Thursday, December 1, 2016

Why Blocks Should Be on Your Child's Holiday List {plus a NEW Way to Save Big on Legos}

As you peruse through through all those ads and website showcasing toys for the holidays, you are probably overwhelmed. I know I am. Electronic toys, building toys, stuffed animals, games, etc. Intellectually, we know that our kids do not really need all this variety in toys, but it's hard to avoid the mass commercialization that screams at us from every direction. Let's look for a minute at what research has to say about children's play and toys. This information comes from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), aka the "gold standard" when it comes to guidelines for early education.

What types of toys are best:

1. Simple is best: building blocks, cars, construction vehicles, etc. They may seem simple or boring to adults, but these offer children multiple ways to interact with them, not just a "push a button" and it makes a sound type toy.

2. Things to pretend with: young children just want to be like us. They want to clean, vacuum, wash dishes, take care of babies, etc. Take advantage of this enthusiasm; it won't last forever. Again, classic toys like dolls, kitchen sets, cups and bowls are ideal for pretend play.

3. Items that promote problem solving: puzzles are an obvious choice, but this could also include blocks that snap together, buttons (for older kids), keys, etc.

You may notice that the one item that is repeated on this list is blocks. They seem so simple, but blocks can be a key component in any playroom. We love blocks of all sizes and shapes at our house. We have large ones that can be used to make forts, small ones for miniature buildings, and of course lots and lots of Legos.

I have learned since becoming a parent, that Legos and Duplos are a parents' best friend. Primarily because they can be made into ANYTHING. If your child's interests change as much as my kids, it's tempting to buy the next big thing they are interested in trucks, dinosaurs, trains, etc. Since my older son was about 3 years old, I've worked with him on creating whatever his new interest is out of Duplos or Legos. For example, my older son (now 7) and I just read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe together. He really got into the story and wanted to reenact it. He asked if they made any Lego sets for this story. I said no, but you can make your set with the Legos you already have. That's all it took and his brain went to work. In just a few minutes he had created his own Narnia out of Legos.

That is the beauty of blocks; not just Legos, but all blocks. They can be made into tractors, dinosaurs, cars, etc. with just a little imagination. The research backs up the awesome brain-building benefits of blocks. They can help kids develop gross and fine motor skills, language and even creativity. My younger son has been watching all this and now he does the same thing. The other day he said, "let's make a gondola out of Legos" (have you noticed we live in Colorado).

With this love of block play, I was thrilled to hear about Brick Smarts. When I heard of them I thought, "why didn't I think of that?" They take used Legos and clean and refurbish them and sell them to you for 40-60% off the retail price. Wow! That's what I call smart re-use.

They sent us a set to try out and my 7 year-old loved it, of course. It came nicely packaged with all pieces intact. The manual was just as good as new too. He quickly went to work putting this Marvel Super Heroes set together.

Sometimes you hear of something like this and you think it's too good to be true, but in this case, it's not. The set was really just as good as a new one. No missing parts, no torn manuals. They have a great selection too. All the popular sets like Marvel, Ninjago, Friends, and Chima.

Check out Brick Smarts for deep discounts on your kids' favorite Legos.

**We were sent a product in exchange for our honest review on this blog

Monday, November 28, 2016

Holiday Gift Guide for Raising an "Unselfie" Child

As we enter into the holiday season, one book and its key concept keeps popping into my head: Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. I've been following Dr. Borba's writings on this subject and it has really struck a cord with me. She focuses on ways we can teach our kids to think about WE instead of just ME. As she notes, empathy is not innate; kids must be taught it and we as parents must model it. 

We are constantly trying in our home to encourage an attitude of gratefulness and unselfishness with our kids. Now, granted at ages 7 and 3, this is not the easiest task. We know from research that kids really don't have the brain maturity to think about much other than themselves for quite a while. Our 7-year-old, however, is getting to the age where gratitude and unselfish behavior is a possibility, at least some of the time.

This attitude of gratitude, however, is sometimes even harder to create during the holidays (as ironic as that is) because of our culture of commercialization and consumption. Holidays often become centered around toys, presents and the dreaded "I want" monster.

In light of this, I wanted to create a different kind of gift guide this season. Yes, it does include items to purchase, but this guide focuses on gifts that promote empathy, kindness and giving back to others.

Charitable Gifts:

- "Sponsor" a family or child for the holidays: many organizations this time of year have the option to sponsor the needs of a family or child. You and your family can shop for the gifts together and pick out items they need or want.

- Help send a care package to military service members: organizations such as Operation Gratitude collect items and donations to send to service men and women stationed all over the world. You can donate items, money or help assemble packages. 

- Donate items to a homeless pet shelter: shelters for homeless pets are always in need of food, treats, toys, etc. for the pets they care for. Kids will probably love picking out pet items for some cute animals that really need help.

Thinking of Others:

- Gift lists for others: kids always get excited about writing a letter to Santa with their gift list included. How about encouraging them to write a gift list for others. What would mom, dad, grandma, or uncle like for Christmas?

- Buying (or making) gifts for others: if your child is old enough to be earning some "pocket change" then encourage them to save it up to buy a gift for a beloved friend or relative. Of course, most adults also love gifts that are handmade by a child. Pull out those craft supplies and make some gifts.

- Make "blessing bags" together: a few years ago my moms' group made bags for the homeless individuals you see on the street while you're stopped at a stop light. Usually they include just some basic necessities and snacks. The first time we handed one out to a person at a street corner, it really made an impression on my son. Since then, we've been making them every few months, especially during the cold winter months.

Gifts that give back:

-Kindness Dolls: a doll that actually helps encourage kindness in kids--great idea. It's simple: you choose a doll (with names like Hope, Grace or Fair) and it comes with tokens of kindness that your child can pass out to others. The tokens are meant to encourage others to pass along kindness to others. Another great feature is that for each doll sold, another is donated to a child less fortunate (e.g., children in homeless shelters or hospitals).

- BrickSmarts: this is one of those companies that comes up with a great idea and we all say, "why didn't I think of that?" They take used Legos, clean and refurbish them and put them pack together into a complete set (including instructions). Now this might just look like a cool way to get Legos at a cheaper price. While it is that, it is also a way of preserving mother Earth. Less plastic being created means fewer precious resources being used up. It's a win-win for our kids and planet Earth. You can also sell your used Legos for store credit to use on a set for you child. 

- Kindness Elves: We all are familiar with the Elf on the Shelf. While I think he's loads of fun, I also felt a little icky about the idea of the "big brother watching out for you doing wrong" idea. The Kindness Elves just feel more realistic and meaningful to me. They still do silly antics at night, but in the morning they have suggestions for random acts of kindness that kids can do.

Cuddle and Kind: I came across these online and I instantly fell in love with them. Hand-knit dolls for boys and girls that are made in Peru. The best part--the artisans who make the dolls are paid a fair trade wage. An added bonus is that for each doll bought, the company provides 10 meals to kids all over the world through the World Food Program. 

Gifts That Support Families (not big business):

We can't have a gift guide without some toys, right. When looking for unique, thoughtful gifts I always start with Etsy. I've found some great vintage records for my son's record player as well as vintage books. There are also a lot of wonderful toys that are made by individuals rather than large companies. I love the idea of supporting a stay-at-home mom, dad or retired grandparent rather than some faceless corporation. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Pretend Play: toddlers (and even early elementary kids) learn wonderful lessons from pretend play. They love to pretend almost anything they see grown-ups doing, as well as aspects of stories. These will all foster imagination in your little ones.

Garden Play Set

Felt Food Bananas

Campfire Playset

Bow and Arrow Playset

Quiet Time: fostering quiet play in young children can be a challenge. These toys might give you a few minutes of quiet while a younger child naps...or you nap!

Toy Car Mat

Personalized Fabric Quiet Book

Felt Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head

Busy Toddlers: toddlers have a limited attention span but they love to tinker with novel objects. These busy boards will keep them entertained.

Wooden Busy Board

Personalized Busy Board

Puppets: puppet shows can be great fun for little ones and older kids alike. They can re-tell their favorite stories with their favorite characters.

Daniel Tiger Finger Puppets

Christmas Finger Puppets

Animal Finger Puppets

Arts and Crafts: both boys and girls love arts and crafts supplies, especially items that are unique. These will help keep little hands busy on those snowy afternoons.

Personalized Crayon Holder

Fun Shaped Crayons

Kid's Travel Craft Kit

Vintage Children's Books: one of the best parts of parenthood is sharing some of your favorite stories from your childhood. What better way to share these books than an actually vintage book from that time. Plus, it's a great form of re-using, instead of buying new.

Peter Pan

Wind in the Willows

The Snowy Day

Enjoy the holidays!

E**Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Breastfeeding: Sometimes the Beauty is in the Struggle

We all know the benefits of breastfeeding so many of us have endured struggles, pain, shame, and eventually pushed ourselves beyond our limits to provide what we think is best for our babies. 

What specifically is it that has the most benefit for babies in regards to breastfeeding? Researchers have been studying this more lately. Most of us have assumed that that actual substances in the milk helps improve brain development. However, there is a nurturing aspect too. 

Others have wondered if the mother-child bond facilitated by breastfeeding helps infants’ development. While these factors may be at play, one particular study showed that breastfeeding was associated with two important parenting practices: (1) responding to children’s emotional cues, and (2) reading to children as early as 9 months of age.

Using a national sample of 7,500 mothers and their children from birth to age five, this study showed that mothers who breastfed were more likely to practice these crucial parenting skills. These parenting practices, in turn, were associated with greater reading readiness by age 4.

I find these types of studies fascinating because they accomplish what social science research is all about—uncovering the underlying explanations for the “attention-grabbing” headlines we often see in the media. While I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, it seems that mothers who do not breastfeed are often chastised in the media or public due, in part, to all the research showing the developmental benefits. 

Until now, it was assumed that the benefits of breastfeeding were delivered through the milk itself, but this research shows that it is not just about the milk. In other words, if non-breastfeeding mothers can be responsive and exercise these positive parenting strategies, many of the same benefits can be passed along to their children as well. 

In other words, one of the best things for our babies, in addition to breast milk, is a fully present, healthy mama.
 I came to this realization after much struggle with breastfeeding myself. My first son had difficulty latching. We consulted lactation consultants, hospital staff, etc. but I realized it would probably just take time for him to learn. After about six weeks of nursing every two hours, I hit a physical and psychological wall. I knew I had to get some sort of break, so I asked my husband to take one feeding per night using formula. I had tried pumping but it took multiple sessions to get enough to fill a bottle. We persisted and he ended up doing well with a combination of nursing and formula for the remainder of his infancy. 

With my second son I was prepared for the challenges at least, but still hoped that more experience would make it easier. It was not easier, but I did have the hindsight to know that it would all work out okay in the end. With him I endured six solid weeks of piercing pain when he latched and assorted other problems. But, just as I had imagined, it all worked out okay in the end. Once we both got the hang of nursing, he was a champ and did not wean until he was almost two years old.

From a developmental point of view, we know that the mother-baby bond is developed slowly, over the course of months in a subtle, beautiful fashion that involves the close observation of the mother reading the signals of her baby as he/she adapts to the world. 

Breastfeeding is a natural, beautiful part of motherhood, but it can also be a struggle. As with many parts of motherhood, I've come to realize that the struggle is also what can add to the beauty. If I had not had these challenges, I might not appreciate so much the joy of seeing my babies grow strong and healthy. 

Now, 3 years later, I struggle with toddler tantrums but somewhere down the road I know I will come to appreciate how those struggles led my son to gain maturity and self-control. Again, even in the struggle there can be the beauty of a child developing. 

Good, responsive parenting can reveal itself in variety of ways, most of which center on the relationship with each unique child. Feeding your baby is a lovely part of that relationship, but it is not the only piece. The pieces are woven together over years of feeding, bathing, reading, listening and lots and lots of patience. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nature and Nurture: The Origins of Compassion

With the tense atmosphere that has surrounded our culture in the past few weeks, I'm thinking about compassion today. As parents, most of want to instill an understanding of compassion and kindness towards others in our children. It raises the question, however, of whether compassion is innate or learned. What research tells us is that we humans do have a tendency toward compassion but it has to be fostered and practiced.

New research is pointing more and more to the idea that some level of compassion is innate in humans. The "catch" is, however, that keeping that attitude of compassion requires practice. A lack of practice of compassion is the reason many children move towards selfishness as they near the grade-school years.

You may have seen videos of those classic psychological studies often done with infants to study innate compassion. Infants are shown a scenario in which a puppet tries to go up a tall hill. In one situation, another "kind" puppet helps the other character up the hill. In a different scenario, a "mean" puppet does not help the other character or may even try to discourage him from going up the hill. Later, infants are given a choice to view either the "kind" puppet or the "mean" puppet. Astonishingly, over 80% of infants choose the "kind" puppet. These types of studies have been done numerous times with infants as young as 3 months old. The results are always pretty much the same.

Take a look:

It seems that we humans gravitate towards compassion. Not only that, but those of us who have young children know that a child's immediate reaction upon hearing another child cry or fall down is to try to help them. We see this all the time. You rarely, if ever, see a toddler attempt to harm another child if they are crying or hurt; they almost always try to help.

But wait a few years when that same child is in elementary school, and you may see him/her tease another child or intentionally hit another. What happens from infancy to elementary school? Do our children become "marred" by exposure to society? Well, we do not know exactly, but research does indicate that children to seem to shift from an attitude of innate compassion to more selfishness around age 5.

Perhaps what is more interesting, however, is that there seem to be strategies that help children avoid much of this shift to selfishness. There are programs that have been implemented in preschools to help children focus on kindness and see its benefits. When children are part of these programs, the shift toward selfishness seems to be thwarted, at least for awhile. There are not many long-term studies of these programs yet, but it does seem to encourage kindness for the beginning of elementary school.

Among children, helping them see the benefits of kindness and reinforce it is very intentional in these programs. For example, children get rewarded with a sticker on the "kindness chart" if they are helpful to classmates. As we grow, however, we begin to learn that kindness really brings its own positive reinforcement. We all know that acts of kindness make us feel good about ourselves. New research confirms that compassionate acts do, in fact, spark brain circuits that promote good feelings and pleasure.

Ultimately, children who feel better about themselves and others will go on to be more well-adjusted adults and citizens. Promoting compassion in the classroom not only makes for a better moral atmosphere but also helps children do well academically too. We know from studies of other programs that social-emotional learning is just as important as academic learning.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. --Aesop