Thursday, August 31, 2017

#SorryNotSorry: Teaching Children About the Art of an Apology

We have entered the Jewish month of Elul--the final month preceding the High Holiday season. This is a month of "getting ready" from the inside out. We prepare ourselves, our families and our homes for the upcoming new year. You can hear the sound of the shofar blasting from Jewish homes throughout the month of Elul as we get ready to hear it in shul on Rosh Hashanah. We begin to take a personal inventory as we look over the previous year. What areas were we strong in? Where do we need a bit of work? Are there people in our lives with whom we need to make amends? During the month of Elul, we are called upon to be extra kind, extra charitable, to take on extra learning and extra mitzvos. We are encouraged to pray extra hard as this is an auspicious time to have our prayers answered; The King is in the field!

When it comes to bringing down the loftiness of Elul to our children, I favor a hands on approach. We play, read and sing about this special time. I fill our davening basket with some seasonably appropriate props and books. S is having a great time revisiting these toy shofarot we made last Elul! Y is hearing some of the same colorful board books about holidays throughout the Jewish year that S loved when he was a baby. (S is enjoying the opportunity to share them with his brother now and helping me read them!)

We are using (and reusing) a lot of the fabulous free printables from A Jewish Homeschool Blog, including this adapted version of her Elul calendar to track the days on which we hear the shofar:

I love the month of Elul. It has all of my favorite things. The back-to-school season. The anticipation of holidays to come. And a built-in time to teach children about one of the most challenging and rewarding social skills of life: how to say "I'm sorry." I have read, written and talked at length over the past few years about the topic of raising children to be empathetic. Some research indicates that empathy is a character trait children must be taught. To an extent, I agree with that. I also believe that many children naturally feel empathy even from a very young age--perhaps in even a less inhibited form than their adult counterparts. I do feel that children benefit from being shown through modeling how to express empathy. However, after several years of teaching, I made a conscious (and at the time, unpopular decision) to eliminate forced apologies in my classrooms. No more would I require my students to say "I'm sorry" to one another as part of the process of conflict resolution.

In My Classrooms...
How then, did I expect my students to learn empathy? If they did not apologize for their indiscretions, how would they learn to repair damaged relationships or at the very least, learn that their behavior was unacceptable? To be clear--I did not eliminate dealing with and working through classroom conflicts. I merely eliminated the verbal prompt of "now say that you're sorry!" If you work around, live with or remember being a kid, you've probably heard it: "You have to say you're sorry!" "Fine! Sorry!" or, "but I said I'm sorry..." "Yeah, but you didn't mean it!" I vividly remember a day in one of my classrooms when I watched (in amazement) as one of my students walked up to another student simultaneously extending an apology and his left foot to kick his pal in the shin. When I picked my jaw up off the ground, I asked him "what happened?" to which he replied:
"It's ok. I said I'm sorry."
That is an extreme example, of course, but it became clearer and clearer to me that teaching children to say "I'm sorry," was not an effective method of teaching empathy. At its best, it was incomplete and at its worst, it was actually hindering the goal at hand. What I began to replace it with was a combination of modeling and verbal support. Take the kicking example from above. Rather than addressing the child doing the kicking initially (which is a tough one, because you really want to address that), I would get down on the children's level and look at the child who was kicked.
"Ouch! A kick can really hurt!"
I would also then turn to the child who did the kicking and encourage him to see the hurt in his friend.
"Look at his face. He's really sad. What can we do to help?" I was careful to match the level of emotion my students felt, to depict it both facially and in my tone of voice. (I happened to be working at the time with children who needed extra support in this area of social development.) Sometimes the children would have their own ideas in response: "I can say 'I'm sorry,'" was often one of them and in those instances, I supported and encouraged it! Other times, they might come up with sharing a toy or offering a hug or an ice pack. Sometimes they may have wanted to draw a picture or write an apology to their friend. More and more, I became amazed and impressed by how my students could navigate and work through their conflicts with very little of my input and furthermore, the behaviors associated with those conflicts genuinely improved. Sometimes all it would take from me was to allow a space for both parties to state their end of the experience, perhaps repeating their statements as I heard them or just offering a simple "what can you both do to repair the relationship?" These are big words for little people, but they give a sense of value and respect to the importance of building and preserving connections with one another.

But How Do They Learn About Apologizing?
If you eliminate saying "I'm sorry" from conflict resolution, how is it learned? I am a strong believer in teaching at teachable moments. In the midst of a conflict when emotions are on high, most children (and adults) are not ready to learn. It is also important to add here that in times of escalation where children are unsafe (even potentially in the example given above when a child is kicking), it is beneficial to create enough space for safety of all parties, even if that means removing children from an area to regain their calm and revisiting the conflict resolution part later. As adults, this is important, too. If I am not in a space to mentally or physically handle a conflict, I model taking a break and taking the space to calm myself down! And when it is an appropriate time, that modeling comes in handy again. Children learn a great deal from watching us. If I make a mistake in my classrooms, I model apologizing to another teacher or to another student. Nobody is perfect and one of the greatest gifts a child can receive--even greater than an apology in and of itself--is the permission it gives for everyone to make mistakes and be able to try again.

I also love to teach formal lessons on the art of apology as a group. Elul and Tishrei are two Jewish months that truly invite these lessons. Teshuva is the Hebrew word used for this process of feeling remorse and making amends--but what it literally translates to is "return." When we feel remorse and when we make amends, we are able to return--to return to our relationships, to return to a clean slate and to return to our own sense of inner peace. And so, when I teach about apologies, I explain in this way:
Sorry has three parts: It's something you feel, something you say and something you do. I teach my students to say they are sorry when they feel it in their hearts and that beyond that, to think of something to do that will repair the relationship. Some children do not feel comfortable with the verbal part and I think that is fine. Forced apologies are almost never helpful. For one thing, even adults do not always feel sorry in the heat of a conflict, so how is saying it even remotely helpful (or genuine for that matter)? And furthermore, we are all familiar with the adage, actions speak louder than words. Hearing "I'm sorry" may not be as genuine and meaningful to one or both parties in a conflict as a plan to carry things out differently in the future and an action put with that plan. Beyond that, I give education and support about handling, identifying and regulating strong emotions. Emotional regulation is the core muscle of empathy. Without a strong core, everything else suffers.

In My Home...
After speaking to fellow teachers, parents and professionals who work with children about my philosophy on apologies, one question frequently came up. Sure, this seemed to make sense in a classroom, but what about at home? Shouldn't we teach our own children to apologize at home? There are very different challenges to contend with in the home environment--like having respect for parents and sibling relationships. When I first started discussing this issue in professional settings, S was still pre-verbal. His worst offenses at the time were the occasional diaper blowout or projectile spit up. And now, as the mother of a three year old (and five month old), I am here to tell you that at home it's easier said than done!

For one thing, there's my patience. In my classrooms, my patience is almost infinite. At home, my patience is almost infinite until 4PM when it decreases exponentially for the next three hours until bedtime. And as my patience runs low, my attachments run high. It's harder as a parent not to "take things personally." I'm attached to how my children treat us as parents. I'm attached to how they treat each other. I'm attached to how they will treat other children and be treated by them. I am no more eager to see my child be the one that is kicking than I am to see him be the one that gets kicked. And yet, in my home (whether or not it is before 4PM) I am my children's first teacher. This is their safe haven after a day in the world at large and if ever there was a place that they should be able to let out their more colorful sides, this is the one! Sometimes that requires me to take a step back (and maybe a little break as well) to be able to teach at home the same way that I taught in my classrooms. I can tell you in a blog post in and of itself the many things I have done here that don't work, but for the sake of this blog post, here's a few that do:

  • Modeling: in language & deed! Our children are always watching. They see us before we've had our morning coffee, they see us burn the supper, they see us step on Legos and, once in a while, they probably see us lose our %$#@. Those are the times they are really watching--and not just to see that we need our coffee, messed up dinner, hurt our foot or occasionally go berserk--they're really watching to see what we do next. And so when it comes to that morning coffee, I will even say "I am really grumpy until I eat and drink something in the morning and I need a little space." And with that "caramelized" quiche, I might say "Oh, I'm so frustrated and disappointed! That's not how I wanted it to come out!" And with that Lego that will have to be surgically removed from my arch, I might say "Ouch! Stepping on a Lego can really hurt and I see a lot of Legos on this floor. I wonder what can be done to make sure that our feet don't get hurt?" (Incidentally, naming the problem usually works infinitely faster and better at getting little hands to come pick up those Legos than the usual direct request to "come pick up these Legos right now before I take them away altogether!) And about that meltdown? That's when I model giving myself a break, removing myself from the situation and returning later to repair the relationships. One of the greatest gifts my own parents gave me in moments of heated conflict was that aspect of return and repair. To date, I remember very few details of those heated arguments but I remember every detail of when they came back to my room to talk about it and work through our apologies. 
  • Taking a Break: I personally do not use "time outs" or even "time ins" here as a means of discipline. I do encourage taking a break from scenes or scenarios that are escalating. All children are different. Some do best with adult company and support to help calm down and others (like S) genuinely prefer a little space. As parents, we also sometimes require a bit of space and a little break. (Like before that coffee and breakfast...) Research shows that humans have an innate need to connect with and attach to primary caregivers. Conflict in these relationships ignites that fight or flight response in children and triggers fears of abandonment. It is not reasonable or realistic to assume that we will never have these conflicts. It is also not fair to berate ourselves when they happen. I like to take that airplane motto to heart when it comes to those especially intense moments: make sure you affix your own oxygen mask before assisting others. That sometimes means that I say "mommy needs a break!" It's often better (and easier) to remove myself from the situation to take the space and time to calm down than to remove my equally exasperated offspring. I also try very hard in these moments to remind my son (and myself) that we will come back to resolve this when we are calm. And follow through. 
  • Talk about it. A lot. In addition to watching, kids are listening all day. Many of the greatest frustrations of early childhood arise out of a language barrier. I think that we adults often forget that our primary spoken language in the home is not actually our child's first language. Just ask Y who will likely respond with something sounding akin to a pterodactyl. Using language throughout the day to name, work through and express our strong emotions does a great deal toward building our children's emotional vocabulary and resilience. And be honest. It would be great if we always felt peachy keen and chipper, but we don't. And neither do our children. Naming our feelings of frustration, disappointment, irritability, etc, can be helpful for our children (and for us). I still remember recently getting very upset when I went to pour milk into my morning coffee only to discover it had gone bad. We order our milk in bulk from another state a case of 9 half gallons at a time and use a deep freezer for storage since we cannot access the type of kosher milk we use locally. I was so disappointed and hungry and desperate for that coffee just the way I like it (no, I'm not addicted, I could stop anytime, I just don't want to...) that I lost it. I thawed a non-dairy option to create my second-choice of a cup of coffee and gave myself a break to sulk on the couch when S came up and asked me "Do you feel better?" And I didn't feel better yet. I was still mad and sad and disappointed. And I was honest when I told him "No, not yet, but I'm taking a little break and taking some deep breaths and I think I will feel better really soon." 
In the Classroom, In the Home, Here, There and Everywhere:
PLAY! This is really where the most learning happens at this point. Children work through strong emotions, fears and anxieties, test limits and boundaries and express their innermost curiosities and dreams through play. Creating an environment that encourages and allows for open ended dramatic play is a great way to foster this natural tendency. Having clay and dough to pound is a great outlet for an angry fist. Having places to jump and run and bubbles to blow and catch is a great way to let off steam. Play wrestling and rough-housing (when done with safety and supervision) are great ways to release the energy of the day. Drawing fast and vigorous scribbles can put angry feelings on paper instead of into hurtful words. And reading, playing and role-modeling about challenging emotions and conflicts--even getting a little silly with it--are great ways to build an arsenal of tools and supports when it's "not in the moment" so our children can handle the heat of when they are in the moment. 

Elul is a great month to focus both inwardly and outwardly on these helpful techniques and any others that work in your home and/or classroom. Apologizing truly is an art and so, too, is forgiveness. We tend to be infinitely more forgiving of our children's misdeeds than we are of our own--and so today I wish us all the experience of feeling as much empathy toward ourselves as we do for our children, and a season ahead of happy and meaningful playing!

A Little Throw-back Thursday from this time last year!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Beyond the Book: "Guess How Much I Love You" by Sam McBratney

 S requested a story stretcher about bunnies this week shortly after his Bubbie sent Y a copy of Sam McBratney's Guess How Much I Love You along with a plush version of Little Nutbrown Hare. We actually had a copy of the book at home from S's baby days! Sometimes when we end up with doubles of a book, I pass along the extra to a friend or our local children's book bank. Other times, I hold on to an extra for a Mommy & Me set or a Brothers set. This is one of those books that is worth extra copies of! With S beginning preschool in a week, I also thought a book about the love shared in a family would be very appropriate right now. (Ok, admittedly, one of us needs the extra love and snuggles right now more than the other, and it may not be S!)

Sometimes when I prepare a story stretcher, I gather ideas from online. Other times I hit the books. And other times, I dig deep into the recesses of my imagination and come up with our plan. That is what I did with this one! So I invite you today to come along with me as we travel to the very back of my brain where story stretchers are born...

Children's literature is full of themes to play and learn about--both overt themes and more subtle ones. This  story is about Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare sharing a sweet bedtime exchange about just how much they love one another. There is certainly a theme of love and bedtime routines here and the main characters fulfilled S's bunny request. For the sake of our play and learning activities, I thought it would be fun to dissect the title. We ended up with a collection of activities involving guessing games (Guess), measuring (How Much) and love/family (I Love You).
I also needed to make sure to incorporate the bunny theme as well, since that was S's original idea. We began our afternoon reading the book all together. S held one copy and Y and I manned the second one. Then we switched copies and read it again, per S's request! We started our activities at the little table with a homemade color matching game: Pin the Tail on the Bunny. I set our bunnies out on the table and kept the tails inside a drawstring bag. We tried to guess which color would come out next before matching and sticking them onto the corresponding bunny's backside. Here's what you will need to make your own version of the game:
DIY Pin the Tail on the Bunny

  • rainbow colored printing paper
  • velcro dots (scratchy side)
  • pom poms in rainbow colors
  • laminating machine & printer
  • scissors
I searched the internet for a simple black and white silhouette of a rabbit. After copying, pasting and adjusting to my desired size (you can do this on a Word document or whichever computer program you prefer), I printed off copies on colored paper. I laminated and cut out each bunny and stuck a velcro dot to the tail. Now we were all ready to play! The pom poms stay put fairly well without adding velcro, however if you want them to stick better (or to be able to use them on a vertical surface) you may want to affix velcro dots to the pom poms as well.

We were ready for another guessing game. This time we gathered at the easel with my Mystery Bag. S's mission, should he choose to accept it, was to reveal a mystery word by guessing, one letter at a time, what letter I was hiding in our Mystery Bag using only his hands, no peeking! You can add in a blindfold if you wish. One at a time, I hid a large magnetic letter inside the Mystery Bag. S felt through the bag, making his guesses along the way, but was mostly excited to pull out the mystery letter and reveal our special word.

 And the word was LOVE. We looked at the title on our target book to see the same word! Now that we had spelled the word and read the word, it was time for some writing!
Early writing adventures include a multi-sensory approach. I love to show pre-readers and writers the ways in which they already read and write--even if not in the same way that older people do. Fostering feelings of competence and success at this stage inspires children to love the process of learning these skills. Today's writing activity was a fun one for the whole family and a great one to do at home with your own family:

Love Notes/Family Fan Mail
Choose some or all of the following and add in any other materials you'd like:

  • markers
  • lined labels for writing dictation on and/or writing prompts
    • I added prompts to several labels like "I love you as much as...," "I love you more than...," and "I love when..." Others I left blank so that S could dictate his own love notes!
  • heart shaped stickers
  • letter stamps with L, O, V, E, 
  • heart themed stamps (leftover from Valentine's Day season last year)
  • heart shaped doilies, foam cut outs (alternatively you can use construction paper or print off heart shapes--older children can cut out their own hearts and observe how symmetry works by tracing half a heart onto folded paper)
  • red gift bags

For young ones who are new to the art of writing love notes, you will want to model this. I prepped a Fan Mail Bag for each member of our family. I prepped a love note for each member of the family and read them to S. We placed them in the appropriate bags for family members to read later on. Love notes can be sweet, silly, simple or more detailed. Using labels allowed for S to place the words on paper, even if he's not yet doing so directly through writing. He had a great time dictating and doodling love notes to each of us and even requested help to write some for a few of his friends. We all especially enjoyed reading them at the dinner table later on and I think I might keep my "I love you more than sticks" love note forever! A bag full of fan mail is also a great treasure on a day you may feel down in the dumps--it's always a nice reminder to know much we are loved!

Y and the Purple I see another
story stretcher in our future??
For our final activity, I had set out and taped down some large sheets of white craft paper. I helped trace each of the boys bodies so we could guess and then measure how big both of the boys are--using magnetiles! You could definitely use a ruler to measure with if you prefer. At this stage, inches are still pretty meaningless to S and Y. Magnetiles are totally awesome and fun--plus they naturally stick together and come in a standard, measurable size. You can use any type of block as a measuring unit so long as each one is the same size and shape. Once both boys were traced onto paper, I cut out their shapes. We left those taped to the floor. Y was officially tuckered out by now and fell asleep. S got busy decorating both tracings and gathering our square shaped magnetiles. We started by making a guess (or estimate) of how many magnetiles tall each brother was and then used the magnetiles to measure. I recorded the process on each tracing and at the very end, we hung them up on the door (so our living room would look less like a crime scene!).

Even with S heading off to school next week, story stretchers will be a special way for us to connect and spend time together in the afternoons. S will likely need a little more open play time and quality family time after a morning of preschool's structure and routine. Play through children's literature is one of many great ways to incorporate that. Y will also have an opportunity now in the mornings for some Mommy & Me time and I look forward to sharing that experience as well. Whether you're gearing up for this back to school season (or counting down the hours), may we all enjoy these last days of summer while happily playing!


Monday, August 28, 2017

Beyond the Book: "Boats Go" by Steve Light

 Have you ever woken up at 7:30 AM to the sounds of your three year old singing "Oh, sole mio!" from his bed? I have! And do you know why? Because at the grande finale of Boats Go, another fabulously illustrated and alliterated book by Steve Light, we learn that this is the sound of a gondola traveling the scenic canals of Venice, Italy. S picked out this book for our most recent story stretcher and after a family vacation with a hotel room view of a marina, I knew he would love our boat-themed afternoon together.

We began our story stretcher by reading the book (no fewer than three times--S really likes the book and once Y woke up from his nap, S wanted to make sure that he got to hear it, too) and sharing a tasty theme related snack:

edible sail boats made with apple slices, pretzel sticks and cheese

Next it was time for our letter review: Bb for boat! I brought out a mysterious backpack filled with objects from around the house and a basket proudly donning a red letter B. S's mission, should he choose to accept it, would be to put the objects beginning with the letter Bb into the basket, and those not beginning with the letter into the "bay" (our hardwood floor).

Our basket was brimming with a book, a baby, a bottle, a banana, a ball, a balloon, a bear, bread and, of course, a boat... I like using a variety of activities to introduce beginning sounds and letter recognition. We do a lot of crafts, songs and action rhymes, early writing practice and games for a multi-sensory approach to learning letters here.

While we were on the topic of sorting, it was time for another sorting activity of things that go in water and things that do NOT go in water:

I created a simple chart on the computer and provided a selection of stickers for sorting. Our water side was swimming with seals and ducks, fish and turtles, watercraft of all kinds and sea life galore...

 Both boys were ready for some playtime now and I was all set up for some great parallel water play in our living room. Yes I am crazy brave enough to allow my kids to play in water on our living room rug--but just in case, I did put a towel down and only a shallow amount of water in the sensory bins. You could definitely reserve water play for another indoor surface (like the tub) or outdoors!

Y LOVED playing across from S, and mostly favored throwing boats overboard for S to fetch. S got a kick out of this. Once Y got tired and had his next nap installment, S and I were ready for a STEM challenge:

Using a variety of recycled plastic containers, foil, cups, straws, cardboard tubes and scrap paper as well as some scissors and masking tape, we got busy building boats! We observed the containers we were choosing and that they had holes in the bottom. I asked what might happen with the holes in the water. S said that water would go in. That's when I introduced a little bit of rhyming alongside some science: a boat should float! Busily we built and taped and tried different techniques of creating some recycled sailboats to test. S needed a little help with some of the taping, but picked out all of his own parts and design. On my sail, I wrote a big M for the first letter of my name. On S's sail, he asked for help writing his first letter! It was almost time to test them out.

First we tested the boats on their own, with nothing inside. S quickly discovered that water does indeed flow through the holes on the bottom of these containers and that his boat should float but was sinking! He grabbed a piece of tin foil to wrap around the bottom. Smart kid!

 I brought down a dish of pennies as our test subject. When conducting an experiment, you should change only one thing from your control subject. We chose to use pennies but you could use another small object so long as they are all the same size, shape, weight, etc. We observed that a penny dropped into the water on its own sinks right to the bottom. Next we observed that a penny dropped into our successfully floating sailboats does not sink! We wanted to see how many pennies our boats could hold before succumbing to the weight and sinking to the bottom.

There are a lot of great boat related STEM activities you could do along with this book or with a watercraft or transportation theme.
Got a Lego lover? Try out the same experiment as above, but build your boat with Legos:
General sink and float experiments can teach about and demonstrate which materials float in water and which sink. Add some salt to the water to show how buoyancy is different between the ocean and freshwater. Make boats by crafting a pouch out of tinfoil and do "penny test" on those! If you've got a budding engineer on your hands and a bit of ingenuity, you won't have to fight to get him into his next bath!

My own budding engineer also has an artsy side and a love for dramatic play. We were ready to set out to sea--but first we needed some spectacular sails! A bit of blue paint, some easel paper and some foam puzzle pieces and cookie cutters in boat shapes for stamping were just the right tools required to get the job done. S had a lot of fun stamping and decorating some paper to use for sails. Meanwhile, I had already prepped another sheet myself and allowed it time to dry so his grande voyage would not have to wait for paint to dry.

I brought out our laundry basket-turned sail boat and placed it on the wild waters of our living room rug. Captain S decided it needed a steering wheel and used his tinker toys to construct one! (I thought this was a brilliant idea!)
Almost ready to set sail...

S had a great fish tale about sailing in the ocean to the distant lands of "the basement [we don't even have a basement], Seemee, and Ahgo."

"I'm driving my boat!"

 Our laundry shall have to wait because S is very busy in this boat and there are many oceans to cross. Until then, we wish you all smooth sailing and happy playing!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Photo Friday: Through His Eyes

For your five month birthday, we got you these free NASA approved solar viewing
glasses and a once-in-a-century total eclipse. You're welcome.

No, he did not view the solar eclipse. But yes, this is the first pair in a long line of pairs of glasses this adorable little guy will wear. A couple of months ago we noticed his eyes moved back and forth a lot. I come from a multi-generational line of folks who could do a really cool party trick we called "jiggling our eyeballs." And I'm rather socially awkward parties, so that and wiggling my ears was really all I've got! I will say that my favorite response to this (and a frequent one) is when folks try to mimic my unique talent by vigorously shaking their entire bodies, veins bulging in their foreheads as they gleefully ask "am I doing it? Am I doing it?" No, you're still not doing it... But enough about me and back to this little googly-eyed guy. 
He passed his early vision tests and has been reaching developmental milestones all on target. Nonetheless, by his 4 month check-up, I asked again about it as the nurse ran vitals. Our pediatrician is notoriously less worried than I am. I like that in a pediatrician. This time when he came in, he asked me how life was with a 4 month old, but was totally looking at my son's eyes while I answered. So much so that I could have said "watermelon, dairy farm, masquerade" and he would likely still have continued with "ah hah, yeah, oh yeah..." He made a diagnosis of congenital nystagmus and mentioned the one other patient he has with it. He talked about potential developmental delays and services we'd qualify for, surgeries, genetic testing, invasive imaging, associated disorders and diseases...Then he and the nurse told me how cute my baby is. It almost seemed apologetic at that point--like he's super cute in spite of his googly eyes and everything that may or may not go alongside that. 
I think any parent can relate to the utter panic that sets in when you think something might be wrong with your child's health. First you fear the very worst, G-d forbid. Then when that fear subsides, you fear for the ways his life could be affected--everything from development to learning to how others will perceive him and how he will perceive himself. We are fortunate enough to have a great resource in my stepmother who is a pediatrician and has more than one patient with nystagmus. She quelled quite a few of my fears and so began the couple of weeks of waiting until our first ophthalmology appointment.
I got horrendously lost trying to find the darn place even with my own new glasses on. Y was a total trooper and fell asleep waiting for his eyes to dilate. Then he woke up long enough to open them and have them examined. The verdict at this point is that he is a googly eyed cutie pie who will wear some super cute baby glasses! His nystagmus is a seemingly isolated familial quirk and although he is farsighted, he is big, strong, feisty and, thank G-d, healthy. We aren't doing surgeries at this point or invasive imaging or genetic testing. We are monitoring closely and keeping our eye on it (oh yeah, pun definitely intended). In about a week, we will bring his new glasses home and he will finally get to see how incredibly good-looking I am! (Oy, I hope he still likes me!) 
Maybe Y will inherit the ability to be the life of the party. Or maybe he will need some extra support to see that party at all. But for now, I can stop worrying about it. I guess, I'll have to find something else to worry about. Maybe I'll worry about my worrying's been a while since I've worried about that.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Montessori Inspired Home: The "Write" Stuff for Pre-Writers

If you've followed our home preschool journey overall, and in particular my Sneaky Reader posts, you know I love to sneak educational activities into daily play and routine like Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld sneaks vegetables into her kids' favorite junk foods. I'm all about exposure through child-led play and exploration. I'm a huge fan of creating lifelong lovers of learning and not getting into battles over meeting "developmental goals" when a child displays reluctance. I have a passion for the early reading experience and an equal passion for reading's brother from another mother, writing.

Maria Montessori was actually a huge advocate for teaching writing before reading. I am not as strict here about order of operations or even about the tools we use to get the job done. What I care most about in exposing toddlers and young children to the beginning stages of writing is that they feel empowered, successful and inspired to do more. Some children do love worksheets and coloring books. I think there is certainly a place for those, particularly when building skills in following directions, working on strokes, lines and basic shapes and other important foundations of early writing. In my classrooms and now in my home, I love to offer a variety of opportunities for writing.

One of the first words a child learns recognize, to spell and to write is his/her name. 

I like to provide a variety of materials and methods for learning this! We use songs/music, letter manipulatives and more traditional writing materials as well.

I have a vivid memory of learning to write my name. I remember the song my mother made up with me to remember the spelling and I remember practicing the letters on a small memo pad in my babysitter's basement one afternoon after kindergarten was through. Some of my favorite days of teaching were the ones I was able to witness and share in the success of a student learning to write his name for the very first time--not because I had drilled and enforced tracing and connecting dots and copying--but because he decided he felt ready and pursued the challenge independently. What I did do in the background is provide a variety of toys, tools, tasks and materials to help build those tiny muscles in the hand, strengthen the larger muscles in the core and upper body, develop the necessary hand-eye coordination, and prepare my students for independence and success. These are the core values of the Montessori method of teaching writing as well. She felt strongly that all of the early activities of infancy and toddler-hood were either directly or indirectly aimed at preparing the child's hand for writing. She did not feel children needed adult direction in learning the skills of writing as much as they needed opportunities to naturally prepare for and achieve the skill.

Multi-sensory exploration of letters is an important part of pre-writing--check out some of our favorite alphabet activities here

As a parent now, I share the joy and excitement of seeing S grow into the stage of noticing shapes he creates when he scribbles. He is seeing that he can make a circle and a circle can represent a mouth or a pool or a whale... The process of realizing that shapes and symbols can represent objects is one of the earliest stages that will lead to understanding that letters can make words! Whether we realize it or not, early tasks like transferring, doing puzzles, painting, even learning to use buttons and other fasteners--all prepare our children for the later task of writing! I would add in that gross motor development through plenty of outdoor play, music and movement and a variety of physical activity opportunities also prepare early writers by strengthening their core and upper body for the vital task of being able to sit and maneuver a writing utensil efficiently.

A current peek at our art/writing center: I have a plastic caddie readily stocked with a variety of writing utensils, accessories, journals and notebooks for writing. I swap out materials like types of paper (right now it's homemade letterhead with S's name and address), chalk/chalkboard tablet, recycled materials for crafting, scrap paper for cutting practice and collage, paints to bring to the easel or for table work... I always stock crayons, markers, colored pencils and art mats.

And while my home is far from being set up in the traditional Montessori style when it comes to writing and art materials, I do put a large focus on making a variety of supplies accessible to S (Y will have his time soon enough!) and a plethora of ways to use them. I must confess, I love school supplies. The best times to shop for them are at the beginning of the academic school year (like right now) and just before the end of the academic school year when summer vacation begins. I would not encourage anyone to go out and sell an arm and leg and first born child in order to stock a writing center for your whole family, but do keep your eyes open at discount stores, dollar stores, secondhand shops and even online for some great sales on traditional and less traditional writing supplies. Here's a list of some of my favorites:
A closer peek at our writing caddie

I am in love with these Ticonderoga brand golf pencils with erasers! Perfect size for growing hands and no frustration over not being able to readily erase a mistake.

What to Write With:
There are many opinions about writing utensils with pre-writers. Some folks say to start with wider utensils that have a softer medium for immediate success--like crayons or markers. Some say to start with wider or triangular grip pencils. Some say to wait until the child's hand is ready to hold a standard pencil properly before introducing pencils at all. Others suggest supportive devices like grips and cushions. There are tools to support early grasps (like giant crayons that fit into a toddler's closed fist), and folks who strongly believe against these as they feel children should first perfect the pincer grasp before being introduced to writing utensils. Some folks prefer not to introduce pens until children have mastered pencils as they are harder use, requiring a perfect angle to produce ink. I say, offer and observe. If your child appears frustrated by a particular tool, offer support or an alternative. If your child is fascinated by your pen, offer him his own!

  • pencils: standard, golf pencils (these are great for little hands and even come with erasers now, who knew?), wide pencils, triangular grip pencils, mechanical pencils
  • colored pencils
  • crayons
  • markers
  • pens
  • charcoal pencils, oil pastels, chalk, bingo dabbers, creamy crayons/slick stix, window crayons, bath crayons, dry erase markers--it's starting to sound like art class now, but art is an early writer's best friend!
  • paint & paint brushes, Q-tips, toothbrushes, sponges
I love getting creative with vertical art and writing opportunities. Peeling and sticking stickers is a great way to practice fine motor skills. A sheet of easel paper/craft paper and an envelope to hold some stickers plus a bit of masking tape is all you need to set up this invitation to peel and stick!

Easels are a more traditional vertical work setup. I like to keep an old t-shirt accessible as well for covering up clothes before painting and I especially like using our easel (which was a great gift from Bubby that is easily transportable) in our kitchen so S can paint over an easy to clean floor while I cook! 

What to Write On:
  • paper--lots of it, scrap paper, white paper, lined paper, graph paper, primary composition paper*, notebooks, memo pads, legal pads in smaller sizes (great for smaller hands), easel paper, butcher paper/craft paper, construction paper, sticky notes, index cards, binders with loose-leaf paper, small clip boards with paper cut to size or similar sized notepad, blank cards & envelopes
  • recycled notebooks, office pads/forms, shopping lists, postcards, greeting cards, junk mail, envelopes--these are especially great for integrating writing activities into dramatic play (Through dramatic play, even a tiny cashier can write receipts, a young doctor can write patient charts and prescriptions, your budding librarian can stamp and write book slips, your little police officer can write tickets, your aspiring mail carrier can write and package letters, and your chef-to-be can take orders and write menus!)
  • sentence strips & index cards can be used to write words early spellers are asking how to spell/copy or words/names you wish to familiarize them with. I am a huge supporter of a print-rich environment even for pre-readers. Labels are not just for clothing! S and I will often search signs in public for letters that are in his name--this is a great activity for waiting in long lines!
  • chalk boards/dry erase boards and magnetic doodle boards--these are great in tablet size for seated use or traveling and also great for vertical use in a larger format. I love chalk board contact paper and there are also chalk board paints available if you're feeling adventurous enough to offer up a wall!
  • disposable paper tablecloths--we are not yet at the homework phase of parenthood, but how cool would it be to be able to support your young scholars while including/occupying your scholars-in-training? With the drop of a simple disposable paper tablecloth you can provide a writing surface for math problems or spelling words, a doodle surface for your scribblers, and a clean surface beneath it just in time for dinner! No need to dispose of it after one use, either--just fold it away in your homework bin for next time. This is also a great accessory and activity for your next house party!
  • blank books, albums, sketch books, journals--nothing feels as good as being published! Let your little writer be her own author and illustrator--you can even craft your own book using cardstock/cardboard and paper.
* Primary composition paper can be purchased in notebook form or loose leaf form. You can even do a google image search and print a variety of free templates off the internet. It provides wider lines, sometimes color coded to help early writers form letters, and I favor the versions with a blank space for illustrations. Alternatively, regular lined paper can be used with two lines at a time for early writers who require more space for letter formation.
Got a budding architect? Sneak some graph paper and crayons/colored pencils next to his Legos and watch him design his own blue prints or capture a favorite building through art before it gets taken apart and put away. 

Where to Write:
  • Take a seat, stand right up or get down on the ground! Children should be seated at a table or desk that is an appropriate size to support their stature. It is hard to write when you can't reach the table! In instances when a properly sized seating scenario is not available, I prefer to offer standing opportunities (as in standing to write at a table that is of the appropriate height) or working on the floor (on the tummy, elbows bent) or vertical opportunities (at an easel, on paper on the wall, on a chalkboard or white board, or you can even make your own table-top easel)
  • lap desks are great for homes that are short on space or furniture! I see them frequently at craft supply stores and even secondhand shops. Plus, they are easily transportable
  • Don't forget the kitchen sink! or rather, the bathtub--yes the tub is a great place for writing with bath crayons or markers or paints or in shaving cream or sending secret messages through steamy mirrors, doors and windows...
  • Get off my back! Practicing letters on each other's backs is currently one of our favorite bedtime activities. S loves to use his finger to spell his name on my back (even though he's not actually forming letters yet) and I love to spell his name or the write the ABCs or "I love you" on his back. Bonus: it's super relaxing and usually puts even the wildest of wild things to sleep afterward.
  • the sidewalk--just grab some chalk and go! No pavement? No problem--grab a stick and hit the dirt or sand!
  • screen time: there are a variety of great apps for practicing early writing skills and never underestimate the value of a simple word processing program for practicing letters and words through typing
Accessories & Accoutrements:
And last, but not least, a list of items worth honorable mention--both traditional and less traditional:
  • shaving cream, finger paint, play dough, clay, sand, salt/sugar or cornmeal are all great mediums for practicing lines, shapes, letters and words
  • recycled computer keyboards, calculators, phones--these are great for letter and number recognition and a fabulous addition to dramatic play setups
  • alphabet manipulatives in a variety of forms--blocks, stamps, foam, felt, beads, puzzles, games, cookie cutters, alphabet pasta or cookies, scrabble tiles
  • magnetic letters and magnet board, vertical magnetic surface (washer/dryer, fridge, door)  or cookie sheet--I'm giving these manipulatives a league of their own because I love them so much!
  • pencil boxes and pouches for writing on the go
  • stickers, stamps, scissors, tape, glue, erasers, pencil sharpeners
  • recycled magazines for cutting out pictures, words and letters
  • scrap paper for cutting/tearing
  • posters and artwork with the alphabet and later, words--you can even make your own (and enlist your early writers' help!)
  • dry erase pouches or sheet protectors to turn your favorite coloring pages or worksheets into a reusable activity
  • baskets, trays, recycled jars/cans, boxes and containers for storing materials
  • magnets, tacks, clothes pins/string, picture frames, albums, binders or blank books for putting writing on display
  • books, books, and more books--let's not forget that brother from another mother, reading together!
I'm sure I left things out and that there are many more that could be added. And suffice it to say that you do not need all of this! I do not keep all of our writing materials out at one time (that would be overwhelming) and many times it can be helpful even with what is out to select just a few crayons or pencils at a time, the necessary amount of paper, and a plastic tray or basket for carrying those materials to a work space. While I keep our writing and art supplies generally in one area, I sometimes sneak writing opportunities into other areas. I rarely leave home without a pencil pouch containing a small notepad and something to write with--you never know when something will be worth writing down on the go (or on the stop and wait...)! And my last bit of advice toward giving our early writers a great start: let them see you write! Whether it's a shopping list, a to-do list, birthday cards or lunch box notes, wish lists (a great tool for the little one who wants everything at the store) or just getting down and scribbling together (this NEVER stops being fun), write often and write together!

Additional Resources:

Here are some more great reads on writing!

Happy writing, and until then--most importantly--happy playing!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Beyond the Book: "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak

There's a lot of great new children's literature out there and fabulous new authors and illustrators. I have so many new favorites and I'm sure there will be many more to come as I raise my own young readers. And every so often, I also love sharing with them one of my favorite books from when I was a little girl. Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are has been a longtime favorite of mine and it was a great candidate for our most recent story stretcher.

The little boy, Max, in this story is an easy character to relate to if you are a little boy or girl whose ever been accused of being too wild! Lucky for him, even though his wild ways end him up in his bedroom for a bit, his equally wild imagination takes him to a distant land where he becomes king of the Wild Things. The fascinating tall tale is only topped by the equally incredible illustrations. I introduced our story stretcher by setting out some monster masks to color in at our little table. I found these a few years ago at the Dollar Tree and used them with my students when teaching about the letter Mm. Today was a great day to bring out the leftovers (yes, I will someday appear on an episode of Hoarders entirely devoted to preschool teachers...) and S had a lot of fun coloring as we talked about and read Where The Wild Things Are. The book introduces a lot of great conversation starters--we talked about the meaning of the word "wild," and how it looks and feels in our bodies. We talked about monsters and how they are make-believe. We looked at the pictures to see if the monsters looked scary or friendly. S decided they looked friendly! We introduced some great vocabulary words like "terrible" and "gnash" and "rumpus." We even had an impromptu wild rumpus of our own! By now, Y had woken up to join the fun (pictured above) and S was eager to wiggle his wilds out around the dining room.

S has been very into telling his own stories and dictating his words through self-directed artwork and through journal prompts. I took the opportunity to take his dictation about when he feels wild using one of the great free printable prompts at Fairy Tales And Fiction By 2. There's something for everyone there--no matter what early stage of writing your little one may be in!

Next it was time for a game! We've been using simple games to introduce the concepts of taking turns, following rules/directions and other important social skills that children can learn through board games and apply to social situations in "real life." I set up our own version of this great monster googly eyes counting game by printing and laminated the monster mats and then hot glued googly eyes onto a large die I had on hand.

We set out three monster mats, one for S, one for Y (who needed my help to play!) and one for me. I laminated the printables to be double sided, though you could do them single-sided, particularly if you have more players. These would also be great for using with playdough and other small loose parts or with dry erase markers. Our die had one-six googly eyes hot glued to each surface and I set out a dish of assorted loose googly eyes. On a players turn, he/she rolls the die, counts the number of googly eyes and places an according number of googly eyes on his/her monster mat. It was fun to see all the silly ways we could put eyes on those funny little monsters! This is a great game to practice one-to-one correspondence and counting. We did not play for a "winner," but rather played that each player took 3 turns, which seemed to be the right length of time to spend on this activity before moving on to our next one. You could play that the winner has the most eyes if you wish.

I like to use our story stretchers to review alphabet letters as well. Where The Wild Things Are would be a great book to introduce with the letter Ww, but since we recently reviewed that one with our whale themed adventures alongside Baby Beluga, I decided instead to bring back the letter Mm for monster, mask and, of course, our story's main character, Max. I also thought it would be a great time to introduce the concept of alliteration in a fun game to make silly sentences using only words that begin with the letter Mm! Older readers/writers can come up with their own silly sentences. You can provide supports like suggested words lists or use sentence strips as I did with letter Mm words pre-written. For pre-readers and writers, you will need to assist a bit more. For S, I demonstrated a few silly sentences, placing words across the little table and pointing to them as I read. He could see how a sentence is built and how we read it from left to right. When it was his turn to build a silly sentence, I placed the starting word "My" and strategically helped him select from piles of nouns and verbs beginning with our letter Mm. We recorded our silly sentences in his journal and he drew an illustration to go with his: "My mommy makes monster marbles!"

Once our littlest wild thing was tuckered out, we moved on to the arts & crafts portion of our story stretcher. I had a great idea to make a couple of stuffed felt monsters S could decorate for he and his brother could play with. Then I remembered how much I hate to sew. And that I don't even know where I have a needle and thread here... But I do love puppets and I always have the hot glue gun handy for when school glue just won't do the trick. And with that plus the abundance of felt I do have and some googly eyes, we were well on our way to making some great wild thing sock puppets. All that was left was to add in a pair of really beloved knee socks that I've had since college and worn to threads. S helped set up parts where he wanted them and I assisted with the hot glue gun so we could play right away. You could definitely try school glue instead or tacky glue. And if you do like to sew, you could do that...and maybe while you're at it, hit the stack of clothing items here that are missing buttons. I'll be busy putting on silly sock puppet shows if you need me...

I was particularly excited about our next activity. I saw the idea for blow paint monsters on The Seasoned Mom. I loved the idea of using straws for painting. Blowing through a straw is a great way to strenghthen those little muscles in the mouth and assist in speech development. S does not have any speech delays but does have low muscle tone that also affects his mouth, so I love sneaking in playful ways to build up those brain-muscle connections! He had a blast blowing through the straw to move the paint--and you have to blow hard! He also discovered the joys of dabbling the bottom of the straw in the paint to print little dots. I chose to use artists' canvas for this  activity so that S would feel it was very special and take his time to enjoy the process of creating it. As an added bonus, it will make a lovely keepsake once it is dry and done. After the paint dries, he will have a great time adding on googly eyes, feathers, buttons, sequins and maybe even some doodles to create a fun and friendly monster!

We've had a lot of fun with this story stretcher and will likely continue having fun with our wild thing sock puppets and playing our googly eyes counting game. Want to do more with Where The Wild Things Are? Try out one or more of the following fun activities:

  • Invitation to Make a Monster out of Playdough: make or buy playdough in your favorite color and add in googly eyes, pipe cleaners, buttons or other small loose parts. For a more permanent option, substitute Model Magic clay or salt dough.
  • Googly eyes sensory bin: add googly eyes to your favorite sensory bin filler (like water, slime, ooblek cooked spaghetti...) 
  • Make your own monster masks from scratch using paper plates and construction paper, feathers, yarn, etc.
  • Act out the story using costumes or with puppets. You can print out your own set of toilet paper tube story puppets here.
Happy Playing!