By Jennifer McCormack

When my children are in good form they are dynamic and funny, adventurous and just really good company. Sometimes though, particularly at the end of the week when we are all a bit worn out, I know it isn’t going to be one of those blissful days. I find days like this a little easier to cope with when I am prepared mentally for them. When I am ready to write the day off before it even begins I can let go of all my usual expectations of myself and my perceived responsibilities and, most importantly, I can let go of my expectations of my children’s behaviour. Some days are just a matter of survival!

I don’t have the option of TV because I don’t have one. I could put a DVD on the laptop, but experience tells me that it usually isn’t effective for long. Often (at least for our own two children) their behaviour AFTER staring at the screen is more challenging than it is beforehand … so I don’t go there until I absolutely need to. Without the option of easy electronic entertainment I have had to learn some other ideas for surviving challenging days with over-tired children:

I cook my dinner in the morning:

If I know in advance that the day is going to be difficult, then straight after breakfast, I make my dinner. I don’t have a slow-cooker, but these appliances were made for days like this! A stew, slow-cooked in the oven is easy! All I have to do is throw everything in a casserole dish with some stock, butter, and seasoning and then forget about it for a while. It only takes a few moments to prepare, and the savoury smells wafting from the kitchen keep me sane all day with the promise of a delicious reward at the end of a day of “keeping-it-together”.

Elemental play is a life-saver:

We rarely use play-dough, but I usually have some ready in the fridge to bring out when the children’s nervous energy is at its peak. Modelling with play-dough or clay brings children’s focus back into their hands, and transforms their nervous energy into creative energy. It is a soothing, earthy activity that grounds children back into their bodies. I see my children’s breathing slow down, the conversation become more purposeful and their energy restored to almost normal levels.

There is also water play: water-colour painting is soothing. A baby’s bath full of water, some cups and funnels can be calming. Filling up watering cans and letting children water anything that doesn’t move is great. Providing a container of water and a paintbrush for ‘painting’ outside is also a very meditative experience for children. I’ll run a bath inside if I have to! For his fifth birthday we bought our son a set of plumbing pipes that are great for pouring water into, and creating water-courses in the sandpit. They have been the best addition to our outdoor toys. Mud, sand and dirt play is also a standard fall back activity for us. Let go of worries about getting dirty. How can you fully immerse yourself in the wonderful potential of elemental play if you are afraid of getting wet and dirty?

Check the Distraction List:

Yes, I do actually have an actual written list of distractions! When I am in the moment and my children (and myself!) are going nuts and falling apart emotionally and I just can’t think of WHAT TO DO – this list can be another life-saver. I do suggest you write one up with your partner and stick it on the fridge so you can both read it when you need to. Being able to change the children’s play, rather than grumble at them for being silly or fighting all day long helps children to focus better, to shift their interest, and gives them an opportunity to start again with their behaviour.

On my list are mostly active things like sweeping up, cracking macadamia nuts, threading beads or buttons, sorting out buttons/beads/tools (anything that needs sorting), cutting up magazines, collage, washing up the home corner dishes, giving the dolls a bath or washing the dolls clothes by hand (elemental water play!) … all these ideas are physical, purposeful activities. It doesn’t matter if they are not completed as their sole purpose is to shift my children’s focus from silly, unfocused and potentially dangerous play back into calm, mindful and settled play.

The Rainy Day Box:

Most toy collections have toys that are in high usage, and others that are loved but not played with very often. I watch which items my children use the most, and then gradually begin picking up the rest and putting them away. Usually these items are not missed at all. It is great to have some toys put away for ‘a rainy day’ – the advantages are a play area that is not cluttered, and a stash of toys for times when the usual loved playthings just don’t hold the interest they once had, or when they are no longer being used appropriately. Bringing out the Rainy Day Box is like Christmas all over again as children delightedly find playthings they had forgotten about. I don’t usually let the children play with the whole stash at once, but to choose a few items and leave the rest for the next emergency distraction.

Be ‘Present’:

I rarely give children my 100% focus in their games, because I find they can access greater depths of their own creativity when they are not relying upon me for ideas in their games – but I also find that my children are more likely to play with purpose and maintain levels of calm self-control if I am nearby doing a purposeful activity of my own, but one that lets them know I am still ‘accessible’. It might be some craft; it might be some cooking, gardening or folding the washing. The moment the phone rings, or if I become fully distracted by another job (one that I HAVE to finish!), or if I think I can go and bury myself inside a nice book, then playtime can degenerate quickly back into feralness. If I am really tired, all I do is sit nearby with my cup of tea, smile if I can, and offer some praise or some new suggestions now and then. I often plop down on a picnic rug with my knitting. Being quite pregnant now, I am often so tired I only pretend to knit, but it serves the purpose, and I am able to e