Tuesday, 26 January 2016

How To Get Your Kids Outisde and Practicing Mindfulness

Noah checks out the brids

My own wheels - and pedals!

And he's away....

Getting us out the door and connecting with nature somehow is a cornerstone of my parenting. When we are out of sync, everyone is fractious and squabbling breaks out, more often that not you'll hear me summoning coats and ordering us all out the door. Why? Because mindfulness - attention to the detail of our lives right now in this moment - is often much easier for me and my children outside in contact with nature. 

I came to mindfulness while I was pregnant with my second child, Noah. I read a wonderful book called Mindful Parenting by Jon and Myla Kabat Zinn which explores how relevant mindfulness is to being with children who oftentimes seem to practice it actively without needing to try simply because they do live in the moment. I was already trying to live more slowly, to appreciate fully whatever I was doing whenever I was doing it. I was moving away from the multitasking, always busy high powered lifestyle I'd often imagined I would want and have when I'd be 'grown up'. Becoming mindful in my relationship with my children seemed a logical, helpful step. 

Over the years I've slipped in and out of my mindfulness practice. I find meditating hard - taking the time and calming my mind. However, when I do take the time, it is always beneficial. I don't always find it easy to do just one thing at a time either, Thich Nat Han says “when walking just walk, when eating just eat” etc but I often find myself combining pleasures. When I'm knitting I like to watch movies, when I'm doing my new daily yoga practice I like to listen to inspiring radio shows*, and when I'm cooking and cleaning I need the distraction of great music or great comedy.

But I do try on a regular basis to do just one thing at a time with my children. If I'm playing at babies with the three year old then I try to do just that and not keep thinking about all the other things I could or should be doing. I also try to listen actively to my children. To wait before I speak for them to tell me what they need to say, to hold back with my questions. The operative word here is 'try'.  

Despite all this trying, often I feel us slipping out of sync and feel powerless to stop it. Our lives become a series of instructions given by me and ignored by them. Nobody seems to be getting their needs met. And that is when we head out the door. If we walk around with our eyes and ears open mindfulness comes so much more easily. We see the birds swooping across our path, the ice on the frozen puddles, the new stream bursting with water after heavy rains, and the tiny pink flowers budding on the bushes. When we take the time to notice all these little things our inner clock starts ticking more slowly and it becomes easier to be mindful one of another as well as the world around us. We often come back from these little trips be it time in the garden, a walk to the river or a drive to the beach, refreshed, calmer, more comfortable with each other. 

But how to get everyone outside in the first place? Here's my list of how to persuade everyone out that door...

  1. Suggest something fun you know they enjoy – this might be a game of Molky, flying the kite or riding the swing at our house. Recently, it's been bird watching with the binoculars and digging over the veggie patches. Back in the days when we lived in a block of flats with no garden it was popping round the corner to say hello to our neighbour's Labrador Cookie, blowing bubbles or drawing chalk pictures on the pavement.  
  2. Go to a place they love. This is probably the park for most kids, but in our case used to be to see the trains go Whoosh - Lotta loves skateboards!past when we lived in the city or to the roundabout a three minute walk down our street where we could sit on the grass and play shop (it was a very quiet street and a very large roundabout). Nowadays it usually means the river on the other side of our village. It could also be a field with cows or sheep in or perhaps the woods, or if those sort of places are hard for you to get to it could also be a walk to the shops or the library – there will still be things to see and hear.
  3. Talk about why they don't want to go outside. Some days my kids just need to moan about what they don't want before they can let that feeling go and move on. So I listen to all the reasons they don't want to go outside like 'I want to stay in my pajamas they're warm' or 'I hate wearing welly boots' and as if by magic by the time they're done moaning they're often moving towards getting ready to go out. This is a really good example of mindful listening.
  4. Wheels - this ties back to number one but I think it merits being singled out. Bikes, scooters, roller blades, skateboards it's all good news for getting kids outside. We are lucky to have a stretch of very quiet road outside our back door (as in only us and the farmer next door use it quiet) so our kids can Maya double wheelsgo out there even unsupervised and bike, skate and roll to their heart's content. But even in the city we had the same equipment and you know who would lug it down from the third floor or up from the basement so the kids could get their hour of exercise wobbling along the pavement of the flattish street next door. 
  5. The promise of something good when we get back. Sometimes nothing else will work to get groany kids out the door. Then I admit I sink to slightly underhand tricks… “Hm” I say, “If we go outside and use some of our energy up, we can come home and have a hot chocolate, waffle, scone, hot cross bun… other yummy treat.” This invariably spurs my crew into life. It often involves a little negotiation about the yummy treat in question as well as much discussion of how great it is going to be but it gets them into their coats and shoes and out the door and as often within five minutes they've forgotten the treat and are busy outdoors. Not to say of course that I don't fulfill on my promises when we do go back indoors!

Lotta rides off into the sunset

So that's my list. What about you? How do you get your kids outside? Do you practice mindfulness and how have you found it to be helpful with children? I'll be posting next week about how to get your kids listening to those birds and generally being mindful of what's going on around them.


* Check out Chris Hadfield's Desert Islands discs here for example.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The right kind of crazy

Sometimes in the Winter I feel I'm spending my whole life looking for sunshine. On endless grey days I hunt out yellow books, scarves and dresses. I cook orange food and devour kilo upon kilo of oranges and clementines. Lemon juice flavours every dish I put on the table. It is as if I crave the light and the warmth of the golden globe that is our promise of life and have to find it everywhere I can.

At the weekend after some amazing storms, the sun actually shone and we gathered in the best places in our house to collect its delicate rays, sitting, our faces upturned to the light, drinking it in. It reminded me of walking with the children in Paris on frozen days when our breath hung in the air in front of our mouths with every exhale and calling to them, 'turn your faces to the sun, take off your gloves and put your palms up to the light - we need our vitamin ds'. Yes I am a little crazy if you didn't know that already. I've always thought a little crazy was just the right balance. Crazy enough to dance in the street and sing in the train, to run like mad with my daughter just because she asks me to even though I am far too old and (mostly) dignified to be seen running like that. The worse thing being that she beats me every time. Crazy enough to shimmy round my kitchen when my favourite songs play on the radio and to headbang with my best pal in front of our shocked and possibly embarrassed children. Crazy enough to talk to myself and make up endless stories in my head about the people I see around me and not to be embarrassed about it - I am too old for that! Just a little crazy.

I have been thinking about this a lot the last few days. We watched Man on a Wire on Sunday evening and I was struck by the light of madness in Philippe Petit's eyes. If you don't know this film, I highly recommend it. It is about Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers and it is funny, touching and awe inspiring. But the bottom line is this, only someone a bit crazy would step out onto a piece of wire pulled between the roofs of two buildings, a quarter of a mile above ground! Not only does he walk though, he dances, he lies down, he kneels. And it is incredibly beautiful. His childlike attitude is very sweet although you feel the weight he places on the shoulders of those who surrounded and supported him with their more mature attitudes and concerns. Without them he couldn't have done it but they were all crazy enough to agree to his insane plan and help him make it a reality.

Crazy enough. 

And then yesterday, Monday morning I woke up, turned on the radio and heard these words, 'David Bowie is dead'. Throughout the day my radio was tuned in to the BBC as I bore witness to an amazing outpouring of love for the genius that was David Bowie. An artist who has held a firm place in the soundtrack of my family's life as we've danced and sung along to Life On Mars more times that I can remember. Maya and Noah love the man, or is it a girl mummy? with the pink hair and the blue eyeshadow. And I think that ambiguity says so much. For me, Bowie was just the right amount crazy. Ephemeral, always changing, unpredictable and fun and touched by a hint of magic, of something otherworldly so hard to define. 

I was amazed by how many lives Bowie had touched, by the outpouring of grief that felt very genuine to me. But mostly I was amazed and impressed by how many people felt that his shining example had somehow paved the way, given them permission to be themselves, to live their own lives however they pleased. What an amazing legacy, not only to have epitomised freedom, sexual, artistic, musical freedom himself but also to have given the gift of freedom, of difference, to so many others.

So I shall go on being a little bit crazy, in fact I think I may even try to cultivate more craziness in my life even if that sounds weird. I have never tried to be normal because I realised very early on how impossible that was for me as for so many others. Today I feel like celebrating the differences even more than before. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Wonderful Walks

In those wonderful, quiet days between festivities we took a walk in the woods. Les Forets de Camors et Floranges are really close to our home and nestling sleepily in their midst are hidden treasures if you look closely. Le Menhir de l'Etoile is an impressive standing stone surrounded by a circle of trees which add to the magical feeling of the place. 

The children, their older cousins and I debated the purpose of these stones. Were they burial markers, signs of worship or gateways to another time or universe? Historians are no clearer on the subject that we were. Dating from pre-historic times the stones have been thought to be Druidic sacrificial sites, territorial markers, elements of complex belief systems or early calendars. Nobody knows for sure what they were really for and until we invent a time travel machine it's likely to stay that way. What I do know from visiting these sites is that the Menhirs are shrouded in an ambiance of mystery and possibility which inspires our imaginations. 

In fact, wandering through the wet, damp forest it was easy to believe in fairies, elves and other mystical forest creatures. The smell was unbelievably fresh and rich, after all the damp weather we've had this winter, you could almost taste the funghi and soil richly fermenting. As we spotted tiny mushrooms and rampant patches of delicate plants that looked like green stars fallen down to earth we also kept our eyes peeled for the signs of fairy castles and secret passages down to goblin kingdoms.

The green and brown hues of the tree trunks, pines and forest floor were friendly, familiar and seasonal in a way that made us glad to finally go home and drink big bowls of hot chocolate or spicy Christmas tea. We relished the joy in richer flavours the colder weather affords us. And the warmth of a blazing fire removing the chill from our toes was the perfect end to our long damp tramp in the wet woods.

But I get ahead of myself, during our meandering walk we came across the most beautiful tree stump. Stag or Roe, Faun or Satyr, the remains of a living beast or mythical forest creature? We almost expected it to come to life and enlist us in a magical adventure just like in C S Lewis' Narnia books. As with my seaweed dragon back in September I was fascinated by the way this piece of natural debris was also a natural work of art when viewed from the right angle.   

It really was a refreshing and inspiring walk that reminded us all of the beauty and patterns found in nature. I found myself thinking how man's place is within the natural world, surrounded by it and incorporated in it, organically bound not standing above and apart forcing his will upon it. Not just a user but belonging and claiming his fundamental place in the beautiful repetitive pattern of life.  And the magic? Well as I always say about the myth of Christmas, be it Santa Claus, Saint Nicolas or baby Jesus, it's nice to believe in something. In things we can't pinpoint, things we don't quite understand, in the possibility of something bigger than us. In the magic of a universe, past, present and future, we may never fully comprehend.