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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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 world’s greatest swimming pool

We are anchored on the west side of the Ria de Arousa, just off the beach of the pretty town Pobra do Caramiñal. After a few days of intense, oppressive heat, the clouds came over, offering us a welcome respite and a chance, at last, to go walking in the hills. The woman at the tourist office recommended As Piscinas on the Rio Pedras and we figured the 6km round trip wouldn’t be too much for the girls to undertake.

IMG_20140801_134011We walked out of town on a gradual incline, soon getting away from the main road and onto a walking track through the woods. Since arriving in Galicia, we have been struck by the profusion of eucalyptus trees and were so confused by their presence (and not trusting ourselves that that’s what they were, despite all evidence they were) that we turned to the Internet for answers. We discovered eucalyptus trees were introduced to the region from Australia only 150 years ago, for pulp and charcoal production, but quickly became a problematic invasive species, rapidly spreading over the hills and blocking natural wildlife corridors. Yet, despite the harm they cause, it is impossible to not be impressed by their beauty and aroma. Their slender silver trunks, stripped of bark, and dusky leaves cast a grey-blue glow on the land. Their soft swooshing as they sway in the breeze, and their unmistakable eucalyptus aroma, makes walking through these woods a joy to the senses. I can’t help but wonder what these hills were like before they took over.

IMG_20140801_135516We walked up the beautiful river valley – at times along a path than ran beside the boulder strewn river, at other times alongside small fields of vines or maize, the tinkling sound of the river always in our ears.

Katie contemplating the vines

Katie contemplating the vines

Upwards we went until the sound of teenagers alerted us to the proximity of the first pool on the upper reaches of the river. We climbed down the bank to a pool in the river where a family with four teenagers swam and ate their lunch. We ate our picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with our feet dipped in the fast flowing river, but then decided to search for more pools farther upstream.

DSCI4212We walked for another fifteen minutes until we reached the last of the pools, one of the most magical places I have ever been. The bedrock was smooth underfoot as we stepped into the warm river water, shallow enough in places for Lily and Katie to stand up, but deep enough elsewhere for Julian and me to enjoy a swim. A little higher up, a waterfall fell into a smaller pool. Julian and I took turns sitting on a rock underneath the waterfall. It was a natural Jacuzzi and we sat there with the water foaming and bubbling around us, massaging our bodies and roaring in our ears.

DSCI4195A natural water slide led from our pool to the next one downriver, lined with slick moss, and Julian entertained himself for ages by repeatedly sliding down. I tried it once and laughed so hard my sides ached. That first day we failed to convince the girls to have a go, but when we returned the next day, Lily eagerly went down the slide sitting on Julian’s lap.

DSCI4206Katie found a little pool all to herself and, holding on to a ledge, splashed and kicked her legs and had a glorious time. When not in the water, the girls foraged for juicy blackberries in the brambles.

My own little bit of paradise

My own little bit of paradise

The most wonderful thing, however, was that we had the place all to ourselves. Our own private piece of paradise. All along the 3km walk back home the girls asked if we could go back again. So we did, two days later. This time we shared ‘our’ pool with some other families, and later moved down the river to another pool that we had all to ourselves. What a treat!

 

 

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!

Ria Viveiro

Could anything be more idyllic than anchoring in a quiet bay, 200 metres from a golden sandy beach that stretches in a semi-circle around the bay, and between the beach and lush green mountains that rise behind, a pretty Spanish town? We are in Galicia, north western Spain, in Ria de Viveiro. This whole coastline is dotted with rias, old drowned rivers with spectacular hills and mountains rising all around. We hope to explore a few of these rias in the coming weeks and months.

View of Covas from Carina

View of Covas from Carina

A lone common dolphin makes the bay his home, swimming lazily around the four or five boats at anchor, swimming close to the dinghies as they make their way to shore, curiously investigating swimmers in the water. The girls and I saw what Julian didn’t while he was in the water the other day cleaning the hull. The dolphin silently came close to Julian who, when I told him, swam to the dinghy like he was Ian Thorpe! Silly man!

Julian cleaning the hull at anchor

Julian cleaning the hull at anchor

A short dinghy ride to shore and we are on a spectacular beach of soft golden sand. There are no waves, just calm warm waters – perfect for the girls to practice their swimming, and for Julian and me to take turns enjoying longer leisurely lone swims. As soon as we reach shore the girls insist on stripping off and running around naked, splashing in the water and playing in the sand, so full of joy and freedom. Lily’s swimming is improving, although she gets frustrated. Katie still refuses to kick her legs!

The beach is littered with tiny pink and purple shells and bleached oyster shells, which the girls have been gathering – some to bring home, some to make shell gardens or other beach decorations.

The girls with their shell garden on the beach

The girls with their shell garden on the beach

There are three separate towns in this ria all within short walking distance of each other and we have visited two. Covas has been celebrating the Fiesta de San Juan since we arrived five days ago, with loud canon fire at seemingly random times of the day, live music on a stage facing the water, a fun fair and street food. The fun fair is extremely pricy; at 3 euros per child per ride we would be out of pocket in half an hour. It’s difficult to explain this to two little girls whose eyes are popping out of their heads from the bright lights and beckoning rides. Thankfully, there are playgrounds aplenty and they soon forget the more costly distractions.

Sardines and potatoes cooked on an open fire, at the community feast in Covas de San Juan

Sardines and potatoes cooked on an open fire, at the community feast in Covas de San Juan

Away from the sea front, the roads quickly run up into the hills, with gardens displaying enviable plots of sweet corn, potatoes, and onions and trees bearing lemons, pears, apples and, occasionally, olives. In some gardens there are pigs, goats, sheep and chickens, and I’m reminded of Chris Stewart’s wonderfully comic memoir, Driving Over Lemons, about moving from the UK to a small-holding in Andalucia. The old houses bear the most amazing roof slates – large, randomly shaped slates that gradually decrease in size from the apex to the bottom of the roof. The architecture in general is delightful and exotic to our eyes. On our first evening in Covas we enjoyed a plate of fried whole baby squid. Lily devoured hers, but Katie refused to try. True to form, she stuck to the chips/fries.

Across the river is the ancient town of Viveiro, with streets so narrow that I imagine one could lean out a window and shake hands with one’s neighbour across the street. This beautiful town is dotted with 12th, 13th and 14th Century Catholic architecture – churches and convents still in use today. Iglesia de Santa Maria del Campo, Convento de las Concepcionistas and Iglesia de Santiago-San Francisco are decorated with the distinctive Spanish Catholic iconography of scarily life-like statues of Jesus suffering or crucified, Mary in black, crying and looking pained.

Iglesia de Santa Maria del Campo

Iglesia de Santa Maria del Campo

The churches are dark and beautiful and very creepy. Irish Catholicism looks lightweight compared to this! All of this imagery required a lot of explanation and the girls had endless questions that pushed Julian and I on our Christian doctrine, knowledge of saints, and on how to explain these things to young children. We have now established that ‘naughtly people killed Jesus’ which made ‘Mary sad’ and we’ve been talking more generally about the Romans. I showed them a confessional and Lily was wide-eyed as I explained Confession and told her that from when I was only a little older than she is now, I had to do that every few weeks.

Cloister of Iglesia de Santiago-San Fransisco

Cloister of Iglesia de Santiago-San Francisco

We will soon move on from here, west and then south, to explore more rias, visit the world’s oldest still functioning lighthouse near La Coruña (built by the Romans), and, hopefully, enjoy more wonders of this wonderful country.

Narrow streets of ancient Viveiro

Narrow streets of ancient Viveiro

I ♥ Carina

‘Mummy, I miss Carina. I love Carina. I want to hug her’.

When you’re three, everything’s a big deal. Everything joyful and hopeful is expressed with so much enthusiasm, with so much emphasis and meaning, that a failure on the part of anyone else to respond to such over-exuberance can lead to abject misery. Katie’s love for Carina is infectious. It has to be. If the rest of us fail to get carried away on her waves of enthusiasm then we risk tears, wailing, weeping and gnashing of teeth.

DSCI0006Lily, Katie and I hadn’t been to visit Carina since October. Julian’s worked aboard many weekends over winter and spring and on those nights when he’s away, Katie often looks up at me with big sad eyes when I put her to bed and asks, ‘Mummy, when can we go to Carina? I miss her sooo much’. ‘Soon’, I promise her. ‘Soon’.

So, with great excitement we all packed into Grandad’s car on Friday afternoon for the drive down to Plymouth. Katie’s excitement was infectious, as she told us how she planned to hug Carina, lie on her bed in the forecabin, lie on my bed in the (as she calls it) ‘half’cabin, and play in the cockpit.

When we got to the marina she bounced around with excitement, leading Lily and Julian to the pontoon, and trying to remember which boat was Carina. We found Carina in her usual spot, and Katie as always, hugged the anchor before being helped on board. She was so happy to be back on board, poking around, investigating all the nooks and crannies, exclaiming every few minutes ‘I remember this’. She and Lily ‘cleaned’ the deck, fighting over who should have the dust-pan and brush. They both squealed with delight when they saw a group of mullet swimming close to the boat. We went over to the beach were the girls ran free, collecting shells and climbing on the rocks, while Julian picked sea beet for me to cook later on.

It felt so good to be home at last. Carina is pretty empty at the moment, but during this week and next we will gradually empty the house and move our belongings aboard. That little taster of Carina on Friday has filled the girls with even more excitement and now Katie wants to know ‘when when when will we go back to Carina’.

I’ve never been one to fetishise my commodities, but Carina is a little more than that. She is our home, and I’m happy to encourage the children’s love for her. Because if they love her, they will respect her and take care of her, so she can be our home for many years to come.