Growing up, I think I was constantly in motion. This drove my parents nuts, of course. What mother enjoys having a hyperactive child running around her or the small apartment they live in all the time? So, more often than not, she’d let me out of the house the way you’d let a cat out or a dog loose in your backyard. The thing is, we didn’t live in a suburb with a backyard. We lived in New York City, one of the craziest and most crowded cities in the world.
Parenting in the 1970s and parenting today are very different. Back then, my mother’s basic rule was pretty much, “Don’t get killed.” She let me loose on the streets of Manhattan at the same age my son is now. Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it. Today, we over-protect our kids. Singapore is a million times safer than Manhattan was in what the New York Times actually called “some of the darkest, bleakest years in New York’s history”. From the same article, the late 1970s in New York was an “era when the city was edgy and dangerous, when women carried Mace in their purses, when even men asked the taxi driver to wait until they’d crossed the 15 feet to the front door of their building, when a blackout plunged whole neighbourhoods into frantic looting….” Yet my mum, like all other mums of that era, whenever I was getting ants in my pants, would just open the door and tell me to be home by a certain time. I don’t know if she ever considered the possibility that I might not show up at the front door at that predetermined hour.
A few weeks ago, my eight-year-old son left the house without telling any of us where he was going. And we freaked out. He didn’t leave the development. He just walked over to his best friend’s place to play. Fortunately, his best friend lives just at the other end of the estate. Nonetheless, for the first few minutes in which we didn’t know where he’d gone (and before I smartly texted his buddy’s dad), we grew frantic, and very nervous. As you might imagine, when he got home, he got got quite the serious talking-to from mummy and daddy, transformed at that moment into Mumzilla and Daddy Hulk (as the kids refer to us when we’re angry).
Looking back, while he was wrong to leave the house without telling us, I’m glad he recognised that he needed to get out of the house and play. Kids need to get outside. They need to stretch their legs and let the puppy-crazies run their course. It’s also necessary for proper growth and development. Kids need exercise. It’s plain and simple. Physical activity at a young age benefits children not just physically but also socially, mentally and emotionally. A lack of enough exercise in early childhood can also lead to health problems. Studies have proven that children who take part in physical activities tend to have fewer health problems than their more sedentary counterparts.
We’re extremely lucky that we recently moved into a development that has sufficient grounds and facilities to keep active kids entertained. Our daughter, since we have moved in, is in the pool probably three times a week. And our 15-month-old is thrilled by the indoor playground, which very impressively is only for children under five.
Our previous place didn’t have facilities but we were lucky to have a playground just down the road. In addition, like many parents, we’ve committed to enrolling our little ones in regular weekly programmes that will increase flexibility, mobility and strength. For number two, there is swimming and dance. For number one, there is swimming and aikido.
Aikido, however, wasn’t the first martial arts form I tried getting him into. I spent six years training at a school called Kali-Majapahit. While it has now gone international, with branches in such far-off places as Wassenaar, Holland and Greenville, South Carolina, it was founded here in Singapore. It’s a pretty effective close-quarters self-defence system with a strong foundation in Filipino martial arts. The kids’ programme is run by some great people (with whom I trained for many years). Unfortunately, T1 didn’t take to it; looking back, he was probably a little too young for a system like KM. He then tried wushu (mostly because an old buddy owns a kids’ wushu school) but, again, he didn’t enjoy it. When I agreed he could stop wushu, he agreed in turn that he would pick up a different martial art or a sport and stick with it for at least a year. We fired up YouTube and went through a dozen or so options, watching multiple videos for each activity.
Eventually, he chose aikido. He liked that it was a soft martial art, more focused on avoiding and diverting attacks than on attacking itself. After some scouting, he enrolled in AikiForest, which does a great job of making aikido fun for little ones. They assign foundational moves with cute names like “penguin” and “lion”, which helps their students learn them. But once the moves are learned, their proper Japanese names are taught. By the time the kids are tested for a belt, the teachers can call out a string of moves in Japanese and the kids are usually able to complete the required sequence.
We’ve also been blessed by cool classmates and parents so far. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the other mums and the occasional dad, and several of the older kids have been good role models for T1.
T2 has just started a toddler jazz and ballet class at Sissonne Dance Art. She used to take classes over at All That Jazz’s Winstedt Road branch. The teachers were great there but unfortunately, she kept falling asleep on the way to the school. I think over the course of one term, she missed at least half the classes. Eventually, we decided that she should stop for a little while and restart her dance education a little later.
Over the last school holidays, at her request, T2 tried out a couple of different dance programmes. The differences between schools are pretty vast. Some are quite traditional and strict. Others are more laid-back and design course work to appeal to the kids – princess dance party, anyone?
I actually was hoping to enrol T2 in classes run by Sharon Liew, founder of Dance Spectrum. Not only is she a friend and one of the best ballet teachers on the island, both my wife and I respect the amount of community work she and her school do, as well as the fact that she works very hard to keep the prices of her classes down as much as possible. Unfortunately, the geography just didn’t work out – when you’re asking your in-laws to ferry your kids back and forth between ECAs, you really can’t expect them to drive too far, and especially not during rush hour.
All of these courses, of course, can’t completely replace free play. Your little ones need time outside to just, well, be kids. To go nuts and to, for a little while and especially not in the house, be as wild as they want to be. Your paediatrician will tell you that kids over five years of age should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. The reality is that in a place like Singapore, which is often unbearably hot and humid, we don’t walk enough. Plus, our kids’ routines are usually so focused on academic improvement, we don’t schedule play time. But we do schedule everything else. Which, when I think about it, just doesn’t make sense.
I’m striving to ensure my kids have outdoor play time on their weekly schedules. And as they grow up, I am going have to let go of my neuroses about letting them play on their own with their friends on the mean clean streets of Singapore.