Monday, July 31, 2017

The Montessori Inspired Home: Introductory Post

Early on in my teaching career, I became interested in Maria Montessori's philosophy on early education. I began to incorporate Montessori inspired activities into my classrooms. I was greatly intrigued to discover A Jewish Homeschool Blog, and to discover how this mother, home-schooler and blogger was incorporating the Montessori method into her children's Jewish education. The Torah instructs us to teach our children according to their very individual and personal needs and abilities; this is a core value shared by the Montessori philosophy. My first time visiting a true Montessori classroom was a few years ago, during my first year teaching at our local Montessori-inspired Jewish preschool. There were many ideas and concepts that I brought back with me to my own classroom and, being that our school is Montessori inspired, I loved the freedom to incorporate methods and activities I found helpful for my students while not being strictly bound to only this philosophy. I have always felt a child-based eclectic approach to be the most successful one for meeting and moving with all of my students' individual needs. 

"Help me do it by myself!" This is one of my favorite Montessori concepts for both life in the classroom as well as at home. It truly captures a child's innate desire to master the skills necessary to achieve age appropriate levels of autonomy. Our role as teachers, parents and caregivers is to foster independence in our children. As a teacher, I view my classroom as an extension of the home and our students collectively as our family and community. I often use the words "this is our classroom home" when I am instilling a sense of respect for the space and members who share it. The majority of community members in a classroom are children and so the space is always set up to be child-accessible. Materials the children need are at their level--everything from chairs and tables, to art supplies and toys, tissues and wipes and toilets and sinks--all of these are accessible and available to the children. They are given lessons individually and as a group on how to manage and care for themselves in this space, and very quickly my classrooms (and students) are running like a well oiled machine! My students always came in each morning, unpacked their bags, removed and hung up their coats and knew where to place papers to be turned in, lunches and snacks. If they were hungry for a snack, I had an "open snack policy," and a basket where they could access their snack foods. By four and five, most children can recognize hunger cues and know when they need to eat! If there was a spill, they could easily access a rag to wipe it up. If they were thirsty, a small pitcher was ready with cups to fill with water. If the pitcher was empty, they knew how to carefully carry it to the bathroom sink and fill it up again. Fostering this level of independence in children helps to build confidence and competence. It requires us to teach through both modeling and formal lessons. We must remember that our students need the lesson from beginning to end--how to access their materials, what to do with them and how to put them away when they are done. I have found that to be a comparatively small investment of time when it comes to running a classroom as an only teacher with many students. The children become autonomous enough to carry out age appropriate tasks and to help each other when needed. It culminates in more time spent learning and exploring as a community and less time tending to the vast array of individual needs throughout the day. 

Life at home with children is a bit different. The house is a family space and children are members of the family community. The space itself must accommodate a different set of developmental needs: those of both the adults and differently aged children. While I always dreamed I'd be the parent to foster independence in my own children as I do in my students. it's often "easier" and "faster" to do things for them. Dinner is completed more quickly when I make it myself. We can get into the car a lot sooner if I put my toddler's shoes on and pack snacks and water ahead of time. That said, this toddler will be attending that same Montessori-inspired Jewish preschool in the fall! He will learn from his teachers how to independently navigate his classroom space and contribute to his classroom community. As a parent and as a teacher, I value the connection between home and school. 

S is definitely of the age now that he often wants to do things by himself. And sometimes he also still wants help or to have things done for him--those are moments I know that he is particularly grappling with his role as big brother and bigger kid. I aim to minimize our battles, to empower him to achieve mastery over age appropriate tasks and to continue to fill him with the feelings of being nurtured and cared for that he still craves and needs. And one of the ways I can best achieve this in our home is by setting up our living space so that he is able to access the things he needs throughout the day independently. Toys,books, art supplies, artwork, dishes and cleaning supplies, self care supplies like tissues, towels and wipes, even clothing and shoes must be available and accessible to all of the members of the household--not just those over 3 feet tall! And as much as I joke about yearning for the day that has finally arrived, when my toddler could be counted on to fetch things for me so I wouldn't have to get up and get them myself, I see the benefit for him in being able to access and choose the things he wants. Beyond that, by doing so independently, I eliminate many of the battles we experience on a daily level over controlling those choices.

At the beginning of last summer, I revisited my copy of  Patricia Oriti's At Home with Montessori. This concise volume takes the reader room by room through the family living space with practical suggestions on how to incorporate Montessori's philosophy and appeal to children's natural desire and need to actively participate in family life and functions. At the time, S was still pretty new to walking and quite a bit shorter! Room by room, I incorporated some small changes both from ideas taken from the book as well as my own creativity to make our space more accessible to S. This was truly helpful as well when I was newly pregnant with Y and not feeling well enough to get up and down all day! 

Each space and each room is an opportunity for the family to coexist and connect with one another. When we portray each of the family members' preferences, personalities and needs in these spaces, it's truly a reflection of each individual and not just the adults or just the children. As a result, there are really no spaces that are only for adults or only for kids here. Partly due to small living space and partly due to our preference, nearly every room is family friendly! The only exception is the bedroom my husband and I share--but even though it's not typically a room our children are in past infancy, it is still one that contains artwork by S on the walls and stuffed animals on the beds! When it comes to setting up your home, a living space is as personal and individual as the people in it. There is not one right or wrong way. We do what works best for our families as they grow and evolve. As our families change, so, too, do our living spaces. My home may not be featured in Good Housekeeping anytime soon, but it is a genuine reflection of each of the people in it. I've shared plenty of my practical tips for playroom set-up here, and now I'm happy to share a short series of posts on how we set up other areas of our home to be family accessible along with some activities for teaching practical life skills.

 I do want to stress that I am not a strict Montessorian. I do what works best at the time in both my home and in classrooms when I'm teaching. While many of the ideas in these posts have a Montessori flavor, that method is not the only ingredient in my personal recipe for success. I love many of the aspects of the Montessori method and I also value other philosophies in conjunction with it. I think that children learning to navigate their environments independently and contribute toward the functioning of family and classroom life is vital. I also think that especially today, children also need to engage in meaningful abstract play. My intention for my home is that it is a space where both of these functions are easily attainable. In her time, Maria Montessori stressed the importance of the classroom being a learning and work environment; play surely happened in abundance at home. Nowadays, academia has taken a huge shift from very early on. More and more, children are pushed at a very early age to develop skills by kindergarten that once were not prevalent in the classroom until kindergarten or even first grade. Fewer early childhood classrooms have open time to play and fewer children have open space and opportunities to explore the outdoors in the way that many of us did when we were their age. For this reason, I have been particularly play-based in my home preschool approach and even as S begins formal preschool in the Fall, I'd like our home to still be a play-based haven for him when he returns. Learning happens in many ways and in many venues!

Join us tomorrow when I'll offer a peek into our Dining space, a space that truly gathers the family over one of our favorite activities: eating! Ironically enough, my husband and I will be fasting tomorrow in observance of Tisha b' we've truly set up that space to be one S can independently access just in time!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Beyond the Book: "Rosie's Walk" by Pat Hutchins

When S asked to do a story stretcher with a book about a farm, I had a few in mind. Over and over again, I kept going back to the classic tale by Pat Hutchins, Rosie's Walk. Rosie the hen leaves her chicken coop for a little stroll. As she moves about the book through pages of bold illustrations, she is blissfully ignorant of a very determined fox following closely behind her. This book is great all on its own or as part of a farm theme. My favorite aspect of using this book with children is that it can truly get them moving. Reading need not be a sedentary activity--and while you're at it, you'll be teaching and learning some great prepositional and directional language!

A story walk is a great way to take the text right off the page of this book and take your little readers into the world of story drama! S talked last week about wanting to make a bird costume and since Rosie the Hen is the protagonist in this book, I knew he'd get a kick out of making a hen hat to wear. We already had a fox hat from when S was a baby. It is definitely more Y's size at this point and I foresaw that S might feel jealous so getting to make his own hen hat was a definite bonus. Costumes are a great addition to story stretcher activities. They can really bring the story alive and engage your young readers. Alternatively you can use toys/props or make your own puppets. I combined text written on sentence strips and laminated pictures from the book that I printed and laminated from this great website to set up a story walk along our living room floor. When S woke up and came downstairs from his nap, he immediately saw our story map lining the hardwood floor and was excited to add the finishing touches to his hen hat.
We created our hen hat by stapling together a couple of strips of white cardboard. I covered the front with clear contact paper, sticky side out, but stapled a second layer of cardboard to the inside of the hat so it wouldn't stick to anyone's hair! In advance I drew on eyes and attached the beak and waddle--older artists can help with this and even younger ones if you have a bit more time on your hands!

S made a great Rosie and was definitely ready for a walk. Y was a great, albeit sleepy little fox...

Our story walk took us from one end of our living room to the other, with all roads leading to home in our kitchen set, where Rosie arrives safely in time for dinner. The printed and laminated pictures are a great addition to a movable story map like this or can be used with velcro as a flannel board set, made into stick puppets or glued onto a paper collage story map. If you want to take it outdoors, you could even set this activity up outside using sidewalk chalk and/or props. It's unbearably hot here right now, so story stretchers are a great way to entertain us indoors for a bit!

I included a basket of some supplemental
 farm themed reading 
I especially love how story stretcher activities inspire and encourage dramatic play. We happen to have some great farm themed toys and books as well as a felt board set I found at a secondhand store a while ago. Including music and movement to children's book extension activities is also a great way to get moving while building vocabulary, rhyme awareness and other early literacy skills. S and Y both love a song we frequently hear at our local library's story times, "Knock Knock Knock" by Michele Valeri from her album "Little Ditties for Itty Bitties."

 That flannel board set made a great addition to listening to and singing that song. We added each of the animals to the board as they "knocked" on the door and then continued the song on our own with other farm animals. Thrift stores can be a great resource for play and learning materials like flannel board sets. And you can also make your own set by printing and laminating pictures and adding velcro to the backside. Flannel boards are such a fabulous supplement to reading children's literature and greatly appeal to visual and tactile learners. They can also be used by children to retell and invent their own stories and nursery rhymes.

Arts and crafts are another favorite story stretcher activity here. I had set up a couple of simple farm themed activities for S. 

Our marble roll "pig in the mud" (brown paint) was a lot of fun!

S loved sticking cotton balls onto this contact paper sheep. I showed him how
 they can be stuck on whole or pulled apart like sheep's wool.

S especially likes the part where we hang up his finished artwork!

S really wanted to use his scissors today, so on the fly I set up a cutting practice activity to find some hidden farm animals hiding in the "grass:" 
I drew a simple barn on white paper, sneaked a few farm animal stickers at the bottom of the page and stapled on some construction paper grass to the bottom as well. S got busy cutting the grass with his scissors to reveal the hidden farm animals and then colored the barn and some rain in the sky!

I often conclude our story stretchers with a related sensory bin--another great way to encourage dramatic play and theme expansion. I set up this bin with popping corn kernels. For those who prefer not to use food in sensory play, you can sub in your favorite non-food fillers. Shredded brown bags would look great or even hay. Alternatively, you could always use the popping corn for its intended purpose when you're done playing. I store and reserve this for repeated use in our sensory bins as well as craft projects.
For some further reading, I printed out a very simple emergent reader about farm animals from this website. I am not a huge fan of using emergent readers in the traditional sense, however S (like many kids) loves the feeling of reading to me all by himself. Simple books like this and building sight word recognition are one component of early literacy. Some early readers really catch on to sight words and learn well in this way. Others do better with sounding out words and phonemic awareness. There are many right ways to learn how to read, but fostering a lifelong love of literature is the most important goal for me both as a parent and an educator. S enjoyed reading this booklet to me and to Y repeatedly and coloring in the animals. I demonstrate to him the first time how to track his finger underneath the words. Even if he is not yet recognizing words, he is learning that text on a page is where the story comes from! It can be helpful if using printable emergent readers like this one to have a copy for yourself and each of your emerging readers and to sit facing the same direction.

S is excited and eager to be choosing the themes and/or titles for our story stretchers lately and all of these factors are nurturing his own love of literature. We will be back with another story stretcher activity next week. Until then, happy playing!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

When It "Sucks" to Grow Up: Transitioning Transitional Objects

 When S was born, part of my birth and parenting plan was not to use pacifiers until breastfeeding was well established. That plan lasted for six [long and loud] days, when this photo was taken with S happily (or at least quietly) sucking away on the *only* pacifier we had in our house--a just-in-case-plan-A-didn't-work gift from my sister-in-law. It was practically as big as his whole head!
Paci, nookie, sussie, ya-ya, binkie, mute-button. They have many names and in our house, courtesy of my husband, they became known as "suckers." In fact, until rather recently, my toddler didn't even know suckers usually refer to lollipops or hard candies! From day six, his sucker was always nearby. I can track the evolution of my parenthood by the behaviors associated with his suckers. The early days when we washed them with hot soapy water every time he dropped one on the floor. And then when we washed them only if they landed face down...for longer than five seconds...or minutes...or had a visible collection of dust bunnies attached. And then we got smart and purchased the good ol' pacifier leash. At that point, anything they collected was as good as a vaccine.
At a certain point when S started to talk with his sucker in his mouth, we transitioned to having them only in bed when he was napping and sleeping. And a small (or big) part of me really hoped that his suckers would go the way of many other transitions in his life--like sleeping in his own bed, or weaning--and he would initiate the transition. But it didn't. And with his third birthday now behind us and a mouth full of healthy teeth and vocabulary, it was time...
So much of our childhood imagination is reserved for ideas about being grown up. We play about being grown up, we long for being grown up, we identify with and emulate the people around us who are grown up. And at the same time, sometimes growing up is hard! Becoming three has meant a lot of new things for S. Wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis are things he loves and takes pride in. Having a new, short hair cut has been an exciting change, and he misses his pony tail, which now lives in a ziplock bag! This past Shabbos, we offered S a morning walk around the neighborhood and his response was "I can't, I'm too old!" It was cute and quite hilarious (and he is full of clever excuses and negotiations these days), but on a deeper level, it truly speaks to the classic, existential dichotomy of growing older: wanting at once both the freedoms that come with age and the comforts of being young.
We introduced the idea of giving up his suckers on Friday morning and framed it as a "celebration." We would make this event special and celebratory rather than somber--or at least as much as possible! There are a lot of great methods out there for transitioning transitional objects, especially pacifiers. Some folks merely take them away. Some collect them for "babies who need them." Some invite the pacifier fairy to collect them and leave a prize in their place. Some folks transition slowly and incrementally, others do it cold turkey. Like many aspects of parenting, I totally winged this one. I felt it was important to be as honest with S as possible about it and also to keep things simple in terms of explanations--unless he asked for more information. We had already begun in the weeks prior to talk about how older children no longer use suckers and that when we have all of our teeth, in order to take care of them we must eat healthy foods, brush properly and not suck on pacifiers anymore. So on Friday morning when he woke up and came downstairs, I asked him if he'd like to have a special sucker celebration today and go shopping with Mommy and Y to pick out a special doll or blanket to keep him company in bed for now and a toy to earn once he could go 10 sleeps (naps and nights) without using his sucker.
He was excited! He put on his Batman watch and grabbed his "credit card" (a cardboard insert from a wallet we bought for my husband on his birthday) and we headed to his favorite store. I wanted to balance the process of ensuring he understood what was happening with not causing excessive anxiety or energy around it. We talked in the store as he picked out a big, stuffed Lightening McQueen race-car from the movie Cars (that he hasn't seen yet!) about how he will have this race-car in his bed and not have his sucker. We perused the toy aisles where he picked out a Lego set to earn after filling up his reward chart.

 When we got home, we unpacked our groceries and had lunch and before naptime was to begin, we gathered materials to make and decorate an envelope to collect the suckers and a reward chart to collect stickers as he earned his way to the new Lego set. I intentionally set up a scenario for instant success: he would get those stickers regardless because we were not going to give him back his pacifiers. I wanted him to feel ownership and competency with this transition; it's great for us to feel proud of him, it's more important for him to feel proud of himself.

I also intentionally left some extra time for nap to happen and chose a day on which we were not leaving the house in a hurry later and would be home, all together. Even though Fridays are busy as we prepare for Shabbos, my husband is home earlier and Shabbos itself is a slow and cozy family time. I knew this would allow for us to have extra time to nurture S in his process and support him at nap and bed times as needed. Additionally, in case things were especially tough, we'd have extra time to sleep ourselves! 

When it was time to go upstairs, Lightening McQueen led the way, driving up the stairs and saying "beep beep" the whole way up. We hung up his reward chart and opened the envelope to collect his suckers. Luckily for me, there were only two left to track down and find! I asked S if he wanted to put them in the envelope and he didn't. He wanted me to do it. As I did, I sang a little song to say goodbye to the suckers and hello to the new stuffed race-car. I sealed the envelope and continued our traditional nap-time routine. S asked for his sucker. I reminded him we said goodbye to the suckers to help his teeth stay healthy and strong and of the other things he had still to help him feel cozy and safe. He asked if he could have a new sucker. Again, I reminded him that we were saying goodbye to the suckers to help his teeth stay healthy and strong. I reminded him also of his new special race-car and the Lego set he was trying to earn. 
"Maybe I need two Lego sets, Mommy," he said as I kissed him goodnight and left the room. (Maybe I will need two Lego sets when this is all done, I thought to myself!) I told him I was going to go clean the bathrooms for Shabbos and would come check on him afterward. I find that if/when separations are challenging for children, knowing where we are, what we are doing and when we will be back is helpful to them. And I kept to my word. After I finished cleaning, I went back into his room where he was clearly still wide awake and offered some extra snuggles and kisses. I also brought him one of my special dolls, a stuffed Pete the Cat that we have shared back and forth from the end of my first year teaching after he was born when it was gifted to me by a student's parent who was also his babysitter at the time. He didn't want it or the Lightening McQueen, and I quickly figured out we weren't going to have a nap that day! Nonetheless, we stuck to our guns and had some quiet(ish) time in his bed.

Finally I heard the singing and chatting give way to crying. I went upstairs again and tended to his most current needs, which now included a new diaper. "It's hard to say goodbye to the suckers, isn't it?" I acknowledged and he agreed. That was enough to get him settled for the next hour or so until it was time to get up. His lack of adequate nap and anxiety about this transition definitely tempered his afternoon and evening a bit, but we had a special Mommy and S date to the pool before Shabbos began and ensured he'd be sufficiently tuckered out by bedtime! 
At bedtime he asked again for his suckers and we went through the reminders and routines again. He slept decently through the night but woke up crying early in the morning from "a sad dream in his bed." He napped over Shabbos and slept through the night as well but continues to ask, even with a "please" and negotiate over his suckers (like maybe he could give back the race-car and have back his suckers). Parenthood comes with its own growing pains: knowing you are doing to right thing but wishing that it didn't have to be painful for your child. Admittedly I know this could be way harder--he's not crying or losing massive amounts of sleep or showing signs of trauma related to this transition. This is healthy for him and so is talking about it and grappling with it. And at the same time, I wish to protect my children from the more uncomfortable aspects of growing up--and to protect myself from the fact that my children are growing up!
And so, as we support him in this transition, we continue to offer extra time and snuggles. We are open and honest with him about the process and we are patient. I was a thumb-sucker until age six. I genuinely remember how challenging it was to stop and I've shared that experience with S. We validate his feelings that this is hard and we focus on how proud he feels of himself and additionally, how proud we are. We continue to nurture in him that dichotomous desire to grow up and stay little at the same time, to celebrate, honor and validate transitions--even and especially ones that are challenging!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Photo Friday: Oh, For the Love of Green Tomatoes!

We started out our family garden this year a bit more modestly than last year. I learned, I thought, not to bite off more than I can chew. When it comes to feeding and watering my kids, I'm kind of rocking it...or mostly. I have one kid who is particular about what he eats, but has a decent array of healthy and less healthy foods he does like and regularly consumes. I have another kid who is such a picky eater that to this day he has had only one food source ever--breast-milk. Boy, really puts the other one into perspective, huh? But overall, I'm pretty darn good at feeding and watering my boys. It's a really good thing they make a lot of noise, though, because I fear that if they didn't, they would quickly go the direction of just about any plant I've ever raised. It's not that I do not have a green thumb--I'm a decent gardener. I'm just a forgetful gardener, A procrastinating gardener. A neglectful gardener. But before you call Plant Protective Services on me, please know that although we planted several types of seeds this year that I know grow well in our garden and produce produce my toddler might eat, we still have one thing growing: the tomatoes I planted last year that went to seed.
I am pleased to say that our tomato forest seems to be thriving in spite of me. So a couple of weeks ago as we were enjoying a cooler morning in the play garden, I decided to check out the status of everything else (all DOA, sad to say) and while I was at it, pulled up some weeds. Y was enjoying the fresh air and a nap in his stroller. S was "helping out" using a variety of gardening tools I keep accessible for him to explore with. As I bent over some quite tenacious weeds, pulling up roots by hand and then with the help of a rake, S sidled over and asked "Mommy, what are you doing?" 
I explained to him that I was pulling up weeds. He wanted to know what weeds were. I explained that they are plants that grow all on their own--that you did not plant yourself. The seeds got there either from a bird or a bug or maybe the wind... Some weeds are really pretty, like wildflowers and dandelion puffs that we so love to blow... Some weeds are even useful, like mint, an herb we often use in the kitchen. But some weeds can take up too much space and sun and water in our gardens, and we pull them out so the seeds we did plant have space to grow...
"Mommy, what are you doing?" Oh, the running monologue of a curious toddler. This question comes up again and again.
"Still pulling weeds... What are you doing?" I asked, still bent over, trying to determine whether I was plucking a weed or a displaced carrot...
"I'm pulling weeds, too!" S responded gleefully. 
"Oh, thank you! I sure could use your help!" I responded as I returned to a vertical position, thinking to myself that perpendicular is not my favorite position post-30...and then I saw it. Piles of freshly plucked green cherry tomatoes. S was pulling them, one by one from the vine! My initial instinct was to shout "OH NO! That's the only thing that might actually survive a summer in our garden and make it to our table..." but I didn't. Well, the "OH NO!" part did come out, but I stopped myself there. Technically by my definition, S was pulling up weeds--something growing in our garden that we didn't plant there. I planted two tomato plants last summer. This summer, I have about five or six growing up all on their own. And really, even with the piles of green tomatoes prematurely evicted from the vine, we are in no danger of not having way too many tomatoes to eat in a few more weeks. This was, however, a definite teachable moment. For us both. 
My main "goal" with our garden this year was for it to be a truly hands-on and child-centered experience. I set it up to invite S's curiosity (and sometimes the neighbor kids' as well) but I did not want it to be a space he could only appreciate from afar. I wanted him in the garden, in the mulch and dirt and digging up and discovering worms and bugs. I wanted him coming inside covered from head to toe in dirt from making cupcakes in his mud kitchen just like I did when I was his age. Those were some of my best childhood memories and they are becoming some of his. So I could instill the fear of life in him (or at least the fear of gardening) by scolding him for picking unripe fruits and harming a plant and not asking first... 
But he's three and growing up is a process. It's a process for children and tomatoes alike. If we do our job pretty well, we end up with rosy cheeked ripe tomatoes as a finished product. But kids could care less about the finished product (especially ones who will only lick a tomato). They are entirely focused on the process--and how much more might we also appreciate the fruits of our labor if we could focus a bit more on that process as well. 
So for the moment, we had a pile of green tomatoes--and rather than stew over it (oh yeah, pun definitely intended), we rolled with it. Literally even. We rolled tomatoes back and forth. We looked at the outside of a green tomato and observed that it's a different color than the ones we eat from the store. We talked about how fruits and vegetables change color as they ripen. We felt how firm they still were by gently squeezing. We observed what happens when you squeeze less gently! We brought one inside, at S's request, to wash and cut open. We looked at the seeds. He licked it. He did not like it. He does not like red tomatoes either. Did I mention I never even planted tomatoes this year?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Beyond the Book (and Song!): Baby Beluga by Raffi

When S asked to do a story stretcher with a book about a whale this week, I knew it was a great time to check out a copy of Raffi's Baby Beluga with illustrations by Ashley Wolff from our local library. This illustrated version of the classic Raffi song is a great book to sing a read together. I can remember listening to the song on cassette tape when I was little and now, you can even watch it and listen on YouTube! Oh, how the times have changed...this video even has footage of actual beluga whales:

We have transitioned to doing story stretcher activities once a week or over a couple of afternoons. Lately both boys have really been enjoying outings and story times at the library in the mornings and we save our story stretchers for afternoons at home (when it's way too hot to go outside). For this story stretcher, we even took a theme related field trip to our local science museum. There is currently a great exhibit of artwork and sculptures created in the image of ocean life made from recycled materials found on the beach. It is a great way to teach our children the importance of recycling and disposing items that cannot be recycled in an appropriate manner so that they do not harm our beaches, oceans and sea life. It is also great fun to walk through and see!
This whale rib cage is made entirely from plastic bottles and containers!

These drums sound great! They are made from Styrofoam found and rescued from the beach. 

We started off our story stretcher by reading and singing Baby Beluga and enjoyed a whale themed snack. Please excuse my creative license with this banana whale! S loved it and didn't mind that it maybe doesn't quite look photo worthy... Incidentally, if you have a reluctant reader who is less likely to sit through a longer book or even an enthusiastic reader who is just not in the mood for a story, reading during snacks or meals is a great way to sneak reading together into your routine. It's also a great "distraction" for picky eaters who have a harder time getting through meals and snacks without a battle. Whether we're struggling with one issue or the other, combining the two aspects of reading together and sharing a meal have proven successful every time!

YouTube was a great resource for videos about whales and live footage. We don't live very close to an aquarium, although we are only a couple of hours from a great marine center in Virginia Beach. In the meantime, the internet had to suffice, along with some great themed play and learning activities. These activities are simple enough to combine into one afternoon or to do individually for a short story stretch when you're short on time, energy or resources:

The Measured Mom has great printable dot sticker/do-a-dot worksheets for every letter of the alphabet. We used this one at our easel (for a vertical work opportunity) along with dot stickers to review the letter Ww! You could use do-a-dot markers instead or even use it on a horizontal surface with glass stones (which can be found at Dollar Tree or your local craft supply store) for an activity you can use multiple times.

I set up a very simple soapy water sensory bin with ocean mammals for S to play with in the kitchen while I made dinner. A little pro-tip--if you're looking for plastic animals, thrift stores are a great resource. Plastic animals can be quite pricey, but I've made some great finds at secondhand stores. We tend to throw in some soapy water play whenever the sensory table (or some toys or the kitchen floor) need a good washing! I added a few drops of blue food coloring to create the look of the ocean and you could certainly add more to this--glass stones, other props or toys for pouring and filling. I know S well enough to know he will search the house for creative things to add so I like to start it off quite simply at first and see where he takes it!
 This brown paper bag whale craft is simple, fun (as in you can hang it up when you're done or play with it) and incorporates the concept of recycling "trash" rather than allowing it to pollute our earth and oceans. I prepped the brown bag with eyes and a mouth; older artists can do this independently. I set out kwik stix and creamy crayons in an assortment of ocean themed colors. You can use any art medium. We really love these right now, but paint, crayons, markers or tissue/scrap paper collage would work well too! Once your artist is done decorating the bag, you can stuff it partially with recycled plastic grocery bags or newspaper or even packing materials from your recent Amazon Prime Day purchases! Leave some room for a tail and tie it off with a rubber band or pipe cleaners. I used a hole punch to make a hole at the top center of the whale and we added a silver pipe cleaner cut in half and bent/folded to resemble water being blown through the whale's blowhole. Did you know beluga whales can blow bubbles through their blowholes? I just learned this! In fact, they can supposedly blow bubbles of different sizes based on how they are feeling. Fascinating, right? If you're looking to extend your story stretcher, blowing bubbles of different sizes would be a great activity to take outside. We had a lot of fun with this whale of a tale. S has already requested a book about a farm for our next story stretcher, so we will be back with some farm themed fun next time. Until then...happy playing!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Build Us The Beis Hamikdash: Teaching Young Children About The Three Weeks & Tisha B'Av

S loves to daven just like Tatty!
Every summer just as the hot sun gives way to carefree schedules and splashing in sprinklers, the Three Weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b'Av comes. This period of time on the Jewish calendar is one of mourning and has somewhat of a somber feel to it. We mourn the loss of the Beis Hamikdash and remember a number of sad and tragic events that historically plagued the Jewish people during this time. It seems almost counter-intuitive to watch our children enjoying the summer months as we refrain from listening to music, cutting our hair, purchasing and wearing new clothes, and, as the nine days before Tisha b'Av approach, also from eating meat, drinking wine, doing laundry, swimming, and more... As a mother, I've often felt the desire to "protect" my children from the somberness of this period of time. I go out of my way to make things fun and carefree for the kids so that they shouldn't know any of the sadness that surrounds these weeks. And then, this year, I was reminded of a beautiful passage we read toward the end of our Shabbos prayers each week:

Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, for it is said: And all your children shall be learners of the Torah of the L-rd, and great will be the peace of banayich, (your children). Do not read banayich, but bonayich (your builders). Those who love Your Torah have abundant peace, and there is no stumbling for them.

The other side of this period of mourning is a period of peace. One that will arrive, G-d willing, with the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash and the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon. And from this passage, we are reminded that it is through our children and their natural love of Torah and mitzvos that we will merit to see these days of sorrow transformed into days of joy. While S (and certainly Y) are a bit young to fully grasp all the tragedy and misfortune that surround this time, they are certainly the right age to tap into their natural connection to Torah and mitzvos. Surely it is appropriate to inspire and encourage them through learning and play at home.

S, busy at work...

After seeing a post on Facebook by a fellow Jewish mother who had her children decorate a poster of the Kotel (Western Wall) to use for mitzvah notes, I was inspired to do a similar project with S and Y. As parents, we are responsible to be our children's first teachers. I explained to S in an age appropriate way that these Three Weeks, culminating with Tisha B'Av are somewhat of a sad time for the Jewish people. He knows they began with a fast day (when he had two scoops of ice cream as his hungry Tatty watched!) and I explained that we also stop taking hair cuts during this time and buying/wearing new clothes. I explained to him in brief that a long, long time ago, many sad things happened to the Jewish people during this time and that we lost our dear Beis Hamikdash. I went on to explain that through doing mitzvos, we can help to bring Masiach and rebuild the Beis Hamikdash. We set out to decorate our own Kotel poster (which I prepped simply by drawing bricks in grey marker and left to his and Y's own process art). I allowed S to choose art materials from his shelf to add to the poster and left it taped to the floor for the morning so he could return as he wished to add more. We will be hanging it up and tracking mitzvos our family does through the remainder of the Three Weeks. 
Y added some artistry to our Kotel as well--some colorful footprints and, with my help, a few yellow scribbles!
These concepts are very deep and lofty. We can often assume as adults who grapple with them that our children also will find it hard to connect with; our children will often surprise us with how much they can understand. As I schep nachas from watching how much S and Y love yiddishkeit, and how much more S knows at three years old than I knew at even 23 years old, I have no doubt in my mind at all that it is through our amazing children that we will surely merit, b'ezras Hashem to see the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Photo Friday: Stopping to Smell the...Weeds

We just returned from a trip to New York City to visit family and friends and the area of Brooklyn where my husband and I got married almost four years ago. This was our first family vacation with both boys and the first time we made such a long drive with kids. In the city that never sleeps with so many places to see and people to meet up with, it took my hot, tired, and terrified-of-pigeons three year old to remind me that there is always time to stop and smell the weeds! 

We had an amazing, albeit whirlwind trip. S ate ice cream in an ice cream shop every day (something he does not get to do where we live since there are no kosher restaurants, let alone easy access to kosher ice cream). We took the boys to the Jewish Children's Museum in Crown Heights. We visited my grandmother in Queens and my own mother came in to visit as well, filling that house with memories and four generations all at once! We spent time with great friends, took in the sights, scenery, a bit of shopping and plenty of tasty food. These are all things I love about the city. And yet, the pace and noise of the city is over the top for me. I drive a stroller like a true New Yorker, but I drive a car like I'm from Virginia (don't worry, my husband drove--I just offered free, unsolicited advice from the passenger seat while simultaneously slamming on an invisible brake and white-knuckling the door handle). 

When you rarely travel, it can often feel like there is so much to do in so little time. And the gift of traveling with little kids is that you are forced to slow down--even if the world is passing by as fast as a New York minute. Kids know nothing about time except how to make the most of it. And that's the most important skill to have. So we had as much fun actively pursuing vacation adventures as we did sitting in traffic and looking at all the construction trucks, subway trains and junk yards. An eight hour drive turns into a 12 hour ordeal with all of us in the car. I even inadvertently taught S some new vocabulary in Staten Island...  S was never quite sure what and where "The York" (as he calls it) was. And while not all of our vacation moments were postcard worthy, I'd like to think they will fill the boys with memories that are!

Hour 2 of the drive...

Hour 10 of the drive...

travel light and keep your cool

he needs a vacation from his vacation

you gotta spin it to win it

Smile, you're in Pennsylvania...

Friday, July 7, 2017

Photo Friday: Mountains & Molehills

Sometimes a single photo captures it all! And in that merit, I present Photo Fridays--reflections from a photograph that captures our week here...

In my professional life, I have a passion for striking the balance between how high and low a bar is set in order that my students are able to experience repeated increments of success and competency.  I have a strong belief that every child is able to master a task given the proper tools. I also have a strong belief that not every child needs the same tool to complete the same task. That being said, I would never expect a person to change a tire with a wooden spoon. Given a plethora of appropriate tools, opportunities, support and encouragement, I have seen children flourish in my classrooms who were previously categorized and labeled, G-d forbid, as "difficult," "lost causes," or "behaviorally challenged." 
We all have comfort zones. They can be as difficult to remain in as they are to leave. As educators, we tackle the challenge of determining just how far outside of a comfort zone to take a student. Our timing, tools and demeanor must all line up impeccably. Our successes are our students' successes; our students' setbacks are our own as well. This is a delicate dance that is exquisitely orchestrated to appear as graceful as it possibly can. Life is a collection of mountains and molehills; growing up is a process of navigating those and determining which are which. Sometimes, when you are quite small, everything feels like a mountain. But from the top, the world is vast and tiny below us. From the top, we gain a different perspective altogether. And so, it often becomes about finding our way to the top of that molehill in order to see that we have truly ascended a mountain! 
Parenthood is also a journey of assisting our little ones to ascend those mountains. The trickier part is that our vision in the process is often compromised by bias and attachment. It is harder to separate our mountains from our children's molehills and not to make the former of the latter. We live near an amazing playground that is set up in conjunction with an agency that caters to children and adults with disabilities. The playground is truly the essence of the inclusion model in action, with equipment accessible and appealing to all ages, abilities and interests. There are accessible swings, slides, climbing structures, musical instruments, sensory walls, water tables, an accessible tree house and even a vegetable garden. 
Throughout the year it is perfectly normal to share the playground with children and adults who have special needs as well as the public at large. During the summer months, they host a series of free special events for kids and this week they had an instrument petting zoo hosted by our local symphony. S loves instruments and music and he loves the park itself. I packed our bags the night before and got everyone in the car bright and early so we could be among the first to get there. As it was, I arrived to find only one spot left in the lot and the car on the right of it too far over the line to fit in. Not to worry, I just parked in a school lot across the street, loaded the boys into our double stroller and darted across the road to the playground where S began to play. About 20 minutes later, the musicians arrived with their violins, a cello, a flute and clarinet for the children to touch and try. I gathered the troops to wait on line for S to have a turn, when I realized he looked nervous. He loves instruments! He loves the park! He does not love big crowds... And it was really crowded. As our turn approached, I encouraged, I prodded and nudged, I even pushed and resorted to a little bit of mommy guilt: "You love instruments and we drove all the way here just to see them!" No use. S wanted to get out of the line. He wanted to go back in the stroller. He wanted to go home. Now, my driving time was going to outweigh our time actually spent in the park! I accepted this fate as we neared the front gate, but asked S if he was absolutely sure he wanted to go home or if he wanted to stay and just play in the park. He decided to stay, and within minutes, was busy climbing and playing and dancing around the playground as usual, leaving, albeit, a wide berth around the busy area where the event was taking place!
I stood with Y in the stroller thinking to myself. Why was it so important to me that S push through his discomfort and try the instruments? Was this his challenge or mine? I also do not love crowds. I push through that to take the kids to these types of things, but it's still not my favorite. And there are plenty of discomforts I don't push through for the kids--like driving in highways or throwing big parties... Was I worried he would regret the decision or just stuck on the fact that by not driving on highways, the trip took about half an hour each way? Perhaps I was stuck on not having a picture perfect image to share of S trying out a cello or a violin. Perhaps I was stuck on memories of molehills that were too mountainous for me to overcome and I wanted to protect S (or myself) from feelings of failure. And then I heard it. From the top of that little mulch mountain.
"I did it! Look at me! I'm at the top!" It was S, shouting at himself with pride because for the first time, this little boy who had a difficult time sitting and crawling and walking had now climbed up the back of the hill, the most challenging surface to ascend, all by himself. He didn't need me to see it or praise it, but I sure as heck responded with "Wow, look at you! You're at the top! You must feel so proud!" I felt proud, too--but this accomplishment was his and his alone. He didn't need my pride. 
He spent the rest of our morning at the park going back and forth between all of his favorite areas, but again and again returning to the scene of this newfound success. I took him home tired, soaking wet, and covered in mud; our trip was therefore a success as well. After a change of clothes and some lunch, it was time to go up for a nap. S asked to pick a toy to bring upstairs (this is a new favorite activity of his--bringing toys up and down) and he chose his little firetruck. As he and his firetruck walked up the stairs, he told a story about how his firetruck was "at the park and he touched the instruments..."
"You're thinking about the instruments today, huh?" I said.
"Yeah. I didn't want to touch the instruments." he responded.
"It's OK that you didn't want to touch the instruments this time. There will be other times and you don't have to touch the instruments. It's not a requirement. You did climb up, up, up to the top of that mountain all by yourself! Was that fun?"
"That was fun! I had a good time!" he said, and I tucked that little mountain climber into his bed, next to a toy firetruck that seems way too hard and plastic to sleep with...but my job as his mommy is to pick our battles and sometimes that means not making my own mountains out of his molehills.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Beyond the Book: Jamberry by Bruce Degen

One of my favorite books growing up was Bruce Degen's Jamberry. This rhyming, somewhat nonsensical story captures a tale of a boy, a bear and a billion berries with a plot that is as whimsical as the illustrations that accompany it. Because I loved this book so much, it is one of the first books we bought when S was a baby in board book form. And the only thing more fun than just reading it is listening to a musical version that I grew up hearing on audio cassette.
Thanks to YouTube, a whole new generation can enjoy the catchy tune of the brass-berry band as they read along!

Now that summer has berry season in full swing, I knew this would be the perfect week to bring out a story stretcher with this great book. We began by taking a field trip to our local produce shop to pick out some fresh berries. If you live near a pick-your-own location, picking berries can be a great family activity to accompany this book! We had just as much fun looking at all the produce in season at the produce shop. We had visited the same store in the fall, so it was nice for S to see how the selection of locally grown produce is different in the summer. 
With a busy week here, this story stretcher is perfect for a rainy afternoon like the one we had yesterday. I began by introducing the book in the morning before we went out for a play-date. After his nap, S was greeted by a berry taste testing station:
I created and printed a simple chart to track which berries we each tried and which were our favorites.

We taste-tested blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. I soaked and washed the berries in advance, but little ones would love the opportunity to help with this step! As it was lunchtime, I also included a fourth bowl of strawberry yogurt, per S's request. S is a huge berry-lover, however, if your little one is trying berries for the first time, you may want to provide just the berries first and than offer yogurt or whipped cream for dipping.

S decided blueberries are his favorite! He had fun eating through all three bowls (with my help!) and liked to eat one type of berry at a time. Some blueberries even made it into his yogurt, but most of them went right into his mouth!

As we tasted and tested our berries, S asked to hear our target book again. This was also a good time to introduce some supplemental reading. Here's a brief list of books we enjoyed along with Jamberry this week:

  • Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey is another great classic about a little girl who goes blueberry picking with her mother, a little bear who goes blueberry picking with his mother and a little mix-up that happens in the process!
  • Bread And Jam For Frances by Russell Hoban was another childhood favorite of mine. It is about a badger named Frances who struggles with picky eating (something I definitely could relate to as a child). She eats bread and jam for every meal of every day but is hesitant to try new foods. After all, she knows what she likes and likes what she knows... Nearly every growing eater can relate to this struggle and as parents, it is a pleasant and comforting reminder to pick our battles with picky eaters.
  • Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood: Daniel Tries a New Food by Becky Friedman appeals to this generation of Daniel Tiger lovers (and also to the previous generous of Mister Rogers fans!) as Daniel Tiger, his friend Miss Elaina and even his dad all try new foods for the first time. 
S loved the opportunity for independence when I invited him to make his own strawberry jam toast. We put the bread into the toaster oven together and then used a cookie cutter to shape it like a heart. I provided him with a small dish of strawberry jam and a plastic knife for spreading. He loved spreading jam onto the toast. Ironically, just like Frances who loves bread and jam and knows what she loves, S also knows what he loves... He asked for a cheese toast as well and was not interested in even trying the jam toast. Such is life! I don't push him to try new foods, but rather offer ample opportunities. I have found taste tests to be a great tool for encouraging this in a positive light. S definitely flocks toward books he can relate to and as such, even requested to read the Daniel Tiger book about trying new foods when I presented this activity. Many times if a food is presented and offered repeatedly, he will eventually try it and eat it. Jam is not something I'm too worried about him eating if he isn't interested; berries in their fresh form are a lot healthier --
Jj is for Jamberry!
Story Stretchers provide us with a great opportunity to review our letters as well. I brought out some berry-hued paint, some sponge brushes to dab and a printout of an uppercase letter J to paint. S liked mixing and layering the colors outside the J and then along the inside. Even the act of filling in a bubble letter in this way introduces early writing skills as children familiarize themselves with the shape and structure of each letter.

One of my favorite parts of Jamberry is when the boy and the bear dance along to the brass-berry band. S and Y both love music and instruments, so we took out our instrument collection, cranked up some John Philip Sousa and formed our own living room band!

S was thrilled with the chance to play his drums and then took to marching around the living room!

Y was a bit wary of this at first...

...but if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

Once Mommy had enough of the marching band, it was time for a quieter activity, like this simple DIY berry sorting activity. I recycled our berry containers and printed/laminated several images of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. I labeled each container with a picture taped to the inside and put the remaining collection of laminated pictures in a basket. S loved sorting them and also turned it into a great dramatic play game, including the toy cash register he got for his birthday from his Nana and Poppa, his shopping cart and his brother! Sorting activities are a great way to develop early mathematical concepts--but S would never notice how much he was learning, he was very busy at play!

We had a berry good time jamming to this week's story stretcher pick, Jamberry by Bruce Degen. It's a great book for some summer fun, tasting and, of course, playing!