Winter Fun with Little Ones

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After the intense busy-ness of the holidays, we move into the quiet, boring days of January. And in the rains of Seattle, it can be easy to feel the cabin fever of being “trapped” at home with your toddler or preschool age child. I’ve written lots of posts over the past few years on “Cheap Dates with Toddlers” – easy, fun, and cheap activities. Here’s the best ideas for winter fun:

  • Go to the playground in the winter – just bundle up and bring a towel to dry everything off! (For reviews of several Kirkland area parks, click here.)
  • Try an indoor playground – lots of large motor play with new friends, out of the rain.
  • Hike in the woods and have a nature scavenger hunt to see what you can find.
  • Take a ride on a bus or train – or on a ferry – just for the fun of the journey. (Just because you don’t think riding on a bus is exciting doesn’t mean it’s not for your child!)
  • Find a construction site and watch the work.
  • Attend library story time – they’re free, happen at several locations each week, and are great for encouraging a love of reading.
  • Go to the store – a hardware store, a grocery store, whatever – focus on sharing the experience with your child instead of on what you need to buy.
  • Wander around a rock yard looking at big rocks, and collecting a few small pebbles to bring home.
  • Go to a pet store (or as we like to call them “small animal zoos with free admission).”
  • Watch the fish at the Seattle aquarium, or even just in the small aquarium at your local Chinese restaurant.
  • Go to a dog walk, watching very happy pups is a great mood lifter.
  • Check out a sushi restaurant with a conveyor belt – just watching the food go around is great entertainment!
  • If you can find your plastic Easter eggs, you can pull them out for a fun hunt any day.
  • For lots more ideas, for songs, books, games, and crafts you can do at home, check out my “Fun with Toddlers” series, which are all focused around a theme such as ducks, farm, winter, zoo, or moon and stars.
  • Also, check out Inventors of Tomorrow, which is my blog focused on hands-on STEM activities for teaching kids about science.

If you’d like someone else to do all the planning for enriching varied activities for your child (from music to art to big motor play), check out classes sponsored by the parent education programs at our local community colleges. Great play-based learning for kids from birth to age 7, and parent education and support for you!

If you still need more ideas, then we have a fabulous resource here in Seattle. Check out parentmap.com for a never-ending supply of ideas for things to do with kids in the Puget Sound area.

Teaching Kids about Northwest Native Plants

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Once a month, our Family Inventors’ Lab meets at Robinswood Park in Bellevue. We go out for a hike in the woods, and we learn about native plants, cycles of nature, insects, habitats and more.

There are plenty of benefits to spending time outdoors, including less vitamin D deficiency, better vision, higher activity. Getting to know local plants helps your child feel more at home in their world, helps them gain a sense of competency (there’s something really fun about being able to identify all the plants they see), teaches vocabulary and science, and teaches observation skills – discerning the difference between a trailing blackberry and a Himalayan blackberry teaches your child how to observe small details, a skill which is helpful in almost all their pursuits!

We have a “plant of the month” curriculum and on this page, I’ll share the materials I’ve developed, so you can use them with your family. All of the plants can be found in most of the wooded areas and parks trails in the King County area.

  • Big Leaf Maple. (PDF)  This is the second most common tree in the Pacific NW, so it’s a great ones for kids to learn because then they can find it everywhere they go. Help them count the points on the leaves – there’s always 5. (A vine maple has many more points.) It’s great to introduce kids to a big leaf in the spring, so they can watch “their” tree go through the changes from buds in the spring, to green leaves, to fall color, to winter. Also help them find helicopter seeds to drop and let spin to the ground.
  • Blackberries. (PDF)  Get to know all your blackberry types: if it trails along the ground, and has clusters of 3 leaves, it’s Trailing Blackberry, which are native to the Northwest. If there’s a big thicket of blackberries with clusters of 5 leaves, it’s the Himalayan blackberry, an invasive species. (If you have some invading your yard, look here for tips on removal.) The Evergreen Blackberry, another non-native, looks very different from the others – its alternate name “Cut-leaf blackberry” describes its unique leaves. All these plants produce plenty of tasty edible berries from July to September.
    • This handout also includes information on Stinging Nettles, so you know to watch out for them in woods. We’re blessed in this area to have few truly dangerous plants or animals in our woods, but stinging nettles can be an annoyance.
  • Douglas Fir. (PDF) Very common throughout the Pacific Northwest. Tall trees with bare trunks for much of the height of the tree, branches full of needles up higher on the tree. Rough bark.
  • Holly. (PDF) Holly can be found in all 50 states, and is common in Christmas decorations and art, so its distinctive spiny leaves and red berries (visible in winter) are recognizable to most people. Its berries are NOT edible! They can make pets and children quite sick.
  • Indian plum. (PDF) A Northwest native flowering shrub. One of the first plants to leaf out and bloom each spring. Also called osoberry for its edible (but not tasty) berries, or skunk bush for the smell of the male flowers (you have to put your nose right up to them to smell them.
  • Ivy. (PDF) English Ivy is not native – it’s an invasive noxious weed – if you have any on your property, its best to replace it with native plants. If it’s climbing your trees, be sure to remove it. Children can easily identify ivy, and you can show them how it spreads across the ground until it finds anything vertical, then it climbs as high as it can.
  • Oregon Grape. (PDF)  Oregon grape is a native plant. Adults sometimes mistake it for holly, but your child should be able to easily learn to tell them apart. The fruit is edible, but far too tart for most people’s taste – some use it in jelly.
  • Salal. (PDF)  Salal is another native plant, with glossy green leaves, which is very common throughout our woods, and in landscaping everywhere. It also produces an edible berry that some people dry to use in cakes, or use in jelly.
  • Vinca. (PDF) A non-native evergreen. The glossy green leaves and purple flowers that bloom for much of the year make this a lovely, low maintenance ground cover.
  • Western Red Cedar. (PDF) Easily distinguished from the common Douglas fir. Branches start much lower to the ground, flat sail-like needles form spray-like branches. Very small cones. Stringy bark that can be pulled off in long strips.

This free printable Plant Guide combines all the plants listed above into one guide. Although it refers to Robinswood Park, you’ll see most of these plants on almost any hiking trail in King County.

If you’re working with a young child (3 or 4 years old), you want to focus on only one plant at a time. I’ve created postcards which show pictures of just one plant per card. Hand a card to your child to carry as  you hike through the woods, and encourage them to tell you every time they find a plant that matches that card.

Once your child is familiar with many of these plants, try challenging them with a Scavenger Hunt (PDF) – This includes pictures of 14 plants to find in the woods. (For younger kids, you could also use the postcards as a scavenger hunt challenge.)

For older kids (age 6 and up), here’s a dichotomous key they can use to try to figure out what kind of plant they see. You could also use this key as a basis for a 20 questions style game on a hike. (Learn more about 20 questions and what the game teaches here.)

If you want to check out the woods at Robinswood Park, it’s an easy park to start on with young hikers. There’s over a mile of trails, so enough to explore for a little one, but you’re never far from the parking lot. Here’s a trail map, with one of our favorite trails through the woods marked out on it.

Enjoy your hikes!

Why We Walk to School

zozowalk-to-school-posterWe live in a safe, clean, suburban neighborhood, three-quarter’s of a mile from the school where my son attends kindergarten. We walk him to and from school almost every day. I wouldn’t think this would surprise anyone. Yet, I’ve had people stop to offer me rides home, then be surprised when I say we choose to walk. I’ve had people assume we must not own a car, or are not able to drive. But no, we choose to walk.

And in the summer, we walk to swim lessons, the park, the library, and out to lunch.

Here’s why we walk [Note: I’ve also made a handout with summaries of this information, called “The Benefits of Walking Your Child to School.”]

For my son:

  • Walking to school can help my son do better in school.
    • Exercise: Kids who exercise pay better attention in school, are less moody, and have better impulse control. (Source, another source, another and another, and a final one for good measure)
    • Time in nature: Spending time outside and connecting to the natural world improves academic performance, ability to concentrate in the classroom, and improves self control. (Source, source, and more info on the benefits of nature.)
    • My son is a very active, squirrelly kid who struggles with impulse control, so I really think that our daily walk is an essential part of his success at school.
  • On our walk, there’s plenty of learning opportunities that don’t happen at school:
    • Nature: Nature provides an always-changing experience on our walks…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Yesterday, we looked at these pinecone-like seed pods (I don’t know the name of the plant), which over the past few weeks have been falling to the ground, and then slowly, gradually opening up to reveal bright red berries – we talked about how those berries probably appeal to birds who eat them, fly away, and poop them out, propagating that species of plant. Today, we found a bird leg… just the leg, which led to a conversation about what might have eaten the rest of the bird.
    • Science and Engineering: A few months ago, we got to watch the progress of digging a trench and installing drains and irrigation. Recently, we’ve seen them cut down a large tree (and we got to see the rotted out core, which showed why they’d cut it), then break up the stump, and haul it away. A new development of town homes has provided an on-going experience of the construction industry.
    • Traffic rules and navigation: We get lots of practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and knowing what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. He’s learned the names of all the streets, and learned about addresses, alternate routes, bus stops, parking rules, turn signals, and more.
  • Teaching a lifelong habit of walking instead of driving: Amongst children 5 – 15, 15% of their total trips are walking. As they get older, it’s 7 – 9%. Source  The more we turn to driving as our default mode, the more our children will do the same. We choose, instead, to role model deciding to walk whenever possible.
  • Social / Independence Benefits: For now, we get a chance to interact some with the (few) other families that walk back and forth to school along our route. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood have a “walking bus” where a group of them walk home together. This gives them a chance to connect with and socialize with these other kids, and also helps them build skills at independently navigating their world.
  • Exercise: He also gets all the health benefits of walking, as described below, plus a reduced risk of obesity.

For both of us:

  • Walking home from school together is a great chance to re-connect and catch up on all the news of the day. If we drive home, it’s about four minutes, and my mind is mostly focused on driving. Walking is more relaxed, slower paced, and doesn’t take much of my attention, so we can be much more tuned in to each other.
  • We also have a good relationship with his teacher, partially because we see her briefly every day at drop-off time and at pick-up. It often gives us the chance for that ten second check in on his day.

For me:

  • Free Exercise. When he started school this fall, and I suddenly had lots of kid-free time on my schedule, I thought of joining a gym. But, based on my past experience, I’m lousy at going to the gym, and I mostly waste the money I’m paying for a membership. Walking is free, with no expensive equipment or specialty clothing required. The only time I ever managed to go to the gym was when I had a scheduled obligation – a class I was signed up to take, or a friend I was meeting. The walk to school means a scheduled obligation twice every weekday – I gotta kid the kid to school, and I gotta pick him up.
  • Regular exercise. Plenty or research shows that more short bouts of exercise is better for our heart and our metabolism than a few long bouts. Walking him to school, dropping him off and coming home is 1.5 miles, and about 35 minutes of exercise to start my day. Then, after a day of sedentary work at my computer, I have another 35 minutes. In an average week, I walk at least 12 miles – about four-and-a-half hours of exercise.
  • Healthy Exercise:
    • Healthy for my heart: Walking improves my blood pressure and my cholesterol (Source), and reduces my risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 34-35% (Source).  It also reduces risk of diabetes. (Source)
      • “Protection [from cardiovascular events] was evident even at distances of just 5½ miles per week and at a pace as casual as about 2 miles per hour.” (Source)
    • Healthy for my brain:
      • “Nine years later, the walkers underwent brain scans, which revealed that those who had walked more had greater brain volume than those who walked less. Four years after that… 116 people showed signs of memory loss or dementia. Those who had walked the most … about 7 miles each week — were half as likely to have cognitive problems as those who walked the least.” (Source)
    • Healthy for my bones and joints:
      • “In just one mile, a typical runner’s legs will have to absorb more than 100 tons of impact force. …walkers have a much lower (1% to 5%) risk of exercise-related injuries than runners (20% to 70%).” (Source)
      • “Healthy postmenopausal women who walk approximately 1 mile each day have higher whole-body bone density than women who walk shorter distances. Walking is also effective in slowing the rate of bone loss from the legs.” (Source)
      • Note: Adding 60 seconds of high impact exercise (running, jumping jacks, jogging up stairs, or sudden backwards steps) to a walk will further strengthen your bones. (Source)
    • Reduces risk of breast and colon cancer (source). I have a family history of both.
  • Efficient use of time: For picking him up at 3:30 in the afternoon, it honestly takes the same amount of time to walk as to drive. Driving there takes about 4 minutes. But… if I want to find a space in the parking lot, I have to leave the house at 3:10. Then I sit in the parking lot for 15 minutes, then pick him up, then drive home… 35 – 40 minutes round trip, just like walking. If I’m too late for a parking space, I have to get in the giant line of cars to pick up. Again, about 35 – 40 minutes round trip. And here, my time is doing double-duty for exercise and kid pick-up.
    • “Because walking is less intensive than running, you have to walk for longer periods, get out more often, or both to match the benefits of running. As a rough guide, the current American Heart Association/American College of Sports Medicine standards call for able-bodied adults to do moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) for at least 30 minutes on five days each week or intense aerobic exercise (such as running) for at least 20 minutes three days each week. That makes running seem much more time-efficient — but if you factor in the extra warm-ups, cool-downs, and changes of clothing and shoes that runners need, the time differences narrow considerably. Add the time it takes to rehab from running injuries, and walking looks pretty good.”  (Source)
  • Time to listen to podcasts! When I’m walking alone, I get a chance to listen to some of my favorites /Filmcast, NPR Politics, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Vinyl Café, the Moth.
  • Walking also improves your mood, and reduces depression. (Source, Source)

For my marriage: My husband and I are often able to walk together in the morning. This gives us connection time with our son on the way to school, and with each other on the way home. Sometimes we use that connection to catch up on family business, sometimes to have deep conversations about how we’re doing emotionally or relationship wise, sometimes it’s catching up on politics and world news, and sometimes it’s picking each other’s brain for help solving a problem one of us is working on. Just having that slow-paced, in synch time together is a lovely way to start the day.

For the environment and my community:

  • 28% of all car trips in America are less than one mile. (Source) When people travel a distance of 1 – 3 miles, 90% use a car. (Source)  Many of these short trips are about driving kids to school or activities. And that’s hard on the environment.
    • “Emissions from cars are greatest when an engine is cold. The first few minutes when you start up and then drive your car produces the highest emissions because the emissions control equipment has not yet reached its optimal operating temperature. On a cold day a petrol car may take up to 10km [6.2 miles] to warm up and operate at maximum efficiency. One of the best ways individuals can contribute to reducing air pollution is to leave the car at home for short trips and walk instead.”  (source)
    • “Transportation accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, and passenger cars are responsible for the majority, more than 60%, of those emissions.” (Source)
    • “If a family walks to school twice a week rather than driving, they can reduce their carbon emissions by 131 pounds each year… If half of the students at an average-sized elementary school choose to walk… [saves] 36 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year…. equal to the carbon removing abilities of 1,000 trees.” (Source)
  • When we walk, we do little things to help the community: pick up litter when we see it (impressively rare on our stretch of road), move away leaves that are clogging the storm drains, fix the lost cat sign that’s falling off the pole, pick up a trash bin that was knocked over in the wind. They’re little things that take a few seconds when you’re just walking by, but would never happen if everyone drove by.

Barriers to walking to school (Source) – and how to overcome them

About 55% of children travel to school in a private car. (Source) Some of these children may live far enough away that they have the option to take a bus but are choosing to drive. But many of them are children who live within what is considered “walking distance” from a school. What stops the families from walking?

Barrier Percentage of parents
Distance to school: 61.5
Traffic-related danger: 30.4
Weather: 18.6
Crime danger: 11.7
Opposing school policy: 6.0
Other reasons (not identified): 15.0

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2005)

Distance to School

In 1969, 48% of elementary school students walked or biked to school. In 2009, it was just 13%. Yes, some of that is because fewer kids live less than a mile from their school (31% now vs. 41% in 1969). But, even amongst those who live less than a mile away, only 35% usually walk or bike now vs. 89% in 1969. (Source)

What if you don’t live in walking distance from your school? Consider parking half a mile away (or a few blocks away) and walking in! Many schools (at least in the Seattle suburbs) have walking paths through nearby neighborhoods that keep you off busy streets. (And then you won’t have to deal with the crowds in the school parking lot / the long line up of cars.)

Traffic Danger

First, it’s worth noting that a big part of the traffic load is people driving their kids to school…. “Parents driving their students to school comprise 10 to 14 percent of morning rush hour traffic (McDonald, Brown, Marchetti, & Pedroso, 2011).” If more people were walking their kids to school, there would be less traffic – especially in school zones.

Second, driving is not necessarily safer than walking. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death.

As more and more people drive, and fewer and fewer people walk, city budgets focus more on roads than on sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Be an advocate in your community for making your neighborhood pedestrian friendly!

We used to live in Bellevue, the city right next door to Kirkland. Hardly anyone walks in most parts of Bellevue. Lots of people walk in our part of Kirkland. That means that drivers in Kirkland remember to watch out for pedestrians vs. people in Bellevue don’t bother. The more people who walk, the safer it is to walk.

You can also increase safety while walking by choosing high visibility clothing for your child – like a red coat with reflective stripes instead of a black coat.

Weather. I’ll confess – Of the few times we’ve driven to or from school this year, half were for weather. I don’t mind walking in drizzle to mild rain. (I live in the Seattle area – that’s our normal everyday weather.) But this year, we’ve had some times (weird for Seattle) of POURING DOWN RAIN. One happened when we were walking back from school… by the time we got home, we had to hang the coats to dry, change our pants, shoes, and socks. I was glad that hasn’t happened on my son’s way TO school, where he wouldn’t have spare clothes to change in to. So, there are days when the weather seems too bad to walk.

But, most days, it’s just a matter of choosing appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather. My son attended outdoor preschool for two years, where he would be outside for 2.5 to 3 hours straight, so we’re used to dressing appropriately. And yes, it’s possible even if you live in a colder climate than Seattle. There’s plenty of outdoor preschools in Scandinavian countries with much colder winters. Getting good outdoor clothes can be pricey, but just think how much money you save on gas, wear and tear on your vehicle, and on a gym membership by walking!

Crime Danger: Clearly, there are neighborhoods where it is risky to walk through. (Unfortunately, those are often also the same neighborhoods where parents have no other option than having their child to walk to school.)

For the majority of American neighborhoods, the risk of crime is not that high, especially in the hours when you would walk a child to and from school. Although many people believe that the world is a “more dangerous place than it used to be”, statistics actually show that the rate of child abduction by strangers has stayed stable over the past 20+ years.

One way to increase safety is to travel in a group. Some neighborhoods organize a walking train, where there’s an adult “engine” leading the way, and an adult “caboose” at the end, making sure all the kids in the middle stay safe.

School Policies: Some schools place limits on children walking to school, or on children arriving at school unaccompanied. If this is true of your school, talk to the administration to learn more, learn what the options are, and advocate for any change you believe would be beneficial to the families at your school.

Physical condition: Although this wasn’t in the top 5 issues in the survey, I imagine this is a barrier for many. My husband’s foot was injured for the past few weeks by too many dance performances in a short period, so he had to take a few weeks off from our walk. But, if you have physical limitations, walking may actually be one of your best ways to get active. I have one leg and use crutches to walk, and walking on the sidewalk works great for me, but treadmills, ellipticals, and lots of other specialized exercise equipment is completely unusable for me. For my parents, who are 80-something, walking and going up and down stairs are the main exercises they are still able to do. If your physical condition prohibits long walks, can you fit in a few short walks outdoors each week with your child?

Schedule: Sometimes a parent’s work schedule means that walking is not feasible. For example, a few mornings each month, I need to be at work across town 20 minutes after I drop off my child at school. I have to drive on those days, because I don’t have time to walk back home and pick up my car, and then drive. If this is your situation, ask your manager whether there’s any possibility of making a slight adjustment to your work schedule, or consider talking to neighbors about a walk-pool / walking bus, where you take turns being the grown-up walking the kids to or from school.

What do YOU do? What could you do?

I’d like to hear from others… do you walk your child to school and other activities? If so, why – what are your favorite benefits? If not, why not – what are your barriers?

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

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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 https://gooddayswithkids.com/2014/08/14/10-types-of-toys/
  • 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…

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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.

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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

overview

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.

ToolBox

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:

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Some are a little more rickety and haphazard.

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

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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.

sawing

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.

nails

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.