Why Observe Children at Play?

My days seem so much longer during these weeks of social distancing. How about you? Without the regular commitments that keep us on the run and all the people home all the time, days seem to go on and on and on.

But while being home together, some of this ‘extra’ time we’ve been given can be used to practice our observation skills.

 

Educators use observation in classrooms to better understand how their students learn.  Observation helps them tailor the learning environment to each individual child. What they observe helps them better meet the needs of each of their students.

The Benefits of Observation

But observation is not just for teachers.  Parents can also see benefits from observing their children at play.  By watching, without influencing or interfering, we can gain insight into the connection between our children’s motives and behaviors.  Understanding what is triggering a behavior can help us help them navigate their reactions and feelings. 

In a recent article on being home for extended time with preschoolers, Teacher Tom encourages, “Instead of feeling like you need to fill their days with “enrichment,” I urge you to instead simply observe them at play: no “good jobs,” no unsolicited advice, no using the moment to answer email or check social media. Ask yourself, what are they teaching themselves right now? What theories stand behind their play? What are the driving questions they are trying to answer? I like to think of it as listening with all of my senses, with my full self. What will you do with the data you collect? Nothing. Be satisfied that you now know it. Better understanding our loved ones is an end unto itself.”

That is really the key: observation leads to better understanding.  Ready to spend a little time observing? Here are some tips for observing children at play.

Choose a time when your child is playing independently.  Sit where you are not a distraction and avoid calling attention to yourself.  Have a notebook and pen handy in case you want to write down your observations.  If your child tries to engage you in their activity, reassure them that you are nearby, but are busy doing your work.  

Observe what your child has chosen to play with.  What do they choose?  Do they use a single toy for long periods of time, or move about the room playing briefly with many different toys? How do they play with them? Do they invent new ways to use their toys, or use them the same way each time

Observe their interactions with others.  If you have other children in the home, how do they interact with others? What role do they take within the group? Do they initiate play or wait to be invited? What types of activities do they enjoy with others?  What do they enjoy doing alone? Do they look for your direction and attention? How do they ask for help? 

Observe their use of language. How do they use language?  Are they easy to understand? Do they make their wishes known verbally?  Are there other ways they express their needs? If you observe multiple times over the course of a week, do you see patterns of behavior?  Are there clues that lead up to a meltdown or a tantrum?   

Observe how they move. How much do they climb, run, skip, and jump?  Are they confident or hesitant in their movements? How is their balance? What physical activities do they enjoy? Does physical exertion change their mood?

Using what you observe

Teachers use the things they learn through observation to structure classroom experiences for individualized learning.  As parents we can use our observations just to know and understand our kids a little bit better, as Teacher Tom suggests.

But we can also use what we learn by being intentional about observation to adjust our parenting. Do you notice that meltdowns happen just before 11:00 each morning?

Would offering a snack and a change of scenery at 10:30 help ease them through this time of day?

 

My 6th grader was struggling with middle school last Fall.  So many classrooms and teachers, lots of responsibility for getting herself and her things where they need to be when they need to be there.  By observing when she struggled the most, I deduced that she was overwhelmed with the responsibility of all those choices. So we pulled back a bit on the independence and took away some of her choices. You could almost hear an audible sigh of relief. 

Some of what we observe confirms what we already know about our kids.  But some will provide new insights and maybe even an ‘ah ha’. When we take a step back, and spend some time observing our children we give ourselves the gift of intentional time spent understanding them better.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Fostering Independence in Toddlers

Two year olds get a bad rap.  It is all too common to label this stage of development “the terrible twos”.  But after four years of teaching in a toddler classroom, I am convinced that much  of what we call ‘terrible twos’ is simply the growing baby’s frustration at the limits placed on him by the well-meaning adults in his life.

By the age of two, babies have figured out that they are both physically and neurologically separate from their primary caregivers.  They have learned to control the movements of their limbs, and have developed the ability to grasp and manipulate objects. They’ve learned enough language to begin to communicate their wants and needs with words and speech.

They still have a long way to go, but they are not the helpless infants they were a short while ago.  Caregivers, living day in and day out with this growing child, can sometimes stay stuck in an early stage of development, not always recognizing how capable the toddler has become.

Babies come into the world so very helpless.  We spend 365 days that first year helping, and then helping some more, as they learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually crawl and walk.  That’s a long time to form a habit. And it doesn’t stop there. They will need help with so many things for years to come. So naturally, when they seem suddenly ready to be independent in some aspects of caring for themselves or their environment, we don’t always notice. 

Their awareness of their growing abilities, coupled with our tendency to see them as the helpless infants they once were, creates an environment ripe for conflict.  

Giving our ‘terrible twos’ the opportunity to demonstrate their growing developmental skills invites their cooperation and reduces frustration – both theirs and yours.  We can foster independence in toddlers by making a few small changes in our daily routines.

Here are 5 easy ways to give your toddler more autonomy and invite them into the process of family life.

  1. Attach a coat hook (or two!) to the wall at toddler level, so they can hang their coat themselves.  Provide a small bench below it to sit on when removing shoes. Store shoes and boots under the stool where they are easy to reach and put on when needed.  
  2. Create a routine for coming and going that is consistent.  For example, “we always hang our coat and remove our shoes or boots when we walk in the door.  We always sit to put on our shoes before we walk out the door.” Here’s how to teach your toddler to independently put on a coat: Have them lay the coat on the ground with the inside facing up.  Have them stand at the neck facing the coat and reach down, inserting both hands into the sleeve openings. Once their arms are inserted into the sleeves, have them swing their arms over their head, bringing the coat up and over their head.  The coat will fall down their back and their arms can then be lowered. Voila! Coat is on. If the coat has a zipper, get it started for them, but let them pull the zipper pull up. (You may need to hold the bottom of the zipper to provide resistance.)
  3. Move the cutlery to a low drawer, and invite them to help set the table at mealtime by taking silverware to the table.  (If you are reluctant to set them loose on everyone’s place settings, store their utensils, plates, bowls, and cups in a low drawer and invite them to set their place at the table while you set the rest.)
  4. Have a small whisk broom and dustpan stored where it is accessible to them.  Hang it on a low hook, or store it in a cupboard that does not have a child lock on it.  Invite them to help with cleaning up spills, using their broom.
  5. Build in extra time.  Above all, give yourself and your toddler more time to accomplish tasks together.  Sometimes toddler frustration is the result of being hurried to complete a task at which they are not yet fully proficient.  When we are in a hurry we are less likely to wait patiently while our two year old practices a new skill. Building in an extra 10 minutes gives us time to be patient and wait, allowing them to try, to practice, and to get better at it. 

Consistent routines, operating at ‘toddler speed’, and helping them do it themselves can all work together to foster toddler independence and reduce frustration all around.

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

What’s So Funny?

I remember the first time one of my children made a joke. My eldest daughter was barely a year old. She placed an empty bowl, with firm deliberation, upside down on her head, and said, “Hat?”

Now they all groan at what they have identified as “dad jokes.” Or as the youngest one syllogises, “Dad jokes are bad jokes. Are all bad jokes dad jokes?”

I love that they want to talk about comedy, about how it’s made. The middle one asked me, “What makes a joke a joke?” We worked it through together:

 

A joke is a joke if:

a. You meant it to be funny; AND

b. Someone else takes it to be funny.

If b. but not a., it’s probably not nice to laugh.

Corollary: if b. but not a., you as the (non)joker reserves the right to later use it as a joke, on purpose.

If a. and not b., it is probably not a good joke (unless your Dad tells it, in which case his judgement is gold).

If a. AND b., it’s officially a joke.

 

Humor and child development are like this. Sorry, you can’t see my fingers stuck together.

When your child suddenly finds peek-a-boo hilarious, you know that they’ve crossed a cognitive threshold: object permanence has moved into place. The child understands that it’s you, still existing, behind your hand, and finds your futile attempt to hide hilariously pathetic.

At least, that’s how I understand it.

 

Later, as verbal and logical functioning revs up to higher levels, more sophisticated jokes, based on discrepancies between facts and perceptions, come into play.

I knew a 10 year-old who found this joke so brilliant she repeated it with maddening regularity: “Two muffins were sitting in an oven. One said, ‘Is it getting hot in here?’ The other said, ‘Oh my god! It’s a talking muffin!'” That one stayed funny for a while.

 

Now in my house we’re going meta, discussing joke mechanics.

And just last week my oldest, now 13, left a note for my on top of the dinner dishes:

Hurrgh rurg arrook (Wookie for “I love you”).

 

Not as good as the one about the hat, but how could you top that?

 

Danger Little Stranger

 

Last week I presented a lightly “humorous” take on the products that babies and toddlers absolutely need (spoiler: not really many of them).  This week it’s serious. If quoting Iggy Pop lyrics doesn’t raise alarms for you, I don’t know what to do. So I’ll just tell you.

I wanted to follow up with a survey of products for infants and small children that are not only unnecessary, but downright dangerous.

Before we get into it, I just want to admit that researching this topic online was both disturbing and highly entertaining. If you would like to know about some of the specific products considered too ludicrously deadly to exist, help yourself. I won’t be mentioning them.

Having made a tally of the toys and accessories for babies that have drawn the most ire from pediatricians and safety experts, I give you the following:

Things in cribs. Really, there shouldn’t be anything in there with them. No pillows, nor blankets, nor Grandma’s handmade quilt. No plush toys, no soft bumper pads. All of these things can asphyxiate or strangle.

Also, any vintage cribs. The slats are too far apart. As someone who once watched a toddler (not my own) get his head stuck in a dollhouse, you can imagine the concern with this.

Magnets. Because they stick together. If they can be swallowed…again, use your imagination.

Anything with small parts or pieces that can be removed or broken. This is where the minimum age labels come in handy. Look, we all love Legos, even after we step on them with bare feet. But if anyone in the house is still inclined to stick things in their mouth (aka the toddler research lab), please save them for later.

Walkers. These things a.) don’t help babies develop walking muscles sooner; in fact, they’ve been found to do the opposite, and b.) have a tendency to go down stairs and/or trap children under or against other dangerous things (hot stoves, wolves). Canada banned them 14 years ago, and we know Canada is smart. And good looking.

Bumbo seats. I have a personal vendetta against these multiply-recalled baby tippers. Putting a belt on it isn’t going to make it any safer if they fall off a table or simply tumble over backward, pinning babies underneath.

Really, if you feel the urge to just pick up a baby and carry it around, sniffing its head, that’s probably the way to go. Trust your instincts.

 

Some Class

 

What’s that old joke that isn’t as funny as we think it is? About how kids don’t come with a manual? (Also, why are there always a couple of extra grommets? Was it just me?)

A corollary to that joke is a serious question: if there were classes on how to be a parent, would you take them?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a parent and you don’t need no outside learnin’. Life is the best teacher. Your child is the best teacher. You are the expert on your kids.

All of those things are true. And that’s exactly why you should consider taking a class.

In a plug of epic shamelessness, I would like to recommend the Nurturing Parenting classes offered at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

  • is the general Nurturing Parenting class. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and caretakers of all stripes (even with stripes!).

Thursdays feature two classes:

  • Nurturing Fathers, for dads and male caretakers only and co-facilitated by yours truly, and the
  • Nurturing Parenting class for parents in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery.

All three classes are FREE, and offer childcare, dinner and bus and transportation assistance.

All three classes focus on doing the work on ourselves that help us to help our kids–nurturing ourselves and each other so that we can nurture them.

To enroll in a class, simply call Family Tree at 541-967-6580.

Hope to see you there!

(Small) People Who Need People

How do we know, beyond a doubt, that humans are social animals?

1.) Archaeological evidence of milkshakes with two straws.

2.) Can’t read anything without sharing it on Facebook.

3.) Babies have “critical windows” for development during which parts of the brain need to be stimulated through interaction with others.

The first two are self-evident, but the third answer I  learned from our Nurturing Parenting class. What does it mean, though?

As I understand it (and keep in mind that I’m not an expert, but I play one on this blog), infant’s brains have an optimal period–anywhere between 6 months, in the case of vision, and four years, for logic and math skills–in which to make crucial connections that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

That’s one of those double-edged sword things. Clearly the stakes are pretty high, as children that don’t get what they need in the first few years–affection, interaction, a sense of stability and safety, opportunities to move and learn–will not have the skills they need to function as adults. That’s a bit scary.

To be clear, just because those connections aren’t formed in the brain during those critical windows doesn’t mean that it’s too late. What it does mean is that it will take a lot of work. And probably long-term (as in lifelong) support. See what I mean about being dependent on others? There’s just no way around it.

But this presents a great opportunity. Parents have a vision of the sort of people their children will be as adults (even if that vision is not always articulated, or even consciously crafted). Most often what we come up with is that we want our adult kids to be confident, capable, creative and well-rounded.

Those attributes don’t have to be shaped in school, or daycare, or summer camp, or anywhere outside the family. If we give them what they need when they need it (we’re talking birth to age four), they’ll be good to go.

The rest is just writing checks.

 

Screens Revisited

It’s time to raise my quarterly alarm about the effects of screen time on children. Don’t worry, I’ve already laid the basic foundation of ranting, so I won’t get into that here.  Moreover, I have offered up an alternative use for a smart phone or pad that will allow you to make dinner unhindered while eliminating the perils of the screen (ie: cover it up and let it talk).

Well, it’s time to be alarmist again. New research as presented by psychologist Sue Palmer supports previous warnings about “links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression and academic under-achievement.” Along with this, “a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade.”

So much, so familiar (at least, I hope it’s familiar: enough so that parents would not put their child/toddler/oh-my-gosh infant to bed with a tablet). But here’s what I found interesting about this particular article.

Writes Palmer, “It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world.” In other words, if they’re swiping a screen they’re not interacting with others. They’re not looking around at the inscrutable people and things around them. They’re not experiencing (take a deep breath) boredom, that charmed state that has led, historically, to all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs (and not a few of its greatest crimes). In other words, if your small children are captivated by and absorbed in the screen in front of them (we know how that works, don’t we, fellow addicts?), then they are missing out on all the perception, interaction and processing that makes a brain grow, and that prompts them to seek out new information and challenges in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, they’re missing out on that most essential element in child development: play. Writes Palmer, “Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social and cognitive effort?”

I recently picked up a used copy of Neil Postman’s classic work of cultural critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I saw that it was published in 1985, long before civilian use of email, and looong before social media, search engines and streaming claimed victory over the 21st Century human cortex. Postman’s dire prognostications about the melding of public life and entertainment technology are becoming more relevant by the second. Not bad for a grumpy old cuss.

At the risk of sharing in the general grumpiness, I imagine that our children will be at least as resentful of our current compulsive phone-gazing behavior as previous generations were about growing up with the TV as the altar of the house. Let me just raise my hand right now.

Guilty!

I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Parenting Made Easy

Why, hello! I wanted to take the opportunity this week to share one of the most valuable resources out there for families in the Valley. The wonderful Community Services Consortium has put together a handbook of information on services for folks in Linn, Benton and Lincoln Counties, and it has been my secret weapon in working with local families.

I don’t know who did all the work to put this thing together, but I would like to thank her/him/them for making my job so much easier. The handbook covers resources like housing, financial assistance, medical and dental, parenting education, pre- and postnatal services, clothing and food boxes, childcare, and just about anything else you can think of.

So, print it out and staple it, keep it on your phone, share it with friends. It’s too good to keep secret.

Now what are you waiting for? Go out there and keep on parenting!

Stir it Up

This week’s post includes a recipe by guest contributor Jessica Sager. We hope you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Jessica.

One should never underestimate the power of activities when interacting with children. They want to feel a connection with us, and making them the focus of our time and attention, even for a short period, has lasting value.

Jessica Sager shares a favorite activity for use in the classroom, on home visits, and for families to use on their own. It is quick and simple and the process of making it can be as fun as working with it afterward. I can also attest that gluten free flour works just as well.

***

1 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Salt
2 Teaspoon Cream of Tartar
1 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
Cook over medium heat until thickened. Add a few drops of food coloring. Stir, cool slightly, then knead and have fun. Cookie cutters and rolling pins make play-dough more enjoyable!
Jessica Sager is a Family Support Specialist in the East Linn Toddler classroom at Family Tree Relief Nursery. 

A Pirate’s Life For Me

Another month, another birthday. Willa is turning eight today, and her obsession with all things piratical has only become stronger (bolstered, maybe, by her father’s daily encouragement). In fact, it could be said that her penchant for pirate lore is rivaled only by her love of kitties and her total disdain for the Royal British Navy. The rest of her family (crew?) has cast in their lots as well, and bought her a pirate cutlass, a pirate bandana, some pirate Playmobil, a genuine Jack Sparrow hat, and some grog mugs (grog being watered-down rum, of course, though her understanding of rum is something like lemonade that makes you dance).

What else does she know? She can turn to port, starboard, bow and stern. She knows what a foc’s’le is, and a bosun, and how to measure fathoms and leagues. She will never get scurvy. And someone (again, a male parent) may have told her about some of the many democratic aspects of pirate social organization and policy; as well as, of course, those pirate women. There were a few.

When my little pirate was two, her mother broke her ankle rather badly. During the period of convalescence it was very difficult to have the little one sleeping in her bed, because one cannot convince a two year-old to stay off a casted ankle. For the next several months, I slept in her toddler bed, with Willa nestled in the crook of my arm, her head on my chest, until she settled to sleep and could be (usually) lowered to the pillow. I watched most of Breaking Bad on my phone during that period, and read a lot of Kindle books. On one treacherous night I discovered Louis C.K. and tried, with reasonable success, to a.) keep quiet and b.) not shake her right off me in helpless mirth.

I wasn’t paying attention, I realize now (heck, I realized it then, just as I realize that I don’t pay my kids enough attention today). But shiver me timers, do I miss that little head on my chest.

She’s way too big now. Happy birthday, my love.