Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Day for Play, the Fairy Tea Party Way

What do you get when you mix your finest dishes, a porcelain teapot full of apple cider, toys across a dining room table, four sets of fairy wing costumes, playdough and three kids ages 5 and under? A disaster waiting to happen.  The perfect Fairy Tea Party!

And indeed, last Thursday we participated in the International Fairy Tea Party, an annual event held worldwide each year around the time of the Autumn equinox to celebrate the wonder of play. I first heard about this a couple of years ago during a conference and this year I decided we would participate in our own little way. This sounds like the kind of thing I could totally get carried away with, but since it is a busy time of year with school, pending holidays and the start of my new outdoor Storytime playgroup (which also got to celebrate a bit with some traveling mud-kitchen play last week), I needed to keep it short and simple. So instead of having an elaborate spread and 368 activities to go along with it, I set out what we had in the house along with some little fairy toys for small world play at the table (yes, at the table!) and a couple of simple activities. And you know what? It wasn't the most planned and prepared party I've ever thrown here, but it was just perfect for us and for the occasion.

My children understand that fairies are "made up" and "pretend." Most children do differentiate between real creatures and fictional ones. It is still so much fun for them to play and wonder about. Perhaps it is because they are so small and children can feel so big. Perhaps it is because you can't see them. Even adults have taken a liking to fairy gardens and houses and here we have little spaces indoors and outside to imagine, wonder and play. In some ways, leaving little setups for the boys to discover (and C when she's a bit older) and for them to alter and rearrange is like passing little love notes between one another. And now that our days are filled by school and other activities, having a little celebration on a Thursday is another lovely way to say "I love you" on an otherwise ordinary day.

I did make one little investment for our fairy tea party and that was a family set of "fairy wing" costumes from our local Dollar Tree store. Once we returned from picking up S at his school, everyone arrived home to find the table set for tea! The "tea" of choice was apple cider, a perfect way to welcome Autumn on a rare but welcome cooler day here.

Even C got in on the fun!

The "spread" was simply some tea biscuits we had on hand, strawberries and some pound cake we also had at home, cut into flower shapes with cookie cutters (which, incidentally was a lot harder than it sounds). The boys are always ready for a snack when S gets home from school and although I do set out a platter each day for them to help themselves, it's not usually full of sweet treats and served on our nicer dishes. This day was definitely special.

And every little fairy needs a home. I thought it might be fun since we were already playing at the table to make some simple edible fairy houses using the tea biscuits and some frosting. Oh, and sprinkles. Definitely sprinkles...

S got quite into this and took some creative license...

Y was mostly interested in eating his fairy house before much building could be completed!

S built a boat house for his fairy!
When everyone was done eating, playing and building (and eating again), there was a fun and simple playdough invitation set up at the kids' table. I took advantage of a major discount on playdough after all the back to school items went on sale in a local grocery store. At 30 cents each, this was a good investment since I did not have time to make playdough that day. I set out some wooden peg dolls with eyes drawn on that we'd used for another activity at one point, the playdough I had and some cookie cutters, plastic knives and rolling pins. I made a little "sample" fairy and the boys had so much fun using the materials to dress and undress and dress their fairies again. Then they began to make their fairies snacks and cakes and other tasty treats.

S has already asked to do this activity again for Purim. And great minds do think alike--I had thought the very same thing as I was setting this up!

I like to think that play is something we celebrate here every day. I am quite lucky that each of the boys have teachers and schools who value this as well. They don't come home play-deprived and having sat at a desk all day at their young ages. They do come home pleasantly exhausted! And home needs to be a place to settle into after a long and fun-filled school day. It's a place where they can let their guards down a bit (and they do) and also a place where they can determine the pace. I feel like (at least for now) we all need a bit of a slower pace in the evenings and some time to connect and unwind. This was such a fun and simple way to do that.

And while I would like to say that I always have our afternoon calendar blocked out only for play, sometimes it's overfilled and there just aren't enough hours in a day. There are afternoons here where I can only describe S's behavior as "frantically playing." He loves kindergarten. He is also so eager to be home and play with his toys. He is also aware that there are only a few hours left before bedtime and there is so much still he wants to do. He is busy from the moment he comes in until he crashes in a heap of snuggles in his bed. Y has a bit more time at home for now, so he tends to be a bit more evenly paced. He also tends to be really tired and grumpy by time 4:00PM hits. C is quite alert in the afternoons and evenings and will eventually fight tooth and nail to stay awake before succumbing to slumber sometime between 8 and 10PM... And having a day blocked off on my calendar, International Fairy Tea Party Day, means that I consciously made time and space for each of the kids' energy levels and play needs. It means that I designated this time to connect with them and play along as well rather than pacing in and out of the room as I tried to unpack backpacks and repack lunch boxes... And I realize that I, too, am in need of that time to play. In fact, I hope I will make the decision to block off an afternoon on our calendar a bit more often!

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Joke's On You: The Importance of Humor in Childhood

Through years of teaching pre-K and working in the field of early childhood education, parents and fellow educators have had an ongoing dialogue about what skills children need to obtain before entering kindergarten. You can do a Google search with the words "kindergarten readiness" and you will come back dizzy with all of the results. If you want my opinion [I know, you didn't ask, but for unlimited time only I'll give it to you, completely free of charge], there is one developmental milestone that most children reach between the ages of 4 and 5 that I feel represents their readiness for kindergarten more than any other: the ability to effectively tell a knock-knock joke.

Ok, hear me out on this one! There comes a day in every ECE classroom when the lunch table conversation goes from the usual silliness and insanity to a more organized and orchestrated level of silliness and insanity. You'll hear it, I promise. "Knock knock...ok, now you say 'who's there..." [copious giggles] "who's there?" [at least one kid falls off his chair laughing followed by more copious giggles] "boo..."
"I said boo"
"uh...." [copious giggles, another kid inevitably falls off her chair...]
"you're supposed to say boo who?"
"oh, oh yeah...boo who..."
"Oh, hold on, I forgot...wait, let me start over...knock knock...."

And the right of passage between preschool and kindergarten occurs in the moment that the lunch table crowd finally and effectively carries out the completion of the joke. In less than 20 minutes. With at least one child still in a chair. Ok, maybe that's setting the bar a little too high...

But there is more value within the confines of a knock knock joke than meets the eye. In fact, there are a lot of important developmental skills within participating in the exchange. Children learn early reading concepts like sequencing through their ability to carry out the joke in proper order. Children learn math skills like timing--if you've ever heard the Interrupting Cow Joke, you know that timing is everything. And counting...you need to go through at least a few bananas before you get to "orange you glad I didn't say banana?" And science: you must understand the way the world does work in order to see the humor in a joke that goes against that. And most importantly, the exchange of a joke promotes the social skills of relationship. Of taking turns, of picking up on emotional cues, of sharing and connecting through laughter that, indeed, seems contagious even before you get to "who's there" sometimes...

Humor is important. Laughter matters. When I first spoke to my now husband over the phone, before we even met, I called a close friend and mentor to report back. "He seems like a great guy, wonderful character traits, kind, hardworking, intelligent...but...he doesn't seem to have a sense of humor." I was about to call off the whole thing but my friend told to me to give it a chance and see. And what I didn't know at the time is that my husband had (and has) an impeccable ability to pass complete nonsense over as fact with a totally straight face and flat affect. It is a nuance of humor that few can pull off and he still "gets" me several times a year. Indeed, I fell for several of his best jokes in that first phone call and was none the wiser. 

If you are familiar with "The Five Love Languages," I'd like to pose a sixth: humor. This language is more subtle and nuanced. It may tag along with one of the other more dominant dialects like quality time or positive affirmations. But humor is truly a language in and of its own right. Humor is what makes us resilient; it is our ability to laugh at ourselves or laugh it off altogether. The very fact that hearing someone else laugh can bring on the same response in ourselves--even more so if you are in the same room--says that we connect through laughter on a primal level. The response is involuntary, hence the concept that laughter is "contagious." We are as unable to avoid a giggle in the air as we are a bacterium or virus. And the idea of laughing until you cry--how can two, seemingly opposite physical responses be so closely linked? Humor is an expression of empathy. The ability to respond and react to emotional stimuli in others and in the environment around us.

Young children use humor in a variety of ways. There is an old-school phrase, "class clown" that was 
used to describe the kid in the room who always had to get the last laugh. He was usually a kid who was otherwise "a little bit different." Humor was, in a sense, his shield as well as his sword. They can't laugh at you if you make them laugh with you first. Indeed, humor is utilized by children as a means of self protection. Some children resort to silliness in times of anxiety. Some children use it as a means to connect and express friendship. Some love the feeling of getting a good laugh and indeed, their humor is a means of commerce. They exchange their silliness for the reception of laughter from their consumer, the audience at large. Many children use the language of humor for more than one reason. They may be silly to avoid something challenging, or to resolve conflict, or to dispel anxiety or simply to be silly for silliness's sake. [FYI, that's usually when somebody falls out of their chair...]

Humor has a time and a place. Navigating that boundary is harder for some than for others. The "class clown" often got himself into trouble because his timing and location were off. And in preschool and kindergarten, impulse control is not necessarily a strong suit yet. One of my own little comedians has on occasion had to sit out or be redirected in school because his silliness became disruptive to the classroom environment. But I do not worry about him or about those like him: I know that he will learn to gain control over the subtle parameters of when and where he can run his stand-up routine. And I know that his ability to laugh himself right off a chair and take the audience right along with him will give him two of the most valuable tools in life: resilience and relationship. 

As for me, I am still in preschool because whenever I try to tell The Interrupting Cow Joke, I inevitably burst into uncontrollable laughter before I even get to "Moo."

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Little Hands & Fragile Things

Long before they learn the word "fragile," most children are repeatedly exposed to the phrase "don't touch." Indeed, we set up our homes and classrooms to protect little hands from being able to reach things that are potentially breakable. Instead, we fill their spaces with toys--some made to resemble the items that we safeguard upon a higher shelf, many made of durable materials like plastic, metal and wood. A couple of winters ago, I took an online conference in early childhood and one of the presenters showed the use of real artifacts--fragile ones, even--right in her classroom dramatic play center. I was rather surprised and quite intrigued. And yet, I was still hesitant. Inspired, I headed out one Friday afternoon to a local thrift shop and found a charming tiny china tea set. I brought it home for a few dollars and that Shabbos, S (then 3) and I had a pretend tea party at our dining room table. We used real water and he practiced pouring and transferring and overall handling these tiny and fragile little treasures. He had such a feeling of reverence for these tiny dishes and such a feeling of pride in being allowed, in fact, encouraged to touch them. So many of his own meals were served on plastic plates and bowls with matching plastic utensils and even plastic cutlery. But I have to admit, my heart skipped a beat each and every time he picked up the tea pot and proceeded to pour, clumsily trying to coordinate his tiny hands to hold the tiny lid in place while pouring tiny amounts of water into (and over the top of) a tiny tea cup. And I stored our tiny tea set in a lovely wooden box, out of sight, out of mind...

...until yesterday! I love weekends here, and particularly Shabbos, as an opportunity to slow down and introduce new (or more accurately, returning) toys and materials to our playroom rotation. It gives us the time to play together and explore without being rushed. And after one cool day here, I was feeling rather Fall-ish, so I decided to revamp our nature table for the season up ahead. And in preparation for the International Fairy Tea Party, a worldwide event celebrating child's play and wonder coming up next Thursday through the weekend, I decided to incorporate our tea set into the display. Our nature shelf is a space that captures the beauty and magic of each season. It shifts as items are found, collected, displayed, played with and moved around. It is a hands-on space with objects both nature and man-made. Some of these items are big. Some are small. Some are living, others are not. Some are delicate and others quite sturdy. While it is a space that initially I set up, it is encouraged that S and Y (and someday, C) play in the space. In fact, I love when I walk into the room and notice a little change to our setup--it feels like passing love notes to one another. They can take things off the shelf, they can add things to it. In a sense, they've had the experience of touching fragile materials on the shelf before, so the addition of porcelain dishes really wasn't so novel.
Tea parties are served on "real" dishes and the boys decorate
cookies with icing in "real" glasses...

Fast forward to when the boys came downstairs from their afternoon rest, they were enthralled! I do confess that my heart still skipped a beat when each one picked up the tea pot or creamer for the first time. But I consciously made myself take a breath, and a step back. I slowed my thoughts down and slowed my words. I took each of the boys through the process of handling the little dishes with two hands and making sure they were far from the edge and level on a flat surface. Is it possible that they will break? Yes, and some might even say likely. Is it a huge deal if they do? No. It will be one in many of life's lessons to come (and behind us) of fragile things being...fragile.

I believe there is great value in exposing children to real and fragile materials. My disclaimer in promoting this is that I first and foremost value children's safety. When objects in a child's reach can be in any way dangerous, it is vital that safety come first. Whether it's tiny marbles that could potentially be a choking hazard or plants that are not edible or objects that can shatter and be sharp, if an adult cannot be present to support or if you know the children in your space are prone to mouthing objects or are not yet ready for independently handling fragile materials, I would encourage leaving them only in an adult's reach and bringing them out when they can be used together, with support.
These seed pods are very brittle. There are many
skills involved in putting
the marbles into the holes (an activity
invented by Y) and overall handling the
seed pod without it crushing it.

The benefits I do see in children having opportunities to get hands on with real objects and materials are manifold. It honors their ability to be gentle and caring toward these meaningful things. It welcomes them into our "adult" world--a place they long for but often feel separate from. It teaches a sense of reverence for things that are special and important to us and in that sense, they learn to handle things that are special and important to them in just the same way. I will likely never have a play or learning space that is void of any plastic or pretend toys. I know these objects are also important and integral to my children's play. I also know that children who are only exposed to these materials are perhaps given a false sense of security. Both have a place, both have a value.

If you're feeling ready to take on the challenge of incorporating little hands and fragile things in your own home or classroom, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Two Finger Touch: This is a great one for those who may not be ready or equipped to have fragile objects left at child's reach. During a time when you can be present, bring out a special object to show your child(ren). Demonstrate the care you take when handling it, talk about it slowly and quietly. Give over the idea of how very special it is and use real language like "fragile" or "delicate." And then, one at a time, invite each child to come and touch the object using their pointer and middle finger together. As you feel more secure in this skill, you may offer an opportunity to hold it or perhaps use it functionally (if it is an instrument, for example, the children may have a turn at playing it). In this sense, you can teach the skills of handling fragile objects in increments: how to touch, how to hold, how to carry/transfer and how to return these objects.
  • Use real dishes at the dinner table: I don't always do this, but many times when we are all sitting together for family dinner or on Shabbos or at our weekly tea parties, I do give the boys real dishes and cutlery. It is a skill to learn to keep your glass away from the edge of the table and a skill to pour tea or lemonade from a porcelain tea pot while simultaneously holding down the lid. Again, if you have a plate tosser in your home, I don't recommend teaching this skill from afar, but rather bringing out the real stuff only when you can also be at the table to give gentle reminders.
    Bird's nest Museum Box
  • Hands-on Museums: I frequently come to my nature based playgroup meet-ups with a bin or two of my Traveling Hands-on Museum. These are shallow plastic bins that I stock with items found and collected from nature. Many are quite delicate, like this abandoned bird's nest. I love offering opportunities for children to touch things that are often kept out of their reach. It gives them such a sense of pride and wonder. And when I cannot be there to support and supervise, the lid can be replaced and the box put aside.
  • Skill Building: Along with and sometimes even before opportunities to touch fragile objects, building the skills necessary to do so is important. Giving children plenty of opportunities to practice fine motor strength, balance, hand-eye coordination and executive functioning skills like organization, navigating their body in their environment, etc., are all integral to being able to have a tea party with real dishes. Even being able to carry a plate full of food or a cup filled with water from the kitchen to the table is a skill that must be learned. Know that through their daily opportunities for indoor and outdoor play and learning, these skills are being developed and as they get stronger, children will be more successful in being able to manage delicate objects.
    S is particularly cautious and curious as he
    explores some materials in our Traveling Hands-on Nature Museum.
    (Objects pictured below)

  • When the inevitable occurs: Let's be realistic. Stuff is going to break. Whether it's a dinner glass or a toy or a picture frame or even something very special and irreplaceable, we all have experienced it. Particularly if something is quite special and irreplaceable, having it break can be upsetting. I do think it's important to keep emotions in check, but I also think it's OK for children to see that we are sad when something is broken (whether they had a part in it or not). On the other end of that spectrum is our tendency to jump in and say "it's OK!" or "we can get a new one!" I still remember many moons ago when S was a baby and he and a friend were outside their babysitter's home playing drums with some plastic spoons and overturned metal bowls. Another boy in our neighborhood who was a bit older came over and played along. He, however, had a bit more strength than his fellow musicians. My neighbor encouraged more gentle play but before long one of the spoons broke. "It's OK," he said to the owner of the drum set immediately, "You can buy a new one." It's a phrase I'd heard his parents use repeatedly when things got broken in his house and once, even when he broke something in mine. And yes, it is essentially OK. Things do get broken and most things can be replaced. Nonetheless, I greatly admired my neighbor's response: "It can be replaced, but actually, I don't feel OK about it yet. I need you to be more gentle with my things in the future." The boy seemed quite surprised, cocked his head to one side, and said "I'm sorry." It was as though he'd never been aware of the fact that even though things break and it's OK and they can be replaced, it can also be sad and disappointing. 
  • And the Aftermath... If and when something is broken by a child, I do encourage you to include him or her in the clean up. If it is something that belonged to someone else, it can feel embarrassing and uncomfortable for both parties. I think it is important to find out a way to make things right, whether it is through replacing the object and/or an apology. If a child feels too embarrassed to do this, you can model it for him/her. If it is the child's own toy or object, I also encourage balancing when you rush to replace something versus opportunities to earn its replacement or wait for a special occasion. Children do not arrive into this world inherently knowing that things cost money and money takes time and work to earn. S will frequently have wishes for particular toys now or ask to replace something that gets broken right away. He's not intentionally being greedy, but he does not yet understand capitalism! We now have incorporated family jobs and earning allowance for both of the boys.
  • Treasure hunting in thrift stores is a great way to build a small and cost effective collection of objects to use for teaching care with fragile materials. For even less money, as in no money at all, you can collect items from nature that are particularly delicate, like fallen leaves, seed pods, flowers, etc.  When children are invited to participate in this, whether it's finding and collecting a bouquet of wildflowers or getting to pick out a beautiful tea cup at a garage sale, they will have a sense of ownership to these objects and handle them with greater care.
I'm not so sure how long our tea set will last out on the Nature Shelf, but so far, so good. And perhaps I will take a bit of my own advice and offer more opportunities for working on handling delicate things. We'll be back soon and until then...

Happy Playing!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Photo Friday: Pedagogy, Play and Pooling Your Passion

I came across this quote by Dr. Stuart Brown-- a powerful voice behind the power of play--this morning and it provided one of those rare pre-coffee life affirming moments. It's the second week into the school year. Y has started preschool, three half days a week. S has begun full day kindergarten at our Jewish day school. The boys love school. They come home equal parts enthusiastic and exhausted! And those [not enough] after school hours are the time we have for life's most important work at their age (and arguably also at mine): PLAY. 

When I first began to delve into early childhood education, I would become enamored with particular pedagogues in a way I can only compare to a seventh grade crush. You may or may not find a photo montage of Bev Bos in my locker right now. I would check out every book by Maria Montessori in the entire county library system. I would shift my classrooms from letter a day to handwriting without tears, from wall to wall Waldorf to Reggio real estate only. And now over a decade later, maybe I've become a bit crusty or just a bit more experienced, but there are no pedagogy police hanging out in my home or in my classrooms for that matter. In fact, the Pedagogy Police would probably arrest me on the spot if they saw my Nature Table sitting above a shelf of Montessori style trays just above a shelf of Lego and Duplo toys and Mr. Potato Heads. 

I poked some fun with my sister over the phone that it would be just a matter of time before Y comes home and starts rolling up all our linens like scroll, Montessori style. Lo and behold, the VERY. NEXT. DAY. Y stood at our dry erase easel and Montessori-rolled the rag we have for wiping it clean! I love that his school is Montessori inspired and that one of his two amazing teachers is an accredited Montessori teacher. I also love that he still has time and opportunity for play, for social skill development and for exploring learning in a variety of methods that work for him as an individual. And after spending a year when he was three with an amazingly talented Waldorf trained teacher, I am pleased to report that S has finally begun to draw faces on his pictures of people again! But joking aside, he gained a love for watercolor painting and whimsical fairy tales and nature exploration that he carries with him (along with a needle-felted acorn necklace and copious loose parts collected from the woods) to this day. His classroom this year is full of opportunities to learn through play and I could not be happier to know that his teachers' greatest goal this year is that their young and brilliant minds gain a love for learning. His room is a print rich environment with a visual schedule and Montessori trays for learning how to slice an apple and a kitchen set for playing about Shabbat and a dollhouse and pencils for writing in Primary journals. I am a little bit jealous that his teacher got a Beekeeper Barbie because I really want one, but honestly, I dished out more than I am willing to admit on three Pound Puppies this summer [in original 1980s style packaging, thank you very much).

When it comes to choosing schools and classrooms for my children, I don't have a lot of hard fast rules. I think that children can learn in many ways and adapt to many environments. In fact, I think there is value to stretching just outside of comfort zones and experiencing different styles and personalities. But honestly, what I want the most for my children is that they remain playful and passionate. There are years, G-d willing, for them to sit behind desks and "learn." But for now, just let them play. Let them play. Let them play. There are years, G-d willing, for them to fill the hours between dawn and dusk with clubs, extracurricular activities, talents and study. But for now, let's whisk off to the park, eat dinner to the tune of raindrops pattering on top of the leaves of the oak trees that shield us from getting wet. Let's have a tea party or make stories with puppets and stuffed animals or build a vitamin factory with dollhouse furniture and unit cubes.

When I began teaching, it was all about the pedagogy. And later it became about the passion. For the child who sees wonder in a snail on the sidewalk, the classroom moved outside. For the child who needed to rock a baby doll for hours at a time, the basket was always stocked with plenty of warm blankets because truthfully, he also needed to be rocked for hours at a time. For the child who needed to express herself through art, the shelves were stocked with real oil pastels and real charcoals and chalks. For the child who needed to feel as grown up as her brothers when it was homework time in the evening, there were stacks of intentionally selected worksheets for quietly sticking in her take home folder so she, too, could sit at the family table. Some students left my classrooms writing their names and some were still working on holding a pencil. Some students could read some words and others were still working on moving around the room so they could build the muscles necessary for sitting and hearing a story read to them. But I hope that all my students left my room feeling that their passion was seen, honored and understood. And that, too, is my greatest hope for my children as they embark on this year of learning ahead. I'll just be here fertilizing my brain...

Happy Playing!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

I Will No Longer Tell New Moms "You're Doing Great!" (And Why)

Dear New Moms Out There (whether you're new last week or new a year ago, a first time mom or a mom of a dozen),

I'm veering off the topic of play today to talk a bit about parenting and self care. Specifically about postpartum parenting and self care, but this applies just as much to dads and caregivers of all kinds. I want to show you a few photos of what postpartum anxiety can look like:

1. Postpartum Anxiety

2. Postpartum Anxiety

3. Postpartum Anxiety

To be clear, I do not think tea parties, science experiments and joyful frolics in the woods are a clinical concern (at least not yet...) but in each of these photos I had (and have) postpartum anxiety. It is the oft looked-over kissing cousin of postpartum depression. Postpartum health issues do not always look like panicking or excessive worrying (although they can). It does not always look like withdrawing from activities you normally enjoy, though it can. It does not always mean you are excessively crying and unhappy and overwhelmed, although it can. It does not always strike the second you give birth or by the time you fill out the PPD screening as you leave the hospital (it can). It does not always rear it's head by the time you have your 6 week check up with your obstetrician, although it may. And sometimes, maybe it did show up in those first weeks, but you and those around you normalize it as the typical baby blues.

With me, what postpartum anxiety does look like is a feeling of being rushed all of the time even though I have no where in particular to be. It looks like a tether between calm and yelling that breaks one too many days of the week and a shortened threshold between Mommy and Monster. Yes, sometimes PPA looks like seething rage at your husband, your kids and random strangers in a parking lot who honk at me to get a spot while I'm trying to load my kids into the van. Sometimes it does look like "typical anxiety" like when I am a passenger in the car and am white knuckling the door handle trying to veer our vehicle from the passenger seat back into what I have convinced myself is the middle of the lane using The Force and an invisible steering wheel. Or being so afraid riding back from a day trip during a storm that I am crying in the passenger seat and rethinking family vacation plans so I won't have to ride in the car anymore maybe ever again. And as I wonder to myself how you can go from fearlessly pushing a baby out-- VBAC with no epidural-- to coming home and being afraid of everything, I realize this isn't me. As I pray that my kids are more resilient than I am, I realize this isn't me. And as I wonder how I went from being able to count the days on one hand in a year that I totally lost my temper to counting the days on one hand in the last few months that I didn't lose my temper, I realize this isn't me. 

With each of my pregnancies, I had a few weeks postpartum where things were just bat sh*t cray cray. Each time I had what I call The Postpartum Meltdown. After S, it was on Day 2, and I cried and cried and cried for 45 minutes because he would someday get married and move away from home. After Y, it was an incident forever titled The Torn Book Tantrum. With each of them as infants, I would have some anxiety with milk letdown and as soon as I started nursing, it subsided. This disappeared altogether with both of them by the time we got to 6-8 weeks postpartum and my supply stabilized. In fact, as we neared the time that Y was due to arrive, I actually asked our pediatrician what I should do to prepare and gave me words of advice I have carried with me and repeated to others ever since. They are also the words that encouraged me to make an appointment and get some help this time.

Count 100 days from the day you give birth. Mark it on your calendar. You're not going to parent the way you want to in those first 100 days. But if at the 100th day you're not feeling like yourself and you're not parenting the way you want to most of the time, get some help on board.

C was a different pregnancy. She was a different birth. A different recovery. We struggled to establish breastfeeding in a way I had not with my first two. Transition-wise, I feel this was the easiest of all three even though most of my friends told me the transition between 2-3 kids was the hardest. With each of my three births, there would come a time I would ask myself or even ask my husband if I was "still in the range of 'normal'" and with the first two, those roller coaster weeks passed and the dust settled. This time, that question came up repeatedly and I repeatedly came up with excuses when I answered it. In a sense, they were not even "excuses," they were true. I have a lot of support. I have a lot of tools. It's hard to be home with all three kids all summer long. I'm doing a lot of things with my kids, I'm not withdrawing from activities or social events. I'm eating well, sleeping as much as possible, exercising. It looked good. Yes, it felt like my threshold for certain things in life had shrunk to the size of a pea, but there had been some things in life that were a lot larger than a pea this past summer and those things would put anyone on edge. And there's such a thing as a functioning addict so why can there not also be such a thing as a functioning anxious person?

In fact, I asked that question quite casually to a friend in conversation one afternoon and she answered me quite casually that she takes a very small amount of medication for anxiety after having PPA that has significantly helped her. She still has no idea how enormous of a gift that was to me. I went home that afternoon and looked at my calendar. We were rounding the bend of Day 100. The next afternoon I called my doctor and made an appointment.

In the week prior to my appointment, I happened without even searching for them to see three stories on Facebook in three different venues that hit me hard and assured me I was making the right decision even though the decision felt hard to make. One was an anonymous post in a group of women by a mother of 3 who lost her temper at her strong willed middle child and felt so guilty for it that she tried to choke herself. One was about a mother who shared that she one day was driving her kids around and decided she needed to make an extra unplanned stop and got herself to the ER for help right away to begin the process of treating postpartum depression. And the last was an article written about a mother who took her own life and no one suspected she was suffering from postpartum depression at all. Thank G-d, my symptoms were not in any way as severe as the three accounts above. And yet, they do not need to be that severe to warrant getting some help on board whether is therapy, medication, help at home, time away from home, self care, support groups or a combination of these.

I do have my personal reasons that making that call was very hard. The biggest and foremost reason it was hard is that there is a part of my medical history I do not have in any current medical charts. When I was 13, I became excessively sleepy during the daytime and went to my pediatrician. At first, she normalized it as typical teen "behavior" and when I brought it up again, she suggested I begin treatment for depression and referred me to a specialist. This began my journey down a path that, thank G-d eventually landed a correct diagnosis but also included the use of over 20 different psychotropic medications, several of which were not FDA approved by doctors for use with patients who have depression. When I first saw a doctor in 2008 after moving to a new state who questioned the medications prescribed by previous providers, I was skeptical. Why would anyone prescribe a medication that wasn't appropriate or needed? Furthermore why would anyone prescribe medications that were as dangerous as this doctor felt they were? So I went for a second opinion and a third and then back to the first to begin the arduous process of carefully coming off of the medications. 

And during the decade of being on them, the quality of my healthcare changed as well. I once went to my primary care physician having an asthma attack and was told it was impossible I was having an asthma attack because he would have heard me wheezing from the waiting room. I walked out without any treatment and without any prescription for a rescue inhaler. He never did a peak flow test; he didn't even use his stethoscope. When I was still struggling a few days later, I went to an urgent care where a peak flow meter revealed I was indeed having an asthma flare up and I was given a nebulizer treatment onsite as well as prescriptions for appropriate maintenance and rescue medications.  On another occasion, I had a positive MRSA 
culture and I cried in the doctor's office, partly because I was sick and had a high fever and horrible headache and also because I had never heard of MRSA but had just read WebMD Magazine in the waiting room and happened to read an article about it that said it was fatal. Yeah, don't read WebMD in the waiting room. Ever. But his response was that I "needed to get my anxiety in check" because he'd just done a colonoscopy on a man in the room next door without any anesthesia and I was crying over having an infection drained. These feelings of being pigeon holed kept me from seeking medical help when I needed it and also convinced me that any physical concern I had was, in fact, in my head. After all, doctors know

The process of coming off of the medications I was on in 2008 took about two years total. And a few months later, I began having neurological symptoms. I tried and tried to ignore it, normalize it, wait it out and when I couldn't, I took the plunge and saw a doctor. She said three words that would change my life: "I don't know." And referred me. I began working with a neurologist and the lengthy process of testing and ruling things out until we got to a non-diagnosis and what it "most looked like" along with a plan to medicate away the symptoms after one more test: a sleep study. A sleep study for a patient who originally saw a doctor because she was sleepy; how original. And 45 minutes later, I had a diagnosis: severe central sleep apnea. Yes, folks, it took three words and 45 minutes to correctly diagnose and treat the actual health issue at hand. "I don't know" meets "I don't breathe" in a beautiful romance that would lead to a life lived happily ever after.


So last week, I walked into my appointment with a doctor I fully trust. And I began with "there's a part of my medical history that is not in my charts and I am asking you that if you are OK with it when I'm done, I'd like to leave it off." She's not the first doctor I've given the shpiel to and she's also not the first doctor to leave it off the charts. 

"Logically I know that this is the right thing to do," I said to my doctor as we talked about options and medication came up. "Why can't I see it as something I am doing for my children and even for myself and not something I failed at doing by myself?" We acknowledged the power of history and the flaws in the medical world that hopefully are shifting as time goes on. We came up with a plan together that for me does include a medication but the question still lingered in my mind. I thought about those three random, anonymous women on Facebook from the previous week and when I got into my car, before I left the parking lot, I wrote my own post on a group of moms (apologies in advance for the redundancy):
When I was expecting my second, I asked our pediatrician for advice on adjusting afterward. He told us to count 100 days from the day I gave birth and to mark it on the calendar. He said if on that day I didn't feel like myself and like I was parenting the way I wanted to most of the time, to get some help on board.
This group has been a source of comic relief, virtual sisterhood and at times, chizzuk. I'm 4 months postpartum with our third, BH. This time we got to day 100 and this time I needed to get some help on board. I have all the logic to know I am doing the right thing and three beautiful little reasons to do it. It should have been one of the easiest choices of my life but it feels like one of the hardest. I BH have a lot of support and still there are many like me who do not.
I believe there are a lot of reasons it's hard to make that call. Time, taking care of others, the belief that somehow we should just try harder and be better. That for anyone else we see in a hole, we'd toss a ladder, but for ourselves, we think we should just be able to claw ourselves up the muddy sides with our bare hands. And I also believe one of the biggest reasons is stigma. But time and time again, I see women here courageous enough to post about this and for me, that was a ladder. So if you are in hole today or ever, here's a ladder for you.

And the responses flooded in. Women in the same boat at all stages: sinking, floating, treading water, smooth sailing now, weathering the storm... Not all of these women have my history and I do not have theirs. We all have our reasons for grabbing a hold of that ladder, for why we do and when we do and if we do at all. But I also realized a flaw in my own methods of supporting new moms. I always go out of my way to say "you're doing great!" Yeah, moms need that cheer. Even (and especially) when we have dark circles under our eyes, sweat stains under our arms, spit up down our shirt and a screaming toddler being carried like a football across the parking lot. Heck, we need that cheer when the house is clean and the laundry is folded and dinner is on the table. Momming is hard work. Often underappreciated. And postpartum Momming is even harder. You go from being the center of gravity and center of attention to completely invisible behind that new and adorable bundle of joy and I remember that feeling was so alarming after my first. So I go out of my way to see those moms. To see the mom of three successfully walking through a door (even if, like me, it took 4 tries to clear it with the back left wheel of the double stroller). To see the mom who got to the park and left the park with two kids: the same two kids. To see the mom who made it to the grocery line with her cart full of groceries when she only came in for carrots and guess what, she forgot the carrots. I tell them "you're doing great!" But it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for the conversation to continue and maybe it should.

So new moms, here you go: You're doing great and if you're not, that's also OK. It's OK if you're tired. It's OK if you're done, just done, and it's only 4:00. It's OK if this is way harder than you thought it would be and you're questioning whether you're cut out for this; we're right her with you. But it's also OK if you're really NOT OK and you need some help. You didn't fail. You didn't mess up. You didn't ask for stretch marks up to your newly hairy chin. It's OK to be NOT OK and to decide that you do want that ladder after all. You might have amazing nails that are painted to perfection and those muddy sides would get them dirty. You might have muddy nails already and clawing just ain't working or just ain't worth the effort when there's so many other more important things to do. Or you may have one hand where you clipped the nails but then the baby woke up and you had to go feed her and you never got around to clipping the nails on the other one. But either way, I'm tossing you a ladder. There's no rule about when you use it or when you need it. It could be right away. It could be after 6 weeks. It could be on the 100th day or even further down the line, but do me a favor. Keep it with you. Keep it in an attic or a closet or, better yet, keep it in the hole in case you do fall in and need it; then it will already be there and you won't have to wrack your Mombrain and the back of the freezer to try and find it. New Mom, You're doing great, and if you're not, that's OK, too.

I am so immensely grateful for the honesty of a friend of mine who maybe doesn't even know she was my ladder. I am so immensely grateful for the bravery of anonymous women to share their own stories or stories about someone else. I am immensely grateful for my husband and my three kids for each being a ladder in their own right (because there are a lot of places in life I need to climb and it's not always a hole either; I'm short). Yes, that tiny little white dot might be a loaded bomb for me but the cost of not taking it is a harder pill to swallow. I'm doing great and I'm not OK just yet and that's alright for now.

Lots of love,
Your Next Ladder

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Get Outside ANYWAY: Balancing Caution and Confidence, Part 2

After completing my post on Part 1 of Balancing Caution and Confidence , I had one more question for my Facebook Hive-mind: What kind of outdoor leader are you? Are you a hovering helicopter or a free-range adventurist?
The responses spanned the nation, life stage, came from both females and males and included a variety of career, geographical, and social backgrounds. I particularly loved the response below from one friend of mine who is a mother of children ranging from school aged to adulthood and now a grandmother as well.

" I live in Alaska. I am a city slicker by nature and a helicopter parent when it comes to little kids outside... But I have been careful to not instill in them a sense of fear. One of them, my most princess-y of all daughters is now a United States Marine! Another one is an agriculture teacher in the wilds of Tennessee. Several do triathlons. One of my sons is a distance runner. They did not get this way because I made them fearful! I made them aware.

I tell you all of this because you can be cautious while not creating fear. I suppose that I was more of a scout of a parent? I would come up with projects to teach the kids. All the while being aware and telling them why we needed to make noise. We would play games, what would we do if we saw a bear? What would we do if we saw a baby moose in front of us and realized that the momma moose was behind us? O look! Cow parsnip-- this is why we wear pants and long socks!"

You can be cautious without creating fear is probably a line that will follow me into the woods with my kids forever more!

Here were some of the other responses:

" Free range constantly borderline crazy but the creativity from my boys has been awesome- homemade zip line/ self made tree house they take great chances and succeed."

"Free range for sure. I want my kids to explore and discover the world with freedom. As long as they’re in the gate and I’ve got an eye out."

"Free range. "Please don't come to me unless you're bleeding."

"5 kids ago, I was a Class A hoverer! I’ve gotten older, more mellow - and more tired - now. And the twins definitely benefit from my (slightly!) more free range-ish style."

"Free rangish. Within reason today kids had to wear life vests when on boat, or know how to recognize poison ivy, etc."

"Free range. 
First rule of boys is: don't look."

"If its a contained field free range, if not I hover."--the mom....and the dad: "I mean sometimes we need to use leashes and tranq guns but we are raising a shark, a bear, a cat, and a lion"

" Free range unless we are in an unknown place where I don't know all the potential dangers, then I hover but at a distance."

" Free range! If you don’t fall you don’t learn and grow."

Here's what I take away from it: two categories was not enough. I am personally a Distant Hoverer. I feel best being vigilant from afar. And while we must travel light on the trail, it's important to carry with us an adequate supply of caution and sense of humor. Those most prone toward hovering still see and value the importance of outdoor play being an opportunity for space, trial and error, problem solving and confidence/competence building. And those most prone toward standing back and enjoying the show still take precautions whether it's protective gear, a vigilant eye, an enclosed area or the ability and knowledge to identify potential dangers in nature. And another very important idea surfaced: how does our own behavior and demeanor outdoors affect the children in our care?

The Darker Side of Caution: Fear
Everyone is afraid of something. Some of us are afraid of many things! When it comes to children, fears are a natural part of development. Some are longer lived than others. Some are "logical." Some are not. Some can be explained or experienced away. Others may last a lifetime. I asked the group to tap in on their own children's fears outdoors:

"My kids now? The 16 yo who wants to be a doctor rages, "You really need a concealed weapons permit if we are out here. What if we see a bear?" (I give my kids my keys. They just need to run faster than me. We go to peopled areas, low risk, but I think ahead.)

When they were all younger, they were loud, "WHAT DO WE DO IF WE SEE A BEAR? HAHAHAHA! I'D RUN LIKE THIS... [demo maniacal run]"


We spoke of real scenarios and all but one, the one who wants to repair people, handled their fears with humour. (They were so loud the wild life would leave us alone.)

We spoke of dangers of hypothermia and they stayed away from going more that 5 steps into lakes, and were just intelligent on bridges, etc., and we stuck together."

"Bugs and dogs not on leashes."

"Bees are really their only fear. We have taught them how to calmly walk away and that only wasps are the ones to really fear and that honey and bumblebees are our friends. Considering bees are a huge fear of mine that is one I struggle with as well."

Childhood fears evolve and fluctuate throughout life. Some are developed through experience, some through lack of experience, some through exposure and some inherited (whether by nature, nurture, or a combination of the two). 

Both S and Y have their own fears. Some come and go quickly and some last a while. S used to be very afraid of dogs and now is far less so. Y is not afraid of dogs and needs to be reminded he must ask before he pets one. Y sometimes fears uneven terrain outdoors, likely because his vision makes it harder to navigate. Nonetheless, he is very creative in navigating these spaces and while at times he may cry and ask to hold a hand, other times, he will crouch and bend his knees and bounce his way down a slippery and muddy hill independently. 

S has grown into quite the young naturalist. He is wholly himself outdoors. And while he is prone to more of a nervous nature overall, outside is usually a place that inspires self confidence. So a few weeks ago when some sort of bug crawled up his shirt and supposedly bit his tummy (I looked and saw an ant but not evidence of a bite), and he became paralyzed with fear and wanted to leave the park, I was ready to support him but also concerned about his response. We sat together, took deep breaths, talked and sometimes just sat in silence. Again and again as he thought about the incident, he would become overwhelmed again with fear at just remembering it. 

I am cautious in my language about fear with children. I do not like the words "that's not scary" or "don't be scared" when talking to children about fear. For them, in this moment, it is scary and they are scared. S once coined the phrase "I'm scared and brave," and it's one we still use. The language use is "it feels very scary and you are safe." We did eventually make our way home from the park. S later wanted to talk about the ant and he began to refer to it (and still does) as "The Bug That Surprised Me."

Fast forward to the following week when we attended a group hike with our local chapter of Free Forest School. S, who had been in several outdoor locations since The Bug That Surprised Him suddenly remembered the incident while we were there and decided he felt safest to stand on our picnic blanket. And not move. Maybe not even ever. Again, I tried not to be reactive to this. The mom in me felt so sad for the level of loss he would experience if he truly stopped being able to be outside and feel secure. And the child still in me also knew that fears come and fears go and right now S was safe on the dinosaur blanket, but he would somehow, someday get off and keep going. And sure enough that day came on the same day at about noon when it was time for us to go. S didn't want to get off the blanket. He didn't want to walk back. (He didn't see the ants crawling on the blanket either, phew!) So I held his hand to step off the blanket as I shook it out and folded it up. And we started to walk back. He wanted to go slowly, I said that was fine. And slowly, slowly we walked. He was scared. He had to stop a lot. Y was picking up on the fear signals and also started crying. And I started singing a little scavenger hunt on our walk, wearing C, lamenting the sweat dripping into my eyes and hoping my own parental angst wasn't pouring out with it.

We found a brown leaf. A green leaf. A big rock. A little stick. We talked about cold, hard facts and evidence. Yes, there was a Bug That Surprised You at the park last week. But this is not that park. And we also went to that park a number of other times and no Surprising Bugs happened at those times. The bug was surprising and it was scary and remembering something scary can make you feel scared all over again. You are safe. I am here and look, what do you know, we made it to the car!

I didn't go on and on about how proud I was of him (I was, though, because honestly if anyone could stand on a dinosaur blanket maybe forever, it would be S), but I did point out that he seemed pretty proud of himself. And in the car on our drive back, we talked some more about the best way to feel better about feeling afraid: get confident. Confidence comes when we try something that feels really hard and experience success. That day, confidence came when S experienced a really hard emotion and walked right through it. And one week later, he went back to Forest School, got off that blanket, into the creek and squealed so loudly with joy and pride it literally echoed through the forest.

I am a big believer in being honest with children. I'm not the one to say a shot won't hurt or that it won't hurt to take a splinter out. I'm not going to tell them that bugs never bite or that there's no poison ivy in the woods. Honesty is important. I am also a human who carries her own fears, both rational and irrational. One of my greatest worries is that I will impart my worries onto my kids! It is an area of constant vigilance, awareness and growth for me. I talk to my kids about the things I used to be afraid of and am no longer. I find it a little harder to talk to them about the things I'm still afraid of or newly afraid of. 

And yet, being outdoors with my children has provided a venue where we can all stretch out of those comfort zones. Risky play is all about navigating those boundaries of being just a little bit scared and still being safe. And while getting out there is half the battle, the narrative we build around these experiences also matters greatly. Every person's threshold is different. There's no right ratio of helicoptering to free-ranging and truly these are extremes we need to constantly assess and balance again and again, whether it's over the course of a year or even a day. We do need to be cautious; we do not need to be afraid. We do want opportunities for building competence in outdoor experience because we know that this builds confidence in all areas of life, in and outside four walls and a roof. The language we use, the energy we impart, the reactions we have--all matter. Most children inherently have good "risk assessment" skills and won't try something that is beyond their comfort (ergo ability) level. Some will. Know your audience. Know their boundaries and limitations and know your own. More and more I try to build a narrative around outdoor play for my own children and myself and even for the friends and families we meet with in my nature based playgroup that is positive and encouraging. It takes effort to learn a new language, but I love some of the phrases in this list from Backwoods Mama. Fostering awareness and building problem solving skills are lifelong processes; the outdoors is a fabulous venue for working on it.

I have a saying when it comes to my experiences outdoors (and inside for that matter) with my kids: Different day, different adventure. One benefit to visiting the same outdoor spaces again and again is the ability to see that in action. My own sense of balance when it comes to caution and confidence is a work in progress. It is my hope that this makes me more compassionate and patient as my children navigate this as well. 

So different day, different adventure. What will you do differently tomorrow or the next time you head outside with kids? What works well for you now? How did your own early experiences build the narrative that follows you today as you hit the trail and how will your own narrative shape that of your children's? What would you change? What would you keep the same? One thing is for sure, I'll be outside ANYWAY and you can find me hovering from a distance...

Happy Playing!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Get Outside ANYWAY: Balancing Caution and Confidence, Part 1

I was at a birthday party the other day, chatting with some other moms when the topic of cute kid foods came up. Everything tastes better on a stick, just go to any county fair and prove me wrong. "I just saw an idea to make grape popsicles. You just freeze grapes and stick a toothpick in," I began, and then as I thought about it, I added "and then your kid can poke his eye out and choke on a grape at the same time." Risk assessment is an inherent part of parenting and working with children. Safety is a factor we must address in any space, in any moment and in every decision. Within the confines of four walls and a roof, we can imagine that we have some level of control over that and indeed, we implement a variety of tools to "childproof" these spaces. But what happens when those walls and roof are behind us? What happens when we take our children outdoors into nature?

"Put down that stick!"

"Don't talk to strangers!"

"Don't walk up the slide!"

"You need to drink water or you'll get dehydrated!"

"Don't drink too much or you'll have to pee!"

"Bees can sting!"

"You'll get a sunburn!"

"Don't pet that dog!"

"No climbing on rocks!"

"No throwing the sand!"

"Be careful!"

When I started to think about this topic, I imagined writing one post on the issue, but I think it's worthy of more and we will still barely scratch the surface! One of the greatest barriers we all face outdoors for ourselves and as we lead our children is the issue of safety. Indeed, ideas around safety in our society have changed the face of outdoor play altogether. Gone are the days of playing unaccompanied around most neighborhoods. Gone are the days of my own childhood of playing unaccompanied even in a fenced in backyard. It is rare that I drive through suburban neighborhoods where we live and see children playing in front yards or riding bikes on the street. If and when I do, they are nearly always accompanied by an adult.

Even the landscape of nature spaces has changed.
Here I am wearing leather boots,
a pencil skirt, a sheitel (wig)
 and a baby S, hiking up a gosh darn
mountain. Not because I planned to,
but because we googled a "park"
and this is where we ended up. It was
the scariest hike of my life and one
of the most confidence building
experiences as well.
Parks are carefully and intricately designed. Much of children's experience outside is likely on a playground. The surfaces are often synthetic, to cushion falls. The equipment is often designed and labeled with age ranges in mind. Plastics have replaced much of the metal or wooden equipment that playgrounds were constructed of when I was small. No more burning your tush on the slide on a summer day and no more splinters from climbing up the stairs to the top of the castle. Gates surround most playgrounds, some even have childproof locks.

When you know more, you do more. We know more about safety and children than we once did. Take car seats for instance. We also live in a day and age with new and emerging concerns that perhaps were not relevant even 10 or 20 years ago. How has this affected nature play for our growing generation? And how has it affected our own view of being outdoors? In an effort to protect ourselves and our children from danger, have we hijacked a vital experience in developing the skills needed to assess whether something is dangerous or not?

In preparing this post, I asked my Facebook Hive-mind the following questions:

  • Which is safer? Indoor or outdoor play?
  • What is your outdoor leadership style? Helicopter or free range leader?
  • What do you worry about outdoors?
  • What do you feel confident about outdoors?
In the past two weeks alone, I came across a variety of interesting articles on the topic. I think it is telling that these themes are coming up in social networking groups just as the school year begins. For some children, that might mean a significant decrease in outdoor time, while for others it may actually mean an increase in nature based opportunities. One article put out by the CBC is titled "It's Never Been Safer For Kids to Play Outside or More Dangerous to Be Inside." The author (based in Canada) sites that children are sedentary for roughly 7.5 hours a day. From a physical health standpoint, the article continues on to address the concerns of a sedentary, indoor lifestyle and the benefits of nature based risky play for physical health and development.

Author and nature activist, Richard Louv is another powerful voice behind the topic and if you've not yet read it, I highly recommend his book Last Child in the Woods. In it, he says:

"Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That lesson is delivered in schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom—while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Wellmeaning public-school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. In the patent-or-perish environment of higher education, we see the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering. Rapidly advancing technologies are blurring the lines between humans, other animals, and machines. The postmodern notion that reality is only a construct—that we are what we program—suggests limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience."

I believe that caution and confidence are two sides of the same coin. What exactly are we supposed to do from here? It is not realistic to simply ignore the factors that do make aspects of outdoor play risky and even dangerous. In fact, it is negligent. And restricting the experience altogether is also risky and potentially negligent. I think when it comes to assessing a situation like this, it's best to begin with what it is we are most afraid of with the goal in mind of striking some sort of balance. Here are some of the responses I received when asking which is safer--indoor or outdoor play?

"Define safe. Define the parameters of play." was one response I got and it speaks volumes. I personally attribute some of the fear mentality toward outdoor play to not having these boundaries clearly defined and the fact that they mean different things for different people. Even the structural changes to nature spaces and outdoor play experiences are dictated by how adults view and define both safety and play.

Take a few snapshots from the standard public park scenario, for instance:

Most public parks have a playground based on the belief that in order to play children need this equipment. Playground equipment has a lot of potential benefits:

  • Children can work and develop a variety of skills including gross motor and muscle strength development, social skills in peer interactions, building self confidence, spacial awareness and more.
  • Safety features like shaded and covered areas, synthetic turf, and age range recommendations can prevent injuries.
Some potential downfalls include:
  • Playgrounds typically provide equipment with a single function. There is less likelihood to engage in creative and abstract play and potentially less likelihood to engage with natural materials found outdoors.
  • Safety features can provide a "false sense of security" about falls and injuries that can occur. Children who engage in risky play like jumping off of high equipment won't necessarily learn what happens when you jump off a high surface if they land on a cushioned surface below them.
Well, since I am me, I usually answer a question with a question, and I let my friend give her own definitions of play and safety:
Safe to me implies less risk of physical injury.
Play often is used to mean lightly supervised recreation within a specific area and often with provided materials.

With those definitions in mind, indoor would be safer.

But risks are way more fun.
Yes, the risks are fun! And while I can remember creating my own risky play scenarios indoors (think a set of carpeted stairs and bean bag chairs...) as well as outside (think "skiing" down my backyard hill on a plastic saucer sled into the woodpile at the bottom), there are documented benefits to this type of play. One benefit is the skill of risk assessment, or a child's ability to navigate their personal and physical as well as environmental limitations. That involves all kinds of problem solving and critical thinking skills! And while I do not condone staircase surfing or backyard saucer skiing, I did live to tell about them both. (Also, don't tell my parents I did this if you happen to see them....)

Here are some more responses from my friends. The group includes parents in all stages, educators, a school principal, folks with children who have special needs, and respondents range geographically across the nations from the east coast to the west coast and even Alaska:
"Bubble wrap and tv watching. 
It's not about safety. It's about trusting your body in space." 

"Should 'safe' be the lead guiding determinant in play? A friend of mine (with children much younger than my own) does something that really impresses me...when her then-toddler boys were playing, and doing something that could result in injury (something that makes a mom inclined to say 'careful!) she would ask them, 'what could happen?'. This encouraged them to stop and think, do a risk assessment (she often helped with this part) and then let them decide for themselves. (She also kept bandages in her purse.)"

" I feel like outdoor play (in areas away from roads) is safer for my extremely energetic 4.5 year old. He needs space to run and jump and he just can't do it inside without breaking something!"

And then it was time to talk about what exactly we were afraid of outdoors...responses poured in, including the following, which I've broken down into categories:

Stranger Danger, Busy Streets, Running Away and Getting Lost:
"My kids running off with a stranger with a cute puppy."

"I never go to isolated areas. I would take the kids at busy times."

"That my kids will run into the street."

Stranger danger was a pop phrase of my own childhood. We had a secret family password in case someone other than my parents came to pick us up from school. We grew into latch key kids but the front door was always locked and we had a home alarm system. One night early into this phase, the alarm was set to motion detection by mistake. When the alarm went off, my sister (then 11) and I (7) panicked. The police arrived but we'd been told never to open the door for a stranger and we did not believe with confidence that the police officer was for sure a police officer and not a "stranger" in disguise. Faces on the backside of our chocolate milk cartons had created a fear that was larger than life, but I don't think I could have even defined what a "stranger" was. 

In many ways, I feel the "danger" has increased now with the advances in technology, social networking, camera phones and more. And while my firstborn gave me false confidence in my ability to keep track of my own offspring my second-born has a habit of elopement. Not long enough ago, I lost sight of him at our botanical garden center. I was not on my phone, I didn't even realize I was distracted at all. He was right next to me and then he wasn't. I put on my best "calm" persona and started looking. I was afraid he'd gone into the water he was so curious about the week before. I was afraid someone might have found him and would judge me harshly or even worse that someone might have found him who was not safe. It was no longer than 5 minutes. I walked by him no fewer than 5 times. Why? Because I had told my children if they ever got lost to stop and stay in one place and wait for me to find them. I had not told them to also call "Mommy! Mommy!" until I found them. There were no cute puppies that day, but there was a picnic table Y had never sat in before and there he sat, looking quite guilty and just a little bit scared until I got there.

Wouldn't it be safer to just put them in strollers? Or on a leash? I'm not lost in the mall today because I was put on a leash. But did this give me a false sense of security and fail to give me an opportunity to learn how to stay by my adults? At the end of the day, I think you must do what you must do as a parent and for your child's well being. I have not put Y on a leash or restricted him to a stroller at this point. I also no longer use the words "I will never" when it comes to parenting decisions. Right now, I have a chant I use: "all hands on deck!" and my boys will come and hold my hand or the stroller that C is in. If that stops working, I'll go to plan B...

And indeed, on the other side of the stranger danger coin is the perspective that today's children lack the skills to assess "stranger safety" since they are rarely or never exposed to life opportunities in which this issue might come up. Do our children have the skills to navigate a scenario in which they are in a crowded public place or a location in which they could become separated from their family or group? Milk cartons have been replaced by Facebook walls and in situations where timing is everything, this is highly efficient. And at the same time, it opens up a whole new can of worms...

Speaking of worms, critters and poisonous plants...

"We have encountered loose dogs , I also hate wasps and snakes. We go out most days anyways." And this amazing Momma reported just the next day that one of her daughters got stung by a bee...

"Ticks, we have found them on our clothes. I carry a good spray and a tick spoon and we are outdoors all the time."

"Ticks and poison ivy."


Boy, those ticks really tick people off. And while I grew up learning about tick protection and identification and was sprayed with 100% Deet (and only a few lingering side effects...) with leggings tucked into my socks, I tested positive for Lyme disease at the age of 15. I'd never had a bulls eye rash nor had I found a tick on my body. Fast forward to the first year of our marriage and my husband had become inexplicably ill. Nothing seemed to help him and test after test came back negative. I mentioned Lyme and his doctor begrudgingly obliged to run the panel. High on every marker. No tick found, no bulls eye rash. Indeed, tick born illnesses are a valid concern. Loose dogs, stinging insects, snakes (S found one in our backyard bucket of mud and that is a story for another day) and poisonous plants are some of the many concerns we face in nature. And even when we are vigilant and cautious, things happen.

Injuries outdoors can range from those inflicted by flora or fauna to skinned knees, splinters, or broken bones to sunburns to dehydration (a topic you'll see come up next...) to heat exhaustion in hot temperatures or frostbite and hypothermia in cold ones. Injuries and illness related to outdoor causes can range from mild to severe. It's hard as a parent and educator to even think about the severe ones. I've been a teacher in a school where a child escaped the playground and was found (safe, thank G-d) running down a busy street. I recently visited the beach with my family this summer and watched S play gleefully by the shoreline. Literally days after we arrived home, a father and rabbi in a community we know well passed away after trying to rescue a drowning student in a different part of the same beach. I could not sleep for nights afterward. But when it comes to those easier to wrap our brain around (or at least a bandaid around) boo-boos, a friend of mine mentioned how important it is for her children to learn how to work through minor injuries and this was a really enlightening spin on the topic. 

So back to the "number one" issue (pun intended)...

"Not bringing enough water. 
Related: a kid needing to use a bathroom."

"Dehydration and bathroom needs."

A couple of months ago, we had quite a scare with S on a very hot day when we walked to and from synagogue on Shabbos. He vomited several times and although we typically do not use phones or cars on Shabbos, we called the pediatrician and rushed him to pediatric urgent care with fear that he was suffering from heat exhaustion. He did get some Zofran, a lollipop and a Gatorade and reported back that it was "the best day ever." He was OK and his vomiting had been more food related than heat related. Nonetheless, in related news, he also recently took his first pee in the woods because this Mommy is going to have her kids hydrate whether or not there is a bathroom nearby...

And now that we're all shaking in our sloggers just a bit, let's talk about the things we feel confident in outdoors:

"I feel confident about being allowed to make as much noise as the kids feel like making! So long as they are crying and making people question my parenting abilities, I feel confident the bears won't come after us!"

"We will find something interesting, be it a bug, plant, geocache, or water."

" I feel confident in making as big of a mess as the kids desire. I also never wonder whether we will discover something amazing whether it's a butterfly in the flowers, a bird nest in the grass, what color the water turns when different colors of chalk are added or what kind of bug is hanging out in the herbs."

It doesn't matter what your WHY is, just that you have one. That you get outside ANYWAY because wherever you are, you're here and this parenting and working with kids thing totally requires a lot of patience, bravery and resilience. In balancing caution and confidence, we work within ourselves. We also impart this onto our children as they grow to strike their own sense of balance. What really struck a chord with me as I collected data and ideas for this series of posts is how, like in so many other areas of life with kids and parenthood, we are faced with so many decisions to make and so many potential risks that it really could become paralyzing. But somehow, we get out there anyway. Whether it's the benefits we see or the wonder we still hold in the great outdoors, time and time again, we get outside ANYWAY. We wipe off tears. We kiss and clean wounded elbows. We nurture wounded egos and celebrate strides in confidence. We live in an era where we could wrap in bubble wrap and plop in front of the TV (wait, isn't bubble wrap an asphyxiation risk? And isn't screen time bad for the eyes and harmful to sleep hygiene? Oh no, more to worry about...) We could ask Alexa what's under a rock outside. We could tell and show our children what's under a rock outside. Or our children could walk into the woods with us and find a big rock and discover how heavy it is to move and then discover a whole hidden city of bugs and worms that were underneath it. All of those experiences have value, but the one they are most likely to recall is the latter.

So how about that fourth question: What kind of outdoor leader are you? Join us in our next post to hear from the hovering helicopters, the free range adventurers and the hybrid hover-rangers... We'll walk the walk and talk the talk and until then...

Happy Playing!