“Outside Mama” said my then two-year-old son, “outside”.
A momentary break in our round-the-clock west coast rain reignited my son’s passion for the outdoors.
His instincts are right; life is better outside.
His enthusiasm and joy are contagious so without a second thought I ditch our schedule and surrender to the flow my son is about to create.
So, we rake the backyard.
We dig for worms.
We study ladybugs.
We paint watercolor dinosaurs.
“Are we done buddy? Inside now?” I ask.
“No Mama” he says pointing to the back gate that leads to the park, “Bat and ball”.
So off we go. My son confidently leads the way. We take our time. We appreciate spring bulbs blooming. We collect rocks. We look for “Six Toes”, our neighbour’s cat.
We arrive at our local park and start tracking dinosaurs.
We head up to the diamond and play baseball in the fading afternoon light.
We play hide and seek in the adjacent woods with a little boy and his Dad.
Then the park becomes quiet as the other kids go home for dinner. The dog walkers come out and we make friends with a rescued black and white collie. The sun sets and my son and I meander home.
Our half day adventure leaves me feeling calm and peaceful, as if I’ve been meditating. I had no appreciation for how far his imagination would take us; his innocent curiosity and slow pace remind me of the power and beauty of simplicity. I find myself craving more.
I often feel as though I need to entertain my son. To stimulate him. To enrich his days. But he’s proven that if I hand him the reigns, he’s got this.
And what’s more – he’s ready to take me on his adventures. What a privelege it is to be included in his imaginary world. It turns out that a simple afternoon where not much happened was exactly what we both needed.
In a culture that glorifies busyness, it is a radical act to choose less over more, to prioritise slowness over productivity, to surrender to being present for life’s small inconsequential ordinary moments.
Yet, we know we need to do it. We know that simplifying childhood protects our children’s mental health (and our own). Slowing down feeds our souls and nurtures our families and no matter what parenting style we choose; this topic can unite us.
As parents know when our kids are overwhelmed and we have the power to help by silencing the white noise of society, giving them time and space, and saying ‘no’ when pressured to say ‘yes’.
As my son fell asleep beside me later that night, I thought about the ways in which we’re striving to infuse simplicity into our family life and I wanted to share them with you. So, here are eight practical tips to bring more presence, purpose and peace into your home.
1. Conquer the clutter (starting with the toys)
Decluttering our homes is perhaps the most obvious place to start and it’s also extremely satisfying, starting with the toys.
It may seem counterintuitive but the fewer toys kids have, the more they play. With fewer toys and less clutter, they can better see and appreciate what they have. It becomes easier for them to immerse themselves deeply in imaginative rather than superficial play. Remeber, the play is in the child, not in the toy. A reader wrote to me about her experience of reducing toys and this is what she said,
“When my kids were young, my husband read an article about children having 10 toys and no more. We walked into their play room, he scooped up all their toys and told me to get rid of them. I was extremely hesitant. I thought they’d be at my feet with so ‘few’ toys. But no, they played better with 10 toys than with 40.”
So, here are a few tips to make it easier to decide which toys need to find a new home:
- Always keep favourites – often simple and classic toys
- Remove broken toys
- Remove toys with missing parts
- Remove toys that limit your child’s imagination (toys where you press a button and it lights up or makes a noise are prime candidates)
- Remove toys your child hasn’t played with in over a month
- And then remove some more!
After you remove your child’s excess toys you may still have too many toys available at any one time. This is a great opportunity to create a toy library. We use a few clear plastic containers to place toys in and keep them in our spare room downstairs. We then rotate the toys in and out of the toy library on a regular basis.
Then, I’d encourage to keep going beyond your child’s room and declutter your whole home. Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is such a great read to help you get started. One of the greatest side effects of decluttering for me (and it is a work in progress!) is that it makes me happier and a better parent – with less stuff comes less mess, a calmer mind and more time and space for things I truly value.
“As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.” Kim John Payne
2. Simplify (and filter) adult information
The human brain doesn’t fully mature until our mid-late twenties. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for judgment and decision-making is the last region to complete its development. So, children simply can’t process adult information.
While it is healthy for children to be aware of the world around them, we need to be conscious that it is only on a scale that they can cope with. We need to safeguard against age inappropriate information which will not “prepare” our kids for the world but rather alarm and paralyze them if they feel helpless to effect change.
So, what does that look like? Not exposing kids to distressing world events that can induce anxiety over a situation they can’t rationalize. Watching traumatic news after the kids go to bed. Limiting adult conversations about our concerns and worries around our kids.
On the flip side, we can find ways to include kids in age appropriate ways they can help. A simple example is climate. For young kids may be teaching about recycling and reducing plastics, participating in local beach clean ups, choosing charities to donate to causes your family cares about. For older kids it may be taking part in climate change rallies, writing to local government of finding volunteer opportunities.
3. Kill the screens
One of the toughest universal parenting challenges is reducing screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics report children spend an average of seven hours a day on screens, including television, devices, computers and phones.
Parent and Paediatrician, Dr. Dimitri Christakis suggested in his compelling TED Talk that rapid image changes on screen, when viewed by children during critical periods of brain development, precondition the mind to expect high levels of stimulation. This can lead to inattention later in life. So where do we start?
Perhaps the most powerful influence we can have is to model the behaviour we’d like to see by reducing our own screen time.
My son recently said to me, “put the phone down mama”. It was a monumental wake up call. Even as adults, it hurts when we spend precious time with loved ones and they allow texts and emails to distract them. The last thing I want is my son feeling like he’s competing with my phone.
So, I’ve started setting rules for myself. I don’t reply to texts immediately unless it’s urgent. Emails can wait. And social media updates will be there later. Out of sight, out of mind works well for me so I hide my phone…from myself. And using flight mode is my new best friend.
They say it takes three weeks to break a habit so set yourself a 21-day challenge. Leave your phone at home when you go out as a family. Have a social media free weekend. Or switch your phone off an hour before bed.
I feel calmer, more present and less scattered with the small changes I’ve made. And the ultimate reward – my little man is asking for less screen time. It’s only the tip of the screen time iceberg but leading by example will filter down to your kids.
4. Use a new love language
Have you heard of the five love languages? The theory is that each of us give and receive love in different ways. The languages are words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch.
Most of us experience love through all of these languages but often one or two are dominant. Giving and receiving gifts can be a wonderful expression of love but I wonder if our consumer driven society is allowing it to monopolize our relationships.
Once we reduce the clutter lurking in our kid’s rooms we can resist the temptation to give more love as “gifts” by using the other four love languages. Spending quality one on one time with our kids. Wrestling with our two year old on the bed. Hugs, hugs and more hugs. And telling them every chance we get how much we love them.
“Children need at least one person in their life who thinks the sun rises and sets on them, someone who delights in their existence and loves them unconditionally.” – Pam Leo
5. Add simple pleasures
Visit your local craft store and rummage through the house to collect natural materials, fabrics, ribbons and pillows. Give them to your kids to let their imaginations to run wild, building forts, playhouses and enchanted castles.
On your next hike or trip to the beach collect shells, leaves, moss, stones and acorns. Bring the outdoors inside and create nature baskets or tables, to examine and play with later. Both Montessori and Waldorf encourage nature tables for kids to learn, interact with nature and the seasons and immerse themselves in an interest they’re passionate about.
6. Simplify the rhythm of life
In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne describes daily life as a song, with both high and low notes. The high notes are school, sports practice, music lessons and birthday parties. The low notes are walking the dog, getting an ice cream with Dad or playing catch in the backyard.
It’s important that we build in regular low notes for our kids to rely on as a release of tension and a break from the pressures of daily life. It’s also a valuable opportunity to strengthen our connection with our kids.
7. Minimize schedules
Since I was a kid, homework and time spent in structured activities has doubled meaning free time has been cut in half for most children.
With kids being carted from one activity to the next and often watching devices on the way, they’re constantly stimulated. Payne says, “A child who doesn’t experience leisure – or better yet, boredom – will always be looking for external stimulation, activity, or entertainment”
By prioritizing time for free play over organized activities we foster creativity, self reliance and happiness.
As an added benefit, parents who feel like a taxi service enjoy a new sense of calm and a chance to spend more time with their kids. One reader wrote to me this week having done just that. She decided to pull her son out of hockey as he needed more downtime. Other parents thought she was mad. But, she says it was the best decision as her son is much happier and calmer.
8. Go outside
Spending time with children outside is never a mistake. Nature provides endless possibilities for healthy stimulation, creativity and confidence building. In his compelling book Last Child In The Woods, Richard Louv, exposes the growing divide between children and nature. He suggests “nature-deficit disorder” is directly linked to conditions such as obesity, attention disorders, and depression in today’s wired generation.
Whether it’s going for a hike come sunshine or rain, playing at the park, swimming in the ocean or exploring our own backyards getting your kids outside as often as possible will lead to good things.
Rise to the challenge
Without a doubt, parenthood has brought unprecedented levels of complexity to my life. But when I immerse myself fully in my toddler’s magical world I am struck by the sense of peace it brings.
He is my tiny, two-feet-tall Zen Master. At times I’m sure he was sent to slow me down. To make me appreciate spring bulbs, ladybugs and dinosaur tracks.
If we all lived in wild places, in log cabins, growing veggies and tending to our money trees simplicity would come naturally. But until that time, if we want to revel in the treasures it promises we need to first make space in our lives and welcome it into our modern families. Let’s support each other to have the courage to trust our instincts, be the odd man out and let our kids be silly, fun-loving kids for as long as they can.