Weapon Play


In our Family Inventors class one week, we had giant tinker toys for the kids to play with. A group of boys designed and built three identical “blasters”. From a tinkering / creativity perspective, I was impressed at how they had worked together to create and replicate something cool.

But once a kid builds a gun, what usually comes next? Gun play.

They were pretending to shoot them at each other, and some kids were having fun, but one child was upset about being shot at. Since weapon play only comes up about once a year in my class, I had to decide in that moment how to respond. We have two simple rules in class:

1. “Be creative, not destructive” or in simpler terms, “Make, don’t break.”

2. “It’s never OK to hurt anyone.”

They had made something creative, but they were using it in a way that was hurting someone. Rather than asking them to take apart their new inventions, I decided to

  1. Set limits – “Our friend is not having fun. It’s not OK to pretend to shoot at him if it makes him sad.”
  2. Re-direct.  I suggested target shooting. I went to draw a target on the white board, but my husband had the even better idea of drawing asteroids on the white board that the kids would “blast apart” before they could crash into the earth. He would draw, erase, re-draw and so on as they blasted asteroids to save our planet.

It was a very fun game. And it re-framed their blasters. Instead of being weapons to (pretend to) hurt other people with, they were tools used to (pretend to) destroy dangerous objects in the distance before those objects could hurt people.

I also:

3. Followed up with the parents in the class to encourage them to think about how they wanted to speak to their kids about guns and weapon play at home.

This situation encouraged me to do some more thinking and more research into the topic. Although with all research, you can find studies to support either side of a topic, it was interesting to see what had been written.

Does aggressive play and weapon play increase actual aggression?

Parents worry that if young children play aggressively or pretend to use weapons, that they will become violent adults. The research shows that just the opposite may be true.

Researchers Hart and Tannock say “If playful aggression is supported, it is highly beneficial to child development. The act of pretending to be aggressive is not equivalent to being aggressive. Role reversal, cooperation, voluntary engagement, chasing and fleeing, restrained physical contact, smiling and laughing are common characteristics of playful aggression.” (Young Children’s Play Fighting and Use of War Toys.)

In one study, researchers found that children who displayed a lot of aggressive behavior in their pretend play were less aggressive in the classroom. The pretend play allowed them to work through some ideas so they did not have to bring them in to their real interactions. Other researchers argue that: “omission of aggressive play in early childhood programmes fosters the underdevelopment of social, emotional, physical, cognitive and communicative abilities in young children.” An example of this is when kids are engaged in rough and tumble play – say wrestling. If they accidentally hurt a friend while playing, they realize the impact of their actions, and we work them through the empathy and apology, and work on healing the relationship – it gives an opportunity we might not have had if wrestling was banned.

Several researchers and authors, including Stuart Brown, Frost and Jacobs, Peter Gray, and Charlie Hoehn have noted that many violent criminals have a history of being deprived of free-play opportunities as kids. Brown’s studies of homicidal males found that being deprived of play as children was strongly associated with violent criminal activity.  (Source)

So, we know that kids need to have lots of opportunities for free play to learn a wide variety of social and emotional skills. Kids, in my experience, naturally explore weapon play and aggressive scenarios in pretend play, but it appears that doing so may reduce the likelihood they’ll be violent and aggressive for real. So, given that, how do we, as parents or teachers (who are justifiably distressed by the idea of real gun violence in our country) find an approach to weapon play that feels right to us?

Sometimes we start by understanding the kids’ perspective.

What makes gun play so fascinating? Why are kids so interested in it?

  • Guns and other weapons are perceived as powerful. Kids often feel powerless, so the idea of power is intoxicating.
  • One way that children learn about and make sense of adult experiences is to play at them. So, if they watched a cooking show, they might play at cooking. If they watch a show with guns in it, they’ll want to play with guns.
  • Guns are a way to vanquish bad guys, or monsters. (Note: some children may use magic wands or pixie dust to accomplish the same goal. In both cases, it’s about vanquishing a foe.)

Given all these motivations toward weapon play, it can be hard to successfully ban it. Often attempts to ban it make it even more appealing as the “forbidden fruit.” So, how do we work with it?

Ways to Manage Gun Play:

Ban It: This is a choice many make. I don’t ban it, but if I sense play is moving in that direction, I often provide a distraction to move play in a different direction.

Re-Direct: You can try white board target shooting like we did, or if children are shooting  actual missiles (like Nerf guns) you can set up empty cans or some other object for them to try to hit and knock over. Or think about what type of energy the guns might shoot out – Teacher Tom tells a story of children firing “love shooters” at each other.

Some parents make the rule that you can’t shoot your gun at people, only at imaginary bad guys. (I’m not a fan of this one, because I don’t like the us/them mentality that can be common in many political circles, where people who are different are assumed to be “bad guys.” But, that’s a whole other discussion….)

Talk about the power of other options Talk to children about other ways to defeat (or reform or escape) from “bad guys” or other creatures that frighten them. Absolutely at other times in my class, I talk about all sorts of other options. I just find children are much more open to hear that in other contexts than when they are hearing it as the-words-the-teacher-says-when-she-stops-us-from-playing-what-we-wanted-to-play.

Set Limits: It’s fine to limit the times and places where weapon play is allowed. Maybe it’s an outdoor only thing, or only with one particular set of friends, not at school.

If the play is making you feel uncomfortable, you can say that. “I know you guys are playing, but it made me feel sad when you said you wanted to hurt your brother. So, I want you to move to a different game.”

Ask the kids to help make the rules: In a neighborhood squirt gun battle, not everyone wanted to play. I called the kids over and asked them what they thought fair rules were. One said “Only shoot at people who are playing.” I said “How do you know if they’re playing?” “If they have a squirt gun, you can shoot them.” We all agreed that seemed fair. One child had a smart phone in his hand, and said “don’t shoot people with phones!” I had my laptop and agreed “no shooting anyone who is working with electronics, because the water would ruin them.”

That was all the rules we needed for a while, till one child blasted another in the face with a super soaker. The soaked child was upset. New rule: no shooting in the face. Then a car pulled up and kids asked if they could shoot it, and we asked the driver, who agreed. We talked about how we know cars get wet all the time and it doesn’t hurt them, so generalized our rules to say that it was fine to squirt water at any car, but FIRST they needed to make sure all the windows were rolled up so no water could get inside.

Pay attention to other’s feelings: It’s also important to teach kids to notice the impact of their play on others. How do they know if someone else wants to play the shooting game or would rather not participate? (Encourage them to use words to ask, listen to words, notice body language, etc.)

Check In: When kids are engaged in weapon play, occasionally check in and ask: “Are you all having fun? Is anyone feeling worried or scared?” If anyone feels unsafe, the game needs to change. Encourage them to self-initiate occasional check-ins with friends to be sure everyone is having fun.

Think about the toys you buy. Try  to find open ended toys that can be played with in a wide variety of ways. They will, of course, sometimes use open-ended toys to create weapons (like tinker toy blasters, or sticks as swords), but at least they are open to other types of play.

If you do buy toy weapons, you may consider choosing ones that look nothing like a real weapon. Also, do safety checks: make sure toy weapons can’t cause real harm.

Consider choosing toys that are “powerful” but don’t tie into violence: If you choose action figures of a superhero or soldier or someone who always does battle, your child is likely to play at battles with it. Think instead about how a child plays with the action figures from “Paw Patrol” who have adventures as they rescue people. Or Spider-Man who swoops in to save people by carrying them away, and webs the bad guy to the wall for the police to pick up later.

Reduce exposure to media violence. And talk about media violence with your child in ways that reinforce your family’s values. (Common Sense Media is a great resource.)

Play Fighting vs. Intent to Harm

It is important to differentiate between play fighting and serious fighting. Play fighting has no intent to harm and is enjoyed by all participants. Even when kids are truly play fighting, it’s a good idea to closely monitor it, as sometimes a child will accidentally hurt another and the harmed child may strike out in real physical anger as a response.

Serious fighting is motivated by anger and a desire to harm, and must be handled with appropriate discipline tools.

Note: If a child has a pattern of purposely hurting other children, and either seems to enjoy that, or shows no empathy or remorse, that is concerning. and you may want to consult with a professional about the situation.

Teaching Empathy and Emotional Literacy

What I have described here on how I handle weapon play is a small portion of all the things I work to teach my children and my students. This conversation takes place in a much broader context, where we work a lot on kindness, empathy, and mutual respect, and where we actively teach emotional literacy skills. These are all essential to raising children to be good, caring adults.

Talk to your children about real guns

Children do need to know about real guns. We need to talk about them. This article in Slate does a fabulous job of addressing this topic.

We also have to understand that research shows that no matter how many times we tell a child not to touch a real gun, if they see one they are likely to touch it. So, we also need to talk with other adults about how to keep real guns away from our kids. Also, check out advice from Seattle Children’s Hospital about gun safety: http://www.seattlechildrens.org/Kids-Health/Parents/First-Aid-and-Safety/Home-Sweet-Home/Gun-Safety/.

Your mileage may vary

What I have written here comes from my own experience, and I need to address the privilege of my experience. As a white parent / teacher in an upper middle class, suburban, politically liberal city, real gun violence is not present in the day to day lives of my children or my students. What I feel is appropriate to my setting may or may not be appropriate to yours.

What I write here is about play and young children. As children get older, we will talk more to them about the real harms of real weapons, and more about the impacts of their actions on others. There is much more to consider on this topic as they age.

In my own experience. I grew up in Wyoming in the 60’s and 70’s. We played with cap guns, BB guns, squirt guns, toy bow and arrows, toy swords. I loved shooting all these things at siblings and friends! Yet, as an adult, I am an extreme pacifist. I have never touched an actual gun, by conscious choice, and I advocate for strict gun control laws. My siblings and childhood friends who were raised in the same environment vary in their choices: some keep guns in the home for self-defense, some own rifles for hunting, or enjoy target shooting. Others, like me, avoid guns. But none of my family or friends are aggressors – there are no cases of gun violence or gun accidents among us.

But what’s true for my family and friends was not universally true. When I was in junior high and high school, I lost 3 or 4 classmates to guns (suicides or accidental shootings), and had a classmate at my high school who had shot and killed his abusive father.

Two of my children are now adults. When they were young, I followed the guidelines I share here about weapon play. As they got older, we talked about guns and violence. I found that having had a well-thought out, open discussion about weapon play was a first step to meaningful conversations as they got older. For me, as a parent and teacher, this works better than trying to avoid the topic by banning weapon play.

Read more on this topic:


Teaching Math Skills

Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about which skills kids need to succeed in school or in the work world, reading and math are always at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

If you ask parents what they do to teach their kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. If you ask them what they do to teach their child math, many parents draw a blank or they protest that they don’t know how to teach math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily as we do reading? I(‘m not talking math drills and flash cards and pushing academics here! I’m talking about playing with numbers like we “play” with words and stories.)

Here are some opportunities and resources (click on the links to learn more):

Hands-On Activities to Teach Core Math Skills

  • Counting / Number Sense
    • You can count almost anything – how many blocks in your tower, how many goldfish crackers on your plate, how many books do we get at the library
    • You can ask: who has more? Divide objects into two piles – which is bigger?
    • Set the table – each person gets one plate, one spoon, five berries, etc.
    • Count money – it’s trickier to get the different values of different coins.
  • Representation – recognizing that the numeral 5 and the word five can be used as symbols to represent how many physical objects you have
    • Play with magnetic numbers, puzzle pieces shaped like numbers, make numbers with play-dough, draw numbers in the sand,
    • Do connect the dot puzzles, do physical games where they have to jump from the paper numbered one to two to three
    • Make number cards with the numeral and word written on them. When you count physical objects, have them find the card the shows the total.
  • Shapes and Spatial Relationships
    • Play with shape sorters, puzzles, nesting cups, blocks, building toys. Make crafts.
    • Talk about (and play games with) positional words: under, next to, between…
  • Measurement
    • Cook together, using a recipe.
    • Compare things: line up in order by size.
    • Measure with standard units (8 inches) and non-standard (12 paper clips long)
  • Patterns
    • Help them notice sequence: first we do X, then Y. After ____, we always _____.
    • Sort laundry and pair the socks. Separate M&M’s by color, then make a pattern.
    • Build patterns: red bead, yellow bead, red…  Clap rhythm patterns.

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities! Or go to http://articles.extension.org/pages/25598/young-childrens-developing-math-skills

Sing Counting Songs and Read Counting Books

  • Math Songs. Counting songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…) You can find a huge collection of math songs for all ages at www.songsforteaching.com/numberscounting.htm

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation: Check out the blog http://talkingmathwithkids.com/ It has examples of math concepts into conversations with kids in an engaging way. More ideas: https://bstockus.wordpress.com/talking-math-with-kids/ and http://prek-math-te.stanford.edu/overview/math-thinking-conversations.

Bedtime Math: Every night, before or after the bedtime story, add in a math story problem.

You could make up your own. They could be based on your day (“Today at dinner, there were 8 slices of pizza. You ate two, and I ate three. How many did Dad eat?”). They could be based on the book you just read. (“The Cat in the Hat is holding a book, an umbrella and a fish bowl. How many things is that?” “How many pieces of fruit did the Very Hungry Caterpillar eat?”

Or, you can download the Bedtime Math app (it’s free!) or buy a Bedtime Math book if you prefer a screen free option. They offer a new kid-friendly story problem every day, with questions appropriate for three different levels of math skills, for kids age 3 – 9.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills. For younger kids, keep the score simple – one basket equals one point. For older kids, make the scoring more challenging: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.” When watching sports in person or on TV, have your child keep a written score tally.

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food, try these games. Hide 2 – 5 sugar packets behind your menu. Lift the menu to briefly show them the items, put it back down, and ask how many they saw. Tap on the table 1 – 6 times, and have them set out that many packets. “There are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”

Board games are my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice their learning math. Research shows that the more board games that a kid played and the more different settings he played games in, the better his performance in four math tasks.

Let them see you using math. Point out to your child when you use math – to calculate a tip, compare the cost of two items, figure out how long it will take to drive somewhere, or to help them decide what to buy with their allowance. (For a discussion of financial literacy for kids and how to handle allowance: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/02/09/financial-literacy/)

What Not to Do:

  • Don’t feel like you need to get flash cards, math apps and workbooks and drill basic math facts over and over. Let math be fun at home, not a terrible bore.
  • Don’t try to push kids along faster – push them deeper – rather than moving on to the next step on the math skills checklist as fast as you can, make sure you’ve really explored each step in depth first. For example, some parents want to toddler to count to 20, so they push them fast. It takes a long time for a toddler to really truly understand the difference between one and more than one. And then to understand the difference between one and two, and more than two. Let them stay there till they really get it, and then they’ll be able to master more complicated ideas in the future. But rush this one, and everything is confusing from there on out!

My other blog, Inventors Of Tomorrow, is about teaching STEM skills to kids. I have more details there. Start with the post on developmental stages of math learning.

Help Your Child Succeed in School

“According to research, the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement in school is not income or social status, but the extent to which that student’s family is able to:

  1. create a home environment that encourages learning,
  2. communicate high, yet reasonable, expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers,
  3. become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community.” (source)

Create a Home Environment that Encourages Learning

Teach a love for reading. Reading is key to all academic learning. Read to your child often; choose fun books that give you joy when you read them. Take frequent trips to the library – make getting new books a special event in your week. Go to story times at the library or the bookstore. Read a lot yourself so your child sees the lifelong benefits. Tell them about your favorite stories. When they ask questions, don’t always just answer off the top of your head – be sure to sometimes model how to look it up!

Play games and do puzzles together. These things teach that challenging yourself to think hard is fun. Kids also learn strategy, how to follow rules, problem-solving, how to develop mnemonics to remember things, how to be a good winner and a good loser and many games teach math skills. Many logic games, word and math puzzles are also good preparation for future test-taking skills.

Make things together. Making things from kits or following recipes will teach your child how to follow directions precisely and the importance of doing things in the right order. But also have times for free play with legos and such, experimentation in the kitchen, and making “inventions” from cardboard, straw, and tape. This teaches flexible thinking and innovation. It also teaches that things may not go right the first time, and we have to start again, tweak, refine, and keep trying till it works right.

Discipline – teach rules & manners. To succeed in school, kids need to understand that there are rules, and that when they follow the rules, we get to enjoy being together, and when they break the rules, they get negative consequences. They need to know how to pay attention, how to listen, how to take turns. Give your child chores so they learn how to be responsible. Show them how to break a big job into manageable steps.

Manage screen time. Limit total screen time (videos + video games + apps). The AAP recommends limiting to 1 hour per day for age 2 – 5, and less than 2 hours for school age kids. Monitor what content they’re being exposed to. (Common Sense Media provides good guidance on appropriate content.) Make sure media use doesn’t block kids from getting physical exercise, interactive play time, and adequate sleep. Designate media free times for the whole family and media-free locations in the home.

Promote social-emotional skills. Getting along with peers and teachers helps the child feel a part of the school community, and thus more engaged. Thus, friendship skills are essential, as is emotional literacy. Kids need to be able to resolve conflicts, ignore disruptive behavior from classmates, handle their frustrations effectively and reach out for help when needed.

Create an organized family life. Following family routines at home – like hanging your coat up when   you get home, tidying up your toys, and taking your dishes to the kitchen – help a child learn and follow similar rules at school. If children get plenty of sleep, they will be alert and ready to learn all day. School age children generally need 10 – 11 hours at night. Healthy breakfast foods that are rich in whole grains, fiber and protein and low in sugar get the day off to a good start. Having all the school supplies (backpack, homework, lunchbox) gathered in the evening helps mornings go more smoothly.

Also, be sure your child has the self care skills to be independent at school. For example, a kindergartener should be able to put on their own boots and coat, zip their coat, toilet independently, keep their things organized in a cubby, and open their own food packages at lunch.

Create a space for homework. From toddlerhood onward, you can have a special place in the house where you do quiet work such as art. If your child views this as a happy place they can settle in and focus, that will easily transition to a homework space. When your child is doing homework, you can support them by helping them get organized, making sure they have the necessary materials, asking about daily assignments, helping interpret instructions, and praising your child’s efforts.

Communicate high, yet reasonable, expectations

Talk about the value of education. The more you value education and learning, the more they will. Talk about how your education has helped you succeed. If your lack of education has blocked you from your goals, share that, and tell them what you’re doing now to overcome that. Talk about the important work you see being done around you and about how good it is that people are educated to do that work.

Model a work ethic. If your child sees that you work hard, do your best, challenge yourself to continue to learn more and do better, and are responsible and reliable, it motivates them to be/do the same.

Take school attendance seriously. Making sure they get to school on time, and attend every day, shows them how important school is. If you take them out of school for vacations, that de-values education.

Challenge them, but don’t overwhelm them. Whether you’re choosing puzzles for them to try, or choosing board games, or books, or giving them extra academic challenges, be aware that there is a “sweet spot” for learning. You want things to be easy enough that they are capable of doing them with work, but not so easy that they don’t even have to think to complete them. They want to be challenging enough that your child has to stretch, but not so challenging that they always fail. You’re trying to teach the self-confidence that comes with knowing that if you work hard, you will be successful.

Praise and give constructive feedback. Don’t give a lot of empty praise for the stuff that’s easy for them to do, but DO give lots of praise for the places where they had to work hard. Praise that effort, don’t imply that it’s just god-given talent that helped them do well. The more specific your praise the better, and it’s fine to give suggestions for how to improve (without criticizing their current work). “You’ve been working really hard at coloring inside the lines and look how nicely you’ve done it here! I have a tip for a way to make it easier – would you like me to show you?”

Play games – don’t “let them win”. Many parents find that if they beat their child at a board game, their child has a meltdown. So, they either don’t play games, or they let their child win all the time. (Which may be fun for the child for a while, but teaches them nothing, and gets boring over time.) Instead, choose developmentally appropriate games where your child has a chance at beating you if they pay attention and think hard. They’ll still be disappointed when they lose, but triumphant when they win!

School/Family partnership

Research shows that when parents are involved, students have higher grades, higher test scores, better attendance, better homework completion, higher graduation rates, and fewer behavioral issues.

Meet the teacher and stay visible to them: Drop off or pick up your child at the classroom when you can, come to school events, respond to teacher emails when asked to. If you’re asked to send in something specific for a class project, be sure to do so. This lets the teacher know that you care.

Attend parent-teacher conferences / back to school nights: Come prepared with questions like: What are my child’s strengths? Where are they struggling and how can I help? Does my child have any special needs and what programs are available to support them? What can we do at home to support learning? Ask for additional meetings if needed, but don’t over-burden the busy teacher with too many requests.

Support the teacher and the school: If possible, there’s nothing more powerful than volunteering in your child’s classroom! It builds your connection with the teacher, their feeling supported by you makes them more supportive of your child, you get the chance to see your child’s classroom in action, which helps you better communicate to your child about school, and your child sees how much you value their school experience. If you can’t volunteer on a regular basis, at least try to get in there a few times during the year. Lots of parents will volunteer for the special events, like the Halloween and Valentines Day parties. Consider helping out with some of the less glamourous or more everyday tasks. If you can’t make it in on a schedule, but could so some things at home, then ask the teacher what tasks you can take off of their plate: could you make play-dough, prep materials for a special project, label books, re-do the bulletin boards, or other things to free her time up to focus on the kids and prepping for class?

You can also support the school through participating in the PTA, donating to special requests, being friendly to and supportive of all the staff members, helping out in the library, and so on.

Speak positively about the school: Don’t bad-mouth the teacher or criticize the school in front of your child. If you have concerns, do address them, but in the meantime, display a positive attitude to your child.

Attend school events: Going to concerts, school plays, science fairs and more reinforces the home to school connection.

Learn the names of your child’s classmates: Use class pictures, class lists, or take notes in the classroom to learn the names of all the kids – you can help your child learn the names (which helps them build friendships) and it also helps you communicate with your child about the social life of the school. Make connections to other parents, and set up playdates outside of school.

Know about your child’s day: If you have a sense of their schedule, the routines, who their friends are, favorite subjects and so on, it helps you ask them specific questions about their day. Instead of the generic “how was school”, if you say “you had a math test today, how did that go?” or “you have music tomorrow – I know you love that” helps show your child that they, and their life, are important to you.

Learn what they’re learning: Read the materials that the school sends home that talk about curriculum. Also review Common Core Learning Standards: www.k12.wa.us/resources/YourChildsProgress.aspx

Reviewing Report Cards: Read and reflect on the grades when your child is not there. Then show to your child, focus first on an area of strength: “You did great in ____! You must be proud of all your hard work.” Then talk about where a grade is lower: “tell me how things are going with _____.” Start a safe open dialog about what the challenges are and work together to develop a strategy for improvement. Last, let your child know that they’re special, and there’s more to who they are than just a report card.

Strike a Balance – Avoid All Work and No Play

Some parents are, perhaps, overly focused on school success. They fill their child’s outside-of-school time with more academics: tutoring, math club, and workbooks at home. Remember that childhood is about more than just learning academic skills: children are still learning big motor skills (how to run, jump, throw), and small motor skills (not just writing and drawing, but using tools and manipulating materials) and the social skills and emotional regulation that come from free, unstructured play with other kids. Make sure they don’t miss out on those!

We know from neuroscience that kids need down time to relax, process, and let their brain cement all the connections they’ve been developing. Another thing we know from brain science is that children learn best when they feel safe and happy. Reducing stress and increasing calm and confidence increases their neuroplasticity which allows their brain to absorb all this new information. So, give them time to relax, to play, and to enjoy childhood!

Learn more:

Click on any of the highlighted links above! Or check out:

Top/Best Posts of 2017


Here are my most-read posts from the past year.

How Many Toys is Enough – Do you feel like you’re swimming in too many toys? Feel like you can never find toys your child will play with for long? Worry that you’re not properly “stimulating” your child with the best educational toys? Read this post.

Benefits of Singing with Your Child – Learn  the benefits, and find a link to my favorite songs for toddlers – a list which includes links to videos where you can learn the tune.

Teaching about “Tricky People” vs. “Stranger Danger” – How do we guide our children in the wisdom of being cautious about “tricky behavior” without making them frightened of each new person they meet?

Your Parenting Vision / Mission Statement – Becoming the Parent You Want to Be – When caring for young children we’re often just struggling to make it through our day. But every once in a while, it is helpful to take a step back and reflect on the big picture of parenting – what are our long-term goals, and are we on a path to reach them?

Fun with Toddlers Transportation Theme – I have a whole “Fun with Toddlers” series, with several different themes, each including recommended books, games, songs, crafts, and activities. The Transportation Theme is always a big hit (especially with boys).

Schemas of Play – Does your toddler have a particular favorite way to play? Lining things up? Carrying things around? Throwing things? Hiding things? They are practicing a schema of play – learn more about what they’re learning and how you can support it.

Periods of Disequilibrium – Does it seem to you that there are periods of time when parenting is easy? And are there other periods when it’s all really hard? That’s normal and expected! Here’s why it happens and how to survive the hard times.

Materials for Parent Educators – a large collection of free printable handouts.

Late in the year, I wrote a series called The Discipline Toolbox, and there’s lots of great stuff in there, so be sure to check it out! Here’s just some of my posts on discipline, in order from where to start (to prevent misbehavior), to what to do if problems escalate.

In 2018, follow me on Facebook to learn when I post new stuff, and to get reminders of helpful articles that are already on the site.

Preschool Choice Time

choiceThe holidays are over. You’re ready to sit back and relax.

Then suddenly you start seeing ads for preschool fairs, and lectures on choosing a preschool, your parent educator tells you the discussion topic is preschool, friends ask you if you’ve decided what you’re doing next year, and other parents tell you that you need to think about it NOW before all the best places fill up.

It can be very stressful!

Let’s take a deep breath, and take a few moments to reflect on this decision-making process.

If your child will be 3 or older on September 1, then it could be a good year for you to start preschool. (But you don’t necessarily have to.) And January and February are prime time for preschool open houses, and for enrollment to begin, so now is a good time to think about it. (Though, truly, if you don’t think about it till August, you’ll still have good options.)

If your child will still be younger than 3 this September, you don’t have to make any decisions yet about their future preschool. But now is a good time to check out some of those preschool fairs, just to get some sense of what options are available in your area, when  there’s no pressure to make any firm decisions.

Check out these posts for things to think about:

First decide: Is preschool necessary? Is it something you want for your child?

If you decide you’re looking, the first thing to think about is logistics: What do you need in a preschool in terms of location, schedule, cost, and so on. What are your goals for preschool?

Then, research your options. Have you considered cooperative preschool? outdoor preschool? specialty preschools (e.g. bilingual or religious)? academic preschool or play-based learning? multi-age programs?

Then visit, or attend an open house, and ask these questions to learn more.

After you’ve done all the research with your head, narrowing it down to the list of the best three options, then listen to your heart. Which school feels best to you? Where will your child be happiest? From the science of brain development, we know that we all learn best when we feel safe and happy – our brains have a high degree of neuroplasticity and we can absorb all the teacher has to teach. In the end, it’s that happiness and preserving the love of learning that will serve our child’s educational future the best.

photo credit: JoshSchulz via photopin cc

Time Out

Time Out is an important tool in the discipline toolbox, but it’s an easy one to mis-use or over-use, and it doesn’t work for all families, but let’s examine the best practices for time out.

(* Age note: For a two year old, we don’t really do a prolonged Time Out with this full method. We would instead: remove the child from the situation, hold them calmly for a minute or so, or sit with them till they’re calm, then let them return to play. )

What is Time Out?

First, let’s understand what it is: It’s Time Out from Positive Attention. Children like attention, so will act in the ways that get the most notice from their parents – whether it’s negative or positive attention. So, for mild misbehavior that’s just annoying, we use the “Ignoring” tool. For bigger issues, we use Time Out, which is spending time in a boring place, for a prescribed time, getting no attention. Time Out is a chance for your child to calm down (and for you to calm down), then return to better behavior. Time Out is not jail… it’s not intended to make your child suffer for their crimes.

Time Out will only be effective within the context of a supportive, loving relationship. If your child normally gets lots of positive attention from you, then Time Out is a big change from that. If your child is often ignored, Time Out isn’t much different, or the process of misbehaving and being sent to Time Out may be the way the child actually gets themselves some attention from the parent.

Developing Your Time Out Plan

Make your plan in advance for how you’ll use time out. (Springing the idea on an unsuspecting child in the middle of a meltdown is not going to work!)

Explain your plan to your child in advance, when everyone is calm. Practice it a few times at a family meeting so everyone knows exactly how it will work, and what the goals are of using it. Make sure your child clearly knows what behavior will lead to a time out.

When: What Behaviors Lead to Time Out

Time Out is best when used sparingly, for aggression – situations when your child is hurting someone or something, or for non-compliance – times when you have tried other discipline tools and your child continues to disobey. (Note: all young children ignore or disobey about 1 out of 3 commands. If a simple reminder gets them to comply, you won’t need Time Out – it is for more intentional or chronic non-compliance.)

Sometimes, you may want to send your child to a Time Out because you need a break. That’s not a fair use of Time Out. If you need a break, be honest about that, and take one. Do this before you explode


Select a place for Time Out. It should be:

  • Boring: Somewhere with no toys, books or screens to provide pleasant experiences.
  • Out of the way of the flow of traffic, so you don’t have to move past the child, and not in a place that tends to draw the attention of other children. (For example, the back of the classroom is better than the front, or just around the corner from the dining table where you can keep an eye on them but your other children can’t see them, is better than somewhere that will draw the attention of other kids (who then may try to provoke the child who is in Time Out.)
  • Safe: Bathrooms or kitchens can be dangerous places for kids to be without close supervision.
  • Some parents avoid the child’s bedroom as they don’t want the child to think of their room as a punitive place. Other parents, who focus more on the calm-down aspect of Time Out than the punitive aspect, may find that the bedroom works well.
  • You might choose to include a few calm down tools in this place, such as a Calm Down Bottle, a favorite stuffed animal, a stress ball, a weighted vest or blanket, or bubbles to blow.

Call this the Time Out Place or the Calming Place. It’s not “the naughty chair.”

If your child misbehaves in public, consider using another discipline tool. If Time Out makes the most sense, you can go to your car, or to a quiet corner with them while they take a Time Out from your attention.

How Long

For a three year old*, we set a baseline of three minutes, for a four year old four minutes. For older children, we start at 5 but increase up to 9 if needed. (See below.) Longer Time Outs are not effective and may just make the child resentful and resistant to future Time Outs.

When they’ve reached the minimum time requirement and they’ve had a calm voice and body for a couple minutes, then you can declare that Time Out is over. (They don’t decide… you do.)

Note: the first couple times you use Time Out, it may take them longer to calm down. (Even as long as 20 minutes.) In the long term, we want Time Out to be as brief as possible for them to calm down and return. We want to help them realize that if they can calm down right away, then they’ll get out of Time Out as soon as the time requirement is met.

What and How

  1. Describe the problem behavior clearly. State what behavior you would like to see.
  2. Warn that if the problem behavior continues, there will be a time out. (If you’re not willing to do a Time Out right now, then don’t threaten to do one… Empty threats make it less likely the tool will work in the future.)
  3. Give a clear command, including the reason. Keep it short and simple. “You did ___. Go to Time Out now.”
  4. What they should do in Time Out: The goal is that they learn to calm themselves down. They won’t initially know how to do that! Self-calming skills are something we need to be teaching at other times when they’re calm so they may be able to use them in Time Out eventually. At first, expect that they will stomp, kick, yell and whine a lot in Time Out. Over time, they will learn that this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, and they’ll give up on it.
  5. What you do when they’re in Time Out: Give them as little attention as possible. Try to move on with your day, not nagging them, responding to their pleas, and so on. If they yell, don’t yell back. If they ask “how many more minutes” you don’t have to respond. (You could choose to announce when a minute has passed.) You might need to use your own self-calming skills and positive self-talk at this time to stay calm.
  6. If there are other children with you, encourage them to “use their Ignoring Muscles” and tune out the person who is in Time Out. You can continue to play nicely with the other child(ren), giving positive attention to their positive behavior.
  7. Once the time requirement has been met, if the child has been calm for two minutes, release them. If not, simply use a When/Then statement. “Please work on calming yourself down. When you have been calm for two minutes, then you can come out of Time Out.”
  8. When time out is done, re-engage with your child, and praise their first positive behavior.

What if they resist?

  1. What if they resist going to Time Out? If they are 3 – 6 years old, you say “You can go to Time Out on your own or I can take you there.” If they don’t go, calmly take them there.  For a 6 – 10 year old, you say “I’m going to add an extra minute in Time Out. That’s 6 minutes.” Wait ten seconds. If they still don’t go, add another minute, up to 9. After that, add a consequence: “That’s 10 minutes now, and if you don’t go to Time Out right now, you will lose screen time privileges for tonight.” If they go to Time Out, after 10 minutes they’re done. If they won’t go to Time Out, we drop the power struggle over Time Out and they receive the consequence instead.
  2. What if they try to escape Time Out? You re-set the Time Out clock, and you say “If you come out again, then you will have this consequence.”

Using Time Out

It is best to develop a specific routine for Time Out, so you can do it the same way every time. Here are two sample scripts, based on the Incredible Years program:

Time Out for Aggression

“You hit. You need to go to Time Out.” Child goes to Time Out. Once time is up, and they have been calm for two minutes: “Your Time Out is Finished. You can play now.” As soon as you see any positive behavior, praise it – you’re returning positive attention to them.

Time Out for Non Compliance

This would be used for an on-going behavior challenge – such as when they’ve been resisting bedtime or doing chores or turning off the screen.

First, give a transition statement that tells them when you’ll be asking for a behavior and what you’ll ask for. “In five minutes, [your screen time will be over and you will need to calmly hand me the tablet].” Then, when the time comes, state a brief command. “Your time is up. Hand me the tablet now.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds for them to process the command. If they comply, praise and move on. If not, give an if/then warning about Time Out: “If you do not hand it to me now, then I’ll take it and you’ll have a time out.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds… if they don’t comply: “You didn’t give it to me. I am taking it. Go to Time Out.” If they refuse to go, or won’t stay in Time Out, warn of a consequence: “If you don’t go/stay in Time Out, then you will lose half your screen time for tomorrow.” After the Time Out is over and/or the consequence is imposed, then, if needed, return to the original command. (If this all started when you asked them to clean up and they refused to clean up, you can’t let that go… they still need to clean up. Otherwise, many kids would choose the 5 minute Time Out to avoid cleaning up!

Initial Resistance

Expect that the first few times you use Time Out there will be a lot of drama – they may resist, they may cry, they may throw things. After things are calm again, have another family meeting talking about what Time Out is, why you’re using it, and how it can be an easy solution if done well. Let them know that you will continue using it, and they can decide whether to make it a miserable experience for themselves, or whether to use it as a brief 5 minute calm down interlude that you can all move on quickly from.

Moving On From Time Out

Once time out is over, move on, don’t rehash. We all make mistakes, and need to come back in and try again. Don’t nag at them, let this be a clean slate moment. Give them positive attention and praise any positive behavior you see.

Important note: If they were using Time Out to get away from doing a chore, make sure they complete that chore after Time Out. Be matter of fact about this, giving positive feedback as they return to the work.

What Else Can You Do?

If you find yourself using Time Out every day, consider using other discipline methods for some of these situations. Choose a very limited set of behaviors that you will use Time Out for.

If you have been using Time Out for the same behavior repeatedly for multiple weeks, you need to form another strategy since it is not effectively changing behavior. (One thing to consider is whether or not your rules and expectation are developmentally appropriate for the child. Are you asking more of them than they’re capable of?) Seek help from a parent educator, teacher, or counselor if you need outside perspective to come up with new ideas.

Continue to teach other skills

Time Out does not teach your child what to do better. It can’t be used as your only discipline tool. Be sure to also be using positive attention, praise, guidance in what TO DO, teaching ways to understand and manage their big emotions, role modeling, and more to help your child learn how to behave better. When they’re mis-behaving, ask yourself whether consequences might be a better response than Time Out. Your long-term goal is self-discipline – raising a child who knows what it means to be a good person and behaves that way most of the time. Using a wide variety of these tools will help to teach them how to do this.

Learn More about Time Out

For lots more information and tips for effective time outs, check out the CDC’s guide to Using Timeout, read The Incredible Years or participate in an Incredible Years program. And if you like to know the research behind recommendations, check out: Weighing in on the Time Out Controversy and “The Role of Time-Out in a Comprehensive Approach for Addressing Challenging Behaviors of Preschool Children” (here or here)