The power of play

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By Shelley Nortje

Day to day life can get really busy. Everyone I speak to recently seems to make a comment about feeling tired and depleted. To-do lists can often become too long, and spontaneous fun is not prioritised. However, play shouldn’t be an added extra at the end of the day “if there’s time”. Play is a vital experience in the growth and development of babies, children, and even adults.

  • Play helps the brain develop: From birth to age 18 months, connections in the brain are created at a rate of one million per second! Research shows that babies’ brains grow and develop through play activities. At first, a baby’s play may not involve a toy per se, and instead the mother’s face and the baby’s own body and sounds become a way to learn and interact with the world. Later on play such as running and skipping helps build children’s gross motor skills, while drawing and cutting helps shape their fine motor abilities.
  • Playing is your child’s way of communicating: Children’s verbal capacities are not as well-developed as adults. Instead, play is their way of communicating their thoughts and their emotions, such as anger and fear. Being responsive and sensitive to your child’s play helps you as a parent to understand more about what your child is feeling and experiencing. Psychologists use play with children in a therapeutic way in order to help little ones make sense of big, difficult feelings and situations.
  • Imaginative play leads to creativity: Children’s wonderful ability to create a fortress out of some blankets and a three course meal out of some play dough should be nurtured. Imaginative play helps build a child’s frontal lobes that are so important for flexible and creative problem-solving, planning, decision-making, emotional regulation and self-control.
  • Free play versus team play: Many kids belong to groups such as sports teams or church youth groups or choirs. Play in a group helps children learn all about sharing, turn-taking and getting on with others who may be similar or different to them. Free play on the other hand is just as important to let a child also develop the capacity to entertain themselves, and find out more about their own identity; their likes and dislikes, hopes and goals.
  • Be thoughtful about the kinds of toys you buy: Advertisements of the latest video game, DVD or talking doll can be very alluring for children. It is important however to be thoughtful when buying your child a new toy. Allowing children the space to be creative with what is available – using leftover cardboard boxes, bottle tops and string – helps develop their creative talents in an affordable way. Current research is showing trends that children who are exposed to excessive ‘screen time’ (computers, cell phones, television, video games etc.) have poorer social interaction skills and aren’t able to develop certain areas of their growing brain.
  • Playing with your child is a special gift: Some parents may believe that only children should play. Family play time is equally important as children playing by themselves and with other children. Play time as a family will change depending on the age of the child. It could include pretend play, hide-and-seek, playing catch outside, dancing to a song on the radio or playing snakes-and-ladders. Family play helps establish secure attachments between family members and teaches children about competition, following rules and sharing in a fun way. It also helps create children who are self-confident and have a sense of “I can do this!” A child who is offered their parents undivided attention through play will learn that they are valued, and they in turn will learn how to value others and relationships as teens and adults.
  • A space to relax and reconnect: Children are faced with many pressures each day. Attending school, homework, chores, bullying, being in time for all their extra-murals, exams, and peer pressure are to name just a few. A child who is overwhelmed by these pressures may show symptoms such as tummy aches, a drop in grades, withdrawal from friends or changes in their sleeping and eating patterns. Unstructured play on the other hand offers children a space to just be themselves. Play is a source of happiness. It is important as parents to offer our children a healthy balance between work and play.
  • Practicing play as a parent: Take a moment to remember how you as a child would play. What image pops into your mind? A happy, messy, connected experience? There seems to be an unwritten rule that becoming an adult means no time for play. However, play is just as important for adults as children. The form of play may differ, but it is just as vital for developing healthy relationships and reducing stress. Some examples of play may include art, reading novels, sporting activities or dancing and listening to music.

So I would like to encourage everyone, young and old, to add play to your day!

As author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown says “Play is the purest expression of love.”

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Loss and bereavement

By: Shelley Nortje

The past week at Ububele has been a difficult one for several staff members due to sad stories of loss and bereavement. And then hearing on the radio the tragic story of a baby’s death in a Gauteng public hospital added to my awareness of this theme of loss. For mothers, the death of an infant is both tragic and unthinkable, whether a stillbirth, miscarriage or infant death. I hope that today’s blog can offer some support for those who may have lost a loved one, and also to offer some information about coping with loss.

The five stages of grief:

The experience of grief and bereavement is a universal one. Each individual experiences and deals with loss in a unique manner. The five stages of loss and grief were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” These stages are only guidelines however, to help contextualize one’s experience. Some people may pass through them in a linear fashion, while others will move between them. There is also no fixed timeline about how much time a person should spend in each stage.

  1. Denial and isolation: The first stage is an automatic and temporary response that denies that the event even happened. When one first hears of the death of a loved one, the usual response could be, “no, I don’t believe it” or “if I don’t get up, then it won’t have really happened”.
  2. Anger: The reality of the pain of a loss or trauma may still be too hard to bear in this stage. In order to mask the pain, anger often takes centre stage. Anger can be directed to the loved one who is dying or has passed away, towards family or friends or to objects and complete strangers. “It isn’t fair!” or “it wasn’t supposed to happen to me” might be thoughts one has in this stage. Sometimes the difficult feelings of despair, loneliness and anger can be expressed in other ways, such as headaches, poor sleep and body pains.
  3. Bargaining: This stage is another way to avoid the pain of grief. In this stage one begins to bargain with God or some higher power to avoid the loss. Statements and thoughts such as “if only we hadn’t driven on that road that day”, or “if only I had visited her more in hospital in her last days”. One is filled with feelings of guilt about one’s own role to play in the loss. With the death of a baby, this guilt may be felt even more extremely by parents and fears of not having been a good-enough mother or parent – “I should have eaten different food”, “I should have had more frequent check-ups”, “if only I had paid more attention to him”.
  4. Depression: This stage of mourning can be divided into two phases. On one hand, one makes practical plans around the loss, often including a ritual such as a funeral or prayer service. One the other hand, the depression phase involves a slow process of separation. Reassurance, kind words and even just a hug are important.
  5. Acceptance: This final phase is unfortunately not a phase that each person will reach and each person’s journey to this point may also vary widely. Acceptance does not mean that you are happy or have forgotten the loved one who has passed away. It is instead a time when one has reached a sense of calm and peace around the loss.

Some steps to help you cope:

  • There is no time frame for grief. Remember to take your time and that each person’s process of grieving is different. Be prepared for ups and downs; good days and more difficult days.
  • Take time for privacy and alone time to think about the loss and remember your baby.
  • Self-care (getting enough sleep, eating regular meals or talking a walk outside) and taking time to nurture oneself is also important.
  • Access and rely on your support system of family and friends. Remember that grandparents, siblings and other friends may also be grieving and struggling to make meaning of the loss. Don’t be afraid to take about the child or how you feel.
  • Seek professional assistance if necessary to receive grief counselling or assistance in dealing with more severe symptoms of depression.
  • Support groups such as those offered by Compassionate Friends may provide support and a space to speak to others who have experienced a similar experience of loss. (www.compassionatefriends.org)
  • Continue with the everyday tasks of laundry and cooking and get back into a ‘normal’ routine, but ask for help with things such as cleaning the house or running errands when things seem overwhelming or you need a break.
  • Holidays and special occasions mark special milestones in a family’s life. Think about how you would like remember the life of your child in your family story.

Although the death of an infant is both tragic and unthinkable we at Ububele hope to be available to offer support for those mothers, fathers, siblings or grandparents who have lost a little loved one.

“What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” – Helen Keller

‘Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo!’ – You Strike the Women, You Strike the Rock!

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By Shelley Nortje

The month of August is Women’s Month, when the women of South Africa are celebrated for their diversity of roles and contributions; mothers, grandmothers, business women, students, wives, sisters, aunts and daughters. In the previous blog the value of fathers was highlighted in facilitating their children’s well-being. In light of Women’s Day on August 9th, Ububele would also like to emphasise the roles and responsibilities of women.

The above Nguni saying was shared with me by one of the Home Visitors. When translated it means ‘you strike the women, you strike the rock’. This saying, made famous from the 1956 march to Pretoria, captures the strength and courage of women in our country. It led me to consider what makes up a woman as well as the origins of this day of celebration.

On 9 August 1995, Nelson Mandela made a speech, celebrating the struggles of women in South Africa. In remembrance of the 39th anniversary of the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings in opposition to the pass laws, Mandela declared 9 August a public holiday (http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3585). In Madiba’s own words he stated that “freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression… Our endeavors must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child.”

This brief history of women’s day and the quote that the home visitor shared with me created feelings of pride, but also of accountability. The idea of women’s day comes with it a multitude of established and recognised rights, such as the right to protection from any form of abuse or discrimination. This was a reminder that many of the women who attend services offered at Ububele however – whether young girls, pregnant women, mothers or grandmothers – are faced with difficult environments and experiences each day. In Alexandra, where Ububele is based, being a woman or a mother also means contending with worries each day such as poverty, substance use, domestic violence, xenophobia, and rape, that make achieving these rights much more difficult.

This is at times a heavy and difficult reality. It is the work and aim of Ububele and its staff members to assist in continuing to build and support the strength of women in order to promote resilience, an ability to be emotionally responsive to one’s children and to take ownership of the rights and responsibilities of women and mothers.

Ububele would like to celebrate and show our appreciation for the women of South Africa and their resilience and power in mothering a new generation of children in a caring and responsive way.

The value of fathers for their children’s well-being

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It is not very often that a father joins us on the Baby Mat at the clinics. We usually only meet a mother or grandmother and baby. This week however, one of the Home Visitors and I had the rare opportunity to have a father approach us on the Baby Mat. He sat with us for a long while and openly shared his story of being a father, grandfather, husband and son. The Home Visitor and I discussed after the meeting how special is was to have met with such a thoughtful father.

It is unfortunate that fathers are frequently forgotten in certain communities for their importance and value in the upbringing of their children. Women are traditionally seen as the caregiver and the father as the more distant authority figure. In many of our communities fathers are also noticeably absent from their children’s upbringing. In some of these instances, fathers do want to play a more significant role, but due to divorce, work difficulties or fathers not always living with their children, this becomes more difficult. However, even non-resident fathers can play an important role. The quality of the care that is given is often more important than the quantity!

Fathers help to support mom and baby:

Fathers can offer a huge amount of support, not just financially, to the mother and child. A mother who feels supported and cared for by the father of the baby, is also more likely to be a more responsive and sensitive parent, as she may then have less anxiety and concerns that prevent her from being present with her child. Much recent research highlights that children whose fathers are involved, are more likely to become children and adolescents who are emotionally secure, educated, with positive self-concepts and who are better able to establish successful relationships.

Fathers help a child learn he/she is a unique part of the family:

In the beginning of a baby’s life, mom and baby seem almost like one unit. The father may feel a bit like an outsider and jealous of the unique bond between a mother and an infant. However, as baby grows so does his awareness of his environment. The baby will gradually start to learn that there is a relationship between mom and dad. This awareness is very important for babies to learn. It means that they come to know themselves as separate and unique people, and as a part of a family system.

Fathers help the child learn important values and skills:

Fathers bring a unique parenting style and approach to their children. Imagine a father playing with his two year old son…

I’m sure the image that comes to mind, is of a dad throwing the little boy into the air and catching him again, tickling his tummy or throwing a ball to each other. A father’s way of playing with his child can be very different to that of mothers. Mothers tend to be more gentle and careful when playing, while fathers are more comfortable with physical, boisterous kinds of rough-and-tumble and goal-oriented play. This can be very useful for children to learn about ideas such as risk-taking, body awareness, facing challenges and building confidence.

Linked to these lessons, the function of a father also includes establishing appropriate boundaries and limits. While mothers are oftentimes more empathic and tolerant of their children’s behaviours, fathers are usually the ones in the family unit that introduce ideas of reality and rationality. The introduction to limit-setting and adjusting to boundaries is invaluable for preparing a child to manage with the rules and reality of an adult world.

In conclusion it seems important to reiterate that the more that the father’s role is valued by society, the more that fathers will take pride in this role and value it themselves.

We look forward to welcoming more fathers to Ububele and making use of our services!