Author and creative play advocate Laura Brand talks to Rosalind Sack about coping with lockdown life at home with her comedian husband, Russell Brand, and their two young daughters
(LEFT) LAURA BRAND. IMAGE: JENNY MAY FINN (RIGHT) LAURA’S NATURE WANDS AND A COLLECTION OF NATURAL OBJECTS FOR CREATIVE PLAY. IMAGE: JEFF COTTENDEN
While many parents are struggling with the demands of homeschooling during lockdown, keeping energetic preschoolers entertained and happy at home throws up all manner of different stresses. Trust me, I know. So when Laura Brand’s new book, The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play, landed on my desk, it felt a little like a gift from the gods because it is bursting with imaginative ideas to stimulate little ones with creative play.
It features clever recipes for all sorts of wonderful creations, from moon sand to homemade paint, bath crayons to squishy soap (find out how here). Laura’s fuss-free ideas for creative activities encourage little hands to stir and squish and squelch, and her amusingly honest introductions help parents to enjoy the activities, too. Laura encourages us all to get back to basics, with simple store cupboard ingredients, natural materials and a sense of humour.
Laura’s approach proves that we don’t need to spend a small fortune to keep kids amused, with a little imagination, a hefty dose of creativity and simpler, everyday objects, they really can thrive… even in the most unsettling of times. Here, Laura shares some of her brilliantly creative tips and ideas and about life at home in Henley-on-Thames with her two pre-school daughters and husband, Russell Brand…
Has your home and family dynamic felt different since lockdown?
Yes, it has. We have a three-and-a-half-year-old, Mabel, and a 22-month-old, Peggy, and at times in the last few weeks it’s been very wild and chaotic. There has been much more intensity at times than there has ever been, but we also have a feeling of togetherness that has never been more apparent and special. Things are being celebrated more; the daily walk is now something we do as a family, which might have previously happened once a week, and we eat family meals together and we create and craft together. We’re trying to find ways to make the mundane interesting because we’re all doing the same thing every day and that repetitive feeling that can be quite anxiety producing. I have a lot of emotion about lockdown in a positive way, but it’s so conflicted with all the sadness and worry for so many people.
We have to find ways to make the mundane interesting because we’re all doing the same thing every day and that repetitive feeling that can be quite anxiety producing.”
What’s the most important thing that you’ve discovered about being in lockdown with young children and how to balance their needs with your own?
It’s taken me a while to realise that, for my own sanity, I need more structure than I’ve probably ever had. But that isn’t about cramming things in, it’s about helping me to slow down. Obviously, we’re working around the schedule of the children but I need to know when I’m going to check in with friends, when I’m going to exercise, when I’m going to work. When we don’t do those things for ourselves, I think our time with our children is much more heightened. We rush through because we feel like we haven’t achieved the things we need to for ourselves.
Why is encouraging young children to be creative so important?
When their language is not so advanced, or in some cases not even developed at all, I think it’s crucial for them to have a space to express themselves. Creativity is central to nurturing their imagination, their confidence and their learning. My 22-month-old doesn’t really talk yet but she’s really expressive and gets frustrated that she can’t do what her older sister can, so those emotions can all be expressed through her creative space. I really feel the benefit of it with my children, who are energetic kids. If they’re fighting or bickering, I set up a space for them with crayons and brown paper or play dough. We’re not always sitting passively and creating or crafting, we might be explorative with paint or water or a mud kitchen, as well.
(LEFT) MATERIALS TO MAKE LAURA’S PRESSED FLOWER JARS; (RIGHT) MIX AND MATCH PEBBLES, BOTH FROM LAURA’S BOOK. IMAGES: JEFF COTTENDEN
Crafting with young kids can be tricky because it doesn’t always go to plan. How do you cope with that?
It’s always said, but it really is true, to embrace the process rather than the actual outcome. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but it’s in the process where the amazing stuff can come out and it’s probably where a lot of their learning happens. There can be so much pressure to feel like we should be entertaining children all the time, but I think it’s important to allow them to do their thing. In my book I talk about creating an ‘invitation to play’ with a collection of materials used in play but with no direction. So I often set up the tools and maybe show them what I might do and I tend to find that they take that beyond what you could imagine. I always watch them out of the corner of my eye, but I leave them to it and it’s so heartwarming to watch what happens organically. I also encourage us to get creative together as a family now and again – my husband included – and we never regret it. We might have peaks of stress, where you think, oh my god they’ve got paint all over their hands, but it ultimately feels good and wholesome.
It’s important that as parents we don’t always feel under pressure to spend hours preparing an activity. Whenever I do that I’m nearly always disappointed.”
If you haven’t had time to prepare anything in advance or can’t think of something to do, what’s your go-to activity?
My first port of call often is water play and I keep all sorts of things like bottles, pump lids, sieves and spoons which they play with. It’s another form of creative expression and it can keep them occupied for ages. It’s important that, as parents, we don’t always feel under pressure to spend hours preparing an activity. Whenever I do that I’m nearly always disappointed because it doesn’t really ever work out how I planned and then you end up feeling bad about yourself. It is really hard to try new things, let alone under the pressure of a bored child and it’s a really stressful time for a lot of people being in lockdown with children. I make mistakes and things don’t go the way I imagine them to, so I really want people to feel safe knowing that’s OK.
(LEFT) LAURA’S NATURE WANDS; (RIGHT) HOMEMADE SQUISHY SOAP – DISCOVER HOW TO MAKE IT IN LAURA’S VIDEO HERE. IMAGES: JEFF COTTENDEN
How important is it that creative play is simple and inexpensive?
We don’t have to spend loads of money in the shops, play can be with things we have in the cupboards. A lot of my ideas and recipes have come from not having stuff. I have a glue recipe – it’s not super glue but it’s good enough to glue tissue paper or flowers on things, for example – which came about when we were making paper plate masks. The girls wanted to put flowers on them but we didn’t have any glue, so I thought, ‘I think we can do this ourselves’. Often you see recipes that are much more detailed and using ingredients you might not have in already, but I’m most inspired by what I have in my cupboards. So with my play dough recipe, instead of using cream of tartare which is the standard thing you tend to find in the recipe, I found that lemon is the equivalent because it provides an acidity which is one of the components that make it work. I love back to basics, simple stuff.
It’s inevitable that young kids will make mess. They enjoy it and it’s an important part of play, so we might as well prepare ourselves for that.”
You write about embracing the mess of creative play with young children. How do you do that in a stress-free way?
It’s inevitable that young kids will make mess. They enjoy it and it’s an important part of play, so we might as well prepare ourselves for that. Everyone has different thresholds and preferences; when I came up with the moon sand recipe in the book, my husband just did not enjoy that at all, but the girls love it. I’ve got quite good at preparing spaces; I never let them paint at the table unless we have brown paper or old newspaper down and I always use a tray as the paint palette or old yoghurt pots on a tray. So when the brushes are dripping from one pot to another, it’s in a contained space. We get messy out in the garden, but I’ll put a big bowl of warm bubbly water down and messy hands go straight in there. We have a TV room come play room next to the kitchen where we all hang out and where we keep the girls’ toys and craft stuff. That room can get pretty messy and most of the time there’s a bit of pencil on the wall or crayon on the IKEA toddler tables they have in there. We have dark paint on the walls and no carpet in that room so we’re not precious, but we always reset it. After the Easter weekend we had let it get out of control and my husband and I were like ‘Why are we feeling so stressed?’ and we realised it was that room. So we do allow the mess and the play, but we contain it. My husband always says in his own life he tries to be kind to his future self, and I try and do that with craft.
Why do you live where you live?
I like going to open spaces and have always enjoyed nature, and when my husband and I rekindled our romance we were living in London but at the same point in our lives and didn’t want to live in a city any more. We looked at one house in Henley-on-Thames and fell in love with it – it immediately felt like home to us both. It was only a few months after we’d got back together but we already knew each other and it felt completely right. It’s a quintessentially English Victorian gothic cottage. It is a sweet pale pink colour and has a thatched roof, so it’s very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. We’re on the river, so it’s very Wind in the Willows esque, and we feel very happy here. Of course, we also feel incredibly lucky to have outdoor space and live next to a country walk, especially at the moment.
Is there a particular place in your home that fuels your creativity more than any other?
The kitchen is my most creative space; it’s like an apothecary. I tried to make bath jelly once and my husband is vegan and my children are vegetarian so I used a vegan gelatine mixed with bath foam and dried lavender. I left it in jars in the kitchen and it looked absolutely revolting. My husband kept saying, ‘What is this stuff, it literally looks like it’s growing?’ It was not appealing. The kitchen is also our living space; we all hang out in there, we eat in there, the dogs are in there, it’s very much a busy, alive space and I find that most inspiring.
The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play by Laura Brand is out now, published by Bluebird Books for Life. Discover how to make Laura’s homemade squishy soap from the book in her exclusive video for The Home Page.
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