Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Winter Break Survival Kit

Chanukah has come and gone and S's preschool is officially on winter break. This morning he asked me if he was going to school today and I explained that there's still another week of winter break left! He says he likes being at home but also misses school a little and I am thrilled! When I was teaching and S was a baby at home, I used to go crazy planning activities and filling the days of school vacation. Last year when I was pregnant with Y and home with S, I took those last weeks in December for some unplanned fun and play and that inspiration really followed me into this year. It sure is different to be home with both boys all day on many days and with the whole family on some days. The lack of routine feels both relaxing and slightly disorienting at the same time (what day is it anyway??) so I've decided to post some Winter Break Survival ideas that we've enjoyed so far in case you're looking for some inspiration in your own home.

Play Kitchen Remodel: Although we've since remodeled again in yet another toy rotation here, S and Y had a lot of fun before and during Chanukah with our bakery themed play kitchen remodel. Whether your dramatic play area and kitchen set are beloved or ignored by your children, a strategic remodel can be just what is needed to inspire some great hours (and days) of play!

We had a Chanukah themed bakery, complete with props and toys and costumes to inspire aspiring bakers of all ages. You definitely do not need to purchase specialty toys (though there are great ones out there). Some of our most beloved accessories are real cookbooks, dollar store kitchen accessories and DIY toys and props.

S loved our "sprinkles" and "sugar" shakers, a salt and pepper shaker (Dollar Tree) filled with white and colored dry rice from our sensory bin collection and taped shut to secure. He and Y both enjoyed the "oil" bottle (just oil and water in a recycled bottle also secured with tape.  A layer of clear packing tape on some empty Chanukah candle boxes and Chanukah cookie boxes and some recycled paper shoppoing bags and gift bags also made great accessories. S esepecially loved a collection of recycled plastic containers from berries that I taped a pretend bakery label to so he could pack up donuts and cupcakes and cookies to go!

Frying pretend wood circle latkes was a lot of fun. S also liked to pretend that these were cookies. I love including natural materials into the mix for some open ended play.

Real baking sheets and muffin tins (dollar store), gingerbread man cookie cutters from our sensory play collection, rolling pins, cupcake liners leftover from a Shavuos craft a couple of years ago and a small collection of little pom poms made for some very creative cookie and cupcake baking!

I included a variety of writing utensils, a toy cash register with play money, calculators, hole punches and a variety of notepads to incorporate a print rich and pre-writing friendly environment. S especially took to using a sticky note pad to write down orders and "mitzvah notes" for everyone. I also included a chalkboard slate and some chalk and a few free printables I'd collected and laminated over the years for menus. Since we don't live near kosher restaurants or bakeries or cafes, much of the experience is still foreign to my children. In these situations, it can be helpful to model through play how these items are used. It can also be exciting to see the ideas they come up with on their own! Again, we used mainly materials we had on hand at home with a few dollar store finds thrown into the mix (like an OPEN/CLOSED sign and actual receipt and order memo books).
We extended the activity to include some sensory play with this homemade Sugar Cookie and Gingerbread Cookie Playdough Bakery. I just followed my standard stovetop playdough recipe, doubling the recipe and dividing in half. To one half, I added a bit of vanilla essential oil and to the other half, a generous amount of cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice and nutmeg. The smell was AMAZING (not good enough to eat, though I may or may not have caught glimpse of a certain preschooler double checking that theory before coming to the same conclusion). I added in some rainbow rice "sprinkles" and some of our favorite cookie cutters and kitchen set props for an afternoon of playdough bakery fun. This was an activity S requested to return to again and again!

 Playdough, is in fact, always an activity my preschooler wants to do. On one of the days of Chanukah, I gave each of my boys a few dollars of "gelt" to spend at the Dollar Tree. S quickly found the aisle with playdough and had a mathematical moment of wisdom after first picking three $1 containers of playdough and then seeing a 4-pack for $1, thereby saving his remaining two for a toy microphone and a bottle of bubbles. I know what you're all thinking--this playdough is going to turn all kinds of funny shades of neon until it finally meets its fate of preschool playdough brown (how is that not a color in the Crayola box of crayons yet?). I confess that I keep some of our store bought playdough for use only one or two chosen colors at a time, but I think there is value and benefit to letting little hands have at it. This is totally S's playdough and he loves it in every shade! Since we were still celebrating Chanukah, I threw some candles into the mix and he asked for the playdough factory tool and rolling pin and plastic knife. He was building all kinds of menorahs, lighting the candles and singing the brachos for days! Actually--even now that Chanukah is over, he is still playing about this! Yes, it's messy and colorful and takes time and effort to adequately clean up and organize, but it is a favorite activity here and winter break is the perfect time to make sure you can squeeze in plenty of playdough play opportunities. He's not just mixing colors, he's also developing fine motor strength and engineering skills to boot.

If you're feeling artsy-craftsy, here are some of the ways we've been having fun in our Art Center at home:

We had a lot of fun with this oil and food coloring marbled art activity from The Artful Parent before Chanukah began. The results of mixing oil with food coloring and water and dipping in card stock were beautiful! S also enjoyed the sensory experience of it and mixing and swirling the colors in a tray. It's a bit messy and takes some time and adult or older sibling involvement, however we really enjoyed the process and many people enjoyed the results, which we used to create handmade cards for family and friends.

Speaking of handmade cards...do you have a collection of your kids' artwork you're looking to recycle? Do you have thank you's to write or gifts still to send? We had a lot of fun creating handmade note cards for holiday greetings and note card sets as gifts for my son's teachers. I bought a bulk pack of blank greeting cards and envelopes available at craft supply stores and a large hole punch to create the center shape out of recycled artwork from each of the boys. You could also just hand-cut a rectangle or shape. We glued the art into the center of the blank cards and they came out beautifully, if I do say so myself!

Our Art Center is always a busy place these days. S really liked this Chanukah themed "secret message" activity, though you can incorporate a winter theme or any other one for that matter. Simply use a white crayon to draw a "secret" picture or message on some white paper or index cards (kids can do this, too, just make sure you encourage dark, thick marks) and include some do-a-dot markers or even watercolor paints and water to reveal the top secret message!

S has also been into creating bookmarks lately as we are reading aloud some short chapter books at bedtime. He loves making them as gifts and for us to use at home. In this little "bookmark making bin" I included some blank bookmarks (I bought these at a craft supply store in bulk, but you can cut your own from card stock), scissors and embroidery thread for making tassels and a collection of winter themed foam stickers and gems. There are a lot of ways to decorate bookmarks using stickers, gluing on papers for collage, coloring, painting, even the "secret message" activity listed above. Have fun and enjoy some good reading when you're done!

Our U-Pick-a-Project Basket is back and loaded with leftovers from the end of holiday season last year. A collection of inexpensive craft kits and science kits are a great way to fill some down time. Just this morning, S painted a snowman sun-catcher and helped set up a grow-your-own crystal snowman. It may not be snowing outside here, but we're thinking about it indoors, for sure! I collect these little kits when they go on discount or as I see them at our local dollar store.

Got wrapping paper scraps? We did and we had a lot of fun using them for tearing and cutting and playing in our sensory table. S loves to cut paper and tear paper. It's a great way to practice these skills and develop those fine motor muscles while not just throwing away the results. We also like to use these scraps in collage activities or on clear contact paper.

Paper tearing and shredding in an intentional environment also helps to channel that desire when it crops up in less preferred environments (like with artwork that is intended to remain in one piece or with books). You can add in some recycled cardboard tubes or scoops for some great sensory play as well.

 One of my favorite types of pretend play is small world play--using small toys and objects in dramatic play. I recently took up yet another profitless hobby, painting wooden peg dolls, and created a set to look like each member of our family. I love how it inspires S to play--particularly as he works through feelings about having a sibling or his Tatty going to work, etc. I also love that we have dolls that actually look like us! We have been enjoying this Winter Wonderland Small World Play Scene for the past few days here. I included a large swatch of sparkly white felt I had from last year, some winter themed props (these are highly discounted after the holidays) some arctic animals, a "skating rink" (metal tray), some "ice" (glass gems) and, per S's most recent request, some miniature food. He goes back to this activity again and again and plays with it in new ways each time. We are having a great time with it!

Whatever you're celebrating this season, I hope you're enjoying time with family and loved ones. From our little family to yours, Happy Playing!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#metoo: Cultivating Awareness of Power Roles and Teaching Empathy in Early Childhood

If you saw the hashtag "#metoo" take over your Facebook and Twitter feeds in the last months, this is for you. If you, your friend, your sister, your mother or your next-door neighbor answered #metoo--whether in writing, text, verbally or silently, behind the scenes--this is for you. If you have a child, know a child, or ever were a child--this is for you. As news, media, and social networking sites have swarmed with reports of alleged sexual harassment and worse, it has been impossible not to question where the line is drawn in the sand. My passion for play and early childhood development leads me to believe very strongly that it begins in the sandbox and a recent, seemingly benign exchange with my three year old son solidified that notion for me.

Every day when we pick up S from preschool, we try to conjure up creative questions that encourage him to share with us about his day at school. Asking him how his day was or what he did that day is usually met by silence. Asking him to remember all the way back to the very first activity he did in the morning, or what made him laugh or who he played with on the playground, however, usually opens the door to some great car-seat conversation on our short drive home. On one particular day last week, S shared with us that he only played with one particular friend a little that day because he is little. Indeed, his friend is on the younger side and several friends in the class have been exploring concepts of age and who is "big" and who is "little." It opened up a conversation about what qualities we seek in our friends: someone who is kind, someone who shares, someone who makes us laugh and feel good. We talked about how little and big can refer to age, height, size, behavior... We encouraged questions; we avoided pushing answers. These are the earliest stages of S's awareness of power roles and we want to encourage an open mind and critical thinking.

There has been a lot of blame and finger-pointing in regard to the overwhelming reports of these last few months. It is the media's fault or Hollywood's fault. It is policy's fault or the politicians' fault. It is the fault of their mothers or the fault of their fathers; they were not raised "right." It is the fault of religion or the absence of it. It is the fault of being silent; it is the fault of speaking up. This is an issue that is very gender-charged and yet, I believe, when we step back and look at the earliest stages of power role awareness, it is an issue that crosses gender lines and lands us right in the front-lines of preschool playground politics. Usually between the ages of 2-4, children begin to become aware of power and control. It is present in those earliest battles over food, sleep or toileting. It is present in toddler exchanges over a coveted toy. It is present in arguments over who is first, who has the "biggest" piece, who got "more," who "started it," who "sat next to Mommy last time..." Very early on, our children become aware of power and to them, that all boils down to supply and demand. Who has what, who wants what, and how to get what we want, when we want it, maybe even five minutes ago. Ever offered a present or a cupcake or even a bar of soap to one child in a room of 24? I guarantee you're going to hear about 23 emphatic #metoo's  in the background!

As parents, caregivers, teachers and adults, we are given the responsibility to "teach" children to have respect. There are entire curricula, television shows, children's books, religious organizations and social programs aimed at teaching respect, and while I feel that there is a great deal of merit to many of these, I also feel we miss the mark when we don't address a deeper area of social development that must precede the genuine expression of respect for other individuals: empathy. Empathy in children is a quality that I personally feel is innate but is not always naturally accessible to them. Adults often have an adult-age-appropriate desire to avoid conflicts for our children by eliminating them altogether. And children have an age-appropriate need to express and experience strong emotions, often through engaging in conflict.

We all have the best of intentions when we encourage taking turns, apologizing, sharing, classroom or sibling democracy. And yet, that's not how the "real world" works. I want a a turn with my neighbor's Mustang and he's had it for two years, but I don't just get to take it for a joy ride because he's had it for so long and I only have a 2001 Nissan Maxima. Studies have shown that forced apologies in marital conflicts are not actually helpful to a marriage at all. #sorrynotsorry Sharing is caring and I care about my friend, but I'm not going to share my cell phone with her. It's mine. And we all want a turn to be "first," but there's not exactly a democratic national rotation for who gets to be the President and First Lady. Positions of power happen through other means, many of which are not in our control. And while both childhood conflicts and our current political climate have elicited many a temper tantrum from people both big and little, we do a great disservice to our very little ones when we do not allow to them to feel, experience and move through strong emotions and conflict resolution.

I found in my classrooms that when we had issues of social conflict or property conflict that I could pretty instantly stifle them on my terms and see the same issue crop up again maybe even minutes later. However, when I empowered my students to work through these experiences, resolutions were reached that were infinitely more effective than anything I ever learned in a college classroom. This is not to say that we completely step out of the scene, but rather that we step back. That when it's time to line up and there are tears over who is first, we don't necessarily create a rotation of line leaders or bandage the hurt with a statement of "we're all going to the same place." Maybe instead we give the language of "now let's give high fives and say 'good race!'" When there's a conflict over a toy, a spot, a turn--we identify what core need is being unmet (control? attention? time?) and we ask the parties involved what they need to solve the conflict. Many times I would leave my pre-k students with the simple question: "what do you need to do to repair this relationship?"

Some children always want to be first. Some never want that role and will avoid it with their whole being. Some do want it, but don't have the means to get there and of those, some will be motivated to try and achieve it while others will not. Some children want to be feel big, some want to stay little, some want both at the same time (have you met my preschooler?). All children become aware on some level of power roles between peers and all children will experience power struggles throughout their lives. These experiences cross gender lines, socioeconomic lines, age lines and political lines; we must empower our children--boys and girls--to learn how to feel and express empathy beginning in early childhood so that when they mature into adulthood, they are top defenders of the line, both their own personal line and others'.  Sure, you can act respectfully without feeling respect for a person--but genuinely being able to relate to the effect of our thoughts, words and actions leads to a higher success rate of being able to express ourselves with respect even and especially in those most important moments: the ones in which no one else is watching.

And as with all developmental areas of early childhood, learning is best done through play and day to day experience. Our role is to give language and support as needed, to encourage encounters just outside the box of comfort, to provide a safe haven for feelings and thoughts that are not "neat, tidy or pretty," and to take off our adult gloves for a little while and allow life to get a little messy. Knees will get scraped. Tears will be shed. Insults will be thrown at lightening speed and Cheerios thrown even faster. Our adult wounds and scars are not our children's and vise versa. I don't have any answers; I do have a lot of questions. I encourage the same in my children and in my own peers. Being first, being three, being right, being biggest, fastest, best or better--those are all fleeting. Being kind is permanent. So when my preschooler told me his friend is little, I asked him if his friend is kind? He emphatically answered "yes!" And when I ask him, "are you kind?" --that is the time I most want him to answer boldly, with pride and with or without a hashtag-- yes, #metoo!