Monday, April 30, 2018

The Benefits of Gardening With Kids (Even If You Don't Have a Green Thumb)

 Every spring, I get an almost insatiable desire to dig in the dirt and plant seeds. Some might say it is overzealous. Some mothers may wish for manicures or jewelry or a new outfit for Mother's Day. I am hoping for an indoor compost bin. And to be quite honest, I don't have the greenest thumb in the world. If you've seen my houseplants lately, you'd likely wonder how in the world I have managed, (thank G-d) to keep my kids alive. I tend to plant a lot of seeds well before the last frost falls and then I tend to lose my gusto somewhere between late spring and the scorching temperatures of early summer here.

Perhaps you read up on my gardening posts over the last couple of years and perhaps you remember last summer when we ended up with a deliciously edible tomato forest comprised entirely of the results of one seed I did not plant last spring. No, in fact, all of those seeds sprouted, grew and withered due to my inattentiveness while the tomatoes from the previous year that had gone to seed after I lost my gardening gusto replanted themselves and blessed us with an abundance of cherry tomatoes well into the fall!

Knowing full well that the summers here just don't produce enough consistent rain to keep my garden growing without my personal intervention, I am left to try to reign it in or produce my own rain in the form of buckets and watering cans full of water carried from my kitchen since our apartment building lacks outdoor hookups. This year, I am trying not to bite off more than I can chew (we may have another tomato forest), but I am also trying container gardening a bit so that at least some of our crops will remain closer to the kitchen sink and not dry out so quickly.

So why garden with my kids if I might not have the greatest talent for it? Because my mom gardened with me and her mom gardened with her and because there are generations of photos of mud-covered versions of our younger selves holding cucumbers and zucchini taller than we were. Because it's fun, it's healthy, it can be relatively inexpensive and it is hugely beneficial to a number of developmental skills to boot.

Gardening encourages gross motor & fine motor development, gets kids OUTDOORS and moving! Summer months without school can feel daunting. How do you fill the hours let alone the days? A garden is bound to take up time and fill it with meaningful and healthy activity that will get your (and your children's) bodies moving and soaking up healthy amounts of Vitamin D (just don't forget the sunscreen).

Gardening encourages planning, organizing and is a natural way to experience the science, math and literacy. From seed, to sprout, to plant to produce, growing a garden is a science and an art. Even failed attempts are part of the lesson! Plotting your plot will call upon math and spacial awareness skills. Reading directions on seed packets and introducing your children to a host of novel vocabulary as they explore new tools, plants and flowers will have you reading without even realizing you're reading! (This is a huge plus for reluctant readers in the summer.) Critical thinking is unavoidable as you troubleshoot infestations and unwanted pests, plants that thrive and those that don't...and just wait until you begin to enjoy the bounty of your labor in your kitchen.
Even your pickiest eaters...

....might just be willing to try out a lettuce leaf or two if they grew it themselves!

 Gardening builds confidence and encourages quality time spent together as a family. Trust me, you're going to need all the help you can get! Planting, watering, remembering, weeding, harvesting, preparing, cooking, eating, enjoying... So many social skills are called upon when you join together as a family or with friends in the garden.
Even the littlest of littles can lend a helping hand...

They will grow bigger (so might your garden)...

....and bigger....

...and eagerly teach the next in line all the rules of the road when it comes to helping in the garden!

If you're not overly convinced or gardening on a large scale is not practical for you, think small!

Consider a kitchen herb garden planted in a container either indoors or outside. Whether you start from seed or buy a plant at your local grocer, garden shop, farmer's market or plant sale, choose a few favorites (or something new) and spice up your favorite recipes throughout the season. Many herbs can continue to thrive in a kitchen window throughout the cooler months given adequate sun and water. Alternatively you can dry and/or freeze your harvest before the first frost!
Container gardening is a great way to grow herbs, flowers and even produce in a small space! This is a great option for apartment living or even those who are not so zealous about gardening [yet]. Consider sun exposure and watering options when you choose your containers, location and plants. I love this metal gardening tool catty for herbs and I am trying out the larger metal basin for some radishes.
Radish seeds are quick to germinate, quite hardy, and produce a harvest in a short amount of time. You will have quick results and success and plenty of time left in the season to plant more radishes or something else. We plan to try out some carrot seeds once we harvest our radishes and enjoy that harvest into the Autumn season!
When choosing a container, keep in mind ones that do or do not have drainage at the bottom. You can find great options secondhand or re-purpose something in your own home as opposed to buying new if you'd like.

Perhaps you'd prefer to plant or purchase a pot of colorful flowers for your stoop or window box. Brightly colored blooms will attract pollinators like hummingbirds, bees and butterflies! I run a local outdoor meet-up group and this week we will be joining friends in a butterfly garden seed exchange! Easy to grow and hardy annuals are a great candidate for growing your own potted flowers. Marigolds in particular do quite well where we live and ward off mosquitoes and other garden pests.

But if growing your own plants and gardens is not something that appeals to you or is possible right now, consider inviting gardening into your home in an alternative way. Join (or start) your own nature based meet-up group. Visit local garden centers, botanical gardens, farmer's markets and produce shops. Many communities have gardens where families can volunteer or otherwise participate to work and help. Perhaps a friend or relative would like some help in the garden and welcome some additional hands. Many times a neighbor might need to go out of town and want someone to garden-sit (and even enjoy some of the harvest).

Being surrounded by the colors and bounty of the season in every season always brings such joy to our home. I love how excited S gets over picking a dandelion whether it's yellow or full of fluff he can blow away. He got so tickled over a couple of small flower plants I picked up for him and Y before last Shabbos. He loves Shabbos treats that are edible but was just as excited when he got to pick which flowers would be "his," and which would be for Y. He immediately moved his orange blooms right beside his dinner plate and it kept him company throughout the meal.
If gardening on a larger scale is not your thing, consider welcoming some of the bounty of this season into your home in the form of cut or potted flowers, fresh herbs, fruits and veggies. Feel free to visit your local library for some great literary inspiration. I am eager to get my sleepy boys out of bed and out to our garden. We'll be there if you need us!

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

How to Support Your Child's Anxiety (While Keeping Your Own in Check)

Sometimes life here is sensory bins, light tables, play gardens and baking cookies. Other times, life here is kneeling in a public bathroom, wearing a disposable "firefighter's hat" and holding the hand of a little boy who is now using the potty (Yay!) and is afraid of loud noises like automatic toilets flushing and electric hand dryers. For S, loud and unpredictable sounds are overwhelming. Not all loud sounds, mind you. He is fascinated by drums, music, motorcycles, sirens, blenders, food processors, even the vacuum cleaner. But there is a fine line between fear and fascination, and some of these sounds began their life for him on the other side of that line.
S's sound sensitivity has its pros and cons, for sure.  He is keenly aware of sounds in nature, like birds chirping, bugs buzzing, dogs barking... He is particularly musical and rhythmic (the apple does not fall far from the tree). Just as easily as he can hone in on one sound to the exclusion of all else, he can also channel his focus (or lose it entirely). As a sound sensitive adult, I can empathize with his experience. I can remember getting lost in department stores because I got lost in the recorded music being played. I still loathe the sound of the vacuum, balloons popping, more than one song playing or conversation happening at once... I am also musical. I began demonstrating the ability to play songs I heard by ear at the age of three and began piano lessons shortly after. I started writing my own music at the age of 9, culminating in over 100 songs before I transitioned to writing mostly parenting and preschool jingles.
For S, a public bathroom is just about the most intense audio experience he could face right now. In a world where toilets, hand dryers, paper towels and even soap are automated and make unpredictable noises, the whole experience is out of his control. To top that off, many restrooms are shared spaces and someone could come in and use any of these loud and unpredictable appliances without any warning. When you are also new to the world of toileting and all that it entails, it is almost too much. It is one of the few fears that leads him to want to avoid a situation altogether and "just go home."
As a mom who leans toward the side of worrying herself, I also tend to reach that fight or flight response when I see it ignited in my kids. More and more, I began to ponder outings we could do so quickly that a bathroom stop would not be necessary. Or how bad would it be if I just let him have an accident and changed him in the car? Could he pee outside at the park someplace far off and out of view? Maybe we will just go to the library and Walmart until he overcomes his fear of every other bathroom in the world. But alas, our lives cannot stop, nor should they. Which is the point I reached while crouching in the corner of that bathroom yesterday, decked to the nines in my fancy shmancy disposable hat. The first order of business in dealing with childhood anxiety is getting your own anxiety in check...

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself! Ah, how that expression conjures all sorts of nostalgia... But it is a great reminder that you must affix your own oxygen mask before assisting others. And speaking of oxygen, a deep breath (or even a few) might not hurt here...
Childhood fears are typically normal and usually temporary. For a great comprehensive list of common childhood fears based by age (and tips on dealing with them), check out this article at Anxious Toddlers. Having a fight or flight response is actually a helpful thing. We want our children to grow to recognize risk and danger and respond accordingly. That said, we also want them to grow to experience and act on this response at appropriate times. As adults, we likely even remember some of our own childhood fears. Some of them we overcame and perhaps a few still remain. (I'm still terrified of throwing up, and I mean terrified.) As parents, we can do a lot to support our children's process in experiencing, working through, and overcoming fears and anxieties. This blog is all about play and play is truly a way that children are able to work through and process strong emotions. You can read up on some previous posts related to coping with childhood anxieties here.

Even while knowing all of the benefits of childhood fears and knowing that they are generally normal, healthy and temporary responses, it can be difficult not to experience your own strong emotions of frustration and concern. Unfortunately, sometimes our children read this emotional response in us as a reason to further perpetuate their own anxiety. If Mommy seems worried and upset, perhaps I should be, too. If we can get our own reaction in check (or at least delay it a bit and vent the frustration later on behind closed doors), we can better assist our little ones in shrinking those larger than life fears back down to a manageable size.

Preparation is (Almost) Everything: I say "almost" because when it comes to fears and worries, you cannot always predict a trigger. That said, if you do know your child may face a fear trigger, whether it's getting a shot at the doctor, using a public restroom or being separated from you for the first time (or several dozen times) at school--you can do a bit to prepare. This is a balancing act. There is a line between talking about an event in a way that prepares a child and reduces anxiety and talking about an event in a way that causes more worry and anxiety as it approaches. This threshold is different for every child and can be difficult to read. As a teacher and as a parent, I always find myself assessing (and re-assessing) when the best time is to talk about an upcoming event that may trigger anxiety. It can be helpful to talk about an event afterward that has a more positive association. This does not necessarily mean you are offering a reward for bravery (although you can!) but simply that there is something to look forward to along with the aspect that is less desirable. "We are going to the dentist today and on the way home, I thought it might be fun to stop at the book store."

Preparation also might involve having support tools with you, whether that is a security or transitional toy/blanket, a distraction (toys, games, cell phones/tablets), or portable objects that help with calming down (calm down jars/sensory bottles, stress balls, lavender essential oil, really whatever works here!). Familiar objects like family photos or a special bracelet or necklace made together or a small object to hold in a hand or pocket can sometimes help with separation anxiety. Fear and discomfort in public restrooms can sometimes be reduced by bringing a familiar portable seat cover. A plastic dinosaur with teeth can "demonstrate" how his teeth get cleaned at the dentist before it's a child's turn and a favorite baby doll or stuffed toy can come along for a check up. Social stories can be written, drawn and dictated by children along with your help to work through fear inducing scenarios and their aftermath. If possible, try to allow yourself extra time to navigate these scenes by arriving early or not having to rush out to another commitment. If you will not be with your child when he/she will experience a fear trigger, it can be helpful to go over who the helpers are, whether that is a teacher, a babysitter, a relative or friends. It can also be helpful to go over calming techniques. This might look a bit like this:
"And who can you go to if you need some help? [Teacher/babysitter/friend] can help you, right? And what can you do if you feel worried/sad?" Allow your child to come up with some of his/her own ideas and feel free to add in your own. "You can ask for a hug/hold a hand/take a deep breath/cover your eyes/ears..."

In the Moment: There are many tools to handle those "in the moment" fear responses. Once you've got your own wits together (this can sometimes be the hardest part!) you're ready to reach into your bag of tricks. Here are a few of my own that are helpful, but truth be told, this bag needs to be a bottomless pit. I'm always reaching for new tools when one doesn't quite do the trick or stops being effective. It's also useful to know that you and your child will not always handle these intensely emotional moments in "the best way possible." That is OK. While we strive to navigate these stormy waters as gracefully as we can, I firmly believe that what we do before and afterward are equally, if not more important. And remember that a moment is just that: a moment. It will pass. There will be many others. For better or for worse, when it comes to supporting a child's anxiety, there are many second (third, fourth and millionth) opportunities.

  • Scene Scavenger Hunt: When I enter a public bathroom with S, we do a Scene Scavenger Hunt. "This bathroom is a family bathroom, which means it's just us in here." or "This bathroom has three stalls and three toilets. Many people can use it at once." "I see a sink and a hand dryer and a paper towel dispenser. And look, there's some soap! Oh, and there's a trash can... These toilets have handles that you push down to flush." or "This toilet has an automatic flusher. Shall I cover it up with toilet paper [or I recently heard a suggestion to use sticky notes] so we can flush it at the end?" A scene scavenger hunt can also include aspects that are protective in the environment. This may be people or objects that are comforting or identifying why a space is safe/helpful. The doctor's office can be scary but it is also a place where people who are sick can be helped and where doctors make sure that people are healthy. 
  • Helpful Language: "Don't be scared," "Don't cry," "Be brave," and "It's not scary," are not always the most helpful phrases. For one thing, fear is not something that can instantaneously be turned off to make way for bravery. And bravery is not the absence of fear, rather it is the ability to move forward even in the face of fear. Crying is a natural response to many strong emotions, fear included, and actually releases endorphins in the brain that help to calm an anxiety response. That said, when intense emotions do arise and breathing becomes more rapid, it can be helpful even as a child is crying to assist with some slow, deep breathing. The language I prefer includes three parts: 
    • validating/acknowledging the feeling: "This is really scary for you." "You feel really nervous." "The dog really worries you."
    •  a conjunction that does not negate that statement (AND, not BUT)
    • a restorative affirmation "You are safe." "I am here." "I will stay with you." 
An example of putting that all together might sound like this: "The hand dryer is really loud and loud sounds are uncomfortable. You can hold my hand and I will stay here with you as long as you need." or "The vacuum makes a really loud sound and it is safe." With separation anxiety, this is a bit different and might sound a bit more like this: "Saying goodbye is really hard and I will be back after lunch." 
  • Calming techniques like deep breathing, singing a song, distraction, humor, comforting touch or just about anything that can diffuse and get you through the moment (even if it's not ideal or sustainable) come into play here. Bribery, sweets, prizes and rewards may not be the most sustainable option when it comes to childhood anxieties, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Ideally you want your comfort measures to be ones that you can always access and certainly options like mindful breathing, a comforting song or holding a hand are generally a preferred option, but don't beat yourself up over resorting to the powerful currency of lollipops, stickers or whatever gets you through--particularly for less frequently experienced fear triggers like getting hair cuts, dental checks or shots.
  • Slow the Boat Down! If your child has a strong fear of something, chances are there are many other children (and parents) in the same boat! It can be helpful to remember you and your child are not alone and then to focus in on how to slow that boat down. Fear ignites a strong and speedy physiological response. It is exactly what the body needs to fight a predator or flee from the scene of danger. Yet, if that predator happens to be a porcelain toilet bolted to the floor, you probably don't need to run so fast and that level of response might be overkill for the system. You want to help your child slow that response. This can be done through modeling and involves slowing your own pace. Using slow and deliberate speech, taking full and deep breaths and reducing extraneous factors that are unhelpful are all ways to assist a child in fight or flight mode. You may feel like saying a lot, but saying less and merely being present with a child can go a lot further in the moment
  • How big is your bubble? Several years ago when I was teaching, I had a student who had particularly strong emotional responses to a variety of stimuli. I began to use some imagery with him to help him decide and control how big his problems were in a moment and be able to move forward. Eventually, all I needed to say was "How big is your bubble?" and he could work through this process independently. You would introduce a technique like this outside of a high intensity moment so that you can access it with familiarity once a fear response arrives. Here's how it works:
"Imagine that [your worry/problem] is a bubble. [You can be specific here--for S, I would say "Imagine that the sound of the hand dryer is a bubble.] Worries can feel really big and the more worried/upset you feel, the bigger that bubble gets. Hold out your hands and lets blow up that bubble. How big is your bubble? Oh my, that is big! You feel really worried about _____. Now can you use your hands to make the bubble smaller? [Model slowly squeezing and pushing hands inward]. Can you gently blow the bubble away? [take a big, deep breath and slowly blow out] Can you pop the bubble and make it disappear? [poke a finger at the imaginary bubble and make a popping sound] What else can we do with the bubble so that it won't be so big?" [Children have great ideas with this one! One little boy even had the idea to put himself inside of his bubble and float away!] Imagery techniques like this one can help children slow down their thoughts and feelings and take deep breaths while also feeling an aspect of control over the size and magnitude of their experience. Once this is practiced a number of times "outside of the moment," it can be utilized "in the moment" as simply as asking "How big is your bubble? Can we make it smaller?"

Outside of the Moment: Moments of intense anxiety can feel like forever, but relatively speaking, they are a very small portion of the bigger picture of childhood fears. There are supportive tools that can help when life is calm so that the next time you're in the moment it's easier to get through.

  • Be a Solution Sleuth: Every great detective knows how to scour the scene of a crime for evidence. Now you and your child get to play detective and find all of the helpful and useful evidence you can to diffuse the fire of fear and simultaneously add kindling to your child's self esteem. You'll be tapping into some factual resources about the things that frighten your little one. Libraries are a great resource for books both fiction and non-fiction about all kinds of common childhood fear triggers from thunder to hospital visits, first days of school and spiders--you name it, they've got it. Information is power and fears make us feel powerless. Armed with helpful information, we can regain a bit of power over the response and reaction. Do be mindful to balance how much information you provide. Again, the line is not always definitive, but monitor how your child is responding as you research and explore and be sensitive to times when reading and talking about worries are not the most helpful (for some, bedtime is not a good time to talk about fears).
As you're gathering evidence to shrink down larger than life fears, you'll also want to collect some evidence to help build up your child. Here it is useful to tap into past occasions on which he or she was able to overcome a difficult obstacle. It is also noteworthy to mention that while praise is sometimes helpful, it is even more helpful in these times to shift the focus on their own perception of their accomplishments. With S, that looked a bit like this: "Do you remember how you used to feel afraid of the dogs at this park and now they don't worry you at all anymore, do they? We came back again and again and after a while, you even liked to sit and watch them play! I wonder if we keep coming back again and again, if after a while, the bathrooms here might not feel so scary either." or "I can remember when you were too afraid to even touch the ropes at the gym and now you swing on them like a monkey! You must feel really proud about that!" Tapping into these moments of accomplishment stocks your file box full of supportive evidence that they can overcome this and any hurdle in their path. 
  • Be honest. I am a huge supporter of honesty when it comes to childhood fears. I do not believe it is helpful to lie in order to "protect" a child from something that scares him. Shots do hurt. Someone might come in the bathroom and turn on the hand dryer. Dogs sometimes bite, but most of the time they are safe, especially if you ask the owner before coming close and give them space. Bees sometimes sting to protect themselves but most of the time they do not, especially if you are still. And on the other side of that coin, monsters are not real. Ghosts, witches, etc. are not real. Bears do not live nearby our house. Never use your child's fear as ammunition. It will likely come back to bite you both in the tush! If your child is intensely fearful of being left, it is not likely useful to say "see ya! I'm leaving" and walk away in the bookstore when she doesn't want to go home. Sure, she will probably follow you right away, but separations in other places will also likely take longer and be more intense as her trust wavers. 
  • Be an example. I think it is important for children to know that adults had fears as children, too, and even that adults still have fears. I tell my kids about the things that scared me when I was young and even about the things that still do. I tell them what I did to get through the strong feelings and who helped me and how. I tell them that I used to be very afraid of getting my hair cut, but more and more, I practiced and one day, I didn't need to sit on my mommy's lap anymore and in fact, one day I even started to love getting my hair cut. I liked to play about it and pretend about it and now it isn't scary for me at all.
  • Make a space for worries. While it is a delicate dance to know when, where and how often to talk about the things that worry your child, it is important to make a space where those thoughts and discussions are safe and welcome. We have started a new nightly routine instigated by S himself. Each night we always sing and talk about our favorite thing from the day and now we also talk about a "least favorite thing," which usually includes something that worried or upset S. For him, naming the experience when he's not in it helps to diffuse it and allows him to let go and move forward. If this is something that is helpful to your child, go for it! If talking about (particularly before bed) induces more anxiety and worry over it, this may not be the best time or place. You might instead look at role playing about it earlier in the day. Either way, do allow your children to know that you are a safe person they can talk to about their fears and worries whenever they need to do so. You can also help them to identify other safe people to talk to.
  • PLAY! I've said it so many times already, but play is the natural way that children work through their fears and worries. Sometimes observing their play can help us identify what they worry about. Other times, we can engage in intentional dramatic play with them that assists in the process. Allowing ample time and opportunity for play ensures a safe and developmentally appropriate space for children to navigate their anxieties.
General Maintenance: The above are just a few things that can support a child coping with fear and anxiety. In general, there are things we can do for our children and ourselves to maintain a healthy control over anxiety and fear. These include (but are not limited to):
  • Exercise, particularly cardio exercise helps release endorphins in the brain that combat the chemicals released during an anxiety response. Yoga can also be a great tool to combine aspects of exercise, breath control and thought re-framing/mindfulness.
  • Adequate sleep and nutrition support the whole system in functioning through the day's highs and lows
  • Mindfulness techniques can be really helpful with children and adults in coping with anxiety--there are fabulous books out there and online resources
  • Spiritual practice and awareness of something larger than fears and even larger than us can be a huge protective factor. If you adhere to particular religious community or spiritual practice, this is a great resource!
  • Having patience is easier said than done, but trust and know that this, too, shall pass. S used to be immensely terrified of the vacuum cleaner and now he is first in line to help with the chore, even toting along his own toy vacuum!
  • Know when to push forward and when to step back. We do not want to see our children paralyzed by fear. Sometimes that idea triggers our own fear response (it does for me). And yet, we have to navigate (again and again) when to push forward and when to step back. Picking battles does not mean you surrender the war. Some days it is easier just to avoid the places that don't have S-friendly bathroom options. Some days it is necessary that we go there. Some days I have all the patience and time in the world and some days I do not. It's OK to change your mind. It's OK for your child to change his mind. Certain fears are unavoidable. We cannot avoid taking our children to the doctor because it is scary. Some fears are avoidable. If your child is terrified of heights, you probably don't need to force him to become a tightrope walker. But some fears fall into a more grey area and you have to decide if it is important to push forward and really ask yourself why. A child who is afraid of dogs might wish to avoid going into a house with one or might wish to avoid going to the park or might wish to avoid going outside altogether when he hears one barking. This is where you have to decide where the line gets drawn. Unless you are a dog lover yourself, you probably don't have to get one as a pet. But are you OK not going to the park? Can you get your child to walk past the neighborhood house with the yappy chihuahua in the front yard or does he turn into a wet noodle requiring you to carry him and all your groceries at once? The answer with these issues are different from person to person and it's something each family must decide on their own.
  • Watch for less obvious signs of anxiety. Some children are verbal about their fears while others are more withdrawn. If you notice your child eating, sleeping and behaving differently, it can be a sign that something worries him or her. Some children may act silly when they are worried. Some may put their hands or fingers in their mouths. Some act with aggression when they are afraid and still others may be more tearful or emotional than usual but not mention specifically what is bothering them. Nightmares and sudden bed wetting can also indicate worry and anxiety. Children do not always process something that is scary as quickly as adults. It may take days, weeks or even months after a significant event for something to show up on the radar that indicates they were worried by it. Children also may revisit a significant event like this through play or talking repeatedly as time does pass. 

  • This, too, shall (likely) pass. Just over a year ago, our smoke detector went off unexpectedly and S was very afraid. He was visibly distressed while it was beeping loudly and later in the day became suddenly paralyzed with fear and anxiety when he discovered that Barnes and Noble had smoke detectors, too! We had to leave the store, a very-pregnant me carrying him on one hip and come home. I called our pediatrician as S stood with his hand in his mouth in our front foyer refusing to come any further into the house. He assured me that this was likely a normal childhood fear and that short of bringing him in to have his elbow extracted from his throat should he shove his hand down far enough, probably we wouldn't need any professional intervention. Sure enough, S eventually made it back to the living room and back to living. Over the last year, we named our smoke detectors (George and Monkey), talked about them, had fire drills at school, and most recently, S built a one legged, one eyed, one-shoed Smoke Detector Protector that watches our smoke detectors each day when he goes to school "to keep them safe." Childhood fears can be intense in their prime, but they generally simmer down over time with support.
It Takes a Village: After all is said and done, I am reminded that it truly does take a village to raise a child and today that village is different. It's not all within the walls of our home or even the parameters of our neighborhood. It can feel isolating and it can also feel empowering to know that our village has now expanded as wide as the world and the click of a mouse. Use your village, whatever that may entail. Ask for support from other parents, teachers and perhaps your pediatrician. An objective set of eyes can help you to know whether you're dealing with a common childhood fear or whether there's a stronger underlying anxiety issue that needs to be supported. Many times, it can be comforting to know that other parents and children are dealing with the same experiences and you may even walk away with some fresh ideas and tips. If generalized anxiety is playing a role, there are amazing resources and tools through behavioral therapies and play therapy to support children and the adults around them. 

Toilet seat cover hats and toilet paper scarves might make me question my current fashion sense, but in addition to all the tools in my belt, a sense of humor and plenty of patience are vital. Play, as always, is invaluable. And that's just what we'll be doing until the next time...

Happy Playing!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

DIY Nature Slides & a Few Ways to Use Them

Ah, the first blooms of Spring! Y had me nap trapped in the car on Friday morning, but as I drove by a local produce shop with a huge display of colorful annuals out front, I decided to end his car nap and my own entrapment and pick out some pansies for our play garden. We have a small but workable gardening space in front of our apartment, and while I have definitely bit off more than I could chew in previous years with planting, I've decided to try again this year. S is certainly old enough now to do more work in our garden with less help from me. Rather than taking an "all at once" approach, we are slowly and steadily working on planting--and these pansies were a first small step! They are planted in a small row right in the area where we play and this was intentional! Rather than having the "living" portion of our garden separate from the play portion, I am integrating it. This provides an opportunity for my children to play in an area that is aesthetically pleasing and as alive and vibrant as they are while also encouraging mindful steps and movement. Just as children can learn to be careful not to step on each other, their belongings or other living creatures, they can learn not to trample on the pansies! And if the flowers and plants we are growing are right where we are playing, we will likely not forget to nourish them with water and care.

I've selected seeds and plants this year that I know do well in our yard. The process of planting and growing a garden is just as meaningful as harvesting the product down the line. Pansies are a hearty flower that do well even early in the Spring here. They add a splash of seasonal color that begs me to join them outdoors. And yet, like all living things, those early colors of Spring are temporary. Don't you wish you could somehow preserve them forever? Oh wait, you can! With these simple DIY Nature Slides, you can bring a bit of the outdoors inside for further exploration and appreciation.

You will need:

  • a selection of blooms and foliage from outdoors (or even cut flowers indoors) that you wish to observe and preserve
  • a laminating machine and laminating sheets (or you can use an office supply store/copy center)
I cut a single bloom from each of our four plants and spaced them out on one laminating sheet before running it through the machine. If you want your flowers to better maintain their detail and last longer, you could press them first either with a flower press or between some paper towels and a stack of heavy books until dried. I cut right to the chase and ran them through as is, applying a bit of pressure with my hands first just to flatten them out a bit.

Nature slides with real pansies paired with some artificial flowers as observed on our light panel

 The results are lovely! You can use your nature slides to observe on a light table or light panel as in this above photo. Nature slides can be made from all types of flowers and foliage and in every season. Imagine the lovely shades of Autumn you could capture in a set of leaf slides or Winter's evergreens...

Even if you do not have a light table, sunlight is a great tool. All you need is a window! Just look at the way these add color, light and inspiration to our Little Gardener's Sensory Bin!

 And speaking of inspiration, imagine all of the ways you might use these nature slides to inspire or become artwork! I hole punched each slide and attached them to a metal ring to keep them together. Stored in our art center, they invite creative little ones to explore their colors and texture through a variety of mediums. We are especially into oil pastels and colored pencils here lately and any medium that can be blended (like watercolor, chalk pastels and paint) would surely be a great one to use.

Pressed and preserved flowers can easily become artwork in and of themselves. You could create lovely Spring bookmarks (what a cute Mother's Day gift) by arranging blooms on a laminating sheet in a long, narrow strip, cutting, punching a hole at the top and stringing through a tassel out of yarn or embroidery floss. You could also make a single sun catcher or set of sun catchers for a loved one's window (or your own, as pictured above by our sensory table).

However you choose to preserve those first blooms of Spring, surely time spent planting the seeds of great memories through play will leave a lasting impression. We'll be back soon and until then...

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Spring Sensory Bin & Art Center Fun!

Ah, Spring is in the air... It kind of makes you feel like getting your hands nice and dirty and digging into some good ol' fashioned gardening! Whether your ground is fully thawed or still covered in snow, we've got you covered with some sensory bin fun you can enjoy indoors or out. But first, here's a peek at a unique addition to our art center shelves.

Many times when we think of art, we think of permanent creations. Perhaps a picture you can hang up or a sculpture that can be displayed. However, a great portion of art work is the creative process that goes into it, particularly when it comes to children. We enjoy a lot of product oriented art here using many mediums. We also enjoy exploring the use of loose parts in art work in a variety of ways. The inclusion of options like tape, glue, even clay or playdough can encourage a way to preserve artwork and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It can, however, be limiting to budding artists and shift the focus from process-oriented to product-driven. When loose parts are provided in an art center or area, young artists are encouraged to create and design repeatedly--to revisit the process in a new way and to really tap into their creative work as opposed to the constraints of producing something permanent. Floral arranging is one way to create art and with the use of artificial flowers and plastic colanders, little (even quite little) ones can practice the art and fine motor skills of floral arranging again and again, in a variety of ways.
Alternatively you could provide glass vases (with older children) or use floral foam (as pictured below) or even clay/playdough for "planting" and arranging flowers. You could also pick wild flowers or use cut flowers for this activity.
Floral foam is such a unique material! Sometimes the exploration of it in and of itself is half the fun!

Our Little Gardener's Sensory Bin
 Meanwhile in the was time for a sensory table update! How cute is this Little Gardener's Sensory Bin? I used a few bags of dried beans as our base filler. I love that in addition to being a fabulous sensory material, it is also a seed and therefore theme related. If you prefer not to use food fillers, you can substitute in some paper shreds or even leftover plastic grass from the recent spring holidays. I included some plastic planting pots, plastic gardening tools, a couple of sets of gardening gloves and a selection of artificial flowers. I opted to use things I already had at home or even outside and you could get creative with this. Perhaps a watering can might be fun or if you prefer "real" gardening tools, add in some of those.

This sensory bin is a great one to use indoors or outside. You could even use actual soil as filler or used/dried coffee grounds as "soil." You could swap out the flowers for some creepier crawlier options like toy bugs, butterflies and worms (below). If your little ones are too young to appreciate sensory play in a bin, try out the adorable Tiny Seed Sensory Bottles in this story stretcher post.

It's not quite warm enough outside for planting in the ground. I am eager to start some seeds indoors in the weeks to come and just as eager to dig in outside when the time and temperature are right. But until then, some Spring themed sensory play will have to tide us over...

Looking for some more seasonal fun? Check out our other Spring themed posts, gardening themed posts and flower themed posts!

We will be back for more Spring themed fun... Until then, enjoy all the season has to offer and happy playing!

Monday, April 9, 2018

An Updated Peek At Our Playroom!

Ch-ch-ch-changes! Spring is in the air (with the exception of that slushy white stuff that was also in the air this morning) and it was time for a playroom revamp, especially after a long holiday at home. In other news, Y is very mobile these days. He may not quite be walking independently yet, but he sure gets around and into everything. For S, this is a mixed bag (kind of like that "Spring" weather I mentioned earlier). Y is very playful and loves nothing more than to join his big brother in all of his escapades. S enjoys the company sometimes. Other times, he feels frustrated at his little brother who is now able to get into just about everything at his level.

When S began to move around this much, he was quite a bit older. He understood when we told him "no," and his personality was such that he was most content playing wherever the adults in the house were with whatever was set before him to play with. Y has a different personality. He is most content playing EVERYWHERE with EVERYTHING. Whereas we used a baby gate maybe once or twice with S, Y is faster than the speed of light and sneaky to boot.

We have made some changes in the house to best accommodate these exciting milestones, one of which is that the boys are working toward sharing a room now. S is thrilled about this change. Y is learning to be thrilled about it. S even helped set up the new mattress, pick out sheets and offered his stuffed Lightening McQueen to Y (a toy he chose with great ambivalence upon giving up his pacifier last summer). Mattresses directly on the floor are easy for both my boys to access and Y has already mastered safely maneuvering on and off. In related news, staying in bed is not currently his forte.

Changes in our playroom were also a necessity. Y has discovered with great zeal the joy that is dumping things off of shelves within reach. Particularly art supplies! I could spend all day moving things up higher and higher, but that would leave things out of everyone's reach (S included), be boring for Y and probably be exhausting for me. Creating a space that is conducive and accessible to both boys seemed a more practical approach at this point. S has loved being able to access and lead art projects on his own. Although, after quite some time with our art center looking the same, it needed a little sprucing up and our new set up allows S to access art supplies from the top shelf and Y and S to access items from the bottom two shelves. (See photo below.) I know it is only a matter of time before Y does manage to get to that top shelf, but for now, the set up works perfectly and we will traverse that terrain when we get there.
Introducing the new and improved art center & toy shelf!

 I love these plastic drawers. For one thing, they are space creators--even though "losing" two rows of shelving limits the amount of space for art materials in our art center, the use of drawers creates room for more without taking up additional space. Our small drawer set is home to options for coloring. Right now we have colored pencils, crayons and skinny markers out, though I like to change it up a bit and rotate in some of our other supplies when I notice these get a bit "stale." I also used a stacking tray organizer (Dollar Tree) to create two rows for paper products. We have solid paper in white and pastel spring colored cardstock out right now as well as some bird coloring and tracing sheets. I keep our scrap paper tray on a shelf that Y can reach as he also loves to explore, dump and tear scrap paper and those are skills I don't mind him cultivating right now! There is room alongside and above our smaller drawer set for our family's sketch books and some writing utensils.
 In our larger drawer set, I stashes some new Spring themed materials like beads and beading elastic for my little fine motor lover. S was thrilled with these! He made a necklace for himself, one for me and has a date with his Tatty to make one for him tonight! Using real beads and materials with little ones might seem strange, but this is a great way to practice those fine motor skills and "real" art materials carry a true sense of value to our budding arts. We show that we respect their creative process and they tend to treat these materials with reverence as well. This, of course, does not mean that you must spend a fortune. You can find quality art materials on discount at big box stores, secondhand stores and dollar stores. You can also find clearance items and purchase with coupons at craft supply stores.

Spring is in the air and we love collage opportunities here. A selection of Spring themed stickers, gems, and floral fabric scraps invite all kinds of creations. I stashed a small stack of pastel toned felt rectangles with embroidery floss stitched to the top to create blank banners. Creating pictures and collages on paper is always popular but sometimes offering an alternative medium (like felt, fabric or even artists' canvas) can inspire artists young and old.

Additional staples like tape, glue, scissors and paper edger scissors are stored in the bottom drawer along with some Spring themed additions like floral patterned tape, roller stamps and a leaf-shaped hole punch. 

I must say that as much as I adored the "open container" look on the shelves before, I love the tidiness and accessibility of the closed drawer look now! Our bottom rows are home to some favorites that both boys can use and appreciate. I attached a laminated print of a Spring themed painting depicting a bird in a blossoming tree. I love including "real" art in our art center to inspire the artists in our family. I used to set out a glass picture frame with art in this area but now a laminated version affixed with Velcro makes it accessible and safe for both boys to remove and appreciate. Y in particular has taken a great love of removing laminated labels that are attached to other areas with Velcro! Both boys love the colorful nesting boxes I saved from their Purim shalach manos (Dollar Tree) and a basket of plush ducklings alongside some bird and duck themed books perpetuates the bird and Spring themes that have infiltrated our play here. The bottom shelf is currently home to some Bristle Blocks, Magnatiles and toy trains. Both boys are loving the set up and both are far less frustrated now!

Meanwhile, our main toy shelf (pictured at the top) is currently storing items to inspire small world play that is safe (with supervision) for both boys. Extra small items are stored on top including a Playmobile playground set S recently got (and does not want to share) that he knows he must play with at the table. The middle shelf is an expansion on our bird theme that includes bird figurines, tree blocks, tree cookies and driftwood blocks as well as some artificial nests, eggs and a small collection of stones S and Y recently brought home from the Science Museum. As with any small items, it is important to carefully supervise and consider choking risk. The bottom shelf is storage to our dollhouse furniture, a doll family and our wooden barn--items both boys can safely play with together.

In considering spaces that are shared by multiple ages, creativity, ingenuity and patience are required! We want our home to reflect the developmental and play needs of both of our children. We also want it to be inclusive and accessible to both of them while reflecting their current interests and curiosities. Now, if I could just also synchronize their napping schedules...

Until then...
Happy Playing!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Birds of a Feather Flock Together!

We are on Spring Break here and have even had some Spring weather to go with it. In between enjoying the Pesach holiday, we have also been enjoying some extra time together as a family. I love that S is now in the age and stage of being able to direct our home play and learning activities based on his current interests and curiosities. Lately he has really wondered a lot about eggs and animals that hatch from eggs. This began with a book we checked out of the library (and later bought used) called Guess What Is Growing Inside This Egg by Mia Posada. This beautifully illustrated book contains several little riddles with some clues about what type of animal is growing inside an egg. As the egg's tiny resident is hatched and revealed, additional information about the creature inside is given to curious readers. Well, this led S to want to play and learn more about eggs and birds in particular. 

We began by creating this Build A Bird's Nest Sensory Bin! S helped cut yarn we re-purposed for a third (and final) time from his "knitting" basket that contained scraps of yarn from my own projects. As we cut and collected the colorful yarn in our sensory bin, we talked about the types of materials real birds use to build their nests and what textures and colors they might like. We may at some point make a little collection outside in our play garden for the birds to use nearby. We added in some artificial nests we had from a craft supply store, some eggs I had purchased on discount as well as some fake worms for hungry birds to eat (these we found in the fishing section of Walmart!). Of course we needed some resident birds! I added in some birds we had purchased a while ago at our local Dollar Tree and later on some plastic toy birds as well as some craft feathers. Additional plastic cups and containers made for the perfect nest foundations and some tweezers and tongs offered a fine motor component for play.

Both my little birdies loved this sensory bin and S wanted a nest that he could go in. That led to today's activity of building a nest for the boys to play in using a laundry basket, plenty of soft blankets and play silks and colorful ribbons woven around the edges by my fine motor activity lover, S! They played in their nest, sat on their "eggs," took care of baby chicks and even listened to nap time stories in there!

Some of our favorite bird and egg themed reads include:
This is the fabulous book that sparked our current play theme...

We are huge Jan Brett fans. In this great classic, Hedgie helps Henny trick the chronically hungry Tomten who is eating her eggs each morning. The end includes a couple of surprises--one very prickly one and several very fluffy ones!

This is a great non-fiction read about eggs and the creatures that hatch from them! It is quite wordy, but you can pick and choose parts to read more about with your little ones (or read the whole thing for particularly curious listeners who may also be potty training this week...)

I love the series of nature-themed picture books by this author and illustrator pair. This one in particular is so lovely to read and view as each page unfolds with gorgeous illustrations and text about eggs and the creatures inside of them.

We extended our theme into a field trip to our local botanical gardens. I brought binoculars and two curious bird watchers. Can you spot the male cardinal in this tree?

Birds and eggs are a wonderful theme to ruffle your feathers off with as Spring finally emerges! You can check out some of our previous bird-themed activities here. Bird watching and journaling/drawing about birds can be a great way to supplement your outdoor adventures and park visits. I especially love this free printable workbook about birds available from Cornell. Once Pesach is over and we reintegrate the use of flour here, I look forward to making some homemade playdough for this great Bird Nest Play Dough Invitation from Fantastic Fun and Learning. S also wants to make some more bird seed treats for our feathered friends outside.

Hope you enjoyed this great egg-xample of egg-spanding on children's play interests. My little chicks' sense of wonder truly inspires my own continued learning and egg-sploration. Egg-stra time at home has taught me just how frequently a 3 year old can ask "why" in one hour, let alone one day. Following their lead allows us to indulge those curiosities and to build on the many conversational, social, scientific and critical thinking skills that are developed through asking and answering. Wishing everyone a happy spring and happy playing!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Outdoor Play With Loose Parts

We will be back soon with some great Spring themed sensory and dramatic play fun and even some science and literacy thrown in, but until then, check out my latest article on Outdoor Play With Loose Parts over at Fantastic Fun & Learning. You might also check out some of the other great Spring themed activities while you're there!

Happy Playing!