Friday, September 12, 2014

Should you play with your kids?

Last month Nicolas and I attended our first outdoor children's concert. Think hundreds of tots and parents spread out throughout a park--a lot of good people watching material. Mostly, the parents sat on blankets swaying side to side or flicking through their Facebook feeds. All the while, the kids jumped up and down, dancing enthusiastically. However, one family in particular did catch my attention. A mother of three school age girls was dancing with reckless abandon. When she stood up and threw her hands in the air all three girls did the same. When Mom ran in a circle, and the three girls followed. At the end of a song, Mom collapsed on the blanket, and all three girls piled on top.
Enjoying some parent-friendly baby tunes at the Caspar Babypants concert. 
At first glance, I thought she should have been been awarded the "Mom-of-the-year" medal because all that dancing in the summer heat looked straight up miserable. But on second thought, it made me begin to wonder about the role parents should have in "playing" with their kids: leader or follower?

Today, the trend towards hyper-parenting (re: parents trying too hard) has more Moms and Dads getting hands on with their children. While this increased dedication and attention has developmental benefits for children, but it is important to give consideration as to how we play with our kids. Because, afterall--children learn through play. Parents can be great "players" but they can also be  great "interruptors".  Try the following tips so you can learn to stay involved without hindering children's play.

  • Avoid overcorrection. Despite the airport being right in front of him, Johnny chose to park the plane at the train station. So what? Maybe his trains transported planes today. There is no right or wrong when it comes to unstructured, exploratory play. Resist making corrections. Dwelling on what your child is doing wrong will stifle creativity and could have a negative impact on self-esteem.
  • Don't bring your own agenda.  You may believe it is of utmost importance that your two-year-old can identify all 26 letters in the alphabet puzzle (news flash: it's not important). When really, all she wants to do is put all the pieces down the front of her shirt. Find toys and activities your child is interested in, and build educational lessons into that. 
  • Encourage unstructured playtime. Gymboree, Kindermusik, Baby Yoga, or Young Chefs? The opportunities are endless. Try to minimize the time you spend in highly structured activities. When your son decides to spend the whole 30 minutes playing with his feet in the corner rather than singing and dancing to the songs--you are likely to feel disappointed. It is important for children to spend plenty of time in self-directed, unstructured play. At the rapid rate they change and develop, it is impossible to know where their interests may lie on any given day--so leave things more open-ended.

Unstructured learning at its finest: Nicolas explores physics by rolling different objects
  • Watch for growth and adjust your role. As children become more competent at playing, they will be more capable of constructing and executing their own agendas for play. They will pick the toys, the pretend scenarios, and the names of their own stuffed animals. Sit back and enjoy watching them become independent thinkers. 
Lastly, it is great to be enthusiastic, but don't steal the show. Let them make up their own dance. 

For more good reading on the role adults have in play, check out "The Play's the Thing."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why I buy boring toys.

Imagine for a moment this is your work environment: You have an office chair with a trampoline under it which leads to constant bouncing. Alternatively, you can opt for one that has constant vibration. Pinatas the size of your head are swinging down from all angles. Strange mechanical music is playing on repeat, mixed with the voices of your coworkers carrying on conversations. To finish it off, you have a few disco lights that flash different colors.

And you are expected to work. You must productively absorb and process material coming in from all directions. How do you feel about this? A little overwhelmed? I know I am.

We do this to our kids all the time.

The office scenario is how I imagine these toys are processed by young children. When I was completing my baby registry, I tried to imagine things from Nicolas's point of view. As you can imagine, a baby is going to be significantly more overwhelmed by their environment. The reality is, infants in particular need less stimulation than adults. After all, they have spent their entire lives living in a dark, quiet place.

When picking out toys and baby gear for my home, I try to follow this rule:
If it looks boring, it's probably perfect. 
We know that kids learn through play. They cannot multi-task. Actually, numerous research studies show that adults cannot multi-task either. At around four months old infants begin to develop cross-modal perception (Fogel, 2011). Which is the ability to understand that more than one sense--whether it be sight, touch, taste, hearing, or smell--go together. An example of this is when you lean over to a child and speak to them. They are hearing and seeing you at the same time. Cross-modal perception is the ability for them to understand that you are just one thing, even though you are coming at them from two senses.

While they are refining this ability, it important that we do not bombard them with too much sensory stimulation all at once. They need calm space to focus and engage carefully with items that stimulate one, maybe two senses at a time. This is how they learn, engage, and process the world. Next time you have the opportunity, crawl under one of those baby activity gyms and lay on your back to see what I mean.

Fogel, A. (2011). Infant development: A topical approach. Cornwell-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

8 Ways to Improve Family Meals Today

I am sure most of you can agree, it's easy to figure out what to feed children. Vegetables, fruits, protein, whole grains, and more vegetables. The real question is: how in the world do you actually pull this off? As a part of my research and consulting work, I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from many families and schools. Here are some practical tips I have picked up along the way that I plan to incorporate into mealtime with our family as Nicolas joins us at the table in a few short weeks.
  1. Give them the breakables. Children will rise to the occasion and our expectations of them. This starts with how we serve the food. Adults give children plastic plates because we expect them to be thrown. If we give them glass or porcelain, we expect them to be treated carefully. Not ready to risk broken dishes? Try Corelle or Stainless--the more they resemble the family kitchenware the better. 
  2. Take a seat. Select a comfortable highchair that grows with the child and can be pulled up to the table (sans tray) with the family. Also, consider choosing a chair that the child will be able to climb in and out of independently. We love our Keekaroo which holds up to 250 pounds, although we plan to retire it before that point. 
  3. Start small with new foods. If a friend had you over for dinner and was serving liver, would you want them to serve you a heaping or one small piece? Sometimes new or not preferred food can be overwhelming--for children and adults. Rather than a scoop of peas, try just serving one pea. Make it approachable. The research shows that multiple exposures to new foods make kids more likely to eat them--this could be either exposure through taste or simply seeing it on the plate (Heath et al., 2011). 
  4. Serve courses. Some kids will eat a variety of foods...but tend to fill up on bread without "saving room" for vegetables. Research shows that serving a plate of vegetables before the main course increased vegetable intake over 40% (Spill et al. 2010). 
  5. No multi-tasking. The table is for eating.  Not toys, phones, or tablets. Be consistent with this to prevent begging. 
  6. Be engaged in conversation, but do not nag. When you put a plate of food in front of a child (or animal for that matter) they know exactly what to do. Eat it. Turn your conversation to something other than the food. 
  7. Give them a sign. Even before they can speak, children need a way to signal when they are full. This could mean using a bib that can be easily pulled off, using sign language to say "all done", or just screaming (Skinner et al., 1998). Figure out what type of communication works best for your family.
  8. Last but not least: Remember the cardinal rule of feeding children. Parents select the foods and children choose how much to eat. Resist the temptation to encourage three more bites. No coercing to take a taste, or flying the airplane into the hangar. Just do your job, which is to provide good, healthy food. The children will do the rest (Satter, 1986).
Read the research: 
  • Heath, P., Houston-Price, C., & Kennedy, O. (2011). Increasing food familiarity without the tears. A role for visual exposure?. Appetite, 57(3), 832-838.
  • Satter, E. (1986). The feeding relationship. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association, 86(3), 352-356.
  • Spill, M., Birch, L., Roe, L., & Rolls, B. (2010). Eating vegetables first: the use of portion size to increase vegetable intake in preschool children. American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 91(5), 1237-1243. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.29139
  • Skinner, J.D., Carruth, B., Houck, K., Moran III, J., Reed, A., Coletta, F., & Ott, D. (1998). Mealtime communication patterns of infants from 2 to 24 months of age. Journal of Nutrition Education, 30(1), 8. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Conquering Toy Anarchy

We are currently undergoing a large spring cleaning, or "Purge" in our home. As part of organizing life, I wanted to get some more information on how to manage "toy chaos" effectively. We have limited space for toys and aspire to prevent clutter--so we need a system! Hence, I asked my friend Amanda to write a guest post on toy rotation. She has been blogging since before blogs existed. Starting in 2001 she began sending regular life updates via mass email. In 2007, her "official blog," Without a Doubt was born in Seattle. Since then she has circled the globe, got hitched, popped out a baby (with another on the way!), and whipped up some pretty amazing crafts. She has had a great amount of success rotating sweet little Madeleine's toys, so I asked her to share her secrets. 

It was just after Madeleine’s first birthday when I finally admitted that we had to do something. Her new toys joined the old, initially leaving her over-stimulated by so many options while lacking the development to decide where to start playing. Within a week after the celebration, she was completely uninterested in any of her toys. Baffled by her boredom, I remembered a friend telling me how much she and her son liked the fact that his toys rotated every week or two. Thus, a beautiful toy rotation routine was born.

What does toy rotation involve? Each rotation involves washing the toys that have been in primary use, moving toys between our two toy spaces, and putting about a third of them into unseen storage so they are “new” to Madeleine when they come out later. I love that each rotation gives me a chance to scrub germs from a manageable set of toys while also assessing whether the currently circulating toys are still age appropriate. Like any rule, there are exceptions. If I notice that Madeleine is playing with a certain toy nearly every day, I wash and dry it and then put it back into primary use. As soon as I see her interest wane, usually demonstrated through either neglecting the toy or getting the toy out but never actually interacting with it, it goes back into the regular rotation. Similarly, I choose to not formally rotate her books, though I do swap books between play spaces and limit the amount in any one place so that no single space has an overwhelming collection of books. 

How do I choose which toys go with each group of toys? In each grouping, I generally try to keep one toy from each of several categories. For example, there will be one or two larger push toys, at least one vehicle, one shape sorter, some type of blocks, one or two plush babies or animals, one or two balls, etc. in primary use at any given time. I find that this works well for us because, while I aspire to rotate every other week, it’s usually longer between rotations, and I don’t want her to have to go without a given category of toy for an extended period of time.

There is no right or wrong way to group the toys as long as it works for you! Some other great ideas include grouping toys by color, texture (soft, hard, rough, smooth), or by theme (transportation or cooking, for example) to reinforce other activities you may be doing with your child. You can also choose to group like toys together so that, for example, all of your child’s cars would be in use during one rotation and none during the next. Watch how your child interacts with his or her toys and make a call. In no time, you’ll have a great toy rotation routine and will see much less of the extremes: boredom and overstimulation. 

For some great resources on toy rotation, check out the following: 

Child's Play: The Art of Toy Rotation
The Complete Guide to Imperfect Homemaking: Toy Rotation Bins

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Our Big Project

Recently, David and I have been taking turns bringing Nico to a Montessori-based play group. David came home from the first group with an exciting revelation--everything has a place. Each toy has its own little basket, and a special spot on the shelf. And each child should only play with one toy at a time. Groundbreaking, right? 

David loves organization, and I have a more difficult time with it--to say it lightly. When we lived in Chicago, for an anniversary present to him I organized our winter gear closet and labeled separate bins for gloves, hats, and scarves. That was the happiest I had seen him since our wedding day. On the surface level our home looks clean and simple, however we have accumulated plenty of things that we have deemed "too nice" to throw in a donation bin, so they get shoved to the back of closets and into our attic. 

And then I read this blog post entitled "There's just too much stuff." And in fact, yes, like most of America, we just have too much stuff. The premise of the article is that children become overwhelmed with too many options with toys and books. To quote Stacy Burnett, the author: 
"The things we surround ourselves with are not always lovely, not always useful or meaningful.  In our house, we have closets and a garage full of things we don’t really need or use.  We have living spaces that are cluttered with toys, books, games, art projects and the like.  Often these things have missing or broken pieces...What I will do is be more deliberate about what we really need, what is truly engaging, and what is lovely and pleasing to us.  I intend to be more thoughtful in how these things are arranged, displayed and organized....Nothing is stacked or hidden, nothing is in a toy box or in cluttered bins.  The children can see the materials, can access them easily, and can put them away with ease." 
When I showed David this blog post, he immediately went to his closet and started pulling things off the shelves--if we were going to try to pull off this sort of organization with our son, we would need to make it a family commitment. The result is that we are in the midst of a life changing spring cleaning, that we have affectionately deemed "The Purge", after the terrifying movie. 

Although this may pass to many folks as organized toys:
This is the look we are going for: 
Anyone that knows me well may be doubting my ability to pull this off (my mother is laughing out loud as she reads this). Our goal is to unload 30-50% of everything we own--you are cordially invited to our massive garage sale. We will keep all of Nicolas's toys, however, what cannot fit on the shelves in his room will go into a storage closet and they will be rotated every week or so.

Here's what we have so far. Has anyone pulled off a "purge" of your own? Advice is appreciated.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why I hope my son is a rowdy little boy.

We found out early. When I was 12 weeks pregnant our doctor said it looked like we were having a little boy. We were thrilled. Immediately, I had a pretty good idea of what we had in store for us: mud, broken bones, and smelly bedrooms. I have two brothers. My older brother spent the better part of his childhood "catching" frogs and snakes in a creek. He caught more mud and poison ivy than creatures. My younger brother spent the better part of his youth in the emergency room--as my older brother dropped him on his head a few times.

That leaves my husband, David. According to his family, he dabbled in all of the above. And he still does. Last week he came home from work with an "exciting video" on his phone. He had been out for a run on a trail and saw a bobcat. So, naturally, he chased it to get a video.

Likewise, David proves you are never too old to fall off your bicycle. 
So this, friends, is my future. I have no doubt that we will have a rowdy, dirty little boy. In all honesty, I hope we do. 
I hope we have a rowdy little boy because children learn through their early experiences. Particularly when it comes to interacting with siblings and friends. Have you ever seen a new litter of puppies? They spend all their time rolling, wrestling, pushing, climbing, and biting. Among the mother and the other puppies, this early environment is a safe place to explore their boundaries.

They begin to understand their size and abilities as they compare to others--a tiny Yorkie quickly learns that they don't stand a chance around a German Shepherd. The physical play often turns into affectionate interactions as well, with the puppies licking and cuddling together.

How do you put a stop to this rowdy play in a puppy? Generally, we don't. We just send them outside and let them have their fun. A concept that is rather foreign these days when it comes to parenting.

As mammals, we are born with the need to engage in physical, contact play. This type of rough play is acceptable in animals, however it is often discouraged--or even punished--in children. Frequently it is seen as "bad behavior." When was the last time you saw two little boys wrestling around on the playground without an adult intervening?

Joe Frost, an expert on playground safety, was recently quoted in The Atlantic stating "Reasonable risks are essential for children's healthy development". As parents, we often fear these risks. We fear someone might get hurt. Or that it might start as play but then turn into aggression. The research shows that horseplay (sometimes called "play-fighting") rarely turns into acts of aggression-- but yes, occasionally someone does get hurt. But sometimes it's worth the risk. According to Frances Carlson, author of Big Body Play, horseplay has countless benefits for development. Here are a few:

  • Teaches awareness of others feelings and abilities. Children begin to take turns and read the body language of friends.
  • Provides practice standing up for themselves. As they do, it increases confidence and gives opportunities to set limits.
  • Stimulates problem solving skills. They collaborate to organize, sequence, and make up rules about how they will play.
  • Improves spatial reasoning abilities. As they climb trees and cross monkey bars, they learn to manage their body in space.
  • Burns calories (and energy!) and helps children learn their own strength. 

I hope to allow Nicolas to experience all of the risks that childhood has to offer. I hope that he is curious about exploring the world. In the process, I am mentally preparing myself for a lifetime of worry and crisis management. Isn't that just part of the deal?

Already scheming? 
For further reading, check out The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Just two more bites: A closer look at getting kids to eat.

In America, 85% of parents pressure their children to eat. This pressure may take the form of gentle encouragement, games (i.e. open the hanger, the plane is coming in for a landing!), coaching, or demanding. According to research, children who are pressured actually eat less (Galloway et al. 2006; Gregory et al. 2011). It is counterproductive.

Personally, I shoulder a great amount of responsibility for the quality of food that my family consumes. However I know that all I can do is to offer it. In the first years of life, eating takes up a significant amount of a child's time. As a result, these time-consuming interactions heavily impact social and emotional development. The way you handle meal time communicates to your child a great deal about your attitude and expectations as a parent.

Nicolas attacking his first taste of real food.
For once in your child's life, the responsibility is not yours. From birth, children are capable of managing their own food intake. The research on the topic makes the following recommendation: 
Parents decide what food to serve, when to serve it, and how to serve it. Children decide how much to eat--or whether they eat it at all. (Ellyn Satter)
As parents, we vastly underestimate how well children are able to manage their own food intake. Developmental theories suggest that children seek out energy-dense foods that are high in carbohydrates (think pasta & bread). These foods are also high in calories--otherwise known as energy. No surprise, these little humans are growing rapidly and need a great deal of energy for this process. Although vegetables have significant nutrients, they are low in calories and therefore not as sought after by most children (or adults for that matter!). 
Before you try to shovel two more bites into your little ones mouth, stop. Take a deep breath. Serve the foods that you choose--but try to include at least one thing at each meal that your child will eat. After that, hand the responsibility over to your child. Perhaps have a glass of wine, and enjoy your own meal for a change.

More to come on how to feed picky eaters! Meanwhile, check out the following research to learn more:

  • Galloway, A. T., Fiorito, L. M., Francis, L. A., & Birch, L. L. (2006). ‘Finish your soup’: Counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect. Appetite, 46(3), 318-323. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2006.01.019
  • Gregory, J., Paxton, S., & Brozovic, A. (2011). Maternal feeding practices predict fruit and vegetable consumption in young children. Results of a 12-month longitudinal study. Appetite, 57(1), 167-172. doi: j.appet.2011.04.012
  • Satter, E. (1995). Feeding dynamics: helping children to eat well. Journal Of Pediatric Health Care: Official Publication Of National Association Of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners, 9(4), 178-184.