Thursday, June 15, 2017

No Worksheets This Summer? No Problem! Your Kids are Still Learning

It's summertime. We are all supposed to be on a more relaxed pace, right? No more homework or science fairs, at least for a few months. But all over the place, you see workbooks for preventing the "summer slide" or online programs to help keep your kids academically ahead for next school year.

None of these things are inherently bad. We do want to keep our kids' minds active over the summer. I have started a bit of "schedule" with my boys so that we consistently get in some reading time and handwriting practice (especially for the burgeoning writer 4-year-old). But I've also committed to simplifying this summer and that means not so much pressure to keep up.

I have written a lot about the value of play-based learning here on the blog (and elsewhere). This has mostly centered around young children (birth-preschool age) but I really do feel this playful learning approach can extend into the elementary years (and perhaps beyond). Summertime is prime time for playful learning. What better time to take an interest that your child has and run with it and see how much they can learn out of it.

In past summers, my sons have been interested in worms, ants, slugs, snails, cowboys, just to name a few. Based on his interests, we have read books on these topics, had ant farms, tadpoles, cowboy museum excursions, etc. This is where real learning takes place, in my opinion.

But, you may ask, what can kids really learn from play? Part of the attraction of academic-based early education is the learning is tangible, not subtle. When a child is working on "drill and kill" worksheets, you can ask them what 2 +2  equals and they can answer. The effects of play-based learning are often more subtle so we adults are not as impressed with them. But that doesn't mean the effects are any less real.

So let's think about a summer day with typical summer activities and look at what your young children are learning (without you even trying).

Breakfast--you ask your older child to help make breakfast for his younger sibling(s). He toasts bread, spreads on some butter, and maybe microwaves some bacon.
Lessons learned: responsibility, caring, fine motor skills

Outside play--the kids run outside to play. You might try this game with them:

Bounce that Ball

My newly-minted 3rd grader loves math so he actually likes to practice math skills like how to represent and compare data using simple graphs. But with warm weather finally here, who wants to sit inside to practice? Head out to the driveway, ball in hand, for a bouncing challenge. Then use those results to make a colorful graph that lets your child compare his results to those of the challenger (you!)

Even if he wipes the floor with you, don't despair. A rematch gives the loser another shot…plus your child gets another crack at graphing practice.

No Worksheets This Summer? No Problem! Your Kids are Still Learning

What You Do:

1. Have your child bounce a ball in place as many times as she can for one minute. Time him with a watch or timer. Record the number of bounces.

2. Now, it's your turn to bounce the ball. Have your child time you and record the number of bounces.

3. Make a pictograph to show your results. Draw a chart with two rows and two columns. In the first column in the top row, have your child write his name. Write your name underneath his in the first column in the bottom row. Using a marker or crayon, have your child draw a ball for each of his bounces. In the column opposite your name, show your number of bounces in the same way.

4. Discuss the data on the graph. Ask your child what each ball represents. Ask him who had the most bounces. Ask him how he knows this. He may say it's by looking at the graph or by counting. Explain to him that many times you can look at a graph and know which person has the most and which person has the fewest, without even counting!
Disappointed with the results? Demand a rematch! And get in some extra graphing in the bargain...
Lessons learned: eye-hand coordination, counting, cooperation

Lunch--you decide to do a read-aloud while you gather for lunch. Here are just a few that we love (even the 3rd grader likes these):

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Caps for Sale

We're All Wonders

Lessons learned: reading (of course), quiet listening (this is a hard one in my house), vocabulary, following instructions

Quiet time--if you are like me, an hour or so of quiet time in the house is crucial. Little ones nap, older ones have to entertain themselves
Lessons learned: self-control, boredom (it's a good thing), creativity,

Water play--hot afternoons mean plenty of water play--swimming, sprinklers, slip and slide, etc.
Lessons learned: properties of water (volume, mass), pouring skills (eye-hand coordination),

Pretend--siblings decide they want to dress up like their favorite characters--superheroes, cowboys, police, animals, etc.
Lessons learned: life roles (practice for later), divergent thinking, self-control (to remain in character), imagination

Dinner--you ask the kids to help you prep dinner. Perhaps they can use a kid-safe knife for chopping or they can measure out ingredients.
Lessons learned: measurement, fine motor skills, nature (how veggies grow), healthy eating habits

Bedtime--you read stories before bed with your kids. Perhaps you reflect on the day and ask what was their favorite part.
Lessons learned: reading skills, self-regulation (calming before bed), language (discussion with parents), quiet reflection/self-awareness

In one simple summer day, you have just gifted your kids a day full of learning--no worksheets required. Enjoy summer!

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

I realized the other day that I have about 10 summers left with my oldest son before he'll be off on his own (or at least partially). Ack! That really puts things in perspective.

On the other hand, I do not want to feel pressured to create 10 magical summers filled with awe and wonder. I just want us to enjoy the time we have together. As a stay-at-home mom, I have the luxury to have the one thing that can never be replaced--TIME.

So how do you balance the desire to make summers fun, but not overscheduled, overpressured and overdone?

I have written before about the value I see in kids experiencing boredom. Summer is prime time for boredom. We have loads of free time, few scheduled activities and the weather is nice outside. I want to allow my sons time to just BE. Just to hang around the house, tinker in the yard, dig in the garden or build something out of a cardboard box.

Getting them past the uncomfortable feeling of boredom is often a struggle. There is usually whining; perhaps some begging for a new book or toy. I have to remember to push through that feeling and let them work it out on their own.

However, this feeling bears down on me too. I sometimes feel bored and want to take them to do every activity or camp that's available. Slow down, mama, I have to tell myself.
We often feel the need to entertain, direct, organize and otherwise "enrich" our kids' lives.
This year I really want to focus on nurturing a sense of my sons and myself. Compared to much of the world, we live in such luxury. We have healthy, beautiful food, comfortable homes, and an almost endless assortment of entertainment options.

In such a culture, consumption has become a lifestyle. I feel this type of lifestyle breeds ungratefulness and that is one thing I do not want my kids to absorb from culture. As this author points out, "If your brain is focused on what you don't have, then you'll be unhappy." At some basic level, we all want our kids to be happy. I'm hoping that focusing on gratitude instead of consumption will help them develop a sense of deeper happiness than is long-lasting and meaningful.

I want my boys and myself to feel like it's just ENOUGH. It's enough to just enjoy nature or a good book. It's enough to just go for a morning walk and find a new bug that we haven't seen before.

Many summertime posts are filled with ideas of new and exciting places to see or things to do. All these things that we "must" do before summer is over. This year, in lieu of the summer "bucket list" I've decided to put together something different.

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

Based on an article I read that involved a reverse bucket list, this year I'm going to help my boys create a reverse summer bucket list. The idea is to list activities that we did in the past that brought us joy and contentment. I'm hoping just the conversation itself will inspire a sense of gratitude. Then, of course, if we feel like doing these things again, that's great.

Here are a few things we came up with on our reverse summer bucket list:

1. played in the sprinklers until we got too cold and had to come inside

2. had a lemonade stand

3. went for a ride on paddle boats

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

4. went to a national park (or 2)

5. went to family camp

6. went camping

7. went to visit a farm and feed the animals

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

8. played board games or card games (we LOVE this one)

9. learned chess

summer chess

10. swimming with friends

11. found a new park and climbed a cool tree

12. went to grandma/grandpa camp

13. had an ant farm, tadpoles, or roly-poly farm
summer ant farm

14. plenty of water gun fights

15. wandered around a library or bookstore

16. went roller skating

17. roasted marshmallows by the campfire

18. went to see a kids movie on a hot afternoon

19. went to the farmer's market

20. listened to music at an outdoor concert

21. went for a cool hike with a great view

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

22. found an awesome playground

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

23. went for a bike ride around the neighborhood (costumes make it awesome!)

The Reverse Bucket List Summer: Helping Kids Grow in Gratitude {with FREE Printable}

Want to create your own Reverse Summer Bucket List with your kids? Foster a sense of contentment and gratitude to start the summer off right.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Meaning Out of Mayhem: How to Make Peace with Your Child's Crankiness

I was just telling our pediatrician what a cute, special age 4 is at my son's check up. It's an age when you are past most of the tantrums and kids can communicate well. They are inquisitive and still innocent in so many ways.

Two days later...I had to eat those words.

My son seemed to regress all of a sudden to tantrum-filled 2 or 3-year-old behavior. The first few days I thought it was maybe him feeling bad because of the vaccines he received at the checkup.

Well, a few days passed and he was still cranky and any little disappointment would set him off on a fit. He got upset because I opened the car door for him instead of him doing it. He wasn't excited about going to preschool, although normally he loves school time.

What is going on?

Then it hit me--growth spurt!

The Developmental Roller Coaster

Although he is my second child (you'd think I'd learn by now), I had totally forgotten how periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium often send we parents on a developmental roller coaster with our children. 

There is actually quite a bit of writing about this very topic; most of which was done by psychologist Arnold Gesell. As early as the 1920s he began studying children's development over many years. What he and his colleagues found is that children's development tends to happen in cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium that repeat themselves multiple times during childhood. This graphic explains it well. 

Notice, that in the first five years of life, the periods of disequilibrium happen roughly every 6 months. Yikes, that is a lot of change for little people in a short period of time. It can be difficult for them, and honestly difficult for parents too.

Although it can be difficult to deal with a cranky toddler or preschooler, I think just knowing that these periods of distress are bound to come and go is helpful. It is also helpful to know that there is a reason for these changes in mood and behavior. As parents, I think we often tend to blame ourselves, or our parenting strategies for our children's mood and behavior. While of course, our parenting skills do have an influence on our children, it is also good to remember that development happens at its own course, in its own time, and in its own way, often without much control on our part. The folks from the Gesell Institute describe it this way,

"These rhythmic sequences make sense. They compose the process through which growth is achieved—not by addition, bit by bit, nor by a smooth homogenous enlargement, like an expanding balloon. Growth combines integration and differentiation…[it is] a patterning process involving varied alternatives in varying prominence. The process itself is inconceivably complex, but the underlying principle is readily understandable."
The beautiful thing about this pattern of development is that after the period of disequilibrium, a new skill or task is often clearly evident in our children. In young toddlers, in might be the ability to walk; in older toddlers, it might be a new understanding of pretend play. Only then, after the fact, do you understand what your child was struggling with in his/her development. 

Meaning Out of Mayhem: How to Make Peace with Your Child's Crankiness

I think we as adults can possibly appreciate this type of development in our lives. Have you ever been struggling to learn a new skill? Perhaps you are learning to play piano or learning a new dance, or even just struggling to understand a new idea introduced in a class. Your brain is frustrated, your think about this new skill all the time, you practice and you just cannot seem to master it. Then, you wake up one day and all of a sudden, you have mastered the task--you can play that new song on the piano or you can comprehend that new idea.

Tips for Surviving the Roller Coaster

  • Slow down the routine (if possible). Our little ones sense our stress all the time, but during these periods of disequilibrium, I think they feel it more. If you can slow down and spend more time just hanging out at home, it might help ease this period.
  • Connect through play. Playing with our kids at their level can seem just like another task, but it's a great way to connect to little ones. They can't sit down and converse with you like an adult, but often they miss the connection if the routine is too rushed. Even if it's just a few minutes a couple times a day, it might help ease them through this difficult time.
  • Find meaning in the disequilibrium. I think it helps just knowing that the difficult time has some meaning. Most likely, your child is going through some sort of developmental leap. Often, you might not notice this leap until after this period of disequilibrium is over. If you observe closely, you will find some meaning in the chaos.

 It's a helpful reminder that development, in all its forms, is a messy, beautiful process. Our job is to be a guiding, supportive companion with our child on this journey. 


Friday, April 21, 2017

Research Answers: Will Co-Sleeping with My Kids Ruin My Marriage?

I was scrolling through Fatherly the other day when I came across this article, "How Co-Sleeping Ruined My Marriage."  Like most of you, any reference to something "ruining my marriage" makes me perk up. I decided to read on.

Well, the husband, in this case, recounts he and his wife's ongoing, (and terminal as it were) disagreement over whether she should co-sleep with their two young sons. As the title implies, it did not end well.

It made me wonder--is this a common problem? I know couples sometimes disagree over the sleeping arrangements of themselves in relation to their children, but does it really lead to breakups?

Research Answers: Will Co-Sleeping with My Kids Ruin My Marriage?

The Talk That Rarely Happens

As the husband in the story pointed out, one of the issues in their co-sleeping battle was the fact that they had never really discussed sleeping arrangement before their sons were born. They fell into a pattern of co-sleeping early on because it was easy and they were desperate for sleep. Over time, however, his feelings about this changed.

I can really relate to this story, like many of you probably can as well. Before our first son was born, my husband and I had planned that he would sleep in a bassinet in our room and slowly transition to a crib in his nursery.

Well, like many new parents, I was surprised to learn how difficult this can be. During his first month or so of life, our son rarely slept for more than 30 minutes at a time unless he was being held, preferably on someone’s chest. Needless to say, this put a kink in our plan of him sleeping in the bassinet.

Eventually, we became what researchers call, “reactive” co-sleepers. In other words, we did not plan to share our bed with our infant but did so as a reaction to his sleeping habits. This is in contrast to “intentional” co-sleepers who plan from the beginning to share their bed with their infant. As it turned out, over the course of several months our son was able to sleep longer periods on his own, first in our room and then in his crib in his own room.

Research Answers: Will Co-Sleeping with My Kids Ruin My Marriage?

Research Chimes In

This brings up an important point--the distinction between "reactive" and "intentional" co-sleeping. This is what the research really focuses on in looking at how it may influence marriage. Although only a mental distinction, the idea of parenting in a way that does or does not correspond with your ideals (in this case bed sharing) may influence the interactions between family members regarding this topic. 

So let's look at what the research has to say:

The results of the study were quite illuminating.
  • On the whole, the amount of time spent co-sleeping with an infant did not significantly predict marital satisfaction between the couple. 

In other words, parents who spent a lot of time sharing a bed with their infant were no more likely to be dissatisfied with their marriage than those who spent less time bed-sharing with their infant.

However, when you consider the distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” co-sleepers, a difference in marital satisfaction was seen:
  • Among “reactive” co-sleepers, those who spend more time sharing their bed reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. 
  • In contrast, among “intentional” bed-sharers there was no significant relationship between time spent bed-sharing and marital satisfaction.
There are several ideas I think this study helps us understand. Most clearly, it shows that co-sleeping, in itself, does not necessarily make your marriage happy or unhappy. It seems what is more important to marital satisfaction is the path by which parents come to the decision to co-sleep. 

If parents always planned to share their bed with their infant, this choice seems to have little impact on their marital relationship. If, however, parents end up co-sleeping with their infant as a reaction to sleep challenges, it can have a negative impact on their marriage.

Of courses, like any social science, this study comes with the usual caveats. This is only one study--you cannot make sweeping generalizations from one study. Additionally, while interesting, this study is not long-term. We have no idea how many of these couples stayed together in the long-run or how their marital satisfaction may have changed over time.

The Reality of Parenting

In a larger sense, I think this study sheds light on the important distinction between “reactive” and “intentional” parenting choices in all sorts of contexts (e.g., discipline, nutrition, etc.). In our lives as parents, I think we all come across issues in which we make choices that do not always correspond to our pre-parenthood ideals.
  • I swore I would never let me kids keep a pacifier beyond early toddlerhood
  • I swore I would never reward my kids with sweets
Sound familiar? 

Most of us probably engage in parenting choices every day that are not so "intentional" in their nature. Sometimes we do things just to get through the day or phase of a child's development. In itself, this is not always a bad thing. Many times our planned responses change to accommodate our child’s needs or temperament.

I "intended" that I would be able to control my infant's sleeping habits. Ha! Little did I know that his temperament would dictate that. My "reactive" parenting choice was to respond to his needs and my need for sleep.

However, when faced squarely with a situation in which I realize that I'm acting in a "reactive" rather than "intentional" way, I find it helpful to keep in mind a distinction between long-term and short-term goals. 

In the case of co-sleeping, my long-term goal was always to have my son sleep in his own bed. Even while we were co-sleeping, I still had that in the back of my mind. As a result, we were able to slowly make this transition while still meeting his need for closeness.

I think keeping in mind this idea of long-term versus short-term goals helps us keep a balance between "reactive" and "intentional" parenting choices. The reactive choice we make today does not have to be set in stone as a choice that remains forever. A reactive choice might meet a short-term goal, but we might need to make more intentional (usually harder) choices to meet a long-term goal in how we want to parent.

Can you relate? Did you discuss the plan for co-sleeping before your child arrived? Comment below and let's chat.

Like this article? Here are other resources on sleep and infants:

Mom's Expectations About Infant Sleep: Is There a Connection to Actual Sleep Patterns?

You Can Survive Colic

Infant Sleep and Parental Responsiveness
Messmer, R., Miller, L., & Yu, C. (2012). The Relationship Between Parent-Infant Bed Sharing and Marital Satisfaction for Mothers of Infants Family Relations, 61 (5), 798-810 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00734.x