As the minutes tick down to school pick up time I start to steady myself for the onslaught. School pick up time is busy, isn’t it? The kids launch themselves, their school bags, their instruments, notes, lunch bags and other random paraphernalia at me, excitedly chattering about what’s for afternoon tea, what are we doing this afternoon, can so-and-so come over for a play, why do I have to go to my music lesson, are we walking home, when can so-and-so come then, how much homework do I have to do, why, what, when, how, who …
It doesn’t actually let up until bedtime.
Kids are busy little creatures, aren’t they? They are into everything and with so many choices available to them between my three we have something on after school every day except Friday. Some days it’s a quick kiss and a bag swap and off they go to an activity that they won’t return from until dinner time. Other days it’s a car trip and a long wait for me while they learn the trombone, hip hop, swimming, band, gymnastics or choir.
We spend a lot of time together, my kids and I, and the rhythm of our life is a strong, steady beat. Unfortunately, sometimes that beat has no melody. I feel like we are together but disconnected somehow. It’s all too easy for conversations to be limited to ‘what happens next?’ rather than ‘how do you feel about that?’ A snatched ‘how was school?’ isn’t enough to truly know what’s going on with our kids (I wrote about this here). Asking a question when you don’t have time for a real answer is the same as not asking at all. Kids won’t open up to a rushed, frazzled mum. Let’s face it, in our frantic world, time is the biggest gift we can give to our children.
Fortunately, there are lots of little things we can do each day to reconnect with our kids and stay in their world. Here 10 ideas that might work for you.
1. Take 10 minutes for afternoon tea
An after-school snack is a given for most hungry kids, but rather than hammer an apple and a muesli bar down on the run, take just 10 minutes to stop and share some food together. Even if it just means you quickly cut the apples and muesli bars up into bite-sized portions, taking the time to settle in for just a few minutes will bring a sense of ritual and purpose to this time of day. It’s a calming, peaceful thing to do and keeps the chaos at bay for just a little while. I prepare the kids’ afternoon snack in the morning (which is also when I do lunches for the next day) and put it into a portable container if we are heading straight out from school. If we are having afternoon tea at home, I’ll set the table and make it nice. It takes me about a minute to add a little care factor to this important time of day.
2. Have at least one ‘nothing’ day
Every family needs at least one after-school day for doing nothing much at all. Whether you just hang out together at home, invite friends over for a play or go somewhere together, the key is that it’s an afternoon without homework, activities or obligations. Our day is Friday and we will either have friends over for Friday fun (myself included!) or we head to a park or we visit our favourite nursery / cafe together. It’s an afternoon that’s all about relaxing and it gives us some essential down-time together every week. Homework goes in on Fridays, so the pressure to keep that beast fed is off as well!
3. Play together
Unlike many mums, I’m not a natural ‘player’ and it can be hard for us to lose ourselves in play when we are so used to planning and ‘being on’, but playing with our kids can be very meditative, teaching us to live in the moment and stop time watching. Taking a half hour out of our afternoon can seem like a big ask, but a few play sessions each week does amazing things to family life. Through play you will learn so much about what makes your child tick and sharing an activity together is incredibly bonding. Allowing the kids to take the lead for a while is rewarding for them and surprisingly relaxing for you. As an added bonus, the kids are so darn grateful that you’ve joined in that they’re really well-behaved for ages afterwards. It’s a bit of a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ reward system.
4. Learn something together
Instead of another after-school activity that’s just for the kids, try learning something together. There aren’t many places that allow kids and their parents to learn side by side (which is a crying shame), but music lessons are achievable. Many of us hire private tutors for our children to learn anyway, so joining in is no hassle at all. I started learning the trombone via YouTube to help my son out when a tutor wasn’t available, but found myself enjoying it so much that I joined in with him when he started back with his tutor. We took turns playing the trombone or the keyboard and working towards something together was an amazing feeling. Max has since left the band / trombone (hopefully ‘for now’) but I’ve actually kept going… very quietly.
There are loads of online tutorials for all kinds of things. Perhaps you and your children can learn to sew, learn to type, do a design course, learn carpentry, learn to hip hop, how to garden … whatever you and the kids are interested in, there will be a course for that!
5. Work on a common goal
Just like learning together, working towards something together is a fantastic bonding experience. Let your child choose the goal – be it reading every Enid Blyton book ever written; running from home to the shops; walking every single street in your town or suburb; baking every cake in a treasured cookbook; even getting to the next level on a game they love – and work out what you need to do to achieve the goal together. Break it down into small, achievable elements and reward each other when you cross off each element (even a fist bump will do). If time is really pressed at your place, you can make your goal something that ties in with school work.
6. Switch off at least one afternoon a week
Kids generally watch too many screens anyway, so switching off the lot at least one afternoon a week will be good for everyone. At our place, there’s no television allowed until after bath time and other screens are allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We also switch off entirely on ‘screen-free Sunday’ and I’ll never forget how easy it was to get started with that. I simply announced one Sunday that from next Sunday there would be no screens whatsoever on Sunday every week, the kids groaned and carried on for a moment and then … we switched off. It’s been well over a year and screen-free Sunday is easily the kids’ favourite day of the week because after dinner we play board games or card games together around the kitchen table.
7. Have a conversation ritual
Every night around the dinner table we play ‘best of / worst of / thing you’re looking forward to’, where we go around the table and everyone has to talk about their day. It’s a lively conversation and the kids (at 10, eight and six years ) are all still at an age where they are happy to be honest about their best and worst bits of every day. We all talk about each others’ day and try to help out if a problem looks like it might carry over to tomorrow. The ‘thing we’re looking forward to’ is the most bonding bit of all – I try to have a few upcoming family events planned so we can each choose our favourite and look forward to it for quite a while.
8. Enjoy a different dynamic
When one or more of your children are in an after-school activity, it often means the other child or children are floating around waiting for them to finish along with you. Make the most of this time together when the dynamic will be different with a child missing. Plan a walk and collect some nature. Take photos of the neighbourhood you’ve found yourself in. Do the shopping and let them choose a treat for afternoon tea – something I ordinarily wouldn’t do because with three kids, they can never agree on anything!
9. Find out about what they’re finding out
Don’t forget to ask your children all about their hobby. If they’ve missed out on family time because they have ballet on that afternoon, find out what new steps they enjoyed learning. Research the steps together and watch a YouTube video of the Royal Australian Ballet dancers doing similar moves. Whatever their activity, there are ways to bring it into the family and show your child how interesting you think they are.
10. Make the most of the time you have
There isn’t a lot of time in a day, but we can certainly use the time we have in ways that really resonate with our kids. Instead of zoning out to music while you’re ferrying the kids from one place to another, talk to them instead. Ask them questions, play a car game together, quiz them on their multiplication tables … just connect. In the same way, if you are waiting for one child to finish at an extra-curricular activity, instead of reading a book or checking your phone, have a play date with your other children. Bring along some cards and teach them a game, bring some chalk and play hopscotch with them or get out the colouring-in books.
What’s your after-school schedule like?