Author Archives: Janelle Durham

About Janelle Durham

I teach Discovery Science Lab and Family Inventors' Lab, STE(A)M enrichment classes in Bellevue, Washington for ages 3 - 9. I am also a parent educator for Bellevue College, a childbirth educator for Parent Trust for Washington Children, former program designer for PEPS - the Program for Early Parent Support, a social worker, and mother of 3 kids - age 26, 22, and 9.)

Keys to Brain Development

In the first five years of life, a child’s brain grows from 25% the size of an adult’s brain at birth to 92% the size of an adult’s brain. All that growth comes from making connections – connections built through hands-on, multi-sensory experiences of their world. There are several ways parents can support their children’s growth and development. This video gives a quick summary, and I’ll give more details below.

Novelty – New Experiences

The parent can provide a diverse array of new experiences. These don’t have to be fancy, they don’t have to be expensive, they don’t have to be based on advanced scientific research. These are just the everyday experiences of life. Just simple activities like going for a walk, looking at the clouds, stomping in puddles, touching a slug, coming home and making hot chocolate together, snuggling up on the couch with a good book, playing with blocks, then drawing pictures. Any new experience builds connections in a child’s brain.

And if you don’t have the energy to think of something new to do, try putting together two familiar things in a new way, and see what your child does differently. For example, take the rubber duckies from the bathtub and put them with the Duplos, or take the colander from the kitchen to the bathtub. Your child will be delighted by the new possibilities. Learn more about “invitations to play.”

I have a whole collection of easy free activities with toddlers to get you inspired. (Not all are do-able in the coronavirus era, but most are.) Everything from “nature shopping” to “counting cars”, from “construction theater” to year-round egg hunts.

I want to encourage my child’s growth in all diverse knowledge and skills. I find it helpful to think about categories of development – have we done anything today to build large motor skills? What about fine motor skills? I also find the theory of multiple intelligences to be a helpful guide to inspiring new ideas – have we tried out any music today? And spatial challenges? Here’s an article I wrote on choosing toys and activities for toddlers that build multiple intelligences.

I do encourage you to offer your child lots of learning opportunities, but please don’t feel like you have to be doing a non-stop song and dance, tossing new things into the ring continuously. That would be exhausting for you! But it could also teach your child that the only way to be happy is to be continually entertained with new things. They would also be missing out on the full depth of possible learning if you did this and ignored the next two keys to brain development: repetition and down time.

Repetition – Doing it Again and Again Builds Mastery

Doing something for the first time makes a connection. Doing it again strengthens that connection. Doing it again in a different setting strengthens that connection and also makes connections to this new setting. Combining that activity with another deepens understanding. Think of a child learning to walk – they fall again and again until the a-ha moment happens. But then they still stumble and wobble along for a while. But the more they walk, the better they get at it. Or think of anyone learning an instrument – we don’t become expert by going to a class once a week. To become a skilled musician requires playing those same scales again and again till you reach mastery.

Don’t rush them. If they’re just barely starting to understand something and you push them onward, they’ll have a shaky foundation for future learning. For example, if you have a child who has just barely learned to count to three, don’t feel like you have to rush them on to 4, 5, 6… 10… 100. Let them stay at three for a while – really exploring three, getting to the point where they can tell at a glance if they have three objects or more than that or less than that. If you can do this, your child will have such a solid understanding of the fundamentals of math, everything later on will make more sense.

When my oldest kids were little, I probably over-did the novelty. I felt like I continuously had to provide new experiences. My oldest child resisted transitions so much, and looking back, I think a big part of it was that he was always feeling forced to move on before he was ready. By the time my third child came along, I had learned a lot about the importance of repetition for brain development, so I was willing to let him do things again and again. It’s a good thing, because that little boy has deep passions and wants to immerse himself in the same things for weeks or months on end.

But with him, I saw clear evidence of everything the research says about repetition and also about following a child’s interests. When he was wild about dinosaurs, we could teach everything else he needed to learn in that context – we could teaching counting, and colors, and music and art, all focused on dinosaurs. When he had the chance to do something again and again, he developed so much self-esteem in seeing himself as a competent learner. Whenever he was feeling anxious about anything else, returning to this familiar territory helped get him grounded and feeling capable, then he could take on new challenges.

There is a concept called Schemas of Play, which addresses how children tend to be working on a few key ideas at any given time. They might be exploring: Trajectory – kicking and throwing balls, or Transportation – carrying things everywhere, or Connecting – assembling puzzles. They may repeat the same activity over and over, but know that they are learning important concepts by doing that. Check out some ways to support your child’s schemas of play.

Down Time – to Process it All

Children need rest. It is during sleep that we build myelin sheaths that insulate our nerve pathways, helping us access information more quickly and efficiently apply that knowledge to new situations. (Nutrition is also important. To build myelin, they also need a diet with plenty of healthy fats, like fish oils, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and whole milk. Learn more about nutrition for growing brains.)

They need down time – time to putter around the house “doing nothing.” Time to play aimlessly. Time to “waste time.” When they don’t appear to be doing anything, it may be because they are processing all the new learning they’ve been experiencing, and they need time to take it all in and incorporate it.

Don’t feel like you have to constantly entertain your child. When they are “bored” is when they may come up with some of their most creative ideas. They might make connections between things on their own. I remember once my daughter, who was 5 at the time, was complaining about how bored she was. I told her “I need to finish this work… figure out what to do for 15 minutes, OK?” My work took longer than expected, and when I went to find her 45 minutes later, she had all the toy horses arrayed on the table, and proceeded to tell me all their names, ranks and how they were related: “Princess Snowy is getting married to Duke Blaze – he is from a different kingdom where his sister… ” She’d created this whole complex imaginary play world, which she would never have done if I was hovering over her guiding her play.

I think it can feel tricky to find the right balance between feeling like we should introduce novelty and guide learning and knowing when to step back and let them explore on their own. It could be something as simple as having a bedtime story routine – each night, we read two stories – one for novelty, one for repetition, and then I let my child look at books on her own for a few minutes before turning off the light. (Here’s more about choosing books for your child.)

Read this article on How Much is Enough, How Much is Too Much which looks at questions like how many toys to buy, how many activities to schedule, and how screen time fits in.

Check out my past writing on brain development, which includes more about the science of brain development.

Choosing Books for Your Child

We know that children learn through novelty and repetition. Through being exposed to new experiences and new ideas and by being given the chance to do those activities and explore those ideas over and over again. Books are one place this can play out. When my children were young, we always read two books at bedtime. My child gets to choose one and I choose the other. Children will often have a favorite of the moment, and that’s great! Reading that same book over and over gives them the learning benefits of repetition. I can then make sure we’re reading one new book each night to balance that with novelty. Or, if they’re always seeking new books because they’re “bored” of the old ones, I can return to one we’ve read before, reading it slowly and finding new things to point out in it and new things to talk about, teaching the depth of understanding that can come through literature at all ages.

We read a few hundred kids’ books a year at that rate. And yet… our family only owns about 20 children’s books, carefully curated from those hundreds I’ve read. We only buy and keep the most special of them all. This is better for our budget, better for the environment, and also helps to avoid the overstimulation of a house full of too much stuff. So, how do we access all those great books?

Your Local Library

We make extensive use of our local library. When my kids are little, we always have ten library books in the house per kid. We go to the library once a week – we take back any books we’re done with, but keep the ones that we still want to read. Some weeks we bring back ten and take home our ten for novelty. Other weeks, only one or two books exchange as we keep reading and re-reading the current favorites. We are blessed with one of the best library systems in the country, where we can peruse the library catalog online, choose our favorite books and put them on hold – within a few days, the books are delivered to our local branch for a quick pickup. But even in a small library system, there’s plenty of children’s books to read!

Online Library Resources

There are several libraries of online children’s e-books. We can access Libby, Hoopla, Tumble Book Library and BookFlix for free through our library (For King County folks, learn how at: https://kcls.org/resources-types/ebooks-format/). And we can access Sora through our public school system. Check with your local library to see if you can do that. Or, some apps also have paid options, covered on their sites.

Hoopla is a digital media service offered by public libraries that allows users to borrow movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows to stream or download for free. Over 1500 library systems in the US and Canada subscribe to Hoopla. Go to www.hoopladigital.com and click on “get started” to find out if your library offers it. Here’s some of the STEM resources on Hoopla. I like that you can set Hoopla to “kids’ mode” on your computer so it only offers kid-appropriate materials.

Epic Books

This is a subscription service – $9.99 per month for a library of 40,000 e-books, including picture books, read-to-me and audio books. I have not explored it, but it looks good.

Online Reviews and Samples

When I’m looking for a new book to read for a class, I make extensive use of online reviews, such as those on Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes and Noble. As with all online reviews, I take them with a grain of sand. Sometimes something that troubles one reviewer is a plus for me. And sometimes a book they say didn’t appeal to their child for a particular reason might lead me to think it’s the perfect book for my kid! But reviews give you a good sense of what to expect.

On Amazon, many books have a “look inside” feature that lets you check out a few pages. I find this especially helpful for assessing reading level. Sometimes their age guidelines say one thing, and then I look at the sample text, and I think it’s better for a different developmental level than they suggest.

YouTube

If there’s a book you want to try out, search for it on YouTube. For example, search of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar read-aloud”. You’ll find LOTS of videos of people reading the book aloud and showing the pictures. Some of these videos are excellent quality. Some are not – sometimes it’s hard to see the pictures well, some folks are not enjoyable narrators to listen to. But it’s a good way to check out a book to see if you like it enough to get your own copy. I have also used these videos when teaching online classes – I mute the audio track and read along, using my own voice.

I think it’s important to note that while some publishers and authors have given permission for the use of their books in this way, many of these videos are a violation of the copyright of the author. Please do support authors by buying the best of these books.

Where to Buy

If you’re looking for just any kids’ books, you can often find them cheap at garage sales, thrift shops, and used book stores. Or, check to see if you have a local Buy Nothing group or similar group on Facebook in your area.

When you are looking to purchase a specific book new, consider purchasing through your local, independent bookstore. You can often call and place an order and they’ll have it waiting for you when you arrive. If they don’t have it in stock, they can order it for you. You can also check out Book Riot’s list of independent bookstores around the country, many of which will ship books anywhere, or check out IndieBound, where you can choose to shop directly from them but some of the proceeds are sent to independent bookstores, or you can choose “shop local” to be transferred to your local store’s website to complete the purchase. Shopping locally benefits your local community, reduces the environmental impact of shipping, and supports jobs in your community.

If you do choose to purchase at Amazon, consider either:

  1. Use Amazon Smile where a portion of the profits are donated to a charity of your choice – at no extra cost to you.
  2. Follow an affiliate link. Many bloggers (like me) use affiliate links in their book recommendation lists. If you follow that link, then purchase any product on Amazon, that blogger gets a small referral fee – at no extra cost to you. It’s a good way to support people whose work you find helpful. So, pick your favorite blog that uses affiliate links, and bookmark it, and anytime you want to shop at Amazon, go through that link.

Recommended Books

I include lots of book recommendations on my blogs! Here are links to several of those resources:

Can Online Preschool Work?

pexels-photo-3975663

Lots of early childhood programs are moving online for fall of 2020. When parents hear that toddler classes or preschools are meeting online, they may have questions about whether it could be an effective method for learning. It is definitely not the same as in-person learning, and we would rather be in-person, hands-on, with lots of happy children interacting in the same room. However, there are lots of great benefits still to be gained in an online preschool or toddler program.

  • Routines: having a predictable activity in your weekly schedule helps to keep them (and you) oriented to external schedules even in coronavirus haze. It provides an event to look forward to and reflect on.
  • Other Faces and Voices: seeing other children and a teacher can be delightful, your child will learn by observing their peers, class can also expose them to diversity and broaden their world, plus we know that children learn language better when they hear a wide variety of adult speakers.
  • A Listening Ear: for classes where they offer sharing time, children will have someone else to share their exciting ideas with, and will have a chance to practice their expressive language skills
  • A Chance to Practice Manners and Classroom Skills: one of the important aspects of an early childhood experience, whether that’s story time at the library, Sunday school at church, or preschool is that children get to practice sitting still, listening to someone else, participating in a group activity, and taking turns – they can practice all these things in an interactive call on Zoom.
  • Learning New Things: whatever the content of the class – music, stories, dance, art, or science, your child can easily learn new ideas from an online teacher, and if you’re listening in, you can reinforce the learning much more effectively than you could have reinforced what they were taught at a drop-off preschool.
  • New Inspiration: your child will get new ideas and you will get new ideas for things to try out at home and explore and learn from – you don’t have to feel responsible for coming up with all the learning ideas on your own.

Here is a handout where I offer lots of tips on help child succeed on Zoom and get the most benefit from an online program.

Parent Ed Programs Fall 2020

In the Seattle / King County area, one of the best resources for families is the parent education programs offered by our community colleges. They serve families with children from birth to age 5 or beyond. With parent-baby classes, parent-toddler classes, cooperative preschools and enrichment classes, they offer great hands-on, play-based, developmentally appropriate programs that enhance child development in all areas: large motor, fine motor, music, art, social-emotional, language, and problem-solving skills. They offer research-based parent education on child development and parenting skills. They offer a community of connected, caring, supportive families and staff. (Learn more about parent ed programs here.)

In Fall 2020, these programs will continue to serve our community. Some are going completely online for fall; some will offer outdoor-only programs; or indoor programs with small cohorts and hygiene protocols; or a hybrid of these options.

If you’re wondering about whether online classes can work for little ones, check out this post on Benefits of Online Preschool. And if you want to help your young child get the most out of an online class, check out Help Your Child Succeed on Zoom.

With coronavirus stay-at-home measures, many parents are feeling isolated, and feeling pressured to be all things to their child: parent, teacher, and playmate. They may worry that their child will miss out on developmental experiences and learning opportunities. Parent education programs can help!! We are all working hard to create the best possible support for parents and for their children’s learning and I encourage all parents to seek out a class.

Plans for Fall 2020

Here’s what I was able to learn about each programs’ plans.

Note: I work for Bellevue College, so am in the loop on plans there. For all other programs, I only know what they put on their websites. If I write “no info”, that means that on August 19, when I did a quick look at their website (home page and 1 – 2 other pages), I saw no information related to coronavirus or how that would affect their schedule for fall 2020. Check their websites for  the most current data.

Note: if you have updates for any of these programs, contact me at janelled at live.com.

Young Children and Zoom

a child looking at a mobile device

I don’t think the developers at Zoom (or Skype or Microsoft Teams) realized that their software would become a platform for parent-toddler classes and online preschool!

And all the parents who used to try to minimize screen time for their young children now find they need to utilize it as their child’s primary way to connect to people outside their household. How do we make the experience as rich and as developmentally appropriate as we can?

These tips can be helpful whether you’re a parent planning a call between your child and their grandparent, or you’re a preschool teacher planning a class for a dozen kids.

Before the Call

Choose a good time of day when the child is relaxed and attentive.

It doesn’t have to be a long call and a big deal – it’s fine to do short calls. A few minutes here and there is great for some kids. On the other hand, it’s also fine to have long calls. I know one family in Seattle where the grandmother in China “comes for breakfast” every day (before grandma turns in for the night.) She “sits at the table” with them, and chats as the parents get ready for the day.

Before the call, gather anything you’ll want to use during the call: books, instruments, and show & tell items so that no one has to step away from the computer during the call – that might cause the child to lose interest.

Prepare the child. Talk about what will happen and how long the visit will be. Remind them who they will be speaking to and what they talked about last time.

Consider staying nearby. Young children may be best able to engage with a zoom call if they’re sitting on their parent’s lap or the parent is sitting beside them. (Note, some organizations, like Outschool, require that adults be off camera, but when I teach preschool age children on Outschool, I find that the children who do best in class often have an adult right next to them. Once children have done several classes, they no longer need that active support, and you may be able to step away and get things done while they’re on a call.)

Teach them to un-mute. The host can mute the child, but the child has to know how to un-mute. There are a few choices: if you have a touch screen, the easiest may be to teach them to tap the bottom corner of the screen to bring up the command bar, then tap on the mic icon. Or: moving the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen and clicking on the microphone (this can be hard for little ones), pressing alt-a, or holding down the space bar (note: as soon as they let go of the space bar they return to muted.)

Over time, help your child learn Zoom skills to be more independent in the call: how to mute, how to chat, how to use the reactions like clapping, how to share screen. How to place a call. Help them understand what’s happening when their screen buddy “freezes.”

During the Call

Have familiar rituals – perhaps the same greeting each time, or the same song each time – these cues help a young child to remember who they’re speaking to and reconnect.

The remote person should speak slowly and clearly. The person in the room with the child can repeat questions and comments from either side, as needed.

The remote person should look directly at the camera – this will feel like eye contact to the child. Don’t be tempted to look at other distractions while talking. Use a lot of gestures, body language, and big facial expressions – it’s much more engaging.

Stay unmuted as much as possible so everyone in the call can hear each other and feel as though they’re in the same room.

Consider using a mobile device like a tablet or laptop so you can move around and show each other new things.

Some children focus better if eating a snack while talking – for others, that is distracting. Some children focus better if they have some simple toys nearby to hold in their hands and play with during the call. Others may find that distracting.

Let the child know when the call is nearing its end, and make a clear ending. (Maybe a song, or a story, or something to signal the ending.) Talk about when you’ll “meet” again.

Making Video Chats Interactive

Here are ideas for interactive activities to try out:

  • Play Peek a Boo. Normal style, or by covering the camera and uncovering it.
  • Read Stories. If you have a physical copy of a book, you can hold it up and read it, or scan in pictures and share those, or find a YouTube of a read aloud book, but mute their video, and read it with your voice.
  • Sing Songs. With audio lag you can’t sing in unison or it sounds awful. But you CAN take turns singing.
  • Silly Faces. Take turns – who can make the silliest face? (Spotlight them.)
  • Pretend to Be – Take turns pretending to be different animals, or whatever.
  • What is My Stick? Hold up a stick. Demonstrate how it could be a fishing pole, or a baseball bat. Try a few more and ask them to guess what it is.
  • Use Props. Puppet shows can be fun!
  • Make Art Together. Get out art supplies on each end, and draw pictures together. Hold them up to the camera from time to time to share your work.
  • Show and Tell – each person brings an item to show to people and to talk about.
  • Play Guessing Games.
  • Share a travelogue – each person takes pictures of their day, and shares it with the other on the next call.
  • Dance Party. Put on some music and dance!! (Learn how to make music work well on Zoom.)
  • Talent Show – Take turns demonstrating special talents you have: telling jokes, crazy dances, singing songs, patting your head and rubbing your belly…
  • Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “
  • Would you Rather? “would you rather ______ or _______”
  • I Spy: Do a google search for “I spy pictures.” Choose one, then share your screen and play I Spy together.
  • Play Simon Says.
  • Play Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and other pencil and paper games on the Zoom whiteboard.
  • Guess How Many. Person A fills a container with objects (20 pennies? 30 mini marshallows?) and shows it to Person B. They have to guess how many objects there are, then they count them together. On the next call it’s B’s turn.
  • Scavenger Hunt. Name an object – they run and find it in the house and bring it back.
  • Find the Hidden Object. The remote adult can conspire with the in-house adult. The in-house adult hides an object before the call. During the call, the remote adult can give clues to help the child find the treasure.
  • Pretend to Share Snacks. Plan ahead and have both of you have the same food to eat together. Make it a fancy tea party if you’d like.
  • Go on a walktogether”. Share what you see.
  • Go on a field trip “together.” Lots of zoos, aquariums, and museums have created virtual field trips or have “panda-cams” and such. Go on one together by sharing your screen and talking about what you see. You could also do virtual tourism together. My mother-in-law has found a whole world of “virtual walking tours” and goes for walks all over the world every day in her living room.
  • Watch movies together. Share a screen and talk as you watch.
  • For older children (elementary on up), there’s lots more ideas here: https://janelledurham.com/games-interaction-on-zoom/.

I also like this suggestion from Zero to Three: “Be the “hands and heart” of the the person on-screen. When the screen partner “tickles” your baby’s tummy, give your child’s tummy a tickle, too. When a grandparent leans toward the screen to “kiss” your toddler, you can give him a kiss on the cheek. By taking this role, you help nurture the relationship between the child and their on-screen friend.”

Long Distance Babysitters

During the coronavirus stay-at-home time, many parents have been with their children 24/7 for a long time with few breaks. You can use a video chat as a “babysitter” to get you a break. Have your child talk with grandpa, or an aunt, or a friend while you rest. If you have a very young child, you may need to be in the same room but at least the child’s attention is captured by someone else. For older children, you may be able to be elsewhere in the house, and let your child know where to find you. I know some parents of elementary age kids who will go for a walk in the neighborhood while their child is online and the remote person has their cell phone number and can reach them immediately if needed.

Internet Safety

This blog is primarily aimed at parents of kids age 1 to 6, so I assume the parents are nearby during video calls, and keeping their eyes and ears on what is happening. If you have an older child who may be making video calls independently to friends, here are some helpful safety tips: https://www.protectyoungminds.org/2019/02/19/11-safe-video-chat-rules-you-probably-havent-taught-your-kids/.

Audio Quality

If the person on the other end seems to have a hard time hearing you: Figure out whether you need to add an external microphone to make your child audible (especially if they’re speaking with an older person whose hearing isn’t what it used to be). Children tend to have quiet voices and may be hard to hear over a video chat if the internal mic on your device isn’t great. Plus they wiggle around a lot and don’t always stay near the mic. You can test your mic – use the “voice recorder” app on your computer and record your child talking, then play it back. If you can hear it with your speakers at any setting, it’s fine. But if you can only hear the recording if you crank your speakers up to 80 or 90 out of 100, then consider buying a mic. (I wish I had a great recommendation – I love my Samson Meteor but it’s an old model and pricier than it should be. The Samson Go might be a good alternative. FYI, that’s an affiliate link – I do get a small referral bonus if you click on it and then buy something from Amazon.)

Resources

Here are some of the sources I used when writing this.

What the research tells us about developmental impacts of video chat vs. other screen time for kids: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/10/03/496362094/could-video-chats-be-good-for-your-infant

More about managing screen time during coronavirus time: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2020/05/22/screen-time-in-coronavirus-time/

If you need a tutorial to the basics of how to use Zoom, or any of the advanced features of Zoom, check out my Guide to Zoom.

And, to get a break from the screen: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2020/03/26/connecting-to-outdoors-during-coronavirus/