Play-Dough Recipe

Our students are often surprised to discover we make all our own play-dough. I tell them: you should make all your own play-dough!! It’s cheaper, it’s much nicer texture to work with, and shapes much better than commercial PlayDoh. It also doesn’t dry out as quickly. Plus, I hate the smell of commercial PlayDoh… when you make your own, you can leave it unscented – my preference – or you can add scents with a few drops of essential oils. And making a batch takes only 15 minutes from start to finishing clean-up… longer if your little one “helps.”

There’s LOTS of recipes out there. Here’s the one that works well for me:

Recipe 1

Mix together: 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 2 tbsp. cream of tartar, 4 tbsp. oil (note, 4 tbsp. is the same as 1/4 cup)

Boil 2 cups water

Mix in separate container: 1.5 cups of the boiling water plus food coloring – make the color STRONG! (I used Betty Crocker Gel in my last few batches, and found I used 1/3 – 1/2 a tube in a batch)

Mix the colored water in with the other ingredients. Stir well.

Then spread a thin layer of flour on a counter or cutting board. When it’s cool enough to touch, place the dough on that and knead it. What you’re trying to do is create  good, consistent dough that’s just the right texture for kids to play with. If it’s sticking to your hands, add a little flour. If it’s too dry and crumbly, add a little hot water. (It’s a little different each time – if the weather is really humid, or really dry, that affects the dough.) Knead till it’s just right. Usually takes a few minutes. When not in use, store in a ziplock or a closed plastic container. It keeps for weeks or months, depending on how frequently it’s used.

Recipe 2 – A recipe my co-teacher Cym likes has slightly different proportions / ingredients, but the process is the same.

3 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 2 tbsp. corn starch, 4 tbsp. cream of tartar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 2 cups boiling water, food color.

While I’m sharing recipes, another Cym recipe that we use a lot is her cocoa cloud dough. Mix together 1.5 cups flour, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, and 1/4 – 1/2 cup of any edible oil (canola oil, safflower… whatever you’ve got.) For a big batch, 6  cups flour, 2 cups cocoa, 1 – 2 cups oil. How much oil you use depends on the texture you want. We use this in the sensory bin to simulate dirt so we want it pretty crumbly (it looks like dirt, but it won’t hurt any little ones who decide to eat it! and it smells good. See pictures on my other blog, Inventors of Tomorrow, here and here.) If you want to shape it more, use more oil.

Learn more about cloud dough at Babble Dabble Do.

Choosing Toys


If you walk into any modern toy store, you’ll be overwhelmed by an insane number of toys to choose from.  Parents ask me all the time: how many toys are enough? How do I decide which toys to buy for my child? Which are the best toys? Are there toys I shouldn’t buy? What if my kid falls in love with toys that I think have no educational benefit or that don’t match our family values?

There’s no one right answer to these questions. I’m not going to give you a list of “most recommended toys for all children.” But, I will give you some things to think about when choosing toys…

  • Don’t fill their lives with too many toys and too much entertainment. If every time achild expresses a whiff of boredom, we hand them a new toy, they learn to depend on new commercial goods to be happy. And they don’t learn the creativity that can be inspired by boredom and limited materials. Also, if there are too many toys to choose from, children tend to be distracted and over-stimulated. Having fewer toys helps build their attention span and focus. (Learn more here.)
  • Choose more open-ended toys. Open-ended toys are toys that can be played with in a wide variety of ways, such as a set of wooden blocks, versus closed-ended toys which are designed for only one thing, such as a superhero action figure. Open-ended toys are passive and require your child to be active and creative. (Learn more here.)
  • Choose toys which stimulate a wide variety of learning. If my child had only ten toys, I would want them to have some which stimulate each of the major intelligence styles: linguistic, mathematical, kinesthetic, artistic… Learn more at
  • Consider your family values. Where will you compromise, and where won’t you compromise?
    • My son is in love with Shopkins. They are everything I hate in a toy. They’re cheap plastic, lots of clutter, gender biased, and encourage consumerism values not in alignment with mine. The slogan for Shopkins is “once you shop you just can’t stop.” But… we have lots of Shopkins. Why? Because he fell in love with them at pretty much exactly the same time as we introduced allowance and the idea of having saving money, gift money, and spending money. (Learn more about financial literacy.) The rule for spending money is that he can spend it on anything that he chooses. He chooses Shopkins. Right now, my appreciation for what he’s learning about math and financial decision making are outweighing my dislike of Shopkins.
    • I am very much a pacifist and have never held or fired a real gun. However, I spent many hours of childhood playing with toy weapons, and I do allow my children to play with things such as light sabers, toy swords, and nerf guns. However, we do not buy anything that looks like a real weapon or like a real person firing real weapons at real people. (i.e. no first-person shooter games in our household!) For lots more thoughts, read about Gun Play here.
  • Think about gender and toys. Many toys are marketed to either girls or to boys, or are marketed as gender neutral. What are your preferences? (Read more on Gender)
  • Ask yourself from time to time: am I happy with the toys we now own? Does my child enjoy playing with them and do a good job (at a developmentally appropriate level) of taking care of them? Do I feel like we have enough toys to feel abundance and happiness, but not so many that we’re all on sensory overload? If you’re happy with your responses to those questions, you’re in a good place. If you’re not, then think about what you want to change.

Wait for it…


As a parent educator, I often tell my students: we can’t make our children do something before they’re developmentally ready. We can encourage them, provide opportunities to try a new skill, model behavior, try praise and punishment to motivate them, and create an environment that encourages them to master that skill. But sometimes, we just have to wait for them to be ready.

Sometimes when it comes to raising my own kids, the advice I give to other parents just flies out of my head…

Just 4 weeks ago, I was despairing that my child would ever want to write or draw anything. He is five years old, and was about to start kindergarten. Yet, I could count on one hand the number of times he’d attempted to draw a picture. The only time he would write was if we made him do it to earn something. “Want a chocolate Kiss? OK, write the word kiss and you can have it.” His grandma started paying him a penny for every letter he writes for her, and despite that, he didn’t write much.

This is in stark contrast to my older kids, but especially to my daughter who started drawing and trying to write when she was less than 18 months! And in contrast to one of his buddies, Jelly Bean, who sent him a lovely card covered with flowers and butterflies she had drawn when she was 3 and he was 4 and didn’t want to draw a straight line.

Any time your child seems developmentally behind where you feel he should be, or behind other children, it’s always worth checking into. Look up developmental newsletters and checklists to check whether your expectations are reasonable. It could be you’re expecting too much, too early. If he’s not meeting the exact questions on a checklist, ask yourself whether he is doing other tasks which show that same developmental capability.

For example, with my son, he was generally right on track developmentally. When it came to writing, I knew that the issue wasn’t that he didn’t understand letters, or the power of the written word. He was an early reader – beginning to read words at age 3, and reading chapter books by age 5. The issue wasn’t small motor skills – he could easily manipulate small lego pieces and small pieces in “experiments” he was working on. He just truly had no internal motivation to draw or write or paint.

From time to time I’d suggest it. I would show him the fully stocked cabinet of art supplies, and he would walk away and do something else. He even took an arts enrichment class, called Creative Development Lab for a full year, and managed to never paint or draw a thing.

So, there we were, on the brink of starting kindergarten and wondering if he’d even be willing to write his name.

Then, overnight, for no external reason, he started drawing. And writing. A lot! And talking about how exciting it was that he had his own “art studio” (the art supply cabinet). And producing drawing after drawing. We went to the meet-the-teacher session at kindergarten and she asked him to draw a picture of himself. My husband and I looked at each other with doubt – what would he do? He happily sat down, drew a stick figure drawing (his first!) and wrote his full name next to it. Now, one week into kindergarten, every day he brings home pictures he’s drawn, coloring pages he’s completed (mostly coloring inside of the lines when he chooses to do so), worksheets where he’s traced every letter carefully and well, and craft projects where he’s easily mimicked the teacher’s sample project.


Over and over, we wondered whether he’d ever be willing to write or draw. But then, when he was ready, he leaped right into the deep end of non-stop creative work. It reminds me of the validity of the advice… sometimes you just have to wait for a child to be developmentally ready to make that leap in skills.

Adventure Playground on Mercer Island


At Deane Children’s Park on Mercer Island (part of Island Crest Park – 5801 Island Crest Way) there’s an Adventure playground, where children are given hammers and nails, and encouraged to go build, play, explore, and discover. Here’s how Red Tricycle describes it:

an ever-changing carpentry wonderland that’s completely kid-built, poised to capture the imagination… What’s been created so far will surely inspire your lil’ builder to add her own touches or modify a current design. In fact, the organic, continually-evolving nature of this park is part of its cool-appeal. Each day the park is open, new structures pop up simply by adding, removing or connecting to the existing forts, bridges, ladders, ramps and swings.

This is a land where children build their own playground! They build tree forts, add makeshift slides and swings, and add in fun imaginative details like mailboxes and chairs. When they tire of building, they explore other structures, climbing up high on rickety bridges, ducking low into hideouts, and clambering across the hillside. It’s very fun!!!

There are lots of things I LOVE about the Adventure Playground, which I’ll share below. But, there are some definite safety risks there, and it’s not for a parent who is faint of heart. And it’s NOT appropriate for kids under 4. Be sure to read the cautions below.

When to Go

This Tuesday and Wednesday (Aug 30 & 31), they’re open 1 – 4 pm. Then they’re open on Sundays 9/11, 9/18, and 9/25 from 1 – 4 pm. Admission is free, but please donate! (JayMarc Homes is sponsoring the playground this year, but support from participants is important to showing Mercer Island parks that we appreciate this opportunity!) It can be closed for inclement weather.

What to Expect

It’s ESSENTIAL to wear good, solid, closed toe shoes with sturdy soles!! There are nails and other hazards everywhere you step. It would be best to wear long pants, probably – we were there on a high 80’s day but it’s very wooded, so it doesn’t get very hot. Bringing a water bottle would also be a good idea and many parents bring snacks.

When you arrive, the parent must sign a waiver. You’re given a copy of the rules: basically keep track of your tools, respect others, do not take down existing structures, be safe, and report injuries or emergencies. Kids 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Then they check out a toolbox to your child. It contains items like a kid size hammer, a screwdriver, a level, safety glasses, nails, screws, a big pencil. and a measuring tape. Some might have a saw. You can also pick up a construction helmet. Wood scraps are scattered everywhere on the ground – you scavenge around for what you need. Occasionally there are specialty items: deck railings, bed frames, playground slides. When I went in 2015, I wished there were rope, because it really increases the building possibilities.  In 2016, we found some ropes we were able to use to make a swing.

In the future, I plan to bring an adult size hammer – sometimes we needed more leverage to pound or pull a nail than you can get with a kid size hammer. We could have also used a pocket knife to cut a rope with.


What you’ll Find

The playground opened July 5th, so at this point in the season, you’ll find lots of established structures that have been built by the kids who came before you. The photos below are from 2015 and 2016. Click on any photo for a larger view.

Some of the existing structures are quite impressive: solid, stable, serious pieces of construction:

stable1 stable2 stable3

Some are a little more rickety and haphazard.

rickety4 rickety3 rickety2 rickety1

Some kids have added warning signs, some label their creations, and some create whimsical details:

sign2 sign1

My son loves running around and exploring what’s there – just like any playground he goes to, the first things he wants to do are: climb ladders, run up ramps, slide down slides, get as high up as he can, and swing on the swing. He was having a fabulous time just playing and exploring till we got to the swing… The existing swing he found was really a disappointment – it didn’t hang straight, and didn’t swing well. So, it was time to start building! We worked together to build a swing. (See a video of the swing here.)

ramp slide high swing installation

The Inspiration

The playground is inspired by free play advocates, and advocates for the benefits of risk-taking for kids and the benefits of allowing kids to tinker and build real things with their hands and real tools. There are several adventure playgrounds in England and Europe and the trend is moving to America. Learn more about the movement here:

What Kids Learn

There is so much to be learned in this environment!!

  • Creativity. As a child plays and explores what is already there, they learn about the range of possibilities, and start creating their own vision of what they would like to see in this world, and then set about making that vision a reality.
  • Construction skills. Kids learn about hammers, nails, saws. They learn about measuring, rope tying, adding in shims to stabilize something. So many skills that they discover the need for in the moment of building.
  • Safety assessment. They learn to test their work to see if it’s stable and safe, and re-build as needed.
  • Failure and trying again in a new way. Not everything they attempt works! I was watching a mom and daughter try to fit a bed railing in between two existing uprights. It kept tipping backwards, so they added support boards behind it. But then it was tipping forwards, so they added more boards, and it still tipped, so they had to figure out how to build a better stabilizer to hold it in place.
  • Teamwork. When installing an 8 foot long plank on a 4 foot tall platform, you need help. You can’t do it alone. So, you ask for help, you explain what you’re trying to do. You work together with someone. If they have different ideas, you might need to learn some conflict resolution skills.
  • Satisfaction in a job well done. The kids had just even more fun playing here than they would in any regular playground, but beyond that, they had a whole other layer of pride, sense of competence, and boosted confidence. They all left the playground bragging about what they had created together.

Read more about what kids learn here, where I share more photos, and stories from our trip.

Safety Issues

There are definite safety issues. Many of the ramps are shaky, there are lots of high platforms without rails, and narrow wobbly bridges several feet in the air. There’s lots of potential for falls. Also, the kids are working with hammers, nails, and saws. Some have clearly gotten safety coaching. Others have clearly not.


When I was there in 2015, if my memory is correct, most of the wood was stacked up in a wood pile near the front gate. This year, the wood was randomly scattered EVERYWHERE across the site. This made it much easier to build… when you had an inspiration, you just searched the ground nearby and you’d find a board you needed, or a branch or a rope. But this means you better pay close attention when you walk! And if you fell, you’d be as likely to land on a board as on the soft ground of the woods. And most boards on the ground have nails sticking up out of them. (Remember those sturdy shoes!)

boards2 boards1 nails2

There were also LOTS of loose nails on the ground. This is what I picked up just from under the platform where we built our handrail and swing.


Another issue is that there’s LOTS of places where kids pounded a 3 – 4 inch nail through a 1 – 2 inch thick board, and that means there’s a section of nail sticking out on the other side… so watch out for protruding nails on the backs of ladders and on the bottoms of platforms.

I believe kids can stay safe there, but only if you emphasize to your child the importance of caution. An article in Seattle’s Child says that there have been few injuries, and most of those have been adults, because the kids are being more cautious.

I certainly taught my child how to be careful there!  I let him explore, but I made sure he knew to watch the ground when he walked (no running), test to be sure something is stable before going on it, check to be sure there’s no nails poking out before you put your hand there, and so on.

I LOVE the free play aspect of this playground, but I also think that with great freedom should come great responsibility. I wish that all parents would give their kids some basic education on the way in, not just about how to move safely through the playground and how to use tools safely, but how to be responsible for keeping it safe for others. I wish they were taught to be sure their structures were as stable as possible before walking away and leaving them for other kids to play on. I wish kids were encouraged to stack all their scrap wood in tidy piles, near worksites, but not directly in the range or where someone could fall. I wish they were encouraged to pick up any nails they drop, and to also scan their worksite for any hazards before leaving for the day. I wish that when kids or parents noticed nails sticking out on the back of a handrail, they take out their hammer and quickly pound it down to keep others safe.

I’m definitely a product of a girl scout / boy scout childhood, and have firmly engrained the idea of “leave the site cleaner than you found it.” I feel the users of the playground could use that message, though maybe here it’s “leave the playground safer than you found it.”

Age Guidelines

I personally would not take any child under the age of four here. I think it would be hard to keep them safe. If you have a little one, it’s much better to stick to the traditional safety-tested playground and Deane park has four fabulous play areas not counting the adventure playground! (Read my full review here.)

I took my son last year when he was four. (And I should note, we spend LOTS of time at playgrounds and hiking outdoors and climbing rocks and climbing trees, so he has a lot of physical skills and learned caution from those environments.) I kept a very close eye on him the whole time as he played, and actively educated him about how to stay safe and we didn’t attempt to build anything because I didn’t want to get distracted. We did carry a hammer around with us, and did pound in some loose nails we found.

This year, he’s five, and my husband came too, so we had two sets of eyes to make sure he was safe. So, this year we were able to balance building and supervising him. But I didn’t really have any “sit down and relax” time.

We observed other parents and grandparents with a range of ages, and definitely the 6 – 9 year olds had an adult working closely with them. For the 10-12 year olds, a few parents would sit on a log and read while keeping a vague eye on the kids and calling out suggestions. There weren’t any kids there alone that I noticed, but 12 and ups are allowed to be there without an adult.

If you’d like a building adventure, check it out soon! They’ll dismantle this year’s constructions on September 25th.


Problem Solving at the Adventure Playground

In a separate post, I told all about the Adventure Playground on Mercer Island. In this post, I want to share a few stories from our trip there to illustrate some of the learning opportunities it presents.

Responsibility for Others

We visited with our son, who is five. He saw this slide in the distance.


He immediately ran over to play on it. There was an older boy there – maybe 10 – 12. He warned my son – “be careful, it’s not stable.”

The boy had started to remove the nails that were supporting the slide, because his family wanted to move it over to a more stable platform that they were working on.


My son was very sad about not being able to use the slide. The older boy told him he’d fix it – he pounded back in the nails he had just pulled so my son could use the slide. I told my son I wasn’t sure it was safe, because the bottom of the slide was propped precariously on a couple boards, with some loose boards just beyond the slide. I asked him to slow himself down on the first time down the slide, and once we knew it was reasonably stable, we cleared away the loose wood, and let him take 3 full speed slides, then we moved on so they boy could return to his work of re-locating the slide.

I thought this was a great example of a tween who was paying attention to and looking out for younger children. He knew that with the joy of risky play that the playground offers, we also have responsibility to keep others safe. And he knew that in a communal space, sometimes you change or pause your plan to make sure other kids are having fun too.

Risk Assessment

At a typical playground with mass produced equipment, it’s all been carefully designed and tested to be as safe as possible. That’s not the case at the adventure playground! This stuff was all knocked together by kids! It was a good opportunity for my 5 year old to learn how to watch out for hidden dangers: he learned to test for wobbly boards before going onto a platform, to be careful to stay in the center of high platforms without railings, and to look for protruding nails before going under something (note the third picture below, which has a random cluster of nails poking down in the middle of a board, for no real reason… this is at about head height for an adult.)


My son found one “balance beam” catwalk he really wanted to cross. It was about 6 – 8 inches wide, which would normally be easy for him. But it was also 5 feet up in the air. He was wise enough to realize this was not a good thing for him to attempt.

no rail

Problem-Solving / Engineering

My son wanted to make the “bridge” wider so it was safer to cross. But, we looked at the support platforms at each end, and there was just no way to make it work.

I suggested a hand rail, which he could use to stabilize himself, and he liked that idea. But this was a long span (8 feet?). We searched around and realized it was longer than any of the planks that were available. We thought about a rope handrail, but didn’t think it would provide enough stability. Then we looked around on the ground and found a really long branch. Perfect!

My husband, my son and I worked together to lift the branch up high. We were able to brace it in multiple places on tree branches. Then we scavenged for some ropes to tie it in place.


Then, my husband tested it, then made some minor adjustments, and then my son got his chance to cross the bridge – it’s a success!


This was a fabulous example of the engineering process in action: find a problem, brainstorm solutions, test available materials, build a prototype, test it, refine it – the problem is solved! My son learned a lot in the process, and was very satisfied with the results. The idea that he could help build something big and real that other kids could use was very empowering to him.

Taking Ideas and Improving Them

We walked around and played on other people’s structures for a while, and my son found this swing:

floppy swing

He is a huge swing fan, so couldn’t wait to try it. But it was a big disappointment. Instead of hanging flat, it tended to tilt up to 45 degrees forward and basically dump you off of it. It also didn’t have much of a swing radius.

We decided to build our own swing. We went back to the platform where we’d added the handrail. The handrail branch was so long that about 3 – 4 feet of it hung off over the end of the platform, at the perfect location and height for a swing support!

But, we’d installed it with the skinny end of the branch at that end. So, we uninstalled our handrail, flipped it over (tricky to do with a branch that must have been 15 feet long or more) and re-installed it with the fat end hanging over the end.

We found rope and a board for the seat, and started to build a swing. The board had four nails pounded through it, near each of the four corners – I started to take them out, but then realized that we could use them to stabilize the swing. So, as I tied the rope around the board, I poked the nails through it, then pounded them down to hold them in place.

board nails

Stringing the swing up was a little tricky, because we didn’t have any scissors, knife, or anything to cut the rope with, so it had to be one continuous loop. Once it was installed, again, my husband tested first, figuring if the swing could hold his weight, it was safe for kids. The branch support wobbled back and forth a bit as he swung, so we found some straps to tie it down better, then my son got to test it. Another building success!

swing installation  swing test

Because my son is such a huge fan of swings, he was so excited that we had built a swing together! He shouted to the kids who were working nearby to look at it. He ran over to some other kids to invite them to come try it out. But they were busy working and didn’t come, so he came back and tested it more. A grandma who was supervising those kids came over and checked it out and shared my son’s excitement with his creation.

Competence and Empowerment

We saw similar excitement throughout the adventure playground, and lots of kids who were glowing with the empowered satisfaction of having BUILT SOMETHING.


Modern American kids don’t get a lot of experience with making real things, although they may do virtual building in Minecraft for hours.

These kids all built real structures that they could climb on and play on, and they felt competent, powerful, creative, bold. That sense of accomplishment is the best thing about the adventure playground, I think. And it’s something they carry out of the playground to increase their confidence at taking on other tasks.

Movie Prices on the Eastside

Yesterday, we were wondering how costs compared between different movie theatres. So, we looked it up, and I’m sharing it here so you don’t have to look it up. :-)   All prices are for adult tickets for non-3D showing of Kubo on the evening of Saturday 8/20.

“Regular” Movie Theatres (i.e. standard seats, general admission, typical concessions)

  • Lincoln Square, Bellevue $11.75
  • Woodinville $11.54
  • Bella Bottega, Redmond $11.75

Reclining Seats, Reserved Seating, Typical Concessions

  • Factoria, Bellevue $10.70
  • Crossroads, Bellevue $11.94

Reclining Seats, Reserved Seating, Will Deliver Food to Your Seat, Have Alcohol

  • IPic Redmond $27 (note: if you have a free membership, then you get discount pricing of $17 Monday – Thursday. They also have the regular seats in the front with no table service, and those are $16, or $12 with member discount on weekdays)
  • Cinebarre Issaquah $11.22. (Ages 18 and up is encouraged. Children under 18 only allowed with parents, no kids under 3.)

Will Deliver Food to Seat, Have Alcohol, and I think they have reclining seats

  • McMenamin’s Anderson School in Bothell. $9. I have not been here – it looks nice. May have a smaller than typical screen??

Conclusions? Anderson school is cheapest – would love to hear what people thought of it compared to other options. IPic is by far the most expensive, and while I really enjoy their food, the drinks, the nice atmosphere there, and especially the blankets tucked into the seat pockets, that’s a big price difference. Now, if I had limited babysitting available, and I only got a few rare hours here and there with my spouse, and we had just enough time for a movie IF we ate dinner during the movie, I would choose a movie and dinner here rather than anywhere else, because it would feel most like a grown-up date night.

For us, the winner is Factoria. (Note, their remodel is fairly recent – I think in December 2015, so if you haven’t been there in a while, know that it is VERY different.) We like the reclining seats. We like being able to reserve seats in advance so we can come in minutes before the show and know we’ll get good seats, parking is always easy, and they have surprisingly good pizza at their concessions (allow a few extra minutes for them to cook it.) And it’s $1.00 cheaper than all the “regular” theatres.

Add your comments to let us know what you think of Eastside movie options!

If you’d like to see some outdoor movies this summer, there’s still time! See all the listings here: Summer Movies; If you’re looking for free (or cheap) things to do with little kids, check out my Cheap Dates with Toddlers series.

Great Classes for Kids AND Parents: Parent Education & Coop Preschools

Classrooms in the Bellevue College Program

Classrooms in the Bellevue College Program – click for larger view

Are you a parent of a baby, toddler, or preschool age child? Are you looking for:

  • A place where your child can explore toys, do art, hear stories, sing songs, and make friends? (And use up some energy on a cold winter day?)
  • A fun activity to do with your child where s/he learns new skills and you get new ideas?
  • Opportunities to meet other families and build community?
  • Expert advice and research-based information about parenting and child development?
  • Support from professionals and other parents for the challenges of life with a little one?

You can find all these great opportunities in one place!

In the Seattle area, our community colleges sponsor parent education programs, including parent-child programs and cooperative preschools, which are a fabulous resource for families. For children, classes offer hands-on learning, discovery and play. For adults, they offer on-going education on all topics related to parenting, plus connections to other parents.

What is the children’s experience like?

The programs are play-based, because research shows children learn best through hands-on exploration in places where they feel safe and free to explore. Each classroom has several stations around the room, with developmentally appropriate activities to help kids build the skills they need. Children are encouraged to move around and explore at their own pace. In parent-child programs (aka “mommy and me classes”) for babies and toddlers, parents play along with their children. In coop preschools, working parents are assigned to a station. Activities vary by age, but might include:

  • Art activities: play-dough to roll, easels to paint at, markers for learning to write
  • Sensory activities: tubs of water or rice or beans to scoop, pour, stir, and run fingers through
  • Large motor: mats for tumbling, tunnels to crawl through, climbers and slides, balls to throw, dancing and movement games
  • Small motor: blocks to stack, puzzles to assemble, shape sorters to solve, beads to thread, and building toys for construction
  • Imaginary play: dress up zone for trying on new roles, dolls to care for, kitchen for “cooking”
  • Science and nature experiences: seeds to plant, tadpoles to watch, items from nature to explore
  • Snack time: a place to practice social skills and table manners and to discover new foods

click for larger view

Classes also include “circle time” or “music class” where the teacher leads the class in singing songs, dancing, playing musical instruments, and reading stories. This is a chance for children to practice sitting still, listening to a teacher, and participating in a group activity, all essential skills for kindergarten readiness. Academic skill-building (reading, writing, pre-math skills) is integrated into all types of activities.

What makes these children’s programs different from other programs?

Diverse Experiences in One Familiar Setting: Most children’s programs focus on one domain of learning: dance class, art class, story time, music class, or tumbling. These programs do it all. And they do it in a known space where the child feels safe and comfortable. Some of the same toys activities reappear from week to week to provide reassurance and routine, and some new toys and activities rotate in to encourage children to explore and try new things.

Long-Term Relationships: Lots of programs run in short sessions of 4 – 6 classes. Parent ed programs run for the full school year. Seeing the same children week after week allows kids to build friendships.

Close parental involvement: Parents are always welcome in the classroom.

What are they like from the parent perspective: how do they work?

Each program works a bit differently, so check to be sure of the details, but here is the general idea:

Parent-infant Classes and Parent-Toddler Classes: Meet weekly for two hours. Every other week, the parents attend a one hour parent education session. In infant classes (for babies birth to one year old), the baby remains with the parent for parent ed. In toddler classes (for one-year-old and two-year-old toddlers), children are encouraged to play in one room with the children’s teachers and other parents while their parent attends parent ed.

Staffing and Parents’ Role: Each class is staffed by a parent educator and one or two children’s teachers. Parents provide snacks for the class on a rotating basis. Each family may bring snacks 1 – 3 times a year. Parents may also be asked to help tidy up the toys at the end of the class.

Cooperative Preschools:Three-year-olds may attend 2 or 3 days a week, four-year-olds attend 3 or 4 days a week. Typically, the parent stays with the child and works in the classroom one day per week, and the other days are “drop-off” preschool for that family. Classes may be 2 – 3 hours long.

Staffing: There is a preschool teacher, trained in early childhood education, who is responsible for planning and coordinating the children’s activities, and leading group times. A parent educator observes / consults during some class sessions, and offers a monthly parent education session plus one-on-one expert parenting advice.

Parents contribute by working in the classroom once a week. They also help with the running of the school by: providing snacks, fundraising support, helping with end-of-year cleanings, serving on the board (chair, treasurer, secretary, etc.), or as class photographer, play-dough maker, etc.

Length of program: Most classes (parent-child and coops) meet for the full school year – September through May. [Note: you may be able to enroll mid-year, if there are spaces available. Check with the programs to find out.] Some have summer programs.

What do Programs Cost?

For some programs, you pay by the month, some by the quarter, some by the year. If you look at the cost for a quarter (11 weeks) or year (33 weeks), it may look like a lot compared to other children’s activities in the community. So, to compare apples to apples, it’s best to look at it as cost-per-hour. Infant and toddler groups at our local community colleges range from $7.50 – 11.50 per hour. For comparison’s sake, here’s what a sample of other programs cost on an hourly basis:

  • Big motor activities: Gymboree $30, Gymnastics East $20, Northwest Aerials $13
  • Parent education and support: Mommy Matters $22 plus child care costs. Baby Peppers $10.
  • Art programs: Kidsquest $17 per hour. Kirkland Parks $13. Kirkland Arts Center $10.
  • Music programs: Kindermusik $22, Kirkland Parks $11. Bellevue Parks $21.

Cooperative preschools in these programs range from $7.50 – 10.00 an hour. For comparison sake:

  • Bellevue public schools, $10 per hour. Bellevue Boys & Girls Club $10. Bellevue Christian School $11. Bellevue Montessori $18. Jewish Day School $19. Villa Academy $18. Seattle Waldorf $22. Cedar Crest $24.
  • Note: most preschools have an adult/child ratio ranging from 1:6 – 1:9. At a coop, the ratio may be 1:3 or 1:4.

All the parent education programs and cooperative preschools offer scholarships to lower income families which can further reduce the cost.

What makes these programs different from other programs?

College credit and student privileges: Parent education programs are college classes, and parents receive college credit for attending. They can also receive student ID cards, which depending on the school may give access to services such as fitness center or gym access. They may also allow you to get student discounts at a wide variety of local and online businesses.

Parent Education: Experienced professional educators offer information that is current and research-based but also relevant to the day-to-day reality of parenting little ones. Topics are tailored to the age and needs of the families, but may include: daily routines, discipline, child development, early learning, nutrition, potty training, emotional intelligence, kindergarten readiness, and self-care for parents.

Individualized Advice: Parent educators and children’s teachers have the opportunity to get to know each child as an individual, and also get to know parents well. This allows them to answer questions in a highly personalized way. They can also refer on for additional services when needed.

Parent Involvement: Participating in your child’s classroom from day one encourages you to think of yourself as an active participant in your child’s learning and an advocate for them in future classrooms. You’ll know the other children and can help your child learn about them. You’ll know what happened in class, so you can later reinforce the learning. Seeing classroom activities may give you new ideas for what you can do at home to enhance your child’s development. Having the opportunity to observe other children each week helps give you a deeper understanding of child development, and seeing parents respond to their children shows you options for parenting style.

Peer Support and Long-Term Relationships: Parents meet with other parents over the course of many months, which allows for long-term connections. Working together on projects strengthens those bonds, as does the peer support gained when parents discuss and share the joys and challenges of caring for kids.

Programs offer classes for families with children from birth through age 5, so instead of having to search for new classes every month or every year, you always know where you can find a fun and educational class for you and your child.

Learn More about Programs Near You and Register Now!

Note: Classes for each school year start in September but it is best to register in spring or summer, because they do fill up!

Program Name / Website Locations * Ages Served / Programs
Bellevue College
Bellevue, Carnation, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Renton, Sammamish, Snoqualmie Birth to 7: Parent-Child (day & eve), Coops, Inventors’ Lab (formerly Dad & Me), Art & Science Enrichment. Summer
Edmonds Community College
Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Snohomish Birth to 5: Parent-Child, Coop Preschool, Summer
Green River CC. Limited info available on their website: Auburn area, birth to age 6. Learn more by searching for: Benson Hill Coop in Kent, Tahoma Coop in Maple Valley, Covington Coop, and Darcy Read in Des Moines.
Lake WA Institute of Bothell, Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool
North Seattle Community College 12 sites in Seattle, from north of ship canal to NE 145th. Vashon. Birth to 5: Parent-Child (day and evening), Coop Preschool
Seattle Central Community College.
Links to coop websites:
7 sites in Seattle: Capitol Hill, Mt. Baker, Madison Pk, Rainier Val, Queen Anne One to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool; Dad’s, Summer
Shoreline Community Shoreline, Bothell, Inglemoor (Kirkland), Woodinville Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool, summer, evening
South Seattle Community College or SCCC campus, Admiral, Alki, Arbor Heights, Lincoln Park Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool, Spanish

*Not all ages served at all sites. For example, most programs only have infant classes at one site.

Would you like to print this information for your reference or to share with a friend? Get the PDF here.

If you want more information right now about parenting, look in the “categories” section on the right hand column and click through to any topic that interests you (for example, you can read my posts about tantrums or potty training or choosing a preschool or find lyrics to songs your child will love.) To receive updates as I publish new articles, go to the right hand column and click on “like on Facebook.”

Note: this is an update of a post from 2014