Tuesday, November 6, 2018

More Bakery Themed Fun with Art & Sensory Play

Our Bakery Dramatic Play setup has been loads of fun so far. Both boys have been busy baking, boxing, delivering and serving sweet treats around the house. And the fun has extended beyond our kitchen set and playroom to the art table and our sensory bin! These sweet activities are sure to please the little bakers-in-training in your home or classroom...

When school ended last Spring, S really missed "Morning Work" each day, so I started setting up a simple Table Time activity each morning at home. Y immediately took to it as well, and even once school started up again in the Fall, I knew there was no turning back. Every morning, the boys are eager to see what's set up at the table for "Morning Work." Sometimes it is related to a play theme or the season or an upcoming holiday or family event. Sometimes it's a journal activity or related to letters numbers, writing/coloring practice or even process art. Playdough and clay are always popular ones and I try to make the activity developmentally appropriate and enjoyable for each of the boys at his own level.

This week, it has been natural that we would include a bakery theme to our Morning Work set-ups. We are in need of some new artwork to hang up around the house after a recent swap out, so I set out an invitation to create cookies using colorful card stock, oil pastels, glue, glitter and tiny circle stickers for decorating. For S, I traced a circle (using a roll of masking tape) onto some squares of card stock that he could cut. For Y (and S if he wanted as well, though he loves cutting and chose to cut his own) I set out some pre-cut circle shapes. You can choose other shapes to add or have children trace/draw and cut their own. I set out a bottle of glue that S can squeeze and use independently but also a plastic container of glue with some brushes for Y to be able to work more independently. I always allow for both boys to try any of the materials that are out. That means Y may need some support to squeeze from a bottle and be safe with scissors and that S can use the more "challenging" options intended for his level or use the alternatives. I also filled a couple of salt and pepper shakers from the Dollar Tree with glitter. You have to really love glitter to do this--especially before 9AM! Admittedly, I closed up shop at 8:35 once the boys and surrounding areas were sufficiently covered in sparkle. Alternatively you can forego the glitter altogether or use/make glitter glue. To help minimize the sparkle factor, I used a pre-cut portion of a plastic tablecloth so I could take it off and toss it at the end. Instead of our usual art mats or work trays, I set down some leftover party plates to work on. This was festive, fun and functional for collecting extra glue and glitter spills and tossing out at the end. The boys loved this activity and each of them made a few cookies to decorate our play space. You could also use the finished work in your kitchen set for play.

Speaking of art that can be used in play, both of the boys have loved creating play food from Model Magic air drying clay by Crayola. Model Magic can be a bit pricey, so I waited for a lightening deal on Amazon recently and bought a bulk set intended for classroom use. Coupons from craft supply chains are also helpful. You can also make salt dough at home and use this instead. This week, the boys made clay donuts from Model Magic. S made the world's biggest donut and Y had fun working with my help to make a couple of his own to contribute. We are waiting for those and some clay cupcakes to dry now so we can add puffy paint and glitter decorations and then add them to our bakery shop setup. 

Meanwhile, in the sensory table... 

I tried out a recipe for Birthday Cake Dough  that I found at Frogs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails
You can click on the link for the full recipe. 
You'll need:
  • a box of cake mix (I used yellow cake mix)
  • a box of baking soda (I actually added a little extra at the end because the dough was a bit wetter than I wanted it)
  • a cup of vegetable oil
  • a bit of vanilla extract 
  • sprinkles

This dough smells heavenly and I would definitely classify it as "taste safe" being that the ingredients are all food ingredients. Nonetheless, it will not taste good, so I'd refrain from calling it edible

It mixes into a sticky and rather moist but malleable playdough and is super soft and fun! We added it into the sensory bin along with some baking tools, ice cream scoops and birthday candles for making cakes and cupcakes. You could definitely do this tabletop style instead, but I like our sensory bin for dough activities sometimes, especially some of the messier ones. Little ones can definitely help with making the dough as well and no cooking is involved. To store between play sessions, I would recommend using a ziploc bag or airtight container and refrigerating for longer shelf life. This recipe would also be a great one for Ice Cream themed sensory play and you could use other flavors of cake mix as well.
And nothing goes to waste (even and especially when we are using food products in play) here. I saved and sealed the empty ingredient boxes in clear packing tape so the boys can use them in play at their bakery shop. Nowadays, toy companies market all kinds of great play food and accessories. Nonetheless, these can be pricey and using/creating your own play props is a great alternative. As an added bonus, recycling real food containers and boxes promotes a naturally print rich environment and also feels more "realistic" to young children at play. 
Hope you will enjoy some of these sweet little activities. Dramatic play themes can extend well beyond the playroom and incorporate so many areas of play and development. We will be back soon with more and until then...

Happy Playing!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Peek Inside Our Playroom: Welcome to the Bakery!

Great things are worth repeating! Last year around Chanukah time, we set up our dramatic play area as a Holiday Bakery, and I'm pretty sure that's how we survived winter break from school! There's about a month until Chanukah now, but a month beforehand of birthdays in our family, Thanksgiving, and pending Chanukah excitement made me eager to get a jump start on our Bakery play theme this year.

Both boys are a whole year older now and dramatic play is something they are beginning to share in together, each at his own level. Y is mobile now, walking all around and navigating our play space. S is making huge strides in writing and math skills. Both boys love to play pretend, especially in our kitchen set and both boys love art and sensory play. Have I mentioned that both boys also love sweets and treats? Well, that's pretty much a given--so I knew they both would love this bakery theme.

When setting up a play theme in your home (or classroom), I'm a big fan of using what you have on hand. There's no need to spend a fortune or reinvent the wheel. I reused a lot of our bakery themed props from last year, including laminated printables, chefs hats we'd made, toys and props we already had, etc. Many of our kitchen set accessories were purchased secondhand, at the Dollar Tree or are homemade. This year I did get a lot of ideas and resources from Pocket of Preschool, including her great Bakery Dramatic Play set from TeachersPayTeachers.

I'm also enlisting the boys' help in making props out of Model Magic clay. This is such a fun art activity to do and it's so nice for them to see their own artwork being used at play! So far, they loved rolling and cutting out clay cookies. We allowed them to dry before "frosting" them with homemade puffy paints (shaving cream, white glue and food coloring), decorating with store-bought puffy paints (S did this) and adding rainbow rice "sprinkles" (both boys did this). Once dry, they were a great addition to our bakery! The boys will also be making clay donuts, cupcakes and perhaps even some gingerbread men!

Our bakery theme is set up to encompass a variety of areas of play and learning. A print rich environment supports my pre-reader through the incusion of signs, labels and natural print on recycled food containers. Plenty of opportunities for writing are set around the room, including laminated party invitations, bakery order forms, a receipt book and customer order book (Dollar Tree). Our bookshelf is stocked with some of our favorite baking and party themed books and a trip to the library will fill out the rest. Some actual baking cookbooks with beautiful photos are set out next to the play oven (which I made using a recycled box covered in tin foil with some recycled bottle caps glued on and a dollar store digital timer).

Math skills come into play as the boys count out cookies and cupcakes and fill customer orders. Even Y develops early one-to-one correspondence by placing one cupcake in each space of the cupcake tins or one egg in each space of the recycled egg carton. Our cash register and play money also support early math skills. Sequencing skills through following recipes come into play and action in this theme (and we will likely be doing some actual baking in the coming month as well). Fine motor skills are busy at work for both boys. They both are still loving the DIY Pumpkin Pie Set (pictured on bottom right in the photo above) made from felt and orange pom poms that the boys pick up using a variety of fine motor tongs, tweezers and tools.

Both of the boys are still loving our Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin. Y learned how to sing "Happy Birthday to You" over there (he sings it all the time, now) and S loves picking number candles and counting out birthday candles to go with them. I'm planning to do a flour bin later in the week outside (where cleanup will be a little less scary). Even here, the boys are developing fine motor coordination, spacial awareness, transferring and pouring skills, a bit of math and plenty of practical life-skills when it comes to sweeping up spills!

Dramatic Play is something that has seemingly faded almost into extinction in many early learning centers and homes alike. The push toward early academics has replaced kitchen sets with worksheets and playtime with "work time." More and more, children are struggling with the ability to engage in abstract and symbolic play and the result is not an increase in academic success, but rather an increase in behavioral, social and developmental challenges. While all things require balance, a well set up dramatic play theme encompasses opportunities to develop academic skills in a language children best understand: play! In addition to the skills noted above, children engaging in dramatic play also develop social skills like problem solving, role playing, conflict resolution and emotional awareness. They gain language and critical thinking skills. They work large and small muscles. And they do all of this in a natural environment. 

So now that I've got my soap box statement in praise of play out of the way, here's a peek inside our playroom and what you might add to your own Bakery:

Toy Food: We had some bakery themed toy food and ingredients, but you can also make your own from clay, cardboard, felt or craft foam. Our gingerbread men are actually just foam shapes from Dollar Tree's holiday crafts last year. Both my boys love using pom poms as play food. They have been everything from cupcakes to ice cream to pumpkins, apples and even coffee or tea.

Dishes, Tools and Utensils: Again, some are toys, but many are "the real thing" purchased from the Dollar Tree or secondhand shops. The nice thing about the bake ware from Dollar Tree is that it is a little smaller and perfect for small hands. We use and reuse it in dramatic play, sensory play and when preparing recipes for non-food doughs and slimes.

We just celebrated my husband's birthday over Shabbos and since this is a month of birthday celebrations for my husband and myself, I added a birthday party sub-theme to our bakery. In lieu of toy plates and cups, I added paper party plates, cups, hot cups with lids for hot beverages, plastic forks and spoons and even party tablecloth (cut to the size of our kids' table). All of these were purchased from the Dollar Tree and/or leftover from previous celebrations. S especially loves setting the table, so it's nice rather than setting up a table for the kids to let them do it themselves as part of their play.

Costumes: Every baker needs an apron and a chef's hat. We made our own chef's hats last year and had one in our dress up clothes as well. The boys decorated child sized aprons earlier this year as well that are perfect for work in our play kitchen or our actual kitchen. Child sized aprons and chef's hats are frequently available at Dollar Tree stores as well. You can also print and make role necklaces. I like the ones in the Bakery Dramatic Play kit I linked above or you and your children can create your own. You might also talk about different roles in a bakery like bakers, cashiers, customers, delivery personnel, etc. We have a "delivery truck" as well (our toy shopping cart, but you can also use a wagon or riding toy).

 Props and Accessories: You can include any of the following:

  • cleaning supplies and tools
  • potholders
  • open/closed signs
  • boxes (I used recycled produce containers and boxes with labels I printed last year)
  • bags (I used leftover recycled gift bags with labels I printed last year)
  • laminated party invitations and envelopes
  • toy mailbox for mailing invitations
  • DIY punch cards 
  • hole punch or stamp for punch cards
  • pens, pencils
  • dry erase markers and rag/eraser
  • printed menus and order forms (you can laminate them if you wish)
  • sales signs or labels/stickers
  • receipt books, customer order books (available in Dollar Tree stores)
  • bentchers and/or laminated food blessings cards if you happen to be running a Kosher play bakery
  • cash register if you have one, or you can use a calculator or computer keyboard
  • play money (you can make your own as well)
  • small clipboards and writing pads for taking orders

You can keep it is simple as you wish or get as detailed as your children inspire you to. If you're just starting out, less is often more. You can always add to the play scene later on as you get more ideas (or as your little ones do). Perhaps you'll visit a real bakery and have a look around! As we get closer to Chanukah, I'll be adding in some holiday props and activities and perhaps phasing out some of the birthday themed stuff. And while engaging in play with the boys will be both fun (hey, I like to play, too!) and helpful in learning about some of the novel aspects of baking and running a shop, I like to let them take the lead. I'll be in The Bakery if you need me...

Happy Playing!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Pumpkin Patch Playtime!

It's November 1st, and allow me to be the first to wish you a Happy Buy Your Purim Costumes and Dress-up Clothes at 50% Off Day! We don't happen to celebrate Halloween, but Autumn just isn't Autumn without pumpkins here. We [I] even [toiled and slaved and cursed and cried] in the garden to grown our own mini pumpkin and gourd. Yes. Only one. Of each. Costing me roughly a total of $54 when all was said and done, but worth every penny. I think. We also purchased some mini pumpkins and gourds, painted white pumpkins with acrylic paints, picked our own pumpkins at S's school field trip and needed an indoor way to have some playful and active fun yesterday while handing out [and eating] candy.
Introducing Pumpkin Patch Playtime! Whether you're looking to give those pumpkins one last hurrah today or trying to burn off some of the post-Halloween calories and energy, these simple activities are sure to please and simple to set up and execute at home or in the classroom.

Our Pumpkin Patch hosted a small selection of gross motor and dramatic play activities. You could include them all, add your own, or choose your favorites. You could do this outside if your weather permits, but it works just as well indoors given enough space.

The boys were invited as they came downstairs from their nap to take a hayride to the Pumpkin Patch. I used a small riding toy, but you can also use a cardboard box, bike/tricycle, scooter, skates or your own two feet! I used masking tape to make a path toward the pumpkin patch that would later double as our corn maze. If you have carpeting and are worried about tape, carpet safe tape options are available. I've never had a problem with masking tape as along as you remove it the same day. You can implement labels and sentence strips if you want to support a print rich environment.

Once they arrived at the Pumpkin Patch, the boys were greeted by the sight of artificial leaves strewn about the rug (you can also cut your own from paper or use the real thing outside). A couple of child sized rakes and a recycled brown paper bag were at the ready for raking leaves. If you have reservations about using rakes indoors, you could probably substitute in child sized brooms or children could use their hands or even tongs or tweezers to pick up leaves. If you have a larger group, this would be a really fun activity to do with a parachute and to use the leaves on the parachute to toss into the air before having the children rake and collect them.

The Pumpkin Patch itself was set up using artificial floral/foliage garlands I bought from the Dollar Tree earlier this year to use in our play sukkah as vines and our collection of pumpkins and gourds starring as themselves. You could use artificial/toy pumpkins, or even make your own by painting and stuffing brown paper lunch bags (as I did for our basketball game). At the Pumpkin Patch, the boys could "pick" pumpkins and gourds, fill up their shopping cart and bring them to The Pumpkin Patch Store (their kitchen set and cash register) to pay. You can get as detailed as you want here and make price tags, signs, etc. You can also keep it simple (as we did) and just go with the flow. S had the idea to use the pumpkins in the kitchen and make pumpkin cakes, pies and something he called "pumpkin juice" that I'm willing to try at least once to find out if I like it! He also wanted to use some brown paper shopping bags for carrying pumpkins and gourds, which became its own lesson in measurement, weight and structural integrity...

Both of the boys loved Pumpkin Basketball. S was quite inspired to try a real pumpkin in the game, but since we were inside, I put a damper on that one. Instead, I prepped some simple brown paper lunch bag pumpkin basketballs. I colored the bags with orange and green marker, stuffed them with tissue paper and taped them shut before smooshing them into a round shape. Alternatively, you could use actual balls and permanent markers to make them look like pumpkins. Everyone (yes, me, too) took turns having three tosses to try and make a basket.

These activities are meant to get everyone up and moving and active. When excitement and festivity are in the air (even and especially the day after), movement is a necessity. If you're needing a less active and quieter option or station, these DIY peg board geo-pumpkins are the way to go. They still encourage active engagement of muscles, strength and energy, but they are a bit more stationary in nature. This has been a favorite activity for S the last few years now, and this year Y got in on the fun as well. They hammered golf tees into a couple of our mini pumpkins last week for Table Time one morning. Yesterday, I set out the trays of rubber-bands and our pumpkin geo-boards. Y was able to loosely drape larger rubber bands over the pegs and S was able to make intricate shapes and designs.

We will likely give these gourds and pumpkins one last hurrah here as we explore the inside and maybe even do a little baking per S's request. But honestly, I'm pumpkin-spiced out and ready for what's next...Chanukah!

If you're gearing up for Chanukah as well and looking for a playful and educational way to bring some early math and literacy skills into your home or classroom, check out my Chanukah Counting Soup game on TeachersPayTeachers. It's a fabulous way to bring fun, festivity and a little bit of learning into your home or classroom this season.

And until then...happy playing!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin

This Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin is super simple to set up and so much fun! We're in a stage where both of my boys love and benefit from activities in our sensory table. Sensory play is certainly a common catchphrase around classrooms and homes. Pinterest, Instagram and blogs are full of ideas and there's a whole market for materials related to sensory play. But what exactly are children gaining from playing in a basin full of dried beans, sand or water? Isn't it just playing? Not to mention the mess! I'm here to cheer you on and encourage you to take a deep breath. Grab a cheap dustpan and brush from your dollar store, maybe a plastic shower curtain, too, to catch the spills. And while there is a whole industry to target folks looking for sensory bin fillers, props, tools and trinkets, you don't need to break the bank. You can use (and re-use) inexpensive materials, many of which you have in the pantry or can access inexpensively from dollar stores, the grocery store or even secondhand. Unless something gets irreparably damaged in play or we all have horrendous runny noses, we store and save our fillers for future use. It's a good idea either way to wash hands before and after sensory play.

What skills are children developing through play at the sensory table? As a teacher and a parent, I'm of the mindset that sensory play targets a huge range of skills, especially when you are creative in your setup. Particularly for children who may struggle in certain developmental areas, the sensory table is a safe and confined space to explore and expand skills that are challenging in a more traditional setting.
  • Fine motor development is targeted through scooping, pouring, pinching with tongs or tweezers, transferring, manipulating more viscous substances (like slime, dough, ooblek, kinetic sand, etc.). Sensory bins are a great place for scissor practice as well when children cut their own crepe paper, ribbon, yarn, paper, etc. Provide scrap paper and hole punches for children to create their own confetti filler. For children too young to cut with scissors, tearing tissue paper or crepe paper is another great way to target those tiny muscles.
  • Literacy skills are targeted through the use of novel vocabulary. Talk about textures, colors, scents, what you are doing, planning, creating... You can add letter manipulatives and written words and labels to create a print rich environment or base a sensory table on children's literature to extend a lesson through play.
  • Social skills like engaging in conversations, problem solving (navigating sharing materials, space and ideas) are targeted especially when children work in pairs. In my classrooms, the sensory table was a place where children who may not typically play together did have an opportunity to do so. Sometimes this was strategic on my part (as in, I chose pairs and the desire to play in our sensory bin outweighed the desire to only play with certain students). Friendships developed in this space that might not have happened on the playground or in other areas.
  • Problem solving skills and other executive functioning skills are called into play when children tinker, build, rearrange and otherwise navigate materials in the sensory bin.
  • Symbolic play and abstract play skills that children struggle with or resist in a dramatic play setting are often more appealing (and less threatening) in the confines of a sensory bin when small world play is introduced through the addition of toy animals, people and other props. Children who do not naturally engage in role playing and character/story development through traditional dramatic play often feel more comfortable to do so in this setting.
  • Math concepts like sequencing, measurement, sorting/categorizing, shape and numeral recognition, one-to-one correspondence and even early operations and fractions can be introduced through sensory play.
  • Science is in action as children manipulate and observe materials found in nature or chemical reactions and states of matter of various concocted sensory bin fillers.
  • STEM skills are targeted with opportunities to build, construct, design, transport and otherwise manipulate a variety of materials and loose parts.

Lately, S has been very engaged in play about cupcakes and baking. He uses pom poms, toy dishes and recycled containers on a daily basis to set up shop and sell his wares. He is always making sweet treats with play dough and clay (in fact, we've been working on a batch of Model Magic cookies to be used in our kitchen set). Such was the inspiration for our latest sensory bin. S is also making huge strides in his math skills both at school and at home. As it is something that interests him, I incorporate it into our play. Nonetheless, even if you have a reluctant mathematician at home, sensory play is a great way to sneak it in! Y just LOVES playing at the sensory table. He often spends even more time playing there than S! He loves practicing scooping, pouring and transferring and, um, cleaning up spills... He isn't quite to the point of counting candles or numeral recognition, but he will surely have a great time playing and exposure through play is the path to success down the road.

Here's what you'll need to set up your own Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin:

  • Rainbow Dyed Rice for filler. We reused the batch I had from our UnBirthday Party theme last spring, so it has some birthday confetti mixed in.
  • Vanilla extract (optional) for scent
  • Plastic cups and scoops (both from Dollar Tree). You can also use silicone cupcake liners and recycle scoops from protein powder or other drink mixes.
  • Birthday candles
  • Number magnets or candles
  • A number line (optional) to support early mathematicians who do not yet recognize numerals
Children can use scoops to fill their cupcake cups, choose a number or number candle and then stick in the corresponding number of birthday candles.

Variations on the theme:

  • Provide a second set of magnetic numerals and an addition symbol and equal sign. Children can set up and solve their own addition problem by adding two cupcakes together.
  • Add some dice or a spinner into the mix and have children roll/spin to choose their number.
  • Younger children (like Y) can play and explore by scooping, pouring, transferring and sticking candles into the rice.
Looking for more sensory bin ideas? Check out our extensive collection of related posts here and stay tuned for more ideas in the future! Until then...

Happy Playing!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Creative Self Portraits with Kids

 Doing long term self portrait art with young children is a great way to incorporate a variety of developmental skills while creating a special keepsake that will undoubtedly make you both smile down the line! As a classroom teacher, I always did at least two or three self-portraits with my students each year, and some years we did self portraits as a monthly morning work activity (often coinciding with Rosh Chodesh (the new Jewish month) to add a sense of ceremony to the activity.
Some children loved doing self portraits. Others did not. In fact, some of those children would rush through the activity altogether. I realized this happened for a variety of reasons. Some children did not particularly enjoy coloring in general or struggled with representational drawing or fine motor skills, making the activity challenging. Some children didn't feel connected to the activity of drawing themselves and most did not feel particularly encouraged by the idea of a keepsake they would not take home until the end of the school year. For young children who live very much in the moment, the idea of "looking back on your work and how you've grown" in seven months just isn't that compelling! Nonetheless, I never abandoned the project. Creating self portraits in the early years targets and tracks a variety of developmental skills. Fine motor strength comes into play along with spacial awareness as children develop from the scribble stage to drawing lines, squiggles, simple shapes, representational shapes and eventually body parts and bodies. Early on, the activity may be just some scribbles on a page. Children develop into their ability to recognize that a body has parts and later, to where to those parts are placed proportionally and how they can utilize art to represent their own bodies on paper. So rather than abandon ship with the activity, I got creative. I continue to toy and tinker with self portrait art as I incorporate it into our home routine. If you're looking to integrate a long term self portrait study into your own classroom or home, here are a few of my own tried and true tips of the trade:

  • Format Matters: When doing a long term project or study, I prefer to use a medium that lends itself to long term use. Using paper or printouts on their own is fine and this can be bound down the line. Nonetheless, using a notebook, blank book, journal or even a homemade journal can be a great way to provide a permanent format for your long term project. 
    • I introduce journals to my own children as soon as they are able to use a crayon or marker, glue, stickers, etc. This is certainly a young stage in journaling and using journals with a toddler will look different than using them with a preschooler/pre-writer and even different than an early writer/independent writer. Journals in my home and classrooms are always accessible and available to children to use as they like and at certain times, I provide a prompt or guided activity. 
  • Display completed portraits done on individual paper in a frame if you do happen to go with a loose-leaf version. You can even set it alongside a current photo and swap them both out when you add your next installment.
  • Provide Mirrors: Drawing from memory is not only challenging, it is a very abstract concept for young artists. For my students who did not connect to the idea of drawing a self-portrait, some particularly struggled with the concept of drawing themselves as they currently appear. I would provide verbal prompts to encourage them to think about what they are wearing, what colors they have on their clothes and body parts, what shapes and where things are spatially. Nonetheless, a real game changer happened on the morning I first set out a class set of mirrors with our activity. All of a sudden, my most reluctant artists were enthralled! What child doesn't love to look at himself in a mirror and make silly faces? And I even allowed for silly face self portraits! Individual mirrors can be purchased quite inexpensively even at the Dollar Tree. As with anything fragile, be careful to support children in safe handling.
  • Make it Special:  For children who do not feel connected to long term projects (and most do not--it's hard to wait!), adding some unique elements to your setting can give it more meaning. Perhaps you reserve a special set of crayons or markers just for self portraits. Perhaps you coincide the activity with the new month or an upcoming holiday/milestone. You can even add a holiday/birthday theme to your self portraits if you wish.
  • Templates are a great option for children who may be overwhelmed by a blank page. A simple Pinterest or clip art search will provide you a variety of printable options for head or full body templates.
  • Size, Dimension and Medium can also change up your game a bit. Consider working in a smaller format (think blank index card or paper doll cut from card stock). Or perhaps think BIG and trace a full body onto butcher or craft paper. For children who are not as drawn to drawing in two dimensional form, consider abandoning paper and crayon altogether. Use cardboard, fabric, clay, or sew a mini-me doll. Work in collage, with paint, tape, stickers, foam, felt, etc. Draw or paint self portraits onto wood blocks or wooden peg people to use in your block area or with a dollhouse. One of our favorite methods so far has been using dry erase markers directly on mirrors to draw temporary self portraits.

  •  Join 'em! Why not join your students or children in the activity as well and create your own self portrait? You can even partner up and take a turn drawing each other!
Whether they are smitten with the idea of self portraits or slower to warm up to the activity, children love to look back at their artwork from "way back when..." We will certainly be continuing our creative self portraits at home and until then...

Happy Playing!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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