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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A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Rugrats

Does anyone know the collective noun for children? A squirm? A squeal? A clatter? A crash? A riot? An exertion? I need a collective noun right now, because there are children everywhere. We motored upriver on Wednesday morning from Laranjeiras to Alcoutim and the place was wriggling with sailing kids.

The girls and I went to the chestnut and wine festival that night and met a family from Oregon: Mike and his wife, with Kenna, Porter and Alexander, aged 6, 10 and 13. A game of hide and seek immediately ensued between my girls and their youngest two, and before we parted company we arranged a date for a walk to the ruined castle on the hill the next morning. The four again had fun hiding and playing tag and ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’ All too soon we had to return to the river and we bid farewell, as they set sail for Cadiz later in the afternoon.

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Lily and Katie playing with their friends aboard Ros Alither

But in their wake came two more families. Hazel and Dave, who used to live aboard and run the Topsham to Turf Locks ferry near Exeter, now live aboard Ros Alither, their beautiful Killybegs trawler with their children, Katie 8 and Reuben 5. We met them when they came ashore by dinghy and a few hours later they moved from their anchorage onto the pontoon behind Carina. On the pontoon over in Sanlúcar are Paul and Emma, an English couple with two New Zealand-born daughters, Lola 6 and Isla 3, living aboard Spirit of Mystery.

Our six children have been having a riotous time together, at the beach, on the pontoon, at the outdoor gym at the top of the slipway, and on each others’ boats. We parents have been drinking tea and coffee together, sharing our home schooling and sailing experiences, and taking turns looking after each other’s children, freeing each other up for Internet time, laundry, boat maintenance.

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Lily swinging from the rigging of Ros Alither

Lily and Katie, of course, are in their element, having all these children so close in age to play with. Aboard the other boats they have been knitting, playing Lego, making dens, climbing the rigging, and having very serious conversations about their favourite characters in Frozen, Tangled and other movies. We’ve invited Lola and Isla over for a movie and popcorn evening later this week, as they haven’t seen Tangled.

It amazes me how quickly children become the best of friends. As adults, we are more cautious, gradually feeling the waters to get a sense of the new people we meet. I’m always conscious of things such as politics, religion, health, and things like that, and tread gently until I know more about the new people I meet. Not so kids. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw themselves headlong into newfound friendships. They don’t worry about offending anyone or about people not liking them. They just want to play and have fun.

Let’s pretend

When was the last time you pretended to be someone you’re not? When was the last time you made up a story about yourself? Made up a fake history? Made up non-existent relatives and friends? When was the last time you pretended you had a baby when you don’t? Or a horse? Or a dragon?

Chances are, if you’re an adult (and not an actor or a professional story-teller) then you haven’t indulged in this type of behaviour in a long time. Or if you have, then perhaps people are whispering behind your back and suggesting you seek professional help. If you’re a child, you’ve probably done it in the past hour.

If I was to record every word Katie says over a 24-hour period, my guess is that ‘pretend’ would be one of her most common words. She’s doing it right now, as I write. ‘Lily, pretend you come in the door’, ‘Lil, pretend she’s your aunt’, ‘Pretend this is my horse’, ‘Pretend my dinosaur is your dinosaur’s sister’, ‘Pretend I’m going on a plane’ and next thing the sitting room’s been transformed into the inside of an airplane with refreshments, safety announcements and arrivals to Egypt, China or Mexico.

All day they play these pretend games. Sometimes the pretending is accompanied by dressing up. Back home on Carina they rifle through the dressing-up bag or the hats, gloves and scarves bag; at Grandma’s house they use whatever is around – towels, tea towels, sheets – anything to transform their appearance. Sometime they use props – bags, cushions, books, chairs – anything that can be imaginatively transformed into something else. They pretend indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, at home and when they’re out in the world. Left to their own devices, their imaginations run amok with inspiration from the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and their real life experiences.

Through it all they are learning – learning about relationships, learning to cooperate and to work together, learning to create and tell stories. Through such imaginative and free-form unstructured play they are learning about themselves and each other. Reality is inconsequential and nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

At what point in our lives do we start to rein in our imaginative impulses? Or do we simply divert those impulses elsewhere? Do we succumb to peer pressure or pressure from elders to ‘grow up’, ‘get real’, ‘stop wasting time’? But it’s not time wasted. For children the serious business of pretending is time well spent learning about the world, about how people interact with each other, and about how to treat each other fairly. Whether they are pretending to be dragons or princesses, physics defying space travellers or dessert shop owners, I see them working out and negotiating cooperative working relationships. They want their alter-egos to be treated the way they themselves want to be treated. They act out aspirations, and they act out behaviour they observe around them.

I hope my children continue to be un-self-consciously imaginative for a long time to come. I love to hear their imaginations run wild, taking them (and sometimes me, when I’m included in their games) to unexpected places. Who knows where their imaginations will lead them.

Now, anyone up for a game of ‘Pretend my dinosaur’s flying this plane’?

Toys, typing and a transmogrifier

In February last year I published a blog post entitled 9 essential items for happy live-aboard kids. The items consisted of toys or things designed specifically for play, such as Lego, Play Mobile, jigsaws, the dressing-up bag and play dough; and other things such as books, buckets and spades, and craft materials. A year later, with the girls a year older, and now that I am in the midst of a monster spring clean, I thought it was time to reflect on what on-board stuff keeps the girls happy these days.

Lego

Lego

Lego is the old reliable present for birthdays and Christmases (I was even given Lego on Mother’s Day) so our collection is growing. Since last year the girls have become more independent when playing with Lego and no longer need us to help them make things. That doesn’t mean they no longer want us to join in their Lego play. One day last summer I sent them into the aft cabin, where we spread the Lego bag, with the challenge to build a fantastic coffee-making machine. Seven months on they are still competing to invent ever more fantastic flying fire-dousing underwater coffee-making machines.

2014-10-31 08.03.54The dressing-up bag has been added to, with new tutus and ballet slippers added to the nurses’ outfits and witches costumes of last year. Despite that bag brimming with dressing up possibilities, Lily and Katie seem to prefer dressing up in stuff lying around – our woolly hats, gloves and neck-warmers; tying towels around their necks to be super heroes or characters from Frozen; using woollen braids to transform themselves into Rapunzel.

And while I’m on the subject of stuff lying around, I think the most cooperation and the least fighting happens when they are playing with non-toy stuff. They can play harmoniously for hours with the ropes, scrubbing brushes, buckets and cloths up on deck, planning and acting through all sorts of scenarios that may or may not include their soft toys and plastic dolls. They’ve even taking to acting out, on the pontoon, with all sorts of props, stories from their books. Lily reads the stories, line by line, and together they act out the scenes.

Granny’s cast-off camera inherited by Lily last year has proven a wonderful addition to the boat. They both use it, and have recently discovered the video function. They now record each other singing and acting out scenes from movies and in recent weeks we’ve been going to the beach where Lily has been attempting (with limited success) to simultaneously direct, film and act in her own movies!!

There are some notable changes from this time last year in what keeps them happy. The first is reading and writing. Lily has become an independent reader and she can sit or lie on her bed for hours reading silently to herself or aloud to Katie. She has also become an independent writer and, when the mood takes her, she sits at the table or in one of the cabins, and writes – letters, song words, transcribing from nature books, etc. So, merely supplying her with the tools she needs to write, and leaving them within easy reach means she can write whenever she feels like it. Earlier this week she wrote me an angry letter, asking me to stop telling everyone about her and the man she met on the street.

Scan_20150123 (2)Katie has taken a leaf out of her sister’s book, and she likes to ‘read’ and ‘write’ too, and I’m sure is only a matter of time before those words on the page make sense to her.

Only very recently they have both developed an interest in the laptop and use it for all sorts of reasons. They play games on the Internet; Lily now has her own email account; and they use Word and Paintbox and other programmes. The Internet games they play help develop their mouse skills and we generally direct them to maths and language games. But they are equally interested in content that isn’t strictly designed for children. They’ve been intrigued by the Mi Vida Loca Spanish language programme that Julian uses and have been learning Spanish from that; and Lily’s taken a few typing tutorials to learn to touch-type.

Teddy bears and the dolls are regularly strewn all over the boat. Before I get into bed at night I usually have to do a sweep of the bed, to remove tiny Barbie shoes, handbags, shells that have been transformed into jewellery, bits of Lego and who knows what else.

They need so little to keep them happy. They keep themselves entertained and transform whatever they find lying around into some imaginative prop for whatever game they are playing. I recently read an article by a woman who travelled across Canada with her husband and three young boys for over a month. She decided not to bring any toys AT ALL on the trip. She wasn’t sure she was making the right decision. But once the trip got underway the boys never complained of boredom. Instead they played with what they found around them, cooperated more, fought less, and talked more to their parents.

transmogrifierAs all children demonstrate to us, they make little distinction between what’s a toy and what’s not a toy. Children just want to play, and anything can, as Calvin would say, be ‘transmogrified’ with a sprinkling of imagination.

9 + 9 + 9 = 36

In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

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A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.

I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:

Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.

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This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!

Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.

She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.

We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.

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The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.

This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx

Three months later

It’s exactly three months since June 2nd, when we slipped from our berth at Plymouth Yacht Haven. In that time we have sailed over 1200 nautical miles (approximately 1320 statute miles, 2222 km). That may not seem like much. Some people I know commute almost that much each week. But we travel at an average speed of 4 nautical miles an hour, and we have spent long periods of time at anchor and in marinas, exploring as we go.

Since June 2nd we have sailed from southwest England to southwest Portugal, from Plymouth to our current anchorage in Alvor. We have seen dolphins and sunfish, gannets and terns and gulls. We have played on beautiful beaches and visited UNESCO world heritage sites. We have come to love foods we had never heard of before (pimientos de padron, paraguayos), and we have met some amazing people – both locals and fellow sailors. It has been a good three months.

Katie gets to grips with Portuguese farm animals!

Katie gets to grips with Portuguese farm animals!

It took me some weeks to get used to not going to work every day. I finished work on a Friday and we set sail on Monday, not giving any of us much time to adjust to living together 24/7. I was grouchy during the adjustment phase, missing the independence afforded by going to work every day, shutting myself in my office from 8am to 5.30pm, my own boss, completely in control of my working day. Despite leaving full-time paid employment, I continue to work and I have a few writing projects on the go, with deadlines to meet. At first I was frustrated by the constant interruptions – of trying to write and think and read amidst a maelstrom of chattering children and a talkative husband. Finding time for myself and my work was something of a battle. I can’t say that I have completely grown used to being with Julian and the girls all day every day, but I have adapted and adjusted, finding time most days to get my own work done. I think I’ve become more chilled out (although Julian might have something different to say!). I have (mostly) accepted that I work more slowly, and that things can get accomplished, but at a different pace.

We’re all had to adjust. Lily and Katie briefly went to school last year and so they have had to adjust to being each other’s main companion. At first they got on well, but when the honeymoon was over, they drove each other crazy. I think they’ve come out the other side of that now as they seem to generally enjoy each others’ company. Although there are occasional squabbles, they generally get a kick out of each other, playing imaginative games all day long.

Julian has had to get used to having all three of us around, but (on the surface at least) he has coped well with the change of pace and the amount of oestrogen he’s exposed to every day.

My little feminists have been chanting 'Votes for women, votes for women'!

My little feminists have been chanting ‘Votes for women, votes for women’!

We all find ways to have our own space. Julian likes to walk and explore on his own, and I like to immerse myself in a good book. Lily, like me, flits between reading fiction and non-fiction. Katie likes to quietly draw and play with her toys. One way or the other, we all manage to create spaces for ourselves aboard Carina.

But of course, the best thing about the past three months has been the time we have spent together. I have slowed down to the girls’ pace and, despite the great cathedrals, museums and historic sites we’ve visited and learned from, it is those playful days on the beach that I treasure most, when we have all the time in the world to talk and play.

Who can say where we will be three months from now. But if it is as good as these past three months then I have a lot to look forward too.

Making friends

One of the things people often commented on as we prepared to set sail was the potential lack of children for Lily and Katie to play with. This didn’t concern me too much, as every book and blog I have read about sailing with children has reassured me there are plenty of other sailing parents out there, all eager to find play mates for their children at every opportunity.

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Before we even left Plymouth, Lily and Katie played with the three boys aboard Tarquilla, who had recently returned from a couple of years on the north coast of Spain. Despite the fact that the older two boys were twice Lily’s age, all five children played together with great enthusiasm.

In La Coruña we met the Dutch family aboard Tofino and our paths continued to cross as we sailed the Galician Rias. Though that little boy and girl were slightly too young for Lily and Katie to properly play with, the girls really enjoyed having them on board Carina and sharing their toys.

In Baiona we found ourselves anchored beside Tallulah May and, before our families had officially met, our girls and their 4-year old and 6-year old girls were shouting over to each other and bringing their toys into the cockpit for a show and tell. Over the past couple of weeks the four girls have played together at every opportunity – on each other’s boats, in parks, on beaches. This family from Somerset has also lived in one of the Plymouth marinas so the girls (and their parents) have much in common. The older of the two taught Lily and Katie to draw trees and animals and that one lesson has revolutionised the girls’ drawing abilities!

In Peniche we met three Swiss children aboard Lucy. They played aboard Carina and we briefly visited Lucy. The middle child was exactly Lily’s age and his sister only a couple of years older. Together the children talked and played and read stories.

And then there are the local children that Lily and Katie meet and play with on beaches and in playgrounds. Some children, like the amazing 9-year old we met at Louro, speak English, but most don’t. It doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve seen my girls play hide-and-seek and tag with Spanish girls and boys, somehow working out the rules even though they don’t share a common language.

While the girls don’t have opportunities to play with other children on a daily basis, they make friends quickly when they have the chance. It is delightful to see the confidence with which they engage with other children (and their parents) and to see the impact those brief encounters have on their abilities and on the way they play with each other.

The skipper speaks

DSCI4137My tea has nearly been knocked over by a fairy princess ballerina waving a polar bear. Martina is sunbathing on the deck reading her book. She finished one book and has immediately started another. We ate dinner extremely early this evening, 7 o’clock! A meal of stir-fried whatever was left in the fridge, overcooked in the pressure cooker. Really tasty though*. Katie’s dinner has just been finished off by Martina, Katie having left anything that cannot be listed under the heading ‘carbohydrate’.

Today has been hot and sticky. We have been on anchor for 5 days and we have not left the boat today for the first time since I cannot remember when. Rianxo looks lovely, what we can see of it from the south, all tall trees and beautiful buildings. The beach is crowded with colourful parasols; power boats of all kinds race about, usually with a man standing up precariously at the wheel and a slim woman lounging in a bikini. If only our fridge wasn’t the hottest place on the boat, due to power considerations, I could be relaxing with a cold glass of G&T. Well I could if the only alcohol on the boat wasn’t my uncle Ian’s marrow wine.

Tomorrow morning we plan to go into the harbour here. I am quietly bricking myself because none of my sources of information seem to agree with each other. The 2000 Atlantic Spain and Portugal pilot book, the 2007 Galician pilot book, the 2014 Almanac, the paper chart, the electronic chart, the tourist leaflet from Boiro, the bloke in the chandlery in Vilagarcia and, last but not least, the tall blonde Finnish lady in a bikini shouting from her position draped across the front of a yacht as we left our last anchorage. If only I had been bothered to run the gauntlet of speedboats and parasols to recce the harbour by land I would lie easier tonight. Goodness this is a hard life!!

*Editor’s note: I didn’t force him to say it was tasty!

Learning something new every day

I’m writing an article for a home education magazine at the moment and as I was pondering it the other day, I started to think about the day-to-day education of the girls. So I thought back over the previous twenty-four hours and I realised two things. First, it was a pretty typical twenty-four hour period. Second, all four of us had learned new things during that time, without really trying to.

So here’s what we did in those twenty-four hours:

We dropped the anchor in quiet Cabo Cruz in Ria de Arousa just as the sun was setting. And as we did, we were delighted by the presence of five dolphins fishing in the shallow waters around the boat. I told the girls what I knew about dolphin fishing techniques and we watched them leap and splash to confuse the fish, corralling their prey into the shallows by the beach. Both girls already knew about how dolphins breathe and they shared that knowledge with me and Julian.

When the girls went to bed I read them a chapter of Mary Poppins. After I’d finished, Katie fell asleep, but Lily started to read a book about Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette. She had lots of questions, but I was too tired, so I suggested we read the book together at breakfast.

The next morning, while I made breakfast, Lily practiced mental maths with Julian. After breakfast, I read the Emmeline Pankhurst book aloud. As I read, Lily, Katie and I talked about fairness, justice, equality and feminism; and I explained about voting and government.

After Emmeline, the girls decided to have a ‘disco’. In their cabin they practiced their songs (a medley from The Sound of Music), then, using felt tips and paper, made tickets with the names of each dolly, teddy and parent invited to the disco. By then they had forgotten about the actual disco and moved on to other things.

Julian got our ‘Spanish for Beginners’ book out to learn about shopping grammar and vocabulary, and we all ended up practicing the new words and phrases, and tried to figure out some useful grammar together.

Lily helped me with the laundry – hand-washing in buckets on deck and hanging the wet laundry on the guard rails all around the boat. Katie set the table for lunch.

After lunch we rowed to shore in our dinghy and, like many of our afternoons in Galicia, played on a golden sandy beach. We all swam to our own abilities and then each did our own thing. Julian went for a walk to explore, as this was our first time in Cabo Cruz. I read my book about environmental governance. The girls found broken bricks, stones and driftwood and built a tower, learning that some structures work better than others. All three of us then played at being princesses in the sea, telling each other a fantastical and evolving story as we paddled in the shallows.

Later, Lily sat beside me on the sand because she wanted to write. In her little notebook she wrote about a movie we had recently watched on DVD, asking for help to spell the occasional word.

When Julian returned, he and the girls foraged for clams in the sea, and filled a small bucket with enough for supper. Katie went foraging along the beach on her own and found wild carrot. Both girls were very proud of their foraging prowess and knowledge of wild food.

We went for cold drinks to a bar that had Spanish news on. We rarely see TV, and there were some shocking images from Gaza and Ukraine, which led to a conversation about war and violence, which led back to The Sound of Music and the von Trapp family escaping over the mountains.

Back on the boat once more, as I made supper, the girls each coloured a page of their shared colouring book. And in the process, Katie learned (under instruction from Lily) how to write ‘W’ and ‘I’, to add to the ‘M’ and ‘L’ she learned a few days ago. In bed, Katie fell asleep while I read another chapter of ‘Mary Poppins’. Lily eventually fell asleep reading about the life and achievements of that great inventor of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt.

What an eclectic day of learning for all!