all eaten some more to ‘give me strength’. I then pop back up saying, “Ahh, that’s better! I feel much stronger now!” and continue reading. They love this game and always remind me to do it each time I bring a book to the table.

If this seems a little too indulgent, I sometimes use another alternative to shouting at them for bad table manners. I always find kids will behave far better when out for a meal than at home, so I use this to have a little game of ‘posh dinner’ at home. Sometimes I can kill three birds with one stone and get them bathed, do a birthday celebration AND encourage nice manners all at once. We did this on the day the little one turned three. They actually showered themselves, washed each other’s hair and dressed up in bridesmaid finery while I prepared a party tea. Then while they all sat eating like ladies and gentlemen, I told them my most successful story yet, of a princess who invited them to her wedding because they were such polite, well-behaved and angelic children! I embroidered the tale with descriptions of how their wonderful dancing, violin and flute playing and magic tricks captivated the wedding guests. On hearing how good they were, they all became perfectly behaved and even helped me clear away at the end!

Afterwards I speculated to myself about how the messages we give children about themselves influence what they believe about themselves, and ultimately how they act.

The Ice Cream Story

At pudding time the kids ask for my ‘ice cream story’ again and again. It’s the (not strictly true) story of how I learned to share with my sister when we were young. There was only one scoop of ice cream left in the tub, and my dad told me about the ‘wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling’ I would feel in my heart if I gave it to my little sister. When I reluctantly put the ice cream in her bowl, her smile of joy made me feel so good that I was kind to her ever after. The kids love to act out the story and take on the roles of me and my sister as they practice sharing. Then they act out the story of the morning after, when my sister woke up and was sick all over her bed, and I mopped her up, comforted her and we were friends ever after.

Teaching Values and Beliefs

I use storytelling as a very practical way to teach moral values.

My Children’s Bible comes out at regular intervals; whether you practice a faith or not, you could use whatever book or stories you choose that contains the truths and lessons you find valuable in life. Children gain a valuable sense of security and resilience if they know there is always Someone who cares for them and watches over them (whether it’s you or God!) I often find myself reciting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (by popular request) as we walk up the road to school. And I’m always getting asked what God looks like!


I am reading them my favourite classics at the moment, such as Pollyanna, A Little Princess, Heidi, and The Animal Family (see Goodreads, in the column to the right of this page), all of which highlight life lessons such as the value of optimism, gratitude for simple pleasures, inner beauty, and caring for others. I want to counteract the negative messages given out by this society about having to look a certain way in order to be accepted, or that material wealth is the only thing that matters. I am teaching them that true riches come from the heart. I don’t want them to grow up believing that happiness comes only from perfection, beauty and a massive bank balance.

Sharing Closeness

Of course, we all know that reading to your child will help him enjoy reading himself when he’s older. Books can become a special pleasure for your child, on his own or sharing with a friend. The sharing of attention in this way can strengthen bonds between children.


Travelling with a Book

When out and about, I often bring a book to while away a bus ride or trip to the doctor. One time, I was out with a fellow nanny. We had six children aged 1-6 between us and went into town on the bus. We couldn’t all sit together on the bus as it was so crowded, so I raised my voice and read the book to the entire bus! Everyone listened beautifully.

Rest Time

Stories are invaluable for quiet time, when they’re a bit old for an after-lunch nap but you know they really need a rest. The whole cuddle/story ritual creates a  calm and peaceful space in their day which really helps little ones feel safe,  cherished and secure, as they snuggle up and lose themselves in another world. Sometimes we’ll go through an entire pile of library books in one sitting. It’s a much nicer alternative to TV, and means I know exactly what they are absorbing.

And of course a story is the perfect way to end the day. Any conflicts or difficulties can be forgotten and forgiven as parent and child snuggle up with a good book. Even when the child is older and can read for himself, the closeness can be maintained by reading alongside each other. I have a very lovely family member who ends every day by lying on the bed with his son, each reading their own book.

An older child can be an invaluable help in teaching a younger one to read, write or learn his spellings. As a 10 year old expressed it to me recently: “I went through a hard time when nobody realised I was dyslexic for years, so I understand how tricky it can be to learn to read.” She is really patient and encouraging in helping her six year old brother read to her.

The children’s uncle is a really expressive reader who captivates any child in the vicinity with all his funny voices! 

Stories and Trance

Have you noticed the entranced expression on children’s faces when you read or tell a story? They get that faraway look in their eyes as they see the pictures in their minds, make connections with what they already know, and absorb the underlying message. The story has literally created a trance and tapped straight into their subconscious. In the same way as a hypnotherapist reaches into the dark places in a client’s mind to undo harm and hurt, you can reach into your child’s mind to implant positive messages and lessons through a story.


There is nothing scary or mysterious about a hypnotic trance. While studying psychology, I learned that it is simply a natural brain state designed to allow programming in of new information. It is simply a state of deeply focused attention. It’s like clicking a ‘save’ button.

If you watch your child’s eyes closely you will see him or her dip in and out of a trance state many times in a day, often for mere seconds at a time. We all use trance every day, every time we focus our attention closely on something. Meditation is one well-known type of trance, but any absorbing creative activity, storytelling, group singing, reading, listening to music or watching TV, a play or even a puppet show can all cause a trance state. The right story or song can have a very powerful therapeutic effect. The wrong TV programme or film can have a powerful negative effect.

Healing Hypnosis

There is a strong connection between our minds and bodies, and it is now known by psychotherapists that illness can begin or cease through our beliefs and attitudes. Studies have been done on the power of guided visualisation (leading a person through a trance state with mental pictures) in helping cancer, and in some Eastern countries, hypnosis is used routinely for pain relief in childbirth. Imagine helping your child recover from the flu by telling her a story about a powerful, kind King who saved his loyal subjects by vanquishing evil goblins from his kingdom! In the child’s subconscious, transmitted through her body, the bugs carrying the infection will be weakened as she believes or imagines the power of good conquering bad.


Maybe this sounds far-fetched, but we’ve all heard on the news about violent children who have been influenced by violent movies. They have been literally programmed by what they’ve seen to accept violence as normal. And gentle, kind children are also deeply influenced by what they read, hear and see. Remember that children are highly impressionable, and please be careful what you let your child watch on TV or DVD…and choose their books with care. They are still learning about reality.

Sleep Hypnosis

I personally find bedtime or naptime so much easier with a story; I put on soothing classical music, choose a really relaxing book, (usually about a character who doesn’t want to go to bed but ends up asleep!) and as I cuddle up with the small person, I focus his attention more deeply on the pictures, slow my voice down and become quieter and more hypnotic until his eyes close. (“…and then Baby Owl snuggled down….and fell…fast…asleep.”) Children are so easy to hypnotise!

Interestingly, with the youngest, who is two, I find that if he is tired (and usually resisting sleep) I can ‘tip him over the edge’ by repeating key words or phrases in the story such as ‘close your eyes’, ‘relax’ or ‘sleepy’. I can utilise a young child’s tendency to only hear the ends or key words of sentences, by saying something like, “I love this song, it always makes me feel sleepy….it’s making me yaaaaaawn……I would love to close my eyes right now….” He then focuses on the soft music and the message sinks in. Once he’s yawned a couple of times I know the job’s done. Within minutes, he’s out for the count! I often use this trick in the car, where I keep all my ‘mood music’ CDs, because the sound of the car engine is hypnotic in itself.  Ooops, everyone fell asleep!

Made-up Stories

Storytelling is an amazing way to engage with the hearts and minds of children as well as stimulate their imagination. I bring out a story for every occasion now. Stories can be used to inspire, to carry children away to magical lands, to give a sense of history – how life used to be like – or to tell of a simpler way of life and how it is possible to live without all the material comforts they take for granted. They love getting inside the life of a child in a story; for them it’s another form of role-play. I make up tales of forest-dwelling children who love to swim in woodland streams, climb like monkeys and catch falling leaves to make a wish. Or show them a book of photos of rainforest tribes and tell them stories of how they live. Or I base a new story on one I heard as a child that stuck in my mind.

A Story For Everyone

Whatever the occasion, there is always a story that is just right. You might find it at the library, on Amazon, in your memories, or adapt an old tale to fit your child’s current issues. There are some stories that are real treasures, and others that are completely valueless and only written to sell another product (Disney springs to mind). You will discover favourites that really work for your child. I am building a library of wonderful inspirational stories. I try to buy only those books which I’m sure contain something valuable, beautiful or useful that I want to share with the children. But one thing’s for sure – there’s much more to a story than meets the eye! 

If you found this post interesting and would like to learn more about hypnosis and trance, please see my posts “The Power of Music” and “Time to Dream”  for more info!