The power of independent play

Lily, rosy-cheeked and sopping wet in her long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings, clambered aboard Carina. ‘Mummy, please come and look’, she begged. I put aside the supper I was mid-way through preparing and followed her off the boat.

All afternoon, in wind and rain, Lily, Katie and their friend, Ruben, had been hard at work. Having spent the morning making comfortable homes out of shoe-boxes for their army of pet snails, they had then turned to making a home for themselves. On a scrubby patch of overgrown hillside near the cemetery in Alcoutim, they had cleared a patch of land, woven branches into walls which they then covered with long strips of paper they had found. Bricks were carried in to make seats and shelves to store their precious found objects – cans, bottles, margarine tubs. Wandering up around the castle in search of objects for their den, they had found branches recently lopped off a lemon tree. They dragged these back to the den to give the place a pleasant aroma.

The rain had stopped but the ground was wet when I followed Lily off the boat and up from the pontoon in the gathering dusk. From the edge of the scrubby hillside there was no hint of their four hours of labour. But, as I scrambled down the slippery bank in my inappropriate Crocs (will I ever learn?), a circular gap in the canes and trees began to reveal itself. I peered in through lemon branches to see Katie and Ruben sitting inside, Katie with a big grin on her face, eager to show off what they had made. ‘How do I get in?’ I asked. Ruben moved a branch aside so I could step in and then closed the ‘door’ behind me.

I squatted on the floor of the low-ceilinged den as the three of them proudly showed off all the features of the den – the brick seats, the storage space, the front and rear entrances, the addition of the lemons.

After visiting for a little while I left them to it, and told them to come home in half an hour. The next day, after all, was Monday, the start of the new school week, and we all needed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The next evening, and the one after that, as I prepared dinner, they went off to check on their den, to make sure no-one had disturbed it. They borrowed my head torch each evening and off they went in the dark.

What struck me about the whole endeavour was how palpably proud they all were of what they had achieved. These three – two seven year olds and an eight year old – had spent a good four hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon cooperating, planning, using their imaginations, designing, constructing, building. They had made something that was their own and that they had made together. There was no adult around to say ‘Maybe you should put this here’, or ‘Maybe it would work better if you tried this’. It was theirs alone. They owned it.

My children enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom and independence. They have boundaries and rules but, compared to living in a town or living in many other parts of the world, their boundaries are vast, as are the boundaries of most of the other children who live here. That’s just the way it is.

They spend a great deal of time outdoors, playing with stones and rocks, trees and soil, using their imaginations to create worlds of their own invention. At home they often plan and organise their next adventure, and when they are out and about they make up stories and worlds and make and transform objects on the spot. A friend from London once expressed her astonishment at how easily our children amused themselves, as we watched my daughters and her 11-year old daughter create their own ‘restaurant’ out of the stones and rubble and tree branches we found up at the old windmill. It was many years since my friend had seen her daughter so engaged and happily occupied for so long with objects that were decidedly non-technological or human-made.

We hear a lot these days about children not playing enough, or spending too much time indoors, or of having too much of their time planned and organised, so that they lack the time and freedom for their imaginations and creativity to run riot, and they lack the space to learn to organically cooperate, share and work together. My girls are technology savvy, and they play a little soccer and basketball in after school clubs. But far more of their time is spent doing things of their own invention.

As a parent, it can be difficult to give them that space and time to be themselves and to learn by themselves and from and with each other. Our lives are busy, we are constricted by timetables and schedules. But I think we also often create busyness for our children, when there is no need to do so. Give them space and they will keep themselves busy. Children are naturally curious and inventive. They want to learn and socialise and create and, left to their own devices, they will do so.

Ask anyone who knows me, I’m quite controlling by nature – I like order and I like everyone else around me to be ordered and organised too. So, taking a step back and recognising the children’s own agency and need for space to be themselves, is something I have had to learn, and something I continue to learn every day. But I want my daughters to grow up to be happy, confident, independent and capable women, and giving them the space and freedom to be playful, imaginative, creative and happy children, I hope, will influence the adults they will become.

Neither of them have mentioned the den in the past few days. Maybe they will want to visit it this weekend. Maybe they will never think of it again. Lily has now taken to cooking. She has been reading one of her cookbooks for days now. Yesterday evening she asked me to go with her to the shop, where she produced a shopping list she had written. We bought what she needed and this evening she plans on cooking dinner for Katie and me. Will I have the self-restraint to not get involved, unless she asks for my assistance? In my kitchen, my domain?! I’ll just have to try my best.

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Carnival

C—-‘s mother looks at me in horror. ‘You can’t have a blue nose’ she croaks, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish all the more cackily for her 40-fags a day habit. ‘Clowns have red noses’, she cackles indignantly. We stand, clown-face to clown-face, both of us dressed in orange bin bags decorated with cardboard bowties, buttons and pockets, our faces covered in sticky face paint, yellow hats on our heads. ‘M—-‘, I say to her in rapid English, knowing she won’t understand a word. ‘Free yourself from convention. A clown nose can be any colour you want it to be. Live free M—. Live free’.
‘Qué?’ she croaks at me, before turning her attention to her children to make sure they will be the most spectacular clowns in the parade. I skip off to adorn my shoes with large yellow paper bows.

It’s Carnival. Two weeks late. But it’s Carnival. Around here, Carnival is staggered so that residents from different villages can participate in each other’s festivities. Kinda defeats the purpose of Lent, if you’re spending the six weeks before Easter dressing up and eating copious amounts of sweets. But hey, who am I to judge? To complicate matters further, the Sanlúcar village and school Carnivals are held on different days – the school Carnival taking place on a school day to accommodate teachers who don’t live in the village. Today, for the school Carnival, I am ridiculously dressed as a clown following weeks of intense preparation.

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It all started about a week into the new term. A sign went up on the wall outside Katie’s class informing parents we had to provide our children with black boots, red leggings and red long-sleeved t-shirts. And we had to give the teacher €5 per child so she could buy the rest of the items necessary to complete the costumes. We had none of the above (apart from the €5) at home, so I borrowed and improvised. I covered Katie’s pink rubber boots in a cut up pair of old black tights and borrowed leggings from Ana and a top from Hannah. It was all relatively easy.

The preparations for Lily’s class were somewhat more involved. Her teacher arranged a meeting with the parents to decide what the class would dress as. Various ideas were thrown around – clowns, rainbows, Peppa Pig. This last would involve the parents laboriously making papier maché Peppa Pig heads. We quickly ruled out that option. In the end we decided on making clown outfits, at which point the teacher washed her hands of the whole affair and left us parents to get on with it.

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A week later the parents met in the classroom. There were six mothers and two fathers present There are only nine children in the class, and only one mother was absent – the aforementioned M—. There was a clear cultural divide. The two English, one Dutch and one Irish mum just wanted to get on with it as quickly and painlessly as possible, make the costumes and go home again. The Spanish dads agreed with us, but the Spanish mums were aiming for perfection.

Heated discussions ensued concerning hats, the positioning of buttons, whether to use glue or staples to assemble the costumes once we had made all the constituent parts. After an hour, when we already have a production line of paper, scissors, glue and stickers going on, M— arrived in, talking loudly on her mobile phone and proceeded to loudly (while simultaneously talking on her phone and drinking a can of Coke) inform us that she was not happy with what we had achieved in her absence and she would have done things differently. The other Spanish parents have no patience for her and told her loudly, without any ado, to shut up, sit down and help out.

After an hour and a half we had achieved a little, but there was still much to do. We agreed to meet at the same time next week, to finish the costumes. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting to know the Spanish parents who I had only ever said hello to before, practicing my Spanish and listening hard to the rapid Spanish conversation going on around me. (One of the English mums and the Dutch mum are Spanish speakers).

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We met the next week and completed the costumes, but there was still debate about the necessity of hats on top of the clown wigs the children would wear and if we were to make hats, should they be top hats or cone shaped. The English/Dutch/Irish contingent argued that if there must be hats, they should be of the easier-to-make cone-shaped variety, but the Spanish mums thought difficult-to-make top hats would be better. No conclusion was reached and we agreed to meet again the next week.

In the meantime, I received a note from Katie’s teacher asking for parents to come to school to help sew costumes for that class. I arrived at the school on the day and, with five other mums and one dad (all Spanish), all speaking rapid and mostly incomprehensible Spanish, sat around a table sewing the costumes the way the teacher instructed. I discovered Katie was the only child whose red top was not a polo neck. How did everyone else know this and I didn’t? It was too late to do anything about it now. By the end of two hours I was exhausted, not from the sewing, but from trying to keep up with and participate a little in the conversation.

I went home for lunch and returned two hours later for my by now weekly meeting with the parents of Lily’s classmates. It was decided to not make hats for the children, but instead to make matching clown costumes for the mothers. The English/Dutch/Irish mums were none too keen – dreading the extra work involved as much as dressing up like bloody eejits – but the Spanish mums were rarin’ to go. So we set about making seven more clown outfits.

We didn’t have enough orange bin bags, so one of the English mums said she would buy some more a couple of days later when she drove down to Ayamonte. We arranged to meet yet again, on the day before the Carnival, to assemble the costumes.

The day before Carnival arrived, but the mum who had bought the bin bags couldn’t make it to the school, so she gave the bags to me and asked me to pass her apologies on to the other parents. The first person I met when I got to the school was M—. She looked suspiciously at the roll of orange bin bags I was holding in my hand and angrily asked me why I had so many. ‘We only need four’, she croaked, pulling on her fag in the school playground. ‘But they only come in packs of ten’, I replied, simultaneously showing her the number 10 on the side of the bag. She looked at me like I’d spoken to her in Klingon.

Another mum arrived with the key and we let ourselves into the school and set to work in Lily’s classroom. But horror of horrors – the new plastic bags were a slightly different shade of orange and slightly bigger than the other ones. The English/Dutch/Irish mums didn’t think this was a problem, but the Spanish mums seemed to think Carnival was now ruined. We assembled the costumes and, without anyone saying anything, the three sturdy shiny plastic bags ended up in the hands of the Spanish mums while the English/Dutch/Irish mums were left with the flimsy, less shiny other four.

I was ready to go home when one of the Spanish mums thought it would be a good idea if we all – children and mothers – had yellow paper bows for their shoes. We spent the next half an hour on a yellow paper bow production line. Finally, all was ready and I was not the only non-Spanish mum who made a beeline for the Chiringuito bar and a glass of chilled white wine.

The afternoon of Carnival finally arrived. The nine girls in Katie’s class were dressed as majorettes and Diego, the lone boy, as a ring master with a cat-o-nine-tails. The teacher and mums were also majorettes. Lily’s class and mums were clowns, the class above and teacher were Smurfs and the oldest class and mums were a Mexican mariachi band. Whistles and bags of confetti were distributed and we set off through the streets of Sanlúcar, led by Pepe the principal, amid great excitement and fanfare.

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For weeks Lily and Katie had been learning songs, and when we reached the village plaza each class sang its song. We then carried on back to the school where they all sang their songs once again. The smaller children were wonderful. But the older boys (aged 9 to 13) looked thoroughly embarrassed and ill-at-ease and only the enthusiastic and full-voiced girls in those classes saved the day.

When the parade was over we were treated to Coke, Fanta, crisps and chorizo sandwiches. For once, the kids didn’t run around. They were exhausted and just wanted to sit with their food and drinks. The festivities came to a sudden end when the heavens opened and a heavy shower of rain caused us all to run for the cover of our homes.

In two days time the village Carnival will take place. I’m looking forward to being an uninvolved bystander!

My week in the media spotlight!

Back on January 17th the Irish Examiner, a nationwide newspaper, published an article I wrote about life aboard Carina in their Saturday weekend magazine. The response was phenomenal and, as well as attracting many new followers to my blog, it also attracted the attention of some Irish broadcasters. I was contacted by RTE television and by Today FM, both nationwide broadcasters, with interview requests. I arranged for the interviews to take place while I was home in March. This past week has been a whirlwind of travelling and media interviews. And it’s been incredible.

With Anton Savage on Today FM

With Anton Savage on Today FM

On Tuesday morning I went to Dublin and was interviewed by Anton Savage on Today FM. Everyone was so kind and friendly, and the man himself proved just as handsome and suave as my female friends all claimed! The interview was a lot of fun. His best question was probably ‘Your kids aren’t feral, are they?’!! You can listen to that interview here

On Thursday I was down in Cork for two interviews. The first was on 96FM, a local Cork radio station, where I was interviewed on The Opinion Line with PJ Coogan as part of a programme about people who decide to transform their lives in some crazy way. There was me, an accountant turned musician, a housewife turned milliner, and others. You can listen to that interview here.

With Daithi and Maura on RTE's Today Show

With Daithi and Maura on RTE’s Today Show

And on Thursday afternoon I was in RTE’s Cork studio, for a TV interview on the Today Show with Daithi O’Se and Maura Derrane. It was my first time on TV and I had a great time. Everyone was so generous and wonderful to us. They asked if Lily and Katie would come on the show too, and the team put the girls so much at their ease that, by the time they sat on the studio sofa, they looked like they were in Granny’s living room. Afterwards, while I was changing back into my civvies to brave the wind and rain outside the studio, Maura took the girls away and made them up plates of carrot cake and biscotti for the journey home. You can watch our TV debut here. If you don’t want to watch the whole show, skip to 57.35 minutes to watch us.

The response to all this media coverage has been phenomenal. I’ve had so many messages via the blog, Twitter and Facebook, wishing us well. Everyone has been so generous. A lot of people have taken the time to send me messages, and I promise I will respond to everyone over the next few days.

Now it’s back to earth with a bang. Lily and Katie are running around Mammy’s garden, in their pajamas and covered in turf mould! Clothes need to be washed, shopping needs to be done, and I’m getting ready for a grown-up ‘sleep over’ with my two oldest friends tonight!

Keeping in touch

I’m almost forty-two years old. I grew up in the little cottage that has belonged to my family for about 140 years. My father and his father were born in that house, my mother still lives there. My roots are planted deeply in the midlands of Ireland. But for the past twenty years I have been a nomad. At the age of twenty-two I moved to Japan, and from there back to Ireland, then to Nunavut in Canada, then to Scotland, back to Nunavut, back to Scotland, then to England, then onto Carina, and now here I am in southern Spain. I’ve lived all over the UK, and I’ve travelled extensively across Canada, and along the east coasts of the United States and Australia, and throughout Europe. I’m a wanderer at heart. Over those twenty years, advances in communication technology have made the world a smaller place and both my home in Ireland and my friends and family scattered all over the world no longer seem as far away as they once did.

When I was growing up we didn’t have a phone. Neither did any of my relatives, or any of my neighbours, with the exception of Jimmy and Mrs. Phelan who lived about 300 yards down the road. If an urgent phone call needed to be made we would run down to Phelan’s and Jimmy or Mrs. Phelan (Mr. Phelan was always ‘Jimmy’; Mary Phelan was always ‘Mrs.’) would show us into their sitting room and close the door to afford some privacy. Afterwards, we would hand over 10p. We didn’t make phone calls often. I remember one night, when my sister was small, she got her finger caught in the bathroom door and the doctor had to be called. Daddy wasn’t home, so Mammy sent me across the road to McGlynn’s and Mel ran down to Phelan’s to phone the doctor.

When I was 16 years old I got an opportunity to go to France for the summer to work as an au pair and improve my French. The family I was to stay with wrote me a letter and asked me to phone to finalise the arrangements. Mammy drove me into Edenderry and we queued up at the public pay phone outside the Bank of Ireland, waiting our turn to make the call to France. During those few weeks in France, I wrote home every couple of days, long rambling letters about how homesick I was!

I was 19 years old, in my second year at university, when my parents got a phone in our house. Throughout my years at university, I would queue up – in cold, wind and rain – behind a long line of other students, waiting my turn to use a pay phone to call my parents at work, or from my second year on, at home.

During the three years I lived in Japan telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and my parents and I had an arrangement. They called me once a month and I called them once a month, so we got to talk every two weeks. Those phone calls cost a fortune, so our primary means of communication was by letter. We wrote long letters to each other. My parents’ letters were regularly wrapped up in newspapers, particularly during the summer months, when Daddy sent me the Monday newspaper each week with the latest stories from the weekend’s football and hurling championships. The newspapers were wrapped in envelopes you could buy at the time especially for posting newspapers. Japan really did feel like a long long way from home.

Shortly after I moved back to Ireland in 1998 I got my first laptop and my first email account. The friends I had made in Japan – Japanese, American, Canadian, Australian, British – all got email accounts at around the same time, and suddenly we were able to keep in touch easily and cheaply. Of course, the dial up internet service we had back then was painfully slow, but compared to writing a letter, it seemed like the speed of light.

The cost of international phone calls had started to come down too, so that when I moved to Nunavut in 2000 I was able to email my parents every day and by buying cheap international calling cards, I could phone them once or twice a week. That first year in Arviat I worked at the elementary school and most evenings after school I spent an hour in the computer lab, emailing family and friends in far-flung places. Sometimes at weekends I would let myself into the school to listen to sporting events on Irish radio on the internet. Listening to Michael O’Muircheartaigh’s voice brought me closer to home.

In January 2004, in Scotland, I got my first mobile phone, and now I could keep in touch with my family in Ireland via text message. We could send messages on a whim and the distance between us was cut even shorter.

And then came Facebook and Skype. What a world these have opened up. Sure, I’m critical of Facebook. I dislike the advertising. And I dislike when people I don’t even know want to be ‘friends’. (I ignore them). But it has made the world such a small place for me. My friends from Japan are all married now with children of their own; the kids I taught in Arviat back in 2000 are now parents; my old school and university friends are all moving towards middle age as gracefully as I am!! I love that I have the opportunity to carry on these important relationships with people. I suspect that without Facebook I would not have spent Easter two years ago with my friend Meredith and her family in Haddonfield, New Jersey, or visited Sara and her family last year in Princeton. Without Facebook my friendships with Gavin, Bernard and Finbar might have fizzled away to nothing. Without Facebook ataata Paul and anaana Linda would not have given Lily her Inuit name, Niviaq, and the relationships Lily has through her name would not exist.

In the three weeks that Julian and the girls were away, Julian and I emailed almost every day and we Skyped a few times. I Skyped my friend Katie in Bristol for a good old catch up, and I’ve been able, through Facebook, to keep in touch with my adopted family in Arviat during what is, for them, a most difficult time.

Compared to most people I know, Julian and I are lightweights when it comes to communication technology. Between us we own one laptop and one old mobile phone, but we don’t own a smart phone or a tablet or any of those other things. But with the improvements in technology over the past twenty years we are able to easily and cheaply keep in touch with family and friends all over the world. It makes travelling a lot easier, knowing that the people who are important to us can be in touch any time they want; and the children can talk face-to-face with their grandmothers any day of the week. In many areas of my life I am an unashamed Luddite, but hurray for technology that allows us to stay emotionally close to our loved ones.