Learning to have fun, making do

Being stuck at home for the holidays lets kids find ways to amuse themselves

It was going to be different this time, I told myself.

I had always adopted a laissez-faire (fine, lazy) approach when it came to the school holidays.

I would accept invitations to play dates if they came along, decide on a whim to go to the beach if the weather was balmy or suggest a trip to a fun event or exhibition I happened to read about.

Go with the flow, that was my motto. Cheap and fuss-free, that was another.

The rest of the days - of which there were still too many to count - I mostly left my two kids to kill time as they deemed fit. This meant they sometimes came close to killing each other while at it, bickering as much as they played.

Still, I refused to feel guilty.

My parents had never engineered holiday fun and learning for my siblings and me. We learnt to amuse ourselves when they were not free, which was most of the time.

Besides, the expectation that children should be constantly engaged is a modern one, say experts.

And these same folks have touted boredom as being not just good, but necessary for kids. The pockets of idle time fire their imagination and give them room to mull things over.

But as my kids grow older, it's getting harder to fob them off.

Now aged nine and six, they are no longer content with simple sand-play on the beach. We also have to lug along drinks and snacks of their choice, and preferably their skate-scooters and bicycles as well, to really make a day of it.

Boredom, as American writer and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig once said, always precedes a period of great creativity. We held our own movie night at home, with bags of snacks to boot. To give it a camp vibe, my daughter dragged her pillow and blanket out. As we couldn't go out, I played ping pong with them on our rectangular dining table.

And while they used to jump at any chance to visit any friend, go for a swim or catch any movie, they have now acquired an annoying skill called discernment.

What will we get to do at Friend A's place, they might ask, weighing their options carefully.

Then, before making a decision, they would apply another skill that improves with age - bargaining.

How about we go to the bookstore after the play date? Can we go to Cafe XYZ after the movie? What about an ice cream after the swim?

The requests are endless, and what were once straightforward outings now have to be bundled with other treats.

I can and do wield the "it's this or nothing" stick. But this means I end up bearing the brunt of their endless carping for the rest of the day.

So this time, I planned in advance to free up more time for myself.

By the middle of last month, I had pencilled in quite a few purse-friendly activities for the first half of their school break this month and was feeling quite proud of myself. There was a half-day basic architecture workshop and a two-hour dramatic arts session that combined storytelling with craft work and even ice cream-making.

Then I registered my daughter for an overnight camp held by her kindergarten, and a sports clinic held over two afternoons where kids get to try various ball games.

I was trying to synchronise the time slots for an art workshop and a rock-climbing course for my son when a bolt from the blue struck: He came down with hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) just before the school term ended.

After the initial shock and concern, I was filled with dismay. All my advance planning was for nought, and the fees that I'd paid were now hard-earned dollars down the drain.

Worse, as the rest of us could be carriers of the contagious virus, a self-imposed quarantine was inevitable. What was I going to do, cooped up at home with the two of them for at least seven days?

The first two days were arduous. Confined to his room except during meal times, my son battled loneliness. Ever so often, tiring of his Lego blocks and storybooks, he would bleat: "Mama, what can I do now?"

My daughter, deprived of her constant playmate, was just as pitiable.

Over the next few days, however, they got into the groove.

My son finished his holiday homework, to my pleasant surprise, then whiled away hours filling a notebook with his drawings and stories. His sister dug out long-forgotten jigsaw puzzles and re-read old books and magazines.

In between, he would set her assorted tests and slip them under her door. She dutifully completed them - simple sums, multiple-choice questions on animal facts and fill-in-the-blanks posers on English grammar - and slipped them back for him to grade.

They had a tougher time coping with disappointment though.

My daughter, who had been counting down to her school camp, was crushed when told she had to stay home or risk infecting her friends.

"Do you think they will hold another camp?" she asked with a quiver in her voice.

Tears swam in my son's eyes when he realised we had to miss the popular movie night at our church. Held on the Friday before the start of each school break, it offers free tidbits and has long been a highlight for my kids and their friends.

To break up the pity party, I got them to look for silver linings.

A sweet friend of mine brightened up their day by delivering a dozen small cups of ice cream.

I was thankful, too, that my son's case was a mild one.

And thank God the rest of us have been spared, I told him. So our family road trip to Malaysia later this month is still on track.

"And it's great that I get to skip my maths tuition and swimming lessons for two weeks," he added, grinning.

Boredom, as American writer and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig once said, always precedes a period of great creativity.

We held our own movie night at home, with bags of snacks to boot. To give it a camp vibe, my daughter dragged her pillow and blanket out.

As we couldn't go out, I played ping pong with them on our rectangular dining table.

When I finally let my son move freely about the house provided he kept a safe distance from his sister, they made the most of their reunion. One afternoon, I found them clutching one end of a skipping rope each as a pretend mic, holding an impromptu karaoke session.

HFMD also stands for "have fun making do", I told them in jest.

Perhaps I should just stick to my "go with the flow" approach to the holidays. After all, my kids have shown that they are well able to amuse themselves without us even venturing out or spending a cent.

•Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Learning to have fun, making do'. Print Edition | Subscribe