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August 23, 2016

Childhood is undoubtedly a time of wonder, exploration and creativity – but this can often get lost amongst the busyness of modern life. With increased focus on more mindful ways of living, Abby Lawrence discovers there is also a shift to simpler parenting and paths to navigating childhood. 

Growing up, my siblings and I were lucky enough to live across the road from native bush. We spent countless hours playing games, climbing trees, making huts, scraping our knees and learning from our experiences. We were immersed in our young lives. Many parents today surely have a similar nostalgia for their own childhoods and want the same for their children. Yet finding the mental space and time to provide a similar experience can be difficult amidst today’s modern lifestyle. There has been an increase recently in ideologies such as mindfulness, which espouse the benefits of slowing down to appreciate life, clearing away the clutter and reaching a more meaningful way of living – and parenting hasn’t been left aside. Parenting expert and author of Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne, has created a movement aiming to return to the simple essence of childhood. In his book, he explores how childhood has become characterized by “too much, too fast, too soon”. 

So how are our modern lives affecting our children? And how can we make positive changes and get back to a simple childhood? 

Too Much

It is only natural that as parents we want to give our children the best of everything, but there can be a danger of overwhelming them with toys and ‘stuff’. Michelle Melville-Smith, a psychologist from Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) New Zealand, says bedrooms that offer too much stimulation can be tricky when it comes to nap time, especially if the child still sleeps during the day. “Research has shown that we do need time to actually unwind from stimulating planes and activities like devices,” she explains. 

When it comes to the influx of ‘stuff’, Michelle also points out that it is worthwhile for parents to give some thought to what they want their child to learn from their space. She suggests asking yourself questions like: Is it helpful? Is it better to have a few special things, or a wide range? What is the relationship this is creating with ‘stuff’? The answers will be different for every parent, but using them as a starting point can be a great help in viewing excess clutter in
a new light. 

Considering the types of toys you have on hand for your children is also useful. Many toys offer only one way of play, such as toys that light up and create sound, versus toys that are open-ended and offer opportunity for creative play, such as a simple cardboard box or basket of blocks. There is no end to the creativity that these simpler toys offer and any natural materials can become toys; from leaves, stones and shells gathered on outdoor trips, to household items such as kitchen utensils. That isn’t to say, however, that electronic toys should be excluded from play. 

“A balance is always helpful,” says Michelle. “It is unrealistic to expect that children aren’t going to be exposed to technology, so it becomes more about monitoring how and when they [the toys] are used.”  

De-cluttering a child’s room and space is a great starting point for creating a simpler way of living. There are many ways of tackling this. One is to create your own toy library by keeping the bulk of your child’s toys packed away and then rotating the toys they play with every few weeks. This gives you some control over the clutter and is less overwhelming for your child, so they can really play and experience the toys they do have access to. “As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play,” says Kim John Payne. 


The daily world around us and the events we see in the news can be incredibly overwhelming for us as adults and their effect on small children shouldn’t be underestimated, either. This overload of information can happen without us even realising it; the news may be on in the background, the radio in the car, even overheard adult discussions can be picked up on by impressionable young minds. “We know that exposure to violence or inappropriate things through the media and technology can have an impact on children’s behaviour and emotional wellbeing,” explains Michelle. Obviously, it can be difficult to tune out of these things completely but becoming mindful of when and where media is consumed and what is discussed in front of your littlies can make a big difference. When children do have questions, or react to something they have seen, Michelle says having a simple chat with them about it is important. “Kids do see and hear what is going on, and we don’t want to pretend it is not happening,” she says. “It is a matter of helping them absorb it in a way that helps develop knowledge, problem solving and resilience.”

It can be useful to think about your daily life and what your children may be picking up on, whether you talk of world problems with your partner at breakfast, or have the news on in the background at dinner. In his book, Kim John Payne presents the idea of “...erecting filters to stop the speed and stress of adult life from pouring, unchecked, into our kids’ homes, heads and hearts.”

 Simple connections

  • Find little rituals that feel good and fit with your family. They offer respite from adult life and responsibilities.

  • We've all heard it before, but when playing with your littlies really play with them. Resist the temptation to check that email or message that just came through on your phone. It can be a good idea to head outside together, where there is no temptation to put the dishwasher on, fold the washing or check emails.

  • Get outside. Sometimes, on a grizzly day, all it can take is getting outdoors, whether in the backyard, the park, or the beach, to reset tempers. Nature provides endless opportunities for play, exploration and building self-confidence.

  • Lead by example. De-cluttering not just your children's rooms, but the whole home, can be incredibly freeing. Getting rid of things that are broken, no longer used, or have missing parts is a great start.

  • Take a cue from your children, in the way they become completely absorbed in an activity. They are the masters of 'slow living'; going down the slide one more time, reading the book again, stopping to look at a flower bush. Take time to just watch them and drink them in. Pausing like this can jolt us out of our busyness and create a shift to a slower pace.

  • Set some rules around technology: consider resisting the urge to check every phone notification noise, having a set time to answer emails, or limiting screen time. There are many ways to stop devices taking over family life.

  • Create your own toy library by separating out a small allowance of toys and storing the others away, ready to be switched out every so often. You could even swap them with friends/family for even more variety.


Our daily life is full of rhythms, whether we are conscious of them or not. Our sleep rhythms, work rhythms, circadian rhythm and family rhythms all shape our experiences. When we stop and focus on them we can actually use them to simplify our lives. 

This is particularly true for small children. “It is known through research that they respond better when there is structure and routine in their lives,” says Michelle. “Just knowing what happens next, because it makes the child’s world predictable.” This in turn allows them to feel more secure and stable, but doesn’t mean having to stick to a dictated and heavily structured routine. “The idea is [to give them] a flow of what happens next,” says Michelle. 

If you know a particularly hectic day is coming up, for example, it may be as simple as sitting the child down the night before and explaining what will happen, such as: “Tomorrow, instead of me picking you up from preschool, Nana will be meeting you.” Explaining to the child how their routine will be affected can help them to feel less unsettled by the change, if they know ahead of time. Michelle says it’s an important thing for parents to bear in mind. “Parents need to to think about what they will need to do or prepare throughout the week to make it easier.”

It can also be easy to expend all our energy during the day, leaving little for family afterwards. As Kim states in his book, “Family life often consists of whatever is left over, in terms of our time and energy, when the ‘work’ of the day is done.” 

If finding the space for quality family time is a struggle, schedule it just like any other activity on the calendar. It can be as simple as keeping Saturday morning free for a family breakfast, all going for a walk on Sundays, or reading books together before bed. When thinking back on childhood it is often the routine things that we remember. Kim John Payne describes this perfectly in his book: “In the tapestry of childhood what stands out is not the splashy blow out trip to Disneyland, but the common threads that run throughout and repeat: the family dinners, nature walks, reading together at bedtime, Saturday morning pancakes.”

Being vs. Doing

Free time for children is becoming less and less common these days, with scheduled activities, classes, sports and other events taking over a child’s day. While more common for older children, there can still be
a temptation to provide as many stimulating learning opportunities for littlies as possible and while we all want to give our children the best start in life, balance is important too. Michelle says there are many benefits to children being involved in scheduled activities. “Activities where children have the chance to socialize offer an opportunity to learn how to interact appropriately with other children, it allows for teamwork, peer co-operation, social skills building.” Parents can also benefit from the chance to interact with other parents and share experiences. 

The important aspect is the need to balance this with downtime, where children have the chance to indulge in free, unstructured play; to explore their world. Michelle says it is especially important for three- or four-year-olds to have downtime as their imagination and creativity is rampant at this age. “[It allows them] to understand how the world around them works and to learn to play independently.” 

One idea is to pare activities back to one or two that your child is really interested in, or even one per term if they don’t have any particular interests. Overscheduling yourself is easy to do too, so if you find yourself feeling like a taxi driver it might be time to rethink your family’s schedule. Take a deep breath, look at what is really important, reclaim your family time and remember – it’s okay to say no to things.


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