We seem to be living in an era that is not particularly conducive to relaxation, let alone having fun. An average day is often spent rushing from one commitment to the next, leaving us to fall into bed both stressed and exhausted at night… just to start all over again in the morning. It’s pretty crazy.
While this is bad enough for adults, the scary part is – in most cases – we have no choice but to rope our children into the mad rush too.
Fortunately, we also seem to be living in an era where an increasing number people are seeking a slower and more mindful approach to life – returning to mode of sometimes just BEING instead of constantly DOING.
The benefits of this lifestyle change are obvious and manifold, especially for children who may be craving more relationship and less training, more wildness and less taming.
We chatted to Cape Town-based educational psychologist and entrepreneur, Tanija Botha about the importance of play in a child’s development and how her fledgling business, Deliberate Fun, can bring these benefits right to your doorstep in a neatly-packaged busy box.
As a testament to her own youthful spirit, Tanija recently took up skateboarding
Can you tell us a bit about your background – what did you study? Did you specialise in anything?
I studied educational psychology. I’ve always been interested in how children develop and, more specifically, the school-going child who does not fit into mainstream education.
What I mean by this is they are intelligent and, essentially, able to do the work required of them. But they struggle to do it in the mainstream format of writing tests, memorising a whole lot of work to recall it one day, only to forget it the next.
While I didn’t specialise in anything academically, I have had a lot of experience in autism.
Do you think there are a lot of children who don’t fit into mainstream education?
Yes! Now more than ever.
Well, back in the day it was very much a case of ‘oh that child is probably hyperactive or something. Just ignore his/her antics and he/she’ll be fine,’ leaving the child to sort of fly under the radar and make it through.
Nowadays, I think there are even more children that are seen as different than the ‘average’ children, especially with this tendency toward overdiagnosis. You know – this one’s got ADHD and that one’s got something else, while the next one’s on some kind of spectrum. While I believe its important to offer help to those who are really suffering, I definitely don’t agree with diagnosing serious learning disabilities in children too quickly.
So, yes, there are a heck of a lot of children who struggle.
Fine Motor Development Cubes
What inspired your interest in this field? Perhaps a moment or a personal experience?
Well, I have a sister who – despite being intelligent, inquisitive and all those good things – always struggled at school.
Teachers were often – for lack of a better word – rude and mean to her: “No, you’re not smart enough. No, you can’t do this” etc.
My mom obviously always tried to find answers and get professional help for her. But, in the end, it’s actually just a case of her learning, reading and experiencing the world differently to many other people.
So, that was one of the big motivations behind my interest in this field.
What is your philosophy when it comes to education?
My philosophy about education (laughs)… I don’t know!
I think it comes down to this: every child is unique.
I mean, you know that thing about the fish desperately trying to climb the tree and all of that?
Well, it’s exactly like that. I totally believe in it! A fish cannot climb a tree, so why force it to do something it is not naturally equipped to do?
Everybody learns differently.
What is your job at the moment?
I am the special educational needs coordinator and offer learning support at an international school in Cape Town.
But, we’re actually here today to talk about your own hatchling company, called Deliberate Fun. Can you introduce it to us in short?
Okay! Deliberate Fun is a product-based business, where I put boxes of educational activities, games and toys together for various groups of children.
They serve as an excellent resource for tutors, nannies, grandparents or anyone who might need to keep a child/children entertained regularly.
Since children learn through relationships and playing together, these boxes are not meant to be given to a child to go off and entertain themselves. It’s about learning, discovering and playing together.
Awesome, so what inspired this idea?
Well, much of my work comes down to having to keep children functionally busy and meaningfully entertained. Which roughly translates into having a lot of equipment, toys, games, gadgets etc. to lug around.
When I started tutoring, I had a bag containing a number of relevant items for each child, which became quite chaotic quite quickly. Just to give you an idea – my car used to be stacked with about twelve different bags, each containing a set of relatively similar educational supplies.
Because I love order and keeping things contained to some extent, it quickly reached a point where I just couldn’t cope with it anymore.
Because many of the items in the bags overlapped – e.g. each child would have a pencil case, each child would have a couple of books etc. – I eventually decided to get a single large box and put everything a child might need for learning and developing in there. It’s made everything so much easier and I’ve never looked back.
So, basically, Deliberate Fun is an extension of that.
I like to imagine the children who have these boxes at their disposal, opening them up and discovering the hidden treasure of hours of fun.
Which I think also pretty much explains the meaning behind the name ‘Deliberate Fun’… You know, keeping children engaged in meaningful activities, rather than putting them down in front of a screen or something.
Can you give a quick overview of the boxes you currently have available?
First, we have the Baby Sensory Box, which I absolutely love. It’s the very first one I did and it’s evolved quite a lot over time, which is exciting to see.
At the moment it contains a glove with ribbons attached to the fingers – which is great fun for both children and cats – bubbles and a toy of sorts. Basically, things that help develop language, as well as sensory- and fine motor skills. It’s best suited to babies aged between 6 months and 2 years.
Then we have a Literacy Box and a Numeracy Box. Or a combination of the two. This is what I work with most often and contains everything a child may need to learn the basics of language and maths. So, you’ll find pegs and dominoes, things to make puzzles with, cards… and all sorts of fun items.
I also do Personalised Busy Boxes, which are made to order and contain logical thinking games suited to the specific child’s age.
There are Fine Motor Development Cubes. They are just a bit of fun and a great tool for building vocabulary and story-telling, well-suited to children between the ages of 1 and 5 years.
Then, you recently added an especially inspiring new busy box to the range. Can you maybe tell us a little bit about it?
So, the Heart Warming Box is the latest addition to my range and possibly my favourite so far.
The idea was inspired by my mom, who works at a treatment centre for cancer patients and, one day, asked me if I could pack a box to help keep children busy. Those who were in treatment themselves, but also those who had to spend time waiting for family members.
Apart from just keeping busy, however, these boxes also help the child’s brain to tap into creative thinking, which helps combat the brain’s natural reaction to kick into fight or flight mode in these sorts of situations.
They’re a bit pricier than the rest, since they need to be more personalised: for instance, one child was in isolation, which meant I couldn’t put anything in the box that would leave a trace, like chalk or bubbles. So, instead I just added a few more books, a lot of crafts and games to play with her little brother.
So, these boxes are obviously all very much focused around fun, games and play. Why do you think play is such an important part of a child’s development? And do you think children still play enough in this era that seems to be extremely focused on achievement?
Well, I think there are two very definite ways in which parents try to keep their children busy – and obviously this is very generalised – but, they either push them from one activity to the next – swimming, then ballet, then extra classes etc. Or they just put them in front of a screen and say ‘oh no, that’s fine motor development’ if you flick a little frog around on an iPad or something.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most important aspects of play is building relationships with others in an informal setting, which tends to be neglected in the mad rush.
So, no. I don’t think children play enough. Life has become extremely busy and – once again, this is very generalised – children get up, get rushed to school, get back late afternoon, quickly get some homework done, eat and before you know it, it’s bed time again.
They don’t have the luxury of time. Which they need. To play and discover – especially outside – or learn seemingly silly things like nursery rhymes.
What advice would you offer parents who want to incorporate more play into their child’s routine, but battle to find the time?
There are certain things you simply MUST do every day – eat, bath, go to bed. So, use those times and take 10 minutes just to have a bit of fun.
For instance, buy a pack of water animal toys and take 10 minutes longer in the bath (or more likely in the shower during this drought) to learn about the different creatures you’d find in the sea.
Or, if you know your child is learning about food at school, make supper time more fun by throwing out a blanket in the sitting room for a pretend picnic. You can even teach them a nursery rhyme related to picnics while doing that.
What is your opinion on the current education system and what would you change about it?
There are so many problems! Let’s not even start with all the children who aren’t in school. Let’s just focus on those who are actually able to attend every day.
To start off with, I believe training is extremely important. Teachers are amazing human beings, but it’s important to keep them up to date with different approaches, which could be incorporated into the way they present their classes.
I think there is actually a drive in the Western Cape right now, offering teachers training in multi-sensory learning and inclusive education.
This means if a child with ADHD or autism walks into the classroom, the teacher would know exactly what to do to help them have a pleasant learning experience.
In the places where this has been happening, it has made such a big difference to EVERYBODY in the classroom, not just the child with autism, not just the child with ADHD, but also the child who just learns a smidge differently – audio learners, visual learners, for instance.
So, in summary, while teachers do amazing work, I think it’s important that they constantly educate themselves – especially if their schools aren’t offering them training opportunities – about the diverse range of children they may encounter through their work.
Do you have any suggestions for dealing with children that could be considered ‘difficult’ by parents or teachers?
It very much depends on their age, but from about 10 years old on, I like to ask them how I can help them to learn better.
If they say, “I struggle to focus”, I’ll put them right against the board or, alternatively, at the back of the class where there are less distractions. Or if they say they can’t keep their feet still, I’ll put an elastic around the bottom of their chair, so they can kick against the elastic instead of stomping their feet on the ground, which bothers other children.
And with the little ones – just try different things. I’m very much aware that one thing doesn’t work for everyone. So, it comes down to paying close attention to the child and communicating.
In the light of all of this, what is your bigger dream surrounding Deliberate Fun? Where are you hoping to take the business?
I recently helped my parents sort through their storeroom and found some of my old childhood books and immediately got these pleasant flashbacks of learning from them.
That’s what I eventually want from my boxes. I want children to open this box and say: “Aaah! It’s like a little magical adventure!” I want them to feel like they’re crawling into this box where every time they go inside, they discover something new.
As far as the bigger picture is concerned – someone asked me the other day, “how many boxes do you want to sell?” And I thought, well if I could sell 100 boxes that would make me happy.
But, obviously it’s bigger than that – I want every child to have a busy box! How many children are there in South Africa?
Where can people buy busy boxes and how can they get hold of you?
People can order boxes on Deliberatefun.com and all my contact details are there too.