#38: The power of nature

sustainable family
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Read Time:29 Minute, 23 Second

Caring for the environment and raising her children to be independent and critical thinkers go hand in hand for Canberra mum, Ana. Cooking, gardening, constructing and sewing, for example, she says, are all life skills that can be learnt by making eco-friendly choices. Combine those skills with the fact that children who are creative in their younger years tend to develop into adults who have a greater capacity for problem solving, and Ana has her motivation for making sustainable choices. Using cloth nappies is just one of a range of choices Ana hopes will teach her children the world is a precious place full of resources we can help thrive if we are considerate. Read on for Ana’s experiences with reusable nappies and to find out why she extols the power of nature and open-ended play in educating her children.

Welcome, Ana, @worm.and.pip

Sustainable parenthood

Tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you live.

My name is Ana and I am mother to two young children (a girl, 4 years and a boy, 10 months) and also have a 9-year-old step son. I have been with my partner Ash (he’s daddy to all 3 children) for about 8 years now. We live in Canberra where I am a stay at home mum, and freelance artist/illustrator. I am currently working on illustrations for a children’s book but also have a background in human resources, psychology and childcare/early learning so I like to constantly keep my mind busy by reading books and articles from these fields, and have been putting some of my past skills into practice while home-schooling the children during the coronavirus distancing. Ash works in IT management and coaches the kids’ soccer teams; both older kids are involved in soccer and swimming, and our daughter also loves BMX racing and ballet. When I’m not busy hustling with the kids, I love being creative – whether this be producing artwork, designing and organising our home décor, sewing clothes for the kids, or working in the garden. I love my wine and coffee (but don’t most mums) and can also occasionally be found on the couch in “gamer nerd” mode when the mood strikes.

Can you describe what brings you the most happiness in life and why?

My children bring me so much joy! I love to watch them play, learn and create; and having cuddles with them is my absolute favourite.

Finish this sentence … The thing people don’t know about me is …

I am actually quite an introverted person and crave my silent time alone. I also find it impossible to relax if my house is a mess.

What’s on your bedside table?

A plant, glass tealight candle holders, small clock, water glass, baby dummy, lip balm, and hand cream

What is your definition of self-care and how do you make time for it?

Self-care is about making the time to do something exclusively for myself … such as painting, reading a book, or gardening. I also take 10-15 minutes in the mornings and evenings for my skincare routine which include at home facials/face masks at least once a week.

Can you tell us about your motherhood journey? What has been the most challenging, and the most rewarding stage?

The biggest challenge of motherhood for me is finding time to pursue my own interests and goals, and the most rewarding part of motherhood is spending time with those I love the most, being able to watch my children develop their own little personalities and being present for every achievement they experience.

My motherhood journey began in late 2011 when I met my current partner and his son. I immediately viewed his son as a part of my family and enjoyed being a part of his early life and development. I willingly took on the mother figure role for him early on, being a key influence when it came to supporting developmental milestones such as walking, talking, toilet training, teaching him to ride a bike, enrolling him in swimming lessons, and in daycare/preschool for socialising, and refer to him now as “our eldest child”. He spends about a third of his time in our household and the remainder of his time with his birth mother, so while he was the only child, I still had some time independent of the “mother” status and was able to pursue my own leisure activities most days, spend time at the gym every day, and work in a career that was in line with my education and interests.

We have since then had two more children of our own, in 2015 and 2019, a daughter and a son, and the introduction of additional children also introduced the challenge of being able to manage my time to still include leisure activities that are purely for myself or spending time on my own personal goals. When my partner and I began living together in 2013, I took on some of the main parenting responsibilities with our eldest, such as daycare/school drop-off and pick-up, attending appointments, preparing dinner, and engaging in child-focused activities which only impacted my personal time slightly and meant that I reduced my hours at work only 1-2 times a week (around 6 hours). When our daughter came along in 2015, I spent more time as a primary caregiver and started working part-time with less time for leisure activities of my own. Now that we have our third child, who is currently 9 months old, I am a full-time stay at home mum and the primary caregiver for the children. Additionally, as our eldest has grown and his time spent with his birth mother now predominantly revolves around playing video games and watching TV, he has required more attention when it comes to engaging in play-time activities while in our care.

My career path has taken a back seat, I no longer attend the gym, and finding time to enjoy my own leisure activities now has to be thoughtfully scheduled in. With that being said, one of the most rewarding parts of motherhood is being able to spend so much time with the little people I love the most, playing, having childish fun, and being able to share in their achievements and excitement.

How have you found the transition from two to three children?

I was led by friends and family to believe that the jump from two children to three would be difficult when compared to the jump from one to two, however I personally have not found this to be as difficult as I was told. The addition of a third child was pretty much the same as the addition of the second. This perhaps is due to the age difference between the children with the gap between the first two being 5 years and the gap between the youngest being 4 years. The level of independence of the older two has made it an easier adjustment than I anticipated as they are capable of doing quite a lot independently, leaving me free to take care of the needs of the baby.

The biggest change for us was actually with material possessions and my own life goals. With the addition of a third child, we needed to upgrade our car to fit everyone comfortably in when we all travel together. We also want to move into a new home with an additional bedroom and second living space. I have also stopped working and am a full-time stay at home mum with less time to pursue my own hobbies.

I have definitely learnt a few lessons over the years that have helped manage the third child easier, however, particularly when it comes to reading cues and being able to better determine when the baby is tired, hungry or gassy. With our middle child, I fell into the habit of feeding her to sleep which made nap times for her terribly time consuming and difficult as she had developed an association with sleep and being breastfed and would wake once placed in her cot. Being conscious of this experience meant I was determined not to fall into the same habit, and by focusing on his cues now we are able to put our youngest child down for a nap sometimes with as little as 5 minutes of effort as opposed to hours of repeated attempts. With our second child I was focused on doing everything “perfectly” and ended up relying too much on schedules I’d found online, or phone apps that tracked the timing of feeding and sleeps. This prevented me from being able to actually focus on her cues, and so with the third child I am much more relaxed, avoid schedules completely and work with the cues he gives me. By responding to his cues, I have found that he has developed a natural routine anyway, and although this can differ by an hour or so from day to day, his naps and feeding times seem to fall into a rough but predictable pattern.

What does a typical day in your life look like right now?

(NB: This conversation occurred while schools were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.)

My days at the moment are very focused on the children and mostly spent at home. With a 10-month-old baby taking up a lot of attention and my partner working full-time, I try to section my day into specific tasks in order to get everything done. I generally start the day at 7 or 7.30am (yes, my children sleep in!) with a coffee for myself and my partner as I make breakfast and change and feed the baby. After breakfast I instruct the older two to dress themselves while I set up activities (or the 9 year old’s home-schooling) for the morning. This can be anything from craft, to construction or small-world imaginative play, or pulling out sports equipment from the garage or setting up an obstacle course outside. Generally, I ask the children what they want to do first and so mornings activities are based on their specific interests. Sometimes they just have some free play time and select activities for themselves or make up games of their own in the backyard.

Prior to COVID-19, my morning routine would consist of school drop off or attending a community activity with our 4 year old and baby on the days we’re not doing a pre-school drop off (playgroup, storytime at the library, swimming, a visit to the park or museum etc), followed by any shopping that needs to be done, and if both older children are at school any child-focused activities are replaced by my own, such as painting or reading, or catching up on housework.

While the older two are playing in the morning, I tend to the baby (usually with a bit of tummy time) and spend time checking on social media updates (sometimes with an Instagram post), emails, or writing a “to do” list of essential tasks for the day. Around 10.30/11am the baby is due for his first sleep, so after settling him in his cot (about 5-15 minutes of pats and songs) I take care of some of my own needs; sometimes this means finally having a shower and doing my beauty routine. Lunch is then prepared for the older children and we all eat together. Following this is generally quiet and restful activities, particularly for the 4 year old, which can consist of a little TV or iPad, drawing, listening to music or read-aloud books or puzzles. I feed the baby again and then he spends time laying under his play-gym or on the play mat near his siblings while I knock off a few jobs around the house such as dishes, laundry, and other cleaning needs.

In the afternoon, I love to get everyone outside for some fresh air (weather dependent) and, while the older children are jumping on the trampoline or playing soccer, I will take care of a few gardening needs such as raking leaves or watering plants. The children also like to help with the yard work, especially if it involves planting vegetables. Around 3.30pm I again feed the baby and put him down to rest, provide the older children with some afternoon tea, then set up another activity either indoors or outdoors incorporating an educational element to it. Again, this is influenced by what the children have shown interest in and will usually last until dinner time, but they often float between doing this and other free-play activities of their choosing. I also try to take a few photos of the educational-based activities to share on social media in the evening or the next day.

By around 4.30, it’s time for me to prepare dinner, and while the older children are still busy with activities the baby plays in his activity centre while watching me cook. My partner will usually arrive home during this time and take over baby duties and play with the children while I finish dinner prep.

Following dinner, it’s bath time for all the kids, and this is when I usually tackle a few more household chores such as vacuuming, dishes, and more laundry.

Depending on the day, we spend the evenings relaxing together in front of a movie (Fridays or weekends), playing board games (usually Wednesdays), reading, puzzles, or colouring in and drawing.

Bedtime for the children is around 7.30pm and consists of a simple teeth, tactical wee, and book reading routine, with the 9 year old reading to himself and one of the parents reading to the 4 year old while the other enjoys some TV and one-on-one with the baby (my TV choice is usually a gardening or home renovation show). The rest of the evening I spend either folding laundry, or if the housework is up to date, reading, painting (working on book illustrations), catching up on social media, watching a good Netflix series with the other half, or having a bit of a gaming session on the xbox.

What are your favourite things to do with the children during the week/ at the weekend?

During the week we have a rule that there is no screen time for the children in the evenings, so my favourite things to do with them include building with blocks and creating small worlds, working on a puzzle together, and lying in bed reading books before they fall asleep. On weekends I love to spend time outside with the children working on gardening projects or heading out for a picnic and play at a park or lake. Discovering new places to explore is also always great fun, especially if it involves climbing up big hills, adventuring into caves or splashing about in rivers.

Open-ended play is something you like to share with your children. Can you share some of the best open-ended play activities you have come across?

The best open-ended play activities will come from the children themselves; however, some of our favourite open-ended resources include our Grimms wooden products, wooden stacking blocks (made from a bit of pine wood I sourced from Bunnings), playdough, items found in nature (driftwood, shells, sticks, stones, sand), Kontu STEM blocks, and our way-to-play car track. We also love craft (beading is a big hit) and painting.

I tend to look at the children’s current interests and create play or learning opportunities from those ideas. At the moment, this often includes creating small worlds and role play. For example, our daughter recently announced that she wanted to be a builder when she was older, so I provided her with some wooden cubes, playdough, a play tray full of crystal chips and rocks, the car track, and a little wooden tip truck. What started as a simple activity of collecting blocks from the tray, transporting them along the road in the tip truck, and constructing a wall cube wall with playdough “cement” soon became a village with a forest, mushroom garden, peg-doll characters, and a very elaborate storyline.

You believe in the power of nature and how it can help you children. Can you describe your thoughts in this area and how you ensure your children are getting enough nature in their lives?

I feel there are many benefits to playing in nature in an unstructured manner. Children are able to develop and practice a whole range of skills and can do so in a way that is considerably different to structured play, indoor play, or even playground play.

Physical abilities are challenged as the children need to navigate natural structures without a clear path or technique to follow. They also learn to assess risk as they challenge their own physical abilities, or discover bugs, animals, or plants in the natural environment and decide if they are safe.

Their creativity and imagination is able to flourish as they come up with their own ideas for games, constructions, or challenges they come across, and problem solving skills are put into practice as they navigate uneven surfaces, differing heights, or when constructing using materials that are not designed to simply click together. They are able to play independent of rules and social structures that can occur indoors, with structured play, or in playgrounds, and instead are able to determine their own rules for play. Not having to line up at the slide or swings, or have older stronger children dominate the play equipment for instance, but rather working out how they can utilise what is available in nature and how to develop social skills that allow them to negotiate with others and come up with their own rules for play or imagine their own setting/world. With nature play outdoors there is also the freedom to create with an endless supply of found materials and without the worry of mess or having to pack away toys at the end. There are also other physical benefits that come with being outside in the sunshine and fresh air with the exercise they get from playing in nature, or through learning about the nutritional benefits offered by the food they help plant and harvest.

We are lucky enough to live in a home with a beautiful large backyard and the children spend at least half their play time outdoors. We have beautiful large trees which the children love to climb, and we have also attached a rope and wood ladder, and a tire swing to the branches of some of the larger ones. Our garden beds are edged with large rocks and our yard is constructed with multiple levels separated by large wooden beams, which make for great climbing and balancing practice as the children navigate from rock to rock, or along the beams. We have an endless supply of sticks, flowers, tree bark, pebbles and leaves which are great for arts and craft projects, and with so much yard work to be done by myself and the children’s dad there is always a life skill to be learnt as the children help out with these tasks. They assist us in raking up leaves, turning the soil in the garden beds, planting in the vegetable garden, watering plants, or sweeping the paths for instance. Our daughter often creates games with bugs and birds she finds in the garden, and will spend time creating homes for her “pets” to live in.

We also live close to a nature reserve which is great for going on little hikes, challenging bike rides, and discovering little surprises on our outdoor adventures. The children can see lizards, kangaroos, wombats, and birds (we’ve even seen an echidna once!). They climb huge trees and balance across the larger trees that have fallen over making gigantic bridges and enjoy climbing up boulders. It’s also great for construction and imaginative play with lots of large tree branches that make great materials for building teepees or little wooden huts. I also like to bring nature inside and have a dedicated space for items we’ve collected or purchased that have a nature theme. We use play trays indoors or set up a low table on the balcony and play with pebbles, crystal chips, sand, sticks, leaves, driftwood, seed pods, flowers, water, and whatever else we find. The children have also enjoyed taking part in science experiments together and incorporating nature into these. Recently our 9 year old compared the properties of soil/clay/sand, turned them into balls and observed the effect of water/erosion on them.

What family traditions do you follow?

We don’t have a lot of unique family traditions as we prefer to evolve and enjoy experiences as things come into our lives. We do celebrate Christmas, Easter, birthdays and Mother’s/Father’s Day with gifts or gatherings, with a Christmas tree, Santa photos, Easter egg hunt, and themed craft or cooking activities. We don’t celebrate from a religious tradition, and each year the style of gathering, gifts, craft, cooking or celebrations evolves with the children’s interests, skills and other family commitments or desires.  We do have one tradition we started when it comes to gift giving, and that is that the children always make the cards and wrapping paper to be used for gifts.

How do you find the balance with motherhood, family and work?

I find the balance between motherhood, family and work tricky so I made a decision early on. My first priority will always be motherhood and family, so early on I asked myself “which way do you want the scales to tip when it comes to work/life balance?” I chose “life” as this is the most rewarding part of the mix for me, and while work will always be something I can go back to and do miss, “life” with the children will pass by faster than expected. I can always go back to work but can never go back to my children’s childhood once it has passed.

Best advice you’ve ever been given about motherhood.

Be present and mindful. Enjoy each moment you spend with your children and stop letting future plans or past mistakes take up too much of your thoughts. If you focus too much on planning the perfect future, you miss out on the wonderful present.

What is the most important lesson you want your children to learn?

I want my children to learn to be independent and creative critical thinkers. To engage with topics in a way that has them query and explore and come up with their own ideas. I feel that children learn best by making their own inquiries and testing out ideas and learning about the consequences of their actions as they trial ideas and new challenges.

Can you share a little about the beginnings of your cloth journey?

Our cloth journey has only just begun and our youngest is the only child we have used cloth nappies with. After giving birth to our littlest last November (our third child) I purchased myself some Modibodi underwear and found them to be amazing post birth! To the point where I didn’t even notice they were any different form normal underwear. This started to get me thinking about how our son was wearing nappies and I began to wonder if cloth instead of disposable would be better for our little one too … would they provide more comfort or prevent the risk of nappy rash for instance? I also researched cost effectiveness and the impact we would have on the environment.  After realising how cost effective a move to cloth nappies would be, and considering that we would be reducing our waste dramatically, I purchased a pair of Seedling Baby reusable cloth paddle pants (swim nappy) for our boy to get an idea of sizing (the added bonus was that he was able to join us in the pool earlier, as disposable swim nappies were way too big for him at that stage). The paddle pants were such a fabulous purchase that I led me towards a move to change his regular nappies from disposable to cloth and decided a 7-pack of pocket cloth nappies was the way to go to start with. I aim to completely eliminate disposable nappies over the next few months and use cloth nappies exclusively, as well as move away from disposable wipes to a cloth version.

What have you discovered recently you wish you had discovered earlier in your cloth journey?

Cloth nappies do not have to be difficult to use or take excessive amounts of time to put on. The snap closures make them just as quick and easy to use as disposable ones and by pre-stuffing the nappies when packing them away in the cupboard after a wash they’re ready to go immediately.

Looking back at your cloth journey so far, of what are you most proud?

I’m proud of the fact that we took the plunge so early with the reusable swim nappy. The fact that they’re designed to fit newborns meant that our baby was able to join in at the pool, and also that we were able to spend extra time together in the water with our daughter helping her learn to swim.

Can you explain your motivations for using cloth?

My main motivation is to reinforce to my children that possessions do not always have to be new, and that repurposing items can be a healthy and creative way to help sustain the environment and gain a few life skills that they otherwise might not be exposed to.

What advice do you have for parents considering the move to cloth?

Take advantage of trial packs or bulk packs available through many retailers. Start with using just one cloth nappy a day and increase the number as it starts to become a more familiar routine.

You’ve got one minute to convince a pregnant mother to use cloth – go.

Cloth nappies are a great investment. Not only will they save you money in the long term, but they’re easy to use, environmentally friendly, mean you will not need to run out to the grocery store if you run out of disposables, and are super stylish, coming in a huge variety of beautiful and fun fabric designs meaning that during the warmer months you do not even need to think about dressing bub in pants as they’re gorgeous enough to be worn on their own.

Have others supported your decision to do cloth?

Yes, particularly my own mother, who was a midwife for many years and used to use the old style cloth nappies herself, even on the newborns at the hospital. Other friends have been impressed with the gorgeous fabric designs available and that the process of clean up and washing is a simple task. We’ve had lots of comments about how cute our baby looks in the different fabric designs too.

What is the most uninformed comment you’ve received from someone not supporting reusable nappies, and how did you respond?

“Don’t you spend all your time doing laundry now?” – no more than usual. I simply soak the inserts and then throw them with the nappy covers into the wash with our load of bibs, towels and sheets. The time taken to wash cloth nappies is no more than it is to take care of our regular laundry needs, and soaking the inserts takes as little time as it would for me to bag up a disposable nappy and place it in the bin.

How has cloth changed the way you approach life?

Because I am taking action to do something sustainable every day, it means that making sustainable choices is always on the forefront of my mind. Therefore, when it comes to other areas of life where sustainable choices are an option (composting, planting our own vegetables, repurposing old clothing to make new items for example), I am able to recognise where and how I can change my behaviour in order to reduce my impact on the environment, and can set up a way of life that my children will see as “normal” and encourage in them the same attitude from an early point in their lives.

How would you describe to non-cloth families the benefits of reusable nappies?

There are plenty of benefits to reusable nappies. Cost savings for one … with reusable nappies you are not only reducing the number of nappies you purchase, but they can be used for subsequent children. They’re easy to use and actually take very little time to change and wash. Cloth nappies and wipes are also more environmentally friendly, not just for the planet with the reduced amount of waste, but also for your baby’s skin. You can be certain that there are no nasty chemicals in the wipes, and with nappies being made from natural fibres as opposed to plastic or toxic substances you know your tiny tot’s tooshy is safe. This can even ensure your baby has less risk of developing nappy rash (providing you change them regularly enough). Cloth nappies also seem to last longer between changes, meaning you use less. Some cheaper branded disposable nappies do not hold much liquid and require more frequent changes. Lastly, reusable nappies have become so popular now that the fabric design are so stylish you don’t even need to consider putting pants on your bub in warmer weather. 

What are your time management tips for cloth? How do you fit cloth into your life?

I treat cloth nappies like any other laundry item. After washing with other similar items (towels, washers, reusable wipes and sheets, for example), I fold and insert the inner layer into the shell, then put the nappies away in the cupboard with the other baby clothes.

How do you manage cloth while out and about? Any tips?

Managing cloth nappies while out and about is essentially the same as managing disposable ones. I keep the new nappies in my baby bag and, when it comes time to change, I simply wrap up the old one and store it in the wet bag, then put on a fresh one which has been pre-stuffed with the lining. Using cloth wipes is also an easy change. I have a second wet bag which holds pre-dampened cloths (or if they need a little extra water, I squirt a bit on from a water bottle or tap), then once used, I put the soiled cloths into the same wet bag as the soiled nappy. When we arrive home, I simply soak any dirty items in a bucket in the laundry then add everything to the washing machine later in the day.

How would you describe to a grandparent how to fit cloth?

The modern style of cloth nappies are so simple to use. Simply fold the liner into a rectangular shape by following the fold lines printed onto the fabric and insert into the inner pocket of the nappy. When the nappy is prepared, lay the baby down on top, and secure the nappy using the snap button closures in the same manner you would secure a disposable nappy.

What is your favourite use for wetbags?

Definitely for storing a change of the clothes when swimming.

How do you store/ display your nappies?

Our son has a shelf in my closet all to his own and the nappies have a home there in a basket. I’ve recently given our home the KonMarie makeover, so they’re displayed neatly folded and with the designs clearly displayed.

Can you share any toilet training tips for parents approaching that stage?

If your young one is hesitant to sit on the toilet or finds it overwhelming, try putting them there with their nappy still on. Progress towards loosening the nappy when they’re sitting on the toilet, and then try it out with the nappy completely removed. Baby steps and working with your child’s confidence is the key. I also praise the children for any progress they make – this can be simply for sitting on the toilet, or praise for when they actually succeed in using the toilet.

No one and no family is perfect. What is your advice to families concerned about the growing environmental crisis?

Every little effort made to reduce the impact on the environment makes a difference. If you want to make a change to your lifestyle, find a small change you can take and make a part of your routine. By making small changes at a time and having them become part of your everyday way of being, they are more likely to become habits that stick and feel natural. Once something has become part of your everyday, then start adding other small changes. Don’t feel bad about not making large drastic changes in every area as this type of behavioural change can be stressful and is often not long-lasting. Make the environment a topic that becomes a regular part of conversation or recreational activity as the more exposure you have the more likely you are to incorporate it into your own lifestyle regularly.

Describe the difference you hope to make for future generations by using cloth and other eco friendly options?

I hope to teach my children that the world is a precious place full of resources we can look after and help thrive if we make considerate choices. I want them to understand that new is not necessarily “best” and that by reusing and recycling materials they can be unique and creative. There are many life skills that can be learnt by making eco-friendly choices, such as gardening, cooking, engineering/building and sewing for example, and children who are creative in their younger years tend to develop into adults who have a greater capacity to problem solve and come up with creative solutions to problems. If children are able to understand from an early age where products come from, how they are made and how they impact the world when they are discarded and no longer of use, then they will be able to enjoy the full potential these items can offer.

In brief

Number of bums in cloth. 1.

Time in cloth. Almost 10 months.

Number of nappies. 1 cloth swim nappy and 7 cloth nappies all from Seedling Baby.

Full or part time. Part-time – we do also use disposable nappies, but aim to eliminate the need for those over the next few months.

Nappy style. Seedling Baby pocket cloth nappy; Seedling Baby reusable cloth swim nappy.

Stuff or snap. Both.

Pre-stuff or lay as you go. Pre-stuff.

Line or tumble dry. Line – we don’t own a dryer.

Favourite cloth related product. Swim nappy, or Modibodi underwear.

Describe your journey with cloth in one word. Astonishing.

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