Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Children' s book recommendation: The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales


This book is a great collection of folk tales from around the world. The tales all share a common theme of taking care of the earth and each other. The tales are beautifully told, with wonderfully descriptive language. At the end of each story are instructions for a related craft or project.  I enjoyed all of the stories, but there was one tale that really stood out for me:  She Who Lived Alone. The first time I read this, it was out loud to my son, and it was all I could do to keep from crying as I read. The second time, I was alone and bawled. The third was out loud, again, to my mom, and I still couldn't hold back the tears. It is a story about a child who has lost almost everything, yet sacrifices what she has left for the good of her people.  In a world filled with so much greed, selfishness, and materialism, this story is a prayer for the way things could be.  I recommend this book for ages 6 and up.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Channelling the Human Need for Power to Create a More Peaceful World

    So, I recently had a revelation. This revelation came about from observing my youngest son, Owen, throughout his third year of life (also known as "the terrible twos").   If Owen found a piece of paper, he ripped it up. If he saw a stack of blocks, he knocked it down.  If he had something he could throw, he threw it.  I was at a loss to understand why it seemed like he wanted to destroy everything he touched. It was disconcerting.  Beyond the fact that it made each day a struggle, it made me think that perhaps a need to destroy is somehow inborn in some humans and perhaps this is why we have so much war and suffering in the world.  Through some reading and research and some careful observations,  I now understand that Owen's need was for power and control over his world, which is not at all the same thing as a need to destroy.  
   I now also realize this was the same need he was displaying by screaming and trying to get away when I changed his diaper, dressed him, or buckled him into his carseat. All he ever wanted was control over his own body, as well as that of the world surrounding him. Don't we all?

   So, back to the revelation.  I am sure this is not a new idea, but it goes something like this:

    It is human nature to crave power.  We all, from the time we are babies, feel the need to exert control over our environment.  I believe that when people are denied the opportunity to create and be productive, they will become destructive instead.  If a person feels like he has no control over his life, or if he can't see the fruits of his labor, he will find a way to make a mark on his world that is visible to himself, often in a way that hurts himself or others. 
   I started this post before the tragic bombings in Boston occurred, but as I have listened to experts speak about the people who commit these kinds of terrorist acts, my ideas have been reinforced. They say that these people are almost always young men who feel like their life does not have a purpose. They become radicalized because it suddenly gives meaning to their life. They feel like they can do something to make a change in the world. Don't we all want to feel as if we are making a difference? I know very little about the childhood that these two young men had, but I'd be willing to bet that independence, confidence, and creative expression were not strongly fostered.  
    I should note that this violent expression of which I speak is predominantly a male characteristic. However, we all feel the same basic need for control in our lives.  I think that in females, and some males,  these feelings of helplessness are often translated into either self-destructive or personalities that seek to manipulate and control others both physically and emotionally, but not necessarily through violent means.  These non-violent forms, however, are just as much of a hindrance to a peaceful world as the violent ones.
    When a toddler sees that he can break something and cause both a physical change in the object and illicit an emotional response from his parent,  he sees that he can have control over his world. When an adult beats, rapes, or kills, it is the same. He feels powerful and in control. He can change the world around him.  He can illicit responses from other people.   
     I am making a comparison here, but of course a toddler's behavior should not be viewed in the same light as an adult's.  They may have the same root cause, but adults can understand the pain they are inflicting on others, while a young child cannot.  The child is experimenting and learning.  In fact, this behavior in a toddler is normal and healthy.  He is learning how his actions affect other people and the world around him. It is much more difficult to change patterns of behavior in an adult. That is why it is so important to address this behavior at a young age. Children need to channel these feelings in a productive way. So, how do we do this?

  It is my hypothesis that if every child were given the opportunity to create and be productive, there would be significantly less violence in the world.  To be creative and productive, one first needs to feel confident in one's own abilities.  To feel confident in his own abilities, a child simply must have some control over his own life.  There are some simple ways we can help children achieve this.  One is by giving them age-appropriate choices and responsibilities.  It is important not to exert too much control over your children, but instead to teach them self-control.  When they see that they have some say in their lives, and that their contributions to the family are appreciated and even needed, it builds self-esteem and confidence.  
  I am currently trying to do this with this with my 6 year old son. I decided recently that I am too controlling in some ways. To the obsever, it may not seem like it, since I am not strict or punitive, but I realized recently that I am constantly telling him what to do and when (which can turn into a power struggle - I get tired of telling him 5 times to do something), and I also make a lot of decisions for him - decisions he is now capable of making himself.  This was fine when he was younger, but he is getting to an age now where he needs to start learning self-discipline, time management, etc. To help him gain more independence, we started with a wall chart that helps him remember what time and order to do things to get ready on time in the mornings.  He now often is dressed and has any uncompleted homework done before I even get up. (He is an early riser.)  I also got him a watch, so that he can begin to learn to check it and do things when he is supposed to. For example, he starts homework at 5:00. I would like to get to the point soon where I don't have to tell him to go start his homework, but he sees that it is 5:00 and goes to start on his own. This may take some time, but when achieved, I hope it will give him a sense of being in control and will hopefully eliminate the arguing we sometimes have over starting homework.  We are already to the point where all I say is , "It's 5:00," and he knows what that means.  I expect he will need reminders for this and many other responsibilities for some time to come, but eventually he will be able to accomplish them independently.
    Additionally, I asked him if he would like to start picking out his own clothes each day. I used to let him do this in the pre-school years, but he eventually stopped caring about what he wore, so I just started laying clothes out for him. This was fine for awhile, but I think adding this simple choice to his days will help with his confidence level, as well. To make this easier, I went through his clothes and picked out 6 or 7 matching outfits and clothes-pinned the 2 hangers together. We check the weather together the night before, and he selects an outfit from the closet.  I also think it is important for children to have household responsibilities. Aiden's responsibilities include setting the table for dinner, helping to clear the table afterward, and cleaning up his own messes. These responsibilities will gradually expand as he gets older, and my hope is that he will feel competent, independent, and like an important part of the family.

    I also believe that children need to be able create and express themselves through the arts and through self-directed play.  Young children should be given ample time for self-directed imaginative play and exploration of art materials. 
    With Owen, I found that if he kept busy, his behavior was much more manageable.  If I made sure that he had time to run, jump, and climb outdoors during the day, he seemed to have less of a need to throw things, knock things down, etc. when we were together indoors in the evening.  I have also found it helpful to greatly limit the amount of TV he watches and make sure he is doing more active things like playing with play-doh, blocks, hammering, drumming, painting, cutting with safety scissors, etc. These are all things that give him visual, audio, or tactile feedback that let him know he is creating, changing, or somehow manipulating his environment.  
    Older children should be  given the opportunity to experiment with a variety of visual and performing arts.  I believe every child should experience drama, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and crafts such as handwork or woodworking. With ample opportunities, I believe all children will find an area that they enjoy and/or one that  they are good at.  When a child sees that he can create something beautiful, useful, or original, something that gives pleasure to others or himself, it only adds to his feelings of confidence and control.
  I think it is important to mention that, while there are times when we simply have to make our children listen through force (either physical force or through threats of punishment or actual punishment) for safety or other practical reasons, I believe this type of discipline should be used as little as possible.  Every time I have had to physically force Owen into his car seat, or hold him down to get him dressed or undressed, I felt like I was breaking his spirit. I know he feels helpless when he is forced into submission, and the last thing I want to foster in my own child is helplessness.
   These are certainly not new ideas. Many parents, myself included, use them with their children in the simple hopes of producing happy, productive adults. However, I don't believe our culture as a whole values the importance of these ideas in helping to create a more peaceful world.  I believe that these two simple overlapping concepts of feeling in control and creating something worthwhile could greatly reduce the amount of violence in the world.  Of course, for every child to be given these opportunities, there are many things that need to happen. Parents must be educated, schools must be funded, and so on. That is a discussion for another day.
    Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment. I don't often get a chance to have in-depth adult conversations, so I value your feedback!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Our Play Room - a place of order and beauty for the little ones and Mamma!

    I recently realized that I haven't posted here in over a year! My, how the time flies! This past year has been a crazy one. We were displaced from our home for 5 months after Hurricane Isaac nearly destroyed the house were living in. We spent two months in medical housing at Tulane. (Yes, our family of four was living in a dorm!) Then, three months at a furnished apartment. All the while, our furniture and most of our belongings were in storage. We had to pack quickly, and we didn't know where a lot of things were. I can't describe how stressful those first two months were. I literally had no time or energy to do anything except get through each day.
    Moving back home was such a relief!  In the weeks before moving in, I literally lost sleep imagining how I would set up our new home. Not having a dinner table or a real indoor or outdoor space for my children to play for awhile was a real challenge for us.  So, when we moved in, I quickly set out to make this house a home.
    We ended up moving from the upstairs unit to the downstairs unit of the house, which has many advantages.  There are no stairs to climb, an updated kitchen (with a dishwasher!), and a third bedroom. Additionally, because of the closed off bedroom and the fact that we only have one front entrance instead of two, we have a lot more wall space.  This allowed me to make one large front room  our "play room."  I bought shelving to organize the boys' toys and I found a wonderful storage unit of cubes and baskets from IKEA to store all my crafting supplies. It feels so great to finally have all of that organized instead of piled up everywhere!  I even has room to display some of my photos and "pretties."
    I have been obviously inspired by Montessori and Waldorf principles, so the room reflects that with lots of natural materials, baskets, low shelves for the kids, and a general sense of simple order and beauty.  The boys' musical instruments, puzzles, hand-made toys from their grandpa, and Aiden's board games are all displayed and easily accessible. There is a place for everything and that makes it easier to keep everything in its place!
    My craft table is no longer stacked with stuff, so I have a lot more work space. I even sort of inherited a sewing machine and am learning how to sew!  I'm looking forward to some new crafting adventures.

   So, without further ado, here are the pictures!

Monday, April 16, 2012

What to look for in a pre-school

Choosing a pre-school can be quite stressful these days! Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Amelia; play-based, academic-based. And then the tuition! You may find the "perfect school", only to realize that it is out of your price range.  So, when you go to visit a school, what exactly should you look for?

In Your Child's Growing Mind, educational psychologist Jane M. Healy says, "Research shows that the most positive outcomes for intelligence and behavior are related to small group size, a close, affectionate relationship with the caregiver, language stimulation, and the level of education of the caregiver.

She gives the following advice when choosing a caregiver:

-The caregiver should let the children take the lead in play - her role is to show and guide the children rather than direct or boss them.
-The caregiver should provide varied sensory stimulation and many opportunities for free play as well as planned and meaningful experience and for active movement like climbing and exploration.
-The caregiver should also have good grammar, vocabulary, and voice quality.

Some important things to look for at a pre-school are a sand and water table, a book corner, a pet to care for, and an art corner.  Toys should be open-ended and should include blocks, puzzles, stitchery, dolls, and puppets.

I find this advice very helpful. I have not yet chosen a pre-school for my youngest son, but when I do choose a school, I'll know what to look for, and if I believe that it has shortcomings, at least I will know how to compensate at home.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What are the best toys for young children?

I love seeking out the best toys and games for my children. I used to find it overwhelming, which is not surprising given the thousands of choices that are out there!  However, once I started to learn more about the way children learn, my options became more limited, and the process became more fun because I knew what skills I would be fostering with each purchase. 

In her book Your Child's Growing Mind, Healy gives some good guidelines for finding the best toys for children ages 2-7.  She states that a toy should "encourage the child to manipulate, interact, or figure something out."  If there is only one "right" way to play with a toy, or if a toy tries to teach routine academic skills, opportunities for exploration and discovery are limited.  She suggests simple, open ended toys such as:

Toys that develop fine motor control and sequencing: (which is related to later attention and self-control skills, handwriting, and proficiency in the arts)
-Household objects like tools, kitchen gadgets, and cooking utensils
-Nesting and stacking toys, containers for dumping and pouring
-Art materials
-Stringing and sorting materials (these require active handling and teach relationships like top, middle, bottom or small, bigger, biggest)
-Wooden unit blocks in graduated sizes and shapes

Toys for pretend:
- dress-up clothes
- dolls and puppets
- small figurines
- pretend tools , utensils

Toys for movement:
- things to safely climb in, on, or through
- toys for throwing and catching
- toys for balancing or spinning

Board and card games. Healy state that the biggest indicator of math success in first grade is how many board and card games a child's parent has played with them.

I find it somewhat ironic that all those electronic toys that, as parents, we often despise for their annoying noises and expensive batteries are also the ones that have virtually no benefits for children.  I've found that most toys labeled "educational" for children under 6 are actually not developmentally appropriate ways for them to learn!  I actually feel kind of "duped" by our consumer culture.  I bought the Baby Einstein DVDs, the Leap Frog electronic learning games, the pre-school workbooks - all because they were marketed to me as "educational."  I thought I was helping my son learn, but mostly I think I was just giving my money to toy companies.  

Now, I have the pleasure of buying beautiful, sometimes hand-made toys that my children get hours of enjoyment out of, and that I like to hold and look at myself.  They are learning with these toys and they don't even know it.

Here are some links to a just a few toys that I have purchased (or received as gifts) for my boys that both they and I really enjoy:

handmade wood building blocks: http://www.etsy.com/transaction/69566794

lacing beads: http://www.amazon.com/Melissa-Doug-Deluxe-Wooden-27-Piece/dp/B000GIJ4Y4/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1334003738&sr=8-2 

crawl tunnel: http://www.amazon.com/Melissa-Doug-Happy-Giddy-Tunnel/dp/B0032MYYBE/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1334077449&sr=1-1

block crayons: http://www.amazon.com/Stockmar-Beeswax-Block-Crayons-Set/dp/B001JE3RXI/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1334078555&sr=1-1

cooperative board game: http://www.amazon.com/Cooperative-Nature-Observation-Strategy-Woods/dp/B000E0DJGS/ref=sr_1_3?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1334077556&sr=1-3


card game:http://www.amazon.com/Eric-Carle-Very-Hungry-Caterpilar/dp/B000RPH89O/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1334078497&sr=8-4

Monday, April 9, 2012

Your Child's Growing Mind

The most recent book that I finished is called Your Child's Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy.  I highly recommend it to any parent.
Jane Healy is a teacher, author, and lecturer who has worked with all ages from pre-school to graduate school.  She holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and did post-doctoral work in developmental neuropsychology.  She also has raised three children and has 6 grandchildren.
In this book, she explains how the mind of a child learns. She starts at birth and goes through adolescence, and she give lists of specific activities you can do with your child at each stage to encourage brain development.
Some issues she discusses are appropriate toys, what to look for in a pre-school, the importance of fantasy play, the importance of movement, the dangers of trying to push learning of higher-level skills too early, activities that use both the left and right brain hemispheres, language, IQ, memory, motivation, and creativity.  She also includes many specific activities for fostering reading, writing, math, and science.

There is so much great information in this book, but I will try to focus on a few ideas.  Since my children are almost two and 5 1/2, I was most interested in the information pertaining to 2-6 year olds.

If I had to choose the most interesting thing that I learned from this book, it would probably be that teaching higher level skills, such as reading, at an earlier age is actually often detrimental rather than helpful for brain development.  Healy states, "Forced learning of any type may result in the use of lower systems, since higher ones have not yet developed. . . The 'habit' of using inferior brain areas for higher level tasks (such as reading) and of receiving instruction rather than creating patterns of meaning can lead to difficulties later in organizing information into abstract patterns."  So how can you tell if your child is ready to learn to read? She says that when you are reading to him, he will ask "What does that say?"  Some children will do this at age three. Others not until age 7.  Of course, if your child attends public school ( or most private schools, as well) in the United States, he will be taught to read in Kindergarten, most likely when he is 5 years old, and will most likely learn to do it.
One of the things she recommends is to steer clear of workbooks and other "learning" materials that teach rote-level academic tasks such as letters and numbers.  "Until age 6 or 7, a child's "work" is to develop the basis for abstract thought by mastering his physical environment and by learning to use language."  She says that workbooks are inappropriate for children under 6.   I was shocked when I first read this. I had been giving Aiden workbooks starting at age 4 and he usually enjoyed them.  I thought I was doing the best thing I could for his brain development. I now know (from reading this and several other sources) that his time would have been better spent on make-believe play, climbing on playground equipment, or singing songs and making rhymes. ( Not that he didn't do that, too - I just didn't realize the profound importance these have on brain development.)

Which brings us to another very interesting thing that I learned: that movement plays a key role in the brain development of children.  I always knew that exercise was important for children's health and I've always believed that being outdoors is good for the soul, but I didn't realize that activities such as spinning and balancing actually exercise parts of the brain that are used in academic learning (the cerebellum).  Nor did I realize that climbing in, on, around, and through things give a child a sense of his place in space, which is important later on in learning math.  Or that throwing, catching, and climbing promote coordination of the two sides of the body (and therefore, the two hemispheres of the brain), which is important for building intellectual skills.

Healy also explains the importance of dramatic play for young children. Playing pretend isn't just about having fun. She describes fantasy play as "the gateway to metaphor, scientific insight, and invention."  She states that dramatic play teaches social skills more effectively than any other type of instruction. Children who are good at pretend play also generally get along better socially.

Some other topics from this book that I would like to discuss include choosing caregivers/pre-schools, fostering creativity, and the best toys for brain-building in young children.  However, this is a lot to talk about, so I will include this in my future posts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pre-school eductaion: Waldorf vs. Montessori

I have recently been reading a lot about how young children learn, and there are two educational philosophies that I think are wonderful for the pre-school aged child: Montessori and Waldorf.


My son, Aiden had the opportunity to attend a wonderful little Montessori school for  2 1/2 years, from age 2-4.  I fell in love with Montessori. He learned so much there, and in such a loving environment.  Montessori strives to nurture the whole child - emotionally, intellectually, and physically.  They are very intent on fostering independence. They let the child choose his own work and pace of learning.  The areas of learning include:

Practical life (this includes improving fine and gross motor skills through pouring, scooping, lacing, folding, sweeping, dusting, etc.)

Sensorial (includes sorting, matching, putting things in order by size, weight, color, etc)

Language -  from 2009-2010 edition of Child of the World, Montessori from Three to Six Years :

Reading and writing should not be taught to a child before age six or seven, but, given the sensorial experiences of appropriate materials a child of normal intelligence will quite naturally teach herself to read and write sometimes as early as three or four years of age.
Here is a quote from Dr. Montessori about her experience in the first Casa dei Bambini, "house of children," in Rome in the beginning of this century:
Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction . . . Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. At that time it seemed miraculous that children of four and a half should be able to write, and that they should have learned without the feeling of having been taught.
We puzzled over it for a long time. Only after repeated experiments did we conclude with certainty that all children are endowed with this capacity to absorb culture. If this be true—we then argued—if culture can be acquired without effort, let us provide the children with other elements of culture. And then we saw them absorbfar more than reading and writing: botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, and all with the same ease, spontaneously and without getting tired.
And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.

Math (uses hands-on materials where the child can compare size, weight, and numbers both by sight and touch- for example, they use beads to teach decimal places: one single bead, a rod of 10 beads, a square of 100 beads, and a cube of 1000 beads. Give the child a #: 1,316.  Then she is to put (starting at the left) one cube , then 3 squares, then 1 rod, and finally 6 single beads. The child is then actually looking at 1,316 beads to get a visual idea of that number as an amount, and is learning about the physical order of decimal places in a written number.)

Art  - art history and appreciation, as well as experimenting with many different art materials and techniques


Recently, I began to learn about Waldorf education.  In some respects it is very much like Montessori.  They respect children as individuals and aim to nurture the whole child.  Waldorf students also spend a lot of time on 'practical life" type activities.  However, they have fundamental differences.  In Waldorf, the teacher leads, not the student.  They have the same goal as Montessori in that they want the child to become good at decision making, but they believe that giving them too many choices too early hinders their decision-making abilities rather than helping them.  They also don't believe in teaching concepts to pre-school age children. They do not even expose them to letters and numbers at the pre-school level.  They believe that these years are a time to foster the child's imagination through make -believe play and a time to allow the child to spend his energy on physical growth.  They believe rhythm and balance are essential in daily and weekly routines and seasonal traditions.  Songs, rhymes, and stories (especially fairy tales) are part of each day.  Toys at a Waldorf pre-school are all-natural and very simple: cloth dolls, wooden toys, silk squares, pinecones, stones, shells, etc. - many are things that children can pretend are different things at different times.  In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne says that make-believe play helps develop executive function, which includes the ability to self-regulate, to amend one's behavior, emotions, and impulses appropriately to one's environment and situation.  They believe art is important for children to experience, but they mainly use only a few media: watercolor paints, beeswax for sculpting, and block crayons.

We have started attending a weekly play group at the local Waldorf school. Both of my boys are thoroughly enjoying it.  In fact, although this group is for ages 18 months to 3 years, and Aiden is tagging along, I think he is getting more out of it than Owen.  I think it is a good release for him after a long day of Kindergarten.

I really like aspects of both philosophies, but I really wish I knew exactly how doing one over the other affects children in the long-term.  Do Montessori -trained kids grow up to be more intellectual?  Do Waldorf-trained kids grow up to be more imaginative? Is one group better at making decisions?  Does one group have more of a sense of inner peace and well-being? While I have not found concrete answers to these subjective questions,  I have found scientific data that backs up practices of both philosophies.

For now, I think I like the idea of mixing the two philosophies.  I lean toward Montessori in following the child's lead. I think introducing concepts is a good thing, and if they want to learn them, let them.  However, I think it is also important to set aside time each day simply for imaginative play.

A typical Montessori classroom

A typical Waldorf classroom

Some Montessori materials

Some Waldorf-inspired toys