Thursday, September 20, 2018

(Too) Many Cooks in the Kitchen: Coping & Cooking With Tiny Sous Chefs

I took it upon myself to start cooking or baking with my kids once a week, each Thursday afternoon. I might be brave. I might be a glutton for punishment. I might be totally out of my mind. I come from a long line of women who love to be in the kitchen. Alone. I love order, cleanliness, and have a taste for perfection (or at least close to it) in my culinary adventures. I have a four year old and an 18 month old. They love full body sensory experiences. They love when our space reflects that from wall to wall, corner to corner. They have a refined taste for experience.

When I was in my early twenties, a wise friend once told me that investing time to cook with your children means having "helpers and hinderers" in the kitchen with you. I chuckled at this idea for years, but I took it to heart. On the one hand, she was clear that this was an INVESTMENT of time and effort. And on the other, she recognized with humor and empathy that the struggle of it is real. Even in my own home growing up, my kitchen was at times open to learning how to bake and cook with my mother. Early on in my life I learned to bake some favorite desserts independently. My mother likely preferred to cook and bake alone for the most part without children underfoot, and even then, she was creative in having activities to occupy us in the kitchen and out of the way, such as a chalk board wall where I could draw or wash away doodles with a wet sponge.

Of course, I imagined as a parent, creating memories with and for my children of baking together and trying new recipes or learning family favorites. I imagined fostering independence and competence in my children as they mastered kitchen skills like peeling vegetables and cutting them up for soup. I imagined my kids tasting all kinds of healthy foods and developing healthy habits as they came to understand the beautiful process of our meals evolving from garden and farm to table to tummy. And it would be peaceful and calm and warm and fuzzy. And here's the reality of our weekly cooking days: the good, the bad and the ugly (a.k.a.: my kitchen floor)...

We do the same thing again and again. Many weeks we spend our Thursdays making "Stone Soup" for Shabbos. Early in the week, my sons each pick out a vegetable from the grocery store to add to our soup. Y was quite enamored with his turnip on this week. S chose a leek that "made [his] eyes wet" when he chopped it up! We always add a secret ingredient at the beginning of our soup when I saute the onions and garlic: a peeled, chopped apple! This gives the soup a bit of extra sweetness and adds a unique layer of flavor. We do try new recipes at times, but I feel no guilt over repeating the same one week after week using whatever veggies we have on hand. The repetition and routine is as nourishing as the soup itself.

My photos look so beautiful but I'm dying a little inside! Oh. My. Goodness. This kitchen is a disaster zone. Breathe. Let go. Repeat.

This is as much an exercise for me as it is for them. For them it is an exercise in washing, peeling, cutting, collecting into a bowl, following instructions, mixing, and more... For me, it is an exercise in letting go, remaining calm and finding joy in the imperfection. Every week I have to actively engage my "calming muscles" to slow down and step back. Water is splashing everywhere as Y scrubs our apples for mini apple pie pockets. S is eager to peel and cut and he is quite competent in it, but I still panic over those tiny little fingers. S and Y are fighting over turns to do a task and suddenly I'm out of tasks to do, so guess what? We're adding some extra cinnamon! Our veggies are crinkle cut in all kinds of sizes and shapes. There's still some peel on the potato. I lost track of how much salt just got pinched and sprinkled over the soup. Y is mouthing raw challah dough and S ate all the raisins besides for one he declared as the belly button of his challah! There are a lot of dishes when we're done--way more than when I cook and bake alone. Breathe in, breathe out. It's OK. That spilled water will do a great deal to help sop up the schmutz on the kitchen floor and the numerous dish towels that will need to now be washed anyway can help dry it up on their way to the laundry pile. S is actually quite aware of where his fingers are and rather than running to interject words like "be careful!" and instilling undue anxiety, I can offer a simple statement of "be mindful of where your helping hand is." Repeating the same cooking activities has helped me to identify "jobs" each boy is particularly successful with and enjoys. Y can spend a great deal of time tending to vegetable washing and S could spend all day working with his knife and peeler. Cooking together also need not mean making the whole recipe from start to finish. Haven't you seen cooking shows on TV? They demonstrate a few aspects of a recipe and pull a beautifully made-for-TV version out of the oven minutes later. The boys are happy to contribute to part of the task and then play in the living room while I finish the next portion. No need to bite off more than we can chew! And as for the soup? It gets pureed at the end and somehow always tastes amazing. But while we're on the topic of tasting...

Just because they made it doesn't mean they'll eat it. We've all heard the experts talk about how even the pickiest eaters will try foods they have helped to prepare. Clearly they have not met my more particular eater. If your goal in cooking with your children is that they eat what you've made, prepare to potentially be disappointed. I had to reframe this goal (often repeatedly) and continue my resolve to present tasting new foods as an option but not a requirement. The soup is always offered; perhaps he will try it and perhaps he will not. It does promote an opportunity for discussion about trying new foods--even scientific ones. Just today, I spoke with S about the fact that most of your taste buds are not at the tip of your tongue (where he prefers to "touch" a new food), but rather in the back of his tongue and mouth. And that his sense of smell also works to make his food taste a certain way (which is why it tastes different when his nose is stuffy). To really taste a food, it needs an opportunity, maybe even more than one, to move through his whole mouth and be swallowed. Nonetheless, there is no pressure or argument or ultimatum about tasting and trying the food. I have decided the intent of the activity is to be together in the kitchen; not necessarily to love the fruits of our labor.

And while we are together in the kitchen... I feel less overwhelmed and less lonely, too! The challenges of functioning in a small kitchen with small sous chefs are real. My anxiety and stress about sharing my kitchen space are not necessarily gone, but I do think that repeatedly exposing myself to opportunities to overcome this are helpful for me. Perhaps most importantly, the weekly tasks of getting ready for Shabbos (and holidays this time of year as well) have often left me feeling overwhelmed and simultaneously guilty for not being able to spend time with my kids. I'm supposed to teach them that all of the work--even the mundane work--that goes into preparing our Shabbos meals and holiday celebrations is joyful work and service. How can I do this when I am a hot mess in the kitchen? How can I do this when I reserve all the tasks for the hours in which they are asleep so that they merely see the end result but none of the tasks that went into it? How can I expect them to appreciate the events that happen in a kitchen--the good, the bad and the ugly burnt honey cake that spilled over the edge of the pan to the bottom of the oven, setting off the smoke detector but still tasted so delicious in the end? I can't.

So I reduce, recycle and delegate. I reduce the menu. I recycle recipes I know we like rather than scouring the books for new things each and every time. I delegate tasks like a good portion of the cooking to my equally talented and competent in the kitchen husband. And I put on some calm music or light a scented candle or sing a song. I take deep breaths and inhale the aromas of freshly baked challahs in the oven or boiling vegetable soup. And when I happen to see that stack of dishes or stray potato peels on the floor, I also happen to see the smile across Y's face as he rinses his purple carrot one more time and the look of concentration on S's face as he masters the angle of the peeler against the thin and stubborn skin of his big honey crisp apple. Here in the kitchen, flops, messes and chaos are all contained and OK. The kids get to see what happens when things work and what happens when they don't. Lessons in nutrition barely skim the surface of the layers and layers of education on problem solving, troubleshooting, success and even failure. They feel so useful and so much a part of our family and so connected to the beauty of preparing for Shabbos and Yom Tov b'simcha (with joy)--that is truly a mitzvah in its own rite--that when I feel the pressure rise higher in my shoulders than it does in our Intsta-Pot, all I have to do is remember my little helpers and hinderers.

Perhaps the single most "efficient" thing I have done to positively impact preparing for Shabbos each week (and yom tovim this time of year) is inviting my children to do so with me. It is an investment I hope their future spouses will thank me for (and maybe that will be reflected in some dinner invitations because by then I'm going to need some time off and maybe a professional cleaning crew in my own kitchen). But their presence in my messy and disorganized and imperfect kitchen increases my own joy and theirs as well. No longer is the weekly cooking a cycle of feeling guilty for not spending time with my kids and then guilty for not feeling happy as I prepare and then worried that they will intuit those feelings of overwhelm as feelings of not actually taking joy in Shabbos or holidays, G-d forbid. My solitary kitchen existence is over for now, but truth be told, I don't miss it all that much. It may have been the most efficient way to feed our tummies, but it left our tanks on empty nonetheless. Cooking with my kids feeds our souls and it's a two bird, one stone kind of deal. That stone can go right into our pot of soup and the dishes can wait. They will still be there after Shabbos and if memory serves me correctly, washing dishes was a task I actually loved when I was their age...maybe I'll enlist some little helping hands...

Until then, happy holidays, happy cooking and, as always, happy playing!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Bring on the Pumpkin Spice, Autumn Apples and a Hurricane If You Must (An Updated Peek Into Our Playroom)

Shanah Tovah U'Mesukah from this
sweet little apple and honey bee!
 Ch-ch-ch-changes! S has returned to preschool for a new school year and we just finished celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Talk about busy, here! And that sense of the pace picking up is exactly what makes me feel like slowing down and stopping to smell the pumpkin spice. It's definitely still Summer out there (with a potential hurricane pending in the days to come), but Autumn is in the air (at least indoors). So whether you are hunkering down for a big storm, or just looking for some apple, pumpkin, or Autumn themed fun at home, we've got you covered!

With summer dwindling to an end, I began to make subtle changes to our play area. I realize I haven't posted in a while, and hopefully I'll get to backtrack a bit and share some great activities about sunflowers and bees that we did as part of our Sprout Scouts Playcamp. Our Nature Table is one of these new introductions. I set up a top shelf in one of our toy storage areas with a small world scene the boys could manipulate and explore. I included both natural loose parts (even the two mini gourds we managed to salvage from the squash bugs in our garden) and man made ones as well. The scene immediately drew both boys' attention, but it isn't meant to be merely a display--they are invited to play with it, add to it, change it and move things around the room at large for use in play and storytelling.

Speaking of storytelling, with school beginning and Rosh Hashanah starting just a few days later, I decided to spend an afternoon telling The Story of The Apple Star (available to print at Come Together Kids). S has seen this "trick" before but was still super excited to see the star magically appear inside our apple and Y was old enough this year to appreciate it as well. Nothing goes to waste in this house, especially not apples, so some of the results were used for snacking and some were used to fabric paint apple prints onto some new aprons for the boys to use during cooking and baking activities.

I strategically placed our toy Rosh Hashanah sets into our dramatic play area along with some toy apples and a makeshift felt apple pie play set. I rotated in some favorite Rosh Hashanah books and apple books as well. I find that the more subtle my play area updates are, the more they are appreciated. I rarely have to show the boys when something new is out, they almost always discover it with their usual excitement and glee! On occasion, S will ask about something that was out and got put away and I explain that it has been rotated out. If he felt strongly about having something back in the rotation right away, we certainly would, but usually it's just curiosity.

Our sensory table is a favorite area for both the boys right now. Our tree blocks made a reappearance along with some cinnamon sticks, toy apples, collected seed pods and objects found in nature and even the set of Seasons Dolls I painted last Winter. I thought S would get really into storytelling in this one, but he actually only played there once. Y loved it.

When I made another rotation a couple of weeks later and moved the tree blocks, natural loose parts and cinnamon sticks to the toy shelf, S was totally ready for small world play, carrying the baskets to the carpet and even inviting me and Y to play along! Sometimes location and setup is everything--you never know! That's why I always advice fellow parents and teachers that if an activity or setup does not capture your children's interest at first, either reintroduce it in a new setting or design or wait and try it again another time.

I'm also rarely glued to a singular vision of how I think my boys should or will play with things. I have my ideas and they have theirs--many times I am amazed and astounded!

As you can see, our Nature Table has shifted again. It's looking a little less like Summer and a little more like Autumn. Not everything is gone or different, in fact I intentionally returned some of the same objects as before in this new backdrop. I really couldn't help myself once I saw mini pumpkins and gourds go on sale, so now they have entered our small world play, infiltrated our dramatic play and kitchen set and even been turned into building blocks (at S's cue).

 They even showed up in our new "Autumn Soup" Sensory Bin, a lovely Autumn toned collection of dried beans and lentils along with some soup pots, empty spice bottles and toy kitchen utensil. I'm never completely sure my boys will take to a sensory bin I set up, but anything like dried beans, rice, lentils or corn is almost always a big hit. And yes, a big mess! But both boys are big fans of helping to sweep with the dust brush and dustpan I keep affixed to the side of our sensory table and one of them is even pretty good about keeping what's in the bin in the bin.

Needless to say, both boys have spent a great deal of time playing here in the past couple of days and hopefully it will continue to entertain them in the days to come, whether we get hit by this storm or not. A sensory bin filler like this is so versatile that even if this setup gets a bit stale, some funnels and scoops could be swapped in, perhaps some cardboard tubes and recycled containers, or even some Autumn shaped cookie cutters, and it would be like new again.

We're all about using and reusing what we have here and whether you're preparing for a big storm or just looking to add some Autumn themed fun into the coming days, here are some more activities that have kept us busy at play here over the last few weeks:

Playdough is always popular here! We used our usual recipe and added in some red food coloring and some cinnamon bark scent for this playdough invitation based on one of my favorite books, Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson. I also included leaves from deconstructed dollar tree silk flowers, our toy apples (these were from a craft supply store a few years ago), cinnamon sticks and tree circles. Both the boys loved this setup and S decided to turn the page in the book and "make another page!"

A great playdough invitation is certainly worth repeating or you can swap in some other accessories for another way to play on the same theme. In the photo below, we added in cookie cutters, dishes, the same apples, cinnamon sticks and playdough along with some toy kitchen utensils for a Playdough Apple Bakeshop.

 S loved playing with a DIY felt apple pie set his teachers made in school. I decided to surprise him (and Y) with their own version to use at home over Rosh Hashanah so they wouldn't miss the playdough too much during the holiday.  I cut out some pie crust colored circles and strips, added in a selection of small green and red pompoms and two sets of tongs (yay for sneaking in that fine motor practice). I also set out some empty spice bottles, toy baking utensils and even a pom pom filled honey bottle. Even now that the holiday is over, they both still love baking and delivering pies!

While I never got to posting before Rosh Hashanah this year, the simple apple crafts we did would be a wonderful Autumn activity (or you can store in the vault for next year).

The boys have really taken to using chalk pastels on our chalkboard wall and on black paper (as have I!) so I set out an apple shaped piece of black card stock for them to color and a larger frame cut from scrapbook paper to glue it on. It was so simple and such a cute way to add a little festive flair to the new school year and the Jewish New Year!

The boys also really love wet coffee filter art so when I saw a post in one of my Facebook groups with coffee filter apples, I knew it was something we had to try. I set out some apple colored washable markers and used masking tape to attach a flattened white coffee filter to two trays. The boys colored away but the most desired part of this activity is always the spray bottle! S loves the spray bottle! He helped spray both coffee filters and they were set to dry. I cut the frames out of felt and glued everything together with hot glue before hanging our stained glass apples in the window.

 Transitions can be challenging and also quite beautiful. Just as Summer days give way to school days, so, too, do those sneaky leaves begin to change color and fall (even while it is still upward of 80 degrees here). There is a wistfulness as the Sprouts Scouts pack away for next Summer, but having a set routine truly helps us ease into the Autumn season with comfort and even a bit of excitement. I've learned the value in planning less, slowing down and engaging more with the boys. Rather than filling every moment of every hour, I've introduced an activity theme for each week day.

Monday: Story Time
Tuesday: Art
Wednesday: Play!
Thursday: Cooking/Baking
Friday: Tea Party
The activity we do under each theme is not necessarily the same each week. Yesterday, I thought we'd go to the park for Play! day and the boys were totally engaged with some of the new playthings at home, so we stayed in and played together. Story Time might sometimes be a trip to the library and other times include storytelling at home. Art might be set up or entirely child-led. Our cooking/baking days sometimes take us to the store to pick out vegetables for Stone Soup and other times we bake for Shabbos or for our Friday afternoon Tea Party. Our routine will change when we feel ready for it to do so and I try to let the boys take the lead in our afternoons, especially when mornings are spent away from each other while S is at school.

This month of festive holidays and pending hurricane offer plenty of family time together, and while that is a bit like doing the hokey pokey with "The Real World," it is quite nice to be able to sit back together and enjoy this family time. Wishing our family and friends a Shanah Tova U'Mesukah, a happy new school year and those who may be affected, safety in the storm to come. We will be back with more details on our new play at home routine, some great Autumn themed fun and, as always, plenty of happy playing!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Think Outside the Box Thursday: Art for ALL

 I used to know "everything" when I first started teaching and then I finished my college degree and still knew a "few things." Once I had my first child, all of my knowledge and wisdom about teaching and child-rearing magically vanished (unlike the baby weight) and I am now as blissfully ignorant about the early childhood years as the next guy!

I returned to the classroom 5 weeks after S was born and was thrust into this brave new world of knowing absolutely nothing. Parenthood has turned me into a student both at home and in the classroom. I am constantly watching and learning and questioning. I use my village as necessary and it's necessary more often than I'd ever imagined. And perhaps the greatest asset to that village are the children themselves! Young children may have different ways of communicating than adults, but they tell us a lot when we are willing to listen and observe.

Whether you are a parent including structured play activities at home, more formally home schooling or a classroom educator, I hope you'll find these "troubleshooting" posts to be yet another part of your own village. The ideas I will share are all based on my own observations and home or classroom practices. Every child and setting is unique and as such, we need to adapt (and often adapt again and again and again) accordingly. Feel free to try what makes sense and ditch what doesn't! Also feel free to share some of your own thoughts with me in the Comments section or through personal contact. I'm always looking for fresh ideas!

Since we have been exploring Art and Artists this summer, I wanted to kick off our first post with a theme about art with young children. Why is it that some children are naturally drawn to art activities while others are not? Why do some children fill a page while others flee the scene after just a line or two? One child will mass produce picture after picture and another will sit with the same piece of work for hours on end. A little boy rushes in to the art table and begins his work even before being given instructions. Another little girl is sitting, staring at the blank paper, well after instruction has ended. Certainly, children all have different areas of interest, different strengths and talents and different areas of growth and rates of development. How can we as parents and educators work with this to create an environment that encourages art for ALL?

I will (over)simplify this into four basic steps:

  1. Plan for Success
  2. Assess and Address
  3. Revisit and Revise
  4. Observe and Evaluate

And now, for the juicy details...

  1. Plan For Success: Whether you are setting up your art center/materials in a classroom or at home, whether for a structured activity or simply for open access, it is important to plan ahead for maximum success. Here are a few key pointers to consider even before you begin...
    • Can children reach and access all of the things they will need independently?
    • Are materials at child level and visible?
    • On the other end of that coin, if you intend to give verbal and/or visual directions first , are your materials out of accessible reach so that they will not provide an immediate distraction. Please remember that we want children to engage with art supplies. However, expecting them to not handle supplies within their reach while being given directions is very challenging for most.
    • Do the children know all of the steps involved to get the materials they will need and to put them away when they are done? 
    • If you are doing a structured activity or project, do you have everything you need out and accessible? It is helpful to think of all of the steps of your activity from preparation to execution to cleanup. If children need to color and glue, you might want to have markers out first and then the glue when they are done coloring (otherwise, your markers may get super gluey and stop working properly). If the children are painting, do you have an open space set up for drying finished work? Do you have wet rags or wipes nearby for painty hands? Where will children need to go to wash up when they are done and how will they get there?
    • Consider the space and time. Do you have enough physical space and time for the project you are about to embark on? Would your setup work best at a table or on the floor? Seated or standing? Can you provide options within these parameters for children who work better standing or laying on their tummy on the floor?
    • Are your materials all functional? Nothing is more frustrating than finding empty glue sticks or dried up markers and crusty paint brushes when you're ready to get to work! Do your best to weed those out in advance and also to instruct the children to manage their materials as well. Children can throw away an empty glue stick and help wash brushes and remember to cap those markers. Invite them to be resourceful and responsible with materials and this little bit of effort will go a long way!
    • What skill sets are necessary for completing an activity and are these all within your child[ren]'s range? Tasks as minute as pressing a cap all the way down on a marker or squeezing glue out of a bottle or using a "helping hand" to direct paper as the dominant hand cuts are all new and challenging to young artists. Spending the time to support them in the development of these skills can go a long way in eliminating frustration. I would even go so far as to encourage adults to work with children to master these skills rather than always stepping in to do so for them. The self-confidence that inherently comes with self-competence truly feeds creativity in art and other forms of work and play.
    • Safety as always is vital. Make sure that appropriate supervision and support is provided with materials that can pose a choking risk or sharp objects and even permanent paints and markers. 
    • Do allow for use of "real" materials and art supplies, even those that are sharp and permanent. This provides a supported environment in which these forms of "real work" are mastered and children develop a confidence in and reverence for the use of these tools.
    • Protecting spaces and clothing is something to consider as well. Some adults are not too concerned about colorful mishaps and others are. Some children are also more likely to feel concerned about this than others. Make sure that you have adequate coverage options for your work space and for the children themselves. I love using cheap vinyl placemats as "art mats" for smaller scale projects and activities and leaving smocks optional and accessible at home (sometimes less optional in a classroom setting since parents may not appreciate newly tie-dyed clothes coming home). For larger scale messy activities, you may want a cheap shower curtain, tablecloth or sheet to use as a drop cloth and to cover the area. You may also want to dress yourself and your younger artists in clothing that is OK to get messy.

    2. Assess and Address: This is where the rubber meets the road! You've put all the preparations in place and now your activity is underway. You notice that while some of the children are taking to it, some are struggling to begin, rushing to finish or otherwise displaying distress. Here are some common concerns that may come up and ways to address them in the moment...
    • The activity feels too challenging. Many factors can play into a child perceiving that an art activity is too difficult. Perhaps there are too many steps. Children with difficulty processing verbal directions may do better given a visual support. I like to use 3 prompt cards made with movable Velcro parts to support these children. Even pre-readers can use a 3-prompt card with a pictures. If there are more than 3 steps, remove the steps as they are completed and add the next one. I do not like to include more than 3 at a time because this can feel overwhelming. Sometimes having too many supplies out at the same time can be overwhelming in a multi-medium/multi-step activity. Consider having only pencils and markers out to begin with and then handing out the scissors and glue, etc.  
    • There are not enough supplies. It can be hard to wait! If you are working with a large group and do not have enough of certain supplies for each child, consider having rotating stations. One area can be designated to gluing, one to cutting, etc. Alternatively you may consider making sure that there are enough glue sticks and scissors for each set of hands. This can go for both open ended process art and directed art activities. 
    • There are too many supplies. Whether you are setting up an open-access art area for process art that is child led or instructing a project, there is such a thing as too much. Option overload can cause some children to use materials in excess while others may feel altogether inhibited. Keeping shelves and the table stocked minimally and swapping out materials as needed to make space and opportunity for new ones goes a long way. There are certain things that I always have accessible: paper, scrap paper, scissors, glue... and others that I rotate in and out, like a variety of mediums for coloring, writing, drawing, collage, sculpture, etc. Within that framework, I also provide recycled trays and containers so children can easily contain and carry what they need to their space and not have to take everything with them. This is kind of like art portion control but is also generally more aesthetically pleasing to the young artists as they work.
    • Time is of the essence. This is a delicate dance. Too much time, and some artists may grow bored and want to move on. Not enough time, and some artists may feel rushed--reluctant to leave a project and sometimes even reluctant to begin one. Consider how you can allow for artists to have the right amount of time--whether in one session or through the option to leave and return to work at a later point. If a child seems disengaged with an activity, can he or she leave and return to it at another time?
    • Proper Prompting: Do you always finish a big project in one sitting? Alternatively, if you were in the middle of a project and someone said "Ok, let's go!" how would you feel? Consider the fact that even retailers give 15 and 5 minute warnings before they close to their adult customers--all people do best with prompts. Prompting children when time is about to be up can be done quietly from table to table or individually as opposed to through a turn-off-all-the-lights-and-listen-to-my-booming-voice way and it can be helpful to offer a verbal option of returning to the work at a later point if it is not done. It is also helpful to inform young artists in advance if their work will need time to dry or be completed before it can be brought home.
    • To demonstrate or not to demonstrate? That is the question. When adults provide an adult sample--or even a child's sample, is this helpful or hindering? My answer is YES, to both. For some, it is helpful, for some it is intimidating, for some it is limiting, for some it gives structure. This is an area you will need to assess on an individual and time-by-time basis. I have worked with the gamut of personalities, from those who want an adult to draw for them to those who cringe at an adult writing their name at the bottom corner and everything in between. I try to be sensitive to all of these feelings whether they are all rolled up into one child or across a classroom. In a classroom setting, peer work can also play an influential role, for better or for worse. Using language like "everyone's work will be a little bit different" and "I did it this way, but you might have another idea and that is OK" seems to help. 
    • In Praise of [Not] Praising:  How we speak to and about a child's work also contributes to his/her feelings about it. Avoiding comparison remarks and even avoiding quantitative and qualitative remarks in general--whether positive or negative is challenging but also important. This is not to say that we should never praise a child's work and say how beautiful it is. It is simply to say that we should also include statements that notice the work (Oh, I see you chose to use a lot of red in this area, can you tell me more about that?) or praise that reflects the effort and invoke's the child's feelings of accomplishment (You worked for a long time on that with a great deal of focus, I can tell you really feel proud about it!).
    • The Good Enough Artist: Perfectionism is a quality that can lead to a masterpiece or stifle creativity altogether. In myself and in my students and in my own children, I have seen it do both. Allowing and encouraging the Good Enough Artist is a unique balancing act. Self confidence can be attained in many ways. While external praise can initially increase confidence, the most sustainable form of cultivating confidence in our children's creative work is through their own feelings of self mastery. Sometimes children will become distressed at wanting to draw or create something they "can't do." I appeal to what they can do. What colors is it? What shapes? What do you feel when you see it? It doesn't have to be a photograph--so much of our art is not! Introduce these young artists to impressionist paintings and abstract art by great artists--there are many right ways to capture the same object or idea.
    • Helping and Hindering Environments: Some children work well in a quiet environment, others work best with some music. Some may be distracted by very bright light coming through a window or extraneous noise or even a strong smell (and some art materials do have a strong smell). Some children are averse to certain textures or messy art and having options within this to wipe or wash hands intermittently or perhaps to use a brush to paint or tool in clay rather than bare hands can go a long way in making sensory sensitive children feel invited into the art process. Additionally, the amount we, the adults, are speaking can go a long way in helping or hindering an artist. Too much adult talk can be quite distracting and too much adult presence can feel intimidating. I try to maintain longer pauses between my own talk during art times and to allow artists who do need more space and quiet for focus to have that. In assessing your art environment, I encourage you to sit where and how your young artists will sit, to stand at child level and really try to gain a sense of how they will experience the space. You may notice something that needs tweaking even before the issue arises!
3. Revisit and Revise: This is kind of the troubleshooting phase. This is where you tweak things a bit to meet the current needs of the artists in you room. This will certainly be a very unique to the individual and unique to the circumstance step, but here are a few out-of-the-box ideas that I like to incorporate in general:
  • Alternative work space: We generally view art as a seated activity. Perhaps we also envision standing at an easel. The option to work standing at a table, seated with a tabletop easel, outdoors, indoors, laying on the floor, on a vertical surface and even lying on their backs underneath a table with the bottom covered with paper and reaching overhead can all be ways to encourage a reluctant artist or inspire an eager one. 
  • The Scribble Sheet: We all know at least one kid who loves to scribble. Whether or not that is developmentally related (and scribbling is where they are at with drawing and writing) or personality related (it feels good to scribble), I provide the option of a Scribble Sheet. Children can get a piece of paper from the scrap paper bin and get all of those scribbles out before beginning to work, during work times and whenever they feel the need and desire. I do not judge scribbles as "less than" a form of art, but rather a part of the process for some children, and they can, in fact, be quite beautiful! A Scribble Sheet also provides an option for young artists who wish to have a space for a rough copy or practicing a technique.
  • Size, texture and color matters: When it comes to paper, sometimes introducing paper in a different size makes all the difference! We tend to steer straight for the standard printer size, perhaps the slightly larger construction paper. Consider providing large easel paper or small blank index cards. Or graph paper. Or paper of different colors and textures.What about canvas or fabric or tin foil? A great way to increase your options is to make use of your scraps. Save bits and pieces from projects in a plastic bin or tray for artists to use. Standard white paper is great, but not every artist is drawn to drawing on it.
  • And while we're on the topic of drawing on paper... This is not every artist's favorite medium Sculpture, clay and dough work, wire, beading, building, designing, sewing, fiber crafts, collage, and photography are just a few more forms of visual art. The world of computers have also added a whole new world to design and graphic art. Allow for opportunities with a variety of artistic methods and mediums. Everyone has at least one artistic bone in his or her body--you may just have to find it!
  • Join 'em! While adult samples and modeling are something I feel we should be mindful of, actually sitting in and joining our little ones in art together can be a great way to bond and inspire each other's creativity. Whether at home or in the classroom, engaging with children during art times, even participating, can be such an asset to all artists (yourself included).
  • Expose children to art. And all types! Hang artwork at their visual level--their own and that of "The Greats." Let them touch art, let them see art and let them appreciate art--even if it means slowing down to admire things in nature or in a book... Make time to expose children to art in a variety of forms and locations and let them catch you doing the same!
  • Stop, drop and roll with the punches. Sometimes, you really just need to stop and drop an activity. Maybe the timing isn't ideal. Maybe the activity isn't ideal. Maybe you will tweak it and return to it, maybe not. Be OK with abandoning ship when that feels like the best thing to do. Also be OK with letting young artists see you make that choice. "Gosh, I'm just not feeling this right now," or "this really isn't working how I wanted it to and I'm frustrated. I'm going to take a break from it and maybe I'll try again later.
  • When is it done? Who decides when a piece of art is finished? This is a particularly sensitive area for the young minimalists in your life. When a child does leave a great deal of "white space" on a project, perhaps only adding one or two colors or lines and walking away, do you push him to "add more" or allow for the white space? Here are a few things to consider: Was the work, however minimal, intentional? S will quite often leave a good portion of a paper blank. He is, however, very intentional in how, where and why he places his work. If, on the other hand, you sense a child rushed through an activity and is leaving the project for another reason, perhaps inquire about why that is. Boredom, avoidance, distraction, frustration and so many other factors can play a role. This is where I often encourage offering a smaller sized paper. Blank canvas can be intimidating and standard sized paper is bigger than the little hands that work with it. Try offering a 4x6 blank index card and observe what happens. On the other end of the spectrum are the page fillers. Paint is piling high and deep. Glue is leaving you in a sticky situation and glitter might be everywhere. Again, I encourage you to assess the situation before saying "it looks like you're all done." I would inform about the likelihood for paper to rip when it is too wet with paint or to work on techniques to control the amount of glue or glitter that leave the bottle and jar in order eliminate unnecessary waste. But I also hesitate to tell an artist that her work is finished if she is genuinely still working. There is art in and of itself to be discovered through thickly layered paint and a whole world of beauty and bliss in the textures of glittery glue. An artist with a very wet painting can be offered a second sheet of paper to make a print and now he has two paintings! In either scenario, asking "does it feel done?" or "what's next?" can go a long way in encouraging young artists at work.
4. Observe and Evaluate: This is a unique step, because although I list observe and evaluate together, I want you to separate them. Take the time to observe and ONLY observe. A child using a material in a way that is not how you intended is not necessarily wrong--give it the time and space it deserves (unless, of course, it is a dangerous situation, and then intervene!) and see where it goes. Evaluate after the fact. What worked? What didn't? What would you do next time? What could encourage this particular child and what inhibits him? What was your role in the experience? What would you like your role to be? Are you too involved? Not involved enough? 
I think, perhaps, the most important factor to consider is what the child's experience was. Children are not as driven by product as we are. In fact, they are hugely process oriented. Whether the art experience was child led or adult-directed, did the child seem engaged? Content? Frustrated? Encouraged? Rushed? Hesitant? Thoughtful? Distracted? And ask about their experience! How was it for you to make this___? Was it hard? Was it fun? Was it frustrating? Exciting? These are all great clues into what gets a child's creative gears spinning and how you can get your own working in conjunction to create an incredible opportunity in art for ALL!

I hope this post was helpful in getting your own thoughts going about engaging in art with young children. It certainly is not a post with as many answers as questions--but those questions are so vital in our experience as adults working with young children (the real experts). I would love to hear some of your own thoughts on the subject and tools of the trade! I'd also love to hear your ideas for future troubleshooting posts and would be happy to dive into any concerns or topics of interest. Feel free to respond in the Comments section or contact me personally. 

Happy Playing!

Monday, August 13, 2018

We're Getting Ready to Rock!

The Sprout Scouts Playcamp is READY TO ROCK this week with our Rocks & Stones theme. Rocks are one of our favorite play themes here, and it certainly is a theme worth repeating. We will likely revisit some of our favorite rock themed activities and we'll be exploring some new ones as well. While Sprout Scouts Playcamp is nearing the end of its summer run, the nice thing about a rock theme (and just about any of our Summer themes for that matter) is that there is still much to explore well into the Fall and even year round.

I spent some time yesterday adding in some themed materials and activities into our play area. A few updates were made to our Ever-changing Book, a couple of our drawers stocked with a Rocks & Stones Observation Station and sensory play trays with kinetic sand and stones.

We have an amazing rock and mineral collection from my mom. Rather than setting out the whole collection at once, I stock the small baskets nightly with some interesting ones and the drawer also contains magnifying glasses, magnifying containers, a couple of rulers (S is very into measuring these days) and a prism scope. You could add in a scale if you have one, options for drawing and documentation or whatever else might be useful for observation.

The boys both loved singing and acting out this Stone Soup song. Don't forget to check out the short story stretcher activities we did last summer with the story of Stone Soup!

We happened to take a little day trip yesterday and stopped by a little gift shop on the road. Outside the shop as we had our picnic lunch, S noticed a beautifully painted rock left in front of some flower planters. What a find! While we have not actually painted and left our own Rocks for Kindness, we have been on the receiving end of a few and we happened to have one of our finds in the car still! We swapped out the rocks and made our way. S already has in mind that he'd like to paint some rocks of our own this week...

We will also be engaging in some great sensory play activities, both indoors and outside, a rock & mineral scavenger hunt, making our own rock n' roll band, smashing geodes, performing some rock science experiments and more!

We got out some of our favorite rock themed books from our own collection and some from the library. We explored rocks on the light table (such an incredible experience!) and had loads of fun in the first of our rock themed sensory bins, I-Spy Letter Rocks in Rainbow Rice. S took it upon himself to find everyone's special letter (the letter that begins our name) and Y got a kick out of holding his Y rock.

 There are so many great rock themed activities out there:

Rocks are a fabulous theme on their own, but you can also integrate it with our Digging in the Dirt Theme or explore the vast history of fossils and rocks with our dinosaur themed activities.

We will be back with more rockin' play ideas later this week. Until then...

Rock on & happy playing!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Sprout Scouts Playcamp: Grow Your Own Green Thumb, From Farm[ers Market] to Table

Here at the Sprout Scouts Playcamp, the garden is in its next phase of harvest. Many things are blooming and growing in spite of me and we're enjoying a small but bountiful harvest of fresh herbs, tomatoes, green beans, flowers, and even still some hot peppers. We have faced and organically fought squash bugs and have one mini pumpkin and one mini gourd to show for it. We have done a fair amount of taste testing, cooking, baking and preserving in our kitchen, but when it came to the next part of our Grow Your Own Green Thumb play-theme, taking it from the garden to the table, I decided to leave our home altogether and head to the local Farmers Market. We've made occasional visits to farmers markets here this summer and when we had an unexpected day freed up to visit one of my favorites, we brought our bags, our appetites and a great free printable scavenger hunt from Natural Beach Living. You can print off your own and other great farmers market themed printables here! S and Y both got to pick a fruit or vegetable to taste and bring home. S wanted nectarines and Y wanted cucumbers (probably to make pickles, his new favorite food).

Getting out in the garden is a great way to get kids involved in growing, tasting and cooking with their own fresh produce. Whether you have an adventurous eater or a more tentative taster (I've got one of each now), experiencing the full process of seasonal eating is a valuable experience. If you live near a farmers market, I highly encourage you to take your family on an adventure. Try something new. Talk to the farmers. Get excited about fruits, veggies and flowers! If you do not live near a farmers market, consider a trip to a U-pick farm (we went strawberry picking earlier this summer) or even a trip to your local grocery store. 

Scavenger hunts are a great way to explore the colors and flavors of the season. Consider researching recipes for a new to you fruit or vegetable. We even made an adventure (and a bracha) out of trying a new fruit from a produce stand in Brooklyn, NY while on vacation! Another option if your location and budget permit is to join a CSA and have locally grown produce delivered right to your door (or another nearby location) year round. We subscribe to one on a bi-weekly basis and adjust our grocery budget accordingly. This helps us to eat in season and be a bit more creative about recipe planning and using what we have.

Summer is a great season to grow and harvest a plethora of produce. As it comes to a close, we will enjoy the flavors of Autumn and get creative about savoring and preserving the remaining summer abundance. We will also get creative about continuing to garden both outdoors in our longer southern summer season and then indoors once the cool weather arrives. It feels important to still be surrounded by growth, life and fresh flavors! Until the next time...

Happy Playing!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Little House & The Farm, Part 7: Handcrafted and Homemade

It is always a little sad when good things come to an end. Stores smell of fresh school supplies this time of year and even though the summer is in full heat and harvest, its end is just around the corner. This summer, moving with the rhythm of my boys' interests felt like such a freedom. And as such, we did not get to everything we originally planned in the Sprout Scouts Playcamp--which is totally OK! With that in mind, we have a few more themes we do want to squeeze into these last long days of summertime and it's time to wrap up our time in the past with our Little House & the Farm theme. We will surely be continuing to read aloud from the series, especially during long summer Shabbats and many of the activities we did over these past couple of weeks will return for repeat visits and time goes on.

We had one of those "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie Days" here earlier this week when I set out a simple button and pipe cleaner craft at our Morning Work table. Both boys loved it! S mastered the fine motor skill of stringing buttons onto his pipe cleaner and Y mastered the fine motor skill of using his pincer grasp to select one button at a time for me to string on his pipe cleaner.

Well, using these buttons reminded S of sewing and he wanted to sew from there! So when Y was taking his morning nap, I put together a small plastic canvas and sewing kit for S. He worked with the plastic canvas and embroidery thread for a bit and then wanted to sew some buttons on. That reminded him of his needlepoint that we started over the winter. He decided to use that to sew on some buttons with regular thread and a needle (and his Mommy's help) and from there, he decided to use his ruler to measure how big it was. This is when he decided it was all finished and that he wanted to turn it into a pillow!

His Mommy helped finish the last bit of sewing after he chose a fabric for the back and now his dolls have a brand new pillow to sleep on!
Well, after we finished working on that, he admired the buttons on his finished needlepoint and that reminded him he wanted more buttons! So it was off to the craft supply store with a gift card I had for stored up rewards points and both boys started their own button collections. It is so much fun to watch them appreciate the small notions that brought such joy to Laura and Mary in Little House in the Big Woods and quite nostalgic to remember my own bead and button collections as a little girl. My older sister taught me all about "bartering" and "negotiating" through collected beads and buttons and now I can share these same hands on lessons with the boys.

Watching them observe, trade and design with their collected buttons and beads gave me the inspiration for this Morning Work activity to design with loose parts on mirrors using their special collections. S enjoyed arranging designs around his mirror and Y got a real kick out of placing fruit shaped buttons upside down and looking at their reflections!

As our weeks draw to a close, the boys get increasingly excited for Shabbos here. Shabbos, among other things, means tasty home-baked treats and challah! S loves to help me bake and even takes great pride in deciding what we will make for Shabbos dessert. Y loves to help shape challah just as much as his older brother and both boys enjoy the eating part.

I remember as a young girl in Hebrew school we once made "challah babies" out of stuffed stockings braided like challahs and decorated to look like babies. An amazing teacher in S's school actually used this method to teach her students to braid challah and I combined the ideas this morning with a laminated visual aid for each boy to explore at his own level. Y is years away from braiding and had a lot of fun playing with the "dough" nonetheless, but S actually got the hang of it with my help!

S asked me to sew the challahs together as a permanent braid. I gave him the option to leave them as "play challahs" for our Shabbos toy set that we take out each week or to turn them into challah baby dolls. He wanted to keep them as toy challahs! Tomorrow morning the boys will get to shape their own loaves of challah to bake fresh for Shabbos. Baking was such an integral part of the Ingalls home and I am so glad it is an integral part of ours as well. With Rosh Chodesh Elul just upon us, it's time to start stocking up on baked goods and challah for the yom tovim! There are so many valuable lessons to take from the Little House books. The Ingalls family must always use what they have and to its greatest possible potential. There's no running to Walmart every time the whim strikes and more and more, I try to live this way and convey it to the boys as well. This morning we used that washboard again to make music while we sang songs from our Ever-changing Book!
The second great lesson I take from reading the Little House books is to slow down. Summer days are long lasting but short lived. But for now, there is nothing urgently calling upon me (even if it often feels that there is). We can slow down, smell the challah baking and taste the sweetness of each day as it comes. Next week we will be back to explore a favorite theme of ours--rocks! And I'll even throw in a bonus post on our Grow Your Own Green Thumb theme that will take you from Garden to Table (and even the Farmers' Market). Until then...
Happy Playing!