Kids Do Well If They Can

To resolve problem behavior in children, first attempt to figure out why the behavior is happening. A key question to ask yourself is: are they capable of behaving better? Dr. Ross Greene argues that “if your child could do well, he would do well… If your child had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he wouldn’t be exhibiting challenging behavior.”

Let’s contrast this “kids do well if they can” idea with another common philosophy, which Greene calls “kids do well if they wanna.”

Kids Do Well if They Wanna

If a child is not doing well, this model assumes that it’s because they don’t want to do well. So, that implies that the parent/teacher’s primary job is to make him want to do well. Typically that would lead to rewarding the behaviors you like, or punishing the behaviors you don’t like. If you’re right and he IS capable of doing it, then this may work. If he’s not capable of doing well, all the rewards and punishment won’t change that. The problem behavior might not improve or might even get worse.

Under this model, you first ramp up the punishment, and if it still doesn’t work, you may decide his behavior is fully intentional… maybe he’s trying to manipulate you or get attention or test limits or maybe he’s just lazy and unmotivated. If you start assuming this kid is a bad kid who intentionally misbehaves, his behavior will not improve.

Kids Do Well If They Can

What happens if we instead assume that kids want to do well, but sometimes they aren’t yet able to? Here, the parent/teacher’s primary job is to figure out what’s getting in his way and how to help him get past it.

Instead of jumping ahead to fix the behavior, first figure out what the core issue is. What’s hard for them? Think about the environments / situations where the challenging behavior appears. What are the stressors in that environment and how could you reduce them? What skills are they lacking that would help them to be successful there? How can you teach those crucial skills? What unmet needs in the child might be causing this behavior? Can you address those?

Here’s a nice infographic (source: https://self-reg.ca/infographics/ ) that summarizes these models.

reframe-behaviour-growth-mindset-edition

Learn a lot more about this idea, and about Greene’s model at https://www.livesinthebalance.org/walking-tour-parents which includes several helpful videos of Dr. Greene sharing his ideas.

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What’s the Best Summer Camp?

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Each year around this time, parents start asking me about summer camp. They want to know which are the best ones. Just like with choosing preschool, I can’t give you a simple answer to that. Because it all depends on what your needs or goals are.

So, I recommend that before you look at camps, you first answer these questions for yourself.

Needs

What are your basic logistical needs?

  • Scope: Do you need full-time care all summer while you work? Or full-time care for a few weeks out of the summer so you can focus on adult projects those weeks? Or part-time enrichment camps every day that leave the afternoons for free play? I’ve also heard of families that when they visit the grandparents, they enroll the children in a part-time day camp, which may be more fun than hanging out at the grandparents house all day, and allow the adults some time to do adult activities.
  • Schedule: What time would it work for you to drop off? What time can you pick up? Realistically what works with your needs?
  • Location: I’ve often enrolled my kids in camps that are quite a ways from home. (Like wilderness camps and farm camps that were both about 40 minutes from our house.) It works for me, because my work is portable, so I just bring my laptop and while they’re at camp, I sit at nearby parks or coffee shops and get my work done. But you may prefer to stick closer to home or your workplace.
  • Cost: Costs range a lot! And it’s hard to compare costs between camps, as some camps are 5 hours long, some 6, some 7…  For example, even within the Bellevue Parks department, for a 7 year old, the hourly cost could be anywhere between: $9 per hour for theater camp or ballet camp to $11.50 for Lego/STEM to $22 per hour for pottery camp (high materials cost, I’m assuming.) If you need full-time care, the hourly cost matters. If you’re just looking for an activity focus for the week, and don’t necessarily need 6 – 8 hours of child care, maybe the total cost is more important. The Lego camp is $400 a week (9 – 4 each day), and the pottery camp is $242 a week (10 am – 12:30 pm).
  • Age requirements. There are plenty of camps for kids age 6 – 12. It’s harder to find camps for little ones, and if you do, they tend to be EITHER full-time child care OR very short – a few hours at a time. Versus camps for older kids can have a wide range of schedules.

Goals

The next question is what are your goals for having a child attend summer camp?

  • Is it just about child care while working? You may choose to have them attend the same camp every week all summer because having that routine is easiest for you.
  • Is it about summer fun? You may choose lots of camps that emphasize being outdoors and playing, or may send your kid to the same camps their buddies are going to so they have built-in friends.
  • If you want to expose your child to lots of different skills and activities to broaden their life experience, you may choose to dabble through a: farm camp, wilderness camp, theatre camp, art camp, science camp, and multi-sports camp all in one summer.
  • Is there something you want your child to learn that you aren’t able to teach? You may choose that opportunity.
  • Do you want a church-based camp, or a scouting camp?
  • Or do you want a family camp that you can ALL attend together?

Each family may have unique goals for each child.

Limitations: You should also keep in mind if your child has limits to what they can do. My youngest is autistic. He’s also very bright, so he can do so well at a camp that the staff  never realizes his challenges. But he has limits… and when he passes those limits, he has giant meltdowns. So, he does best when I enroll him in half day camps, not full day, and when he is one of the oldest kids in the program rather than one of the youngest so the social/emotional expectations are set at a lower developmental level. Know your child, and choose camps that set them up for success. (Note: there are camps that offer a few sessions each summer that are sensory friendly and have higher staffing levels, and there are also specialty camps that are solely for kids on the spectrum and that really focus on social/emotional skills – those can be a good match for some families’ needs.)

Research your options

Check out your parks department, and those in neighboring cities. Check the Boys & Girls Club, Campfire, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They tend to offer LOTS of different camps, in lots of interest areas and locations and may be fairly affordable options.

Your city may have a summer camp fair (in the Seattle area, ParentMap sponsors four or five camp fairs in February and March where you can discover lots of options for summer camps. Check ads in local parenting magazines – but keep in mind that there are lots more great programs that can’t afford to advertise, so also check out word-of-mouth recommendations. Ask your friends, family, parents of your kids’ friends, and parents at the playground about what camps they have loved (or not).

Once you’ve collected names of interesting options, you can do your research online to learn more. Look at their websites and Facebook pages, and also search to see what else other people say about them online. (Always remember with online reviews, the people most likely to submit a review are the ones who are mad about a bad experience – anger motivates action. The second most likely are the ones who had unusually amazing experiences they want to share. But there may be 100’s of other people who had good experiences who don’t get around to posting reviews.)

Questions to Ask

Things to look for when you’re researching your options:

  • What is the typical schedule for the day?
  • How much is structured activity and how much is free play?
  • What activities does your child participate in?
  • How many children attend? What is their adult to child staff ratio?
  • What experience / training do those adults have? (Note: the vast majority of staff at ALL summer camps are college students, age 17 – 22 or so, with one or two years of summer camp experience.)
  • What backup staff is available in case unexpected challenges arise at a camp site? You may not be able to find this info online, but it’s helpful if they do have this. (I had one camp we went to the first week of their season and it was the first year they’d used that site and the young, inexperienced staff faced some unexpected challenges without experienced folks on-site to back them up… they got there, but it took them a while – I’m now inclined to choose long-established camps for the beginning of the summer, and save those “start-up” experiences for later in the summer when they’ve worked out the bugs.)
  • Do they have an indoor option in case of weather problems (too wet, or too hot)? I don’t find this a necessity but there was a parent who I talked to last year who was outraged that a camp her child attended did not have an indoor option for a hot, sunny day.

After you go through this process, you’ll have a lot better idea of what you’re looking for in a good summer camp. And one of the nice things about summer camps is that they’re only one week long. It’s a lot less pressure than choosing a school for a full school year. I figure it’s easy to just try it out for a week, and if it’s great, we return every year, if it’s not, it’s a learning experience we move on from.

Camps We Have Liked

Sometimes when I offer parents ‘more questions to ask’ instead of answers to their questions, that can be frustrating for them. So, here are some answers to what I think of as some of the “best” summer camps my kids have attended over the years. (All on the Eastside of Seattle metro / King County)

These are  my personal experiences as a parent, not representative of the views of my employers (Bellevue College and Parent Trust for Washington Children.)

My logistical needs for location, cost and schedule were always fairly flexible, so I was able to prioritize my goals of broad learning experiences for my kids. I put them in part-time summer camps most weeks of each summer, because I find I’m the best parent to my kids when I have a few hours to myself each day to work on my projects – that energizes me to come back for a great afternoon with them – going on hikes, swimming, picnics, and more.

My older kids did some fabulous camps that I haven’t revisited with my youngest, so I don’t have current info on them. But when my kids attended these camps (between about 1998 and 2013), they were fabulous:

  • Wolf Camp – a wilderness skills camp. Day camp for ages 6 – 11 in Issaquah or Puyallup. Overnight camps for age 9 – 17 around Washington State.
  • Shoo Fly Farm – a day camp which captures everything you would imagine summer childhood on a farm to include – take care of and play with farm animals, making butter and jam, tie-dyeing, and swinging on a tire swing. Registration tends to fill early!! (For 2019, their camps were full by the end of January.)
  • DigiPen Academy – their Project Fun camps for k-12 teach programming skills for video game development. My oldest child did them as a teenager. (He’s now a paraeducator. My middle child who did fashion design camps is now a software developer… it’s interesting how our kids turn out!)
  • Stone Soup Theatre Camp in Seattle, for ages 5 – 15.
  • Columbia Gorge Theatre Camp. Overnight camp in Portland area, for ages 10 – 18. A huge formative part of both my older kids’ lives, not just their theatre skills. Love it!

Here are camps that my younger child has attended recently and enjoyed (most are camps my older kids also went to years ago.)

  • Studio East. (Also a huge part of our family’s history!) Theatre camps for ages 4 – 19, held at multiple locations in Kirkland. Kids spend a really fun week learning dance, music, lines, and more, and put on a show at the end of the week. Theatre education is great not just for learning theatre but also for social skills and teamwork. They really encourage creativity and include kids’ ideas in the experience.
  • Pacific Science Center camps. We’ve tried lots of science camps. PacSci’s are the best, I think, for science learning. They offer lots of themes, in multiple locations throughout King County. Staff is well-trained, and curriculum well-developed. PreK through grade 8. What I don’t love – they’re pretty indoors and pretty structured for a summer camp experience. And, all their camps for my son’s age (2-3 grade) are full day (either 8:45 – 3:30 or 8:45 – 4.) That’s simply more than my kid can handle. So, he tends to make it through Monday to Wednesday of a PacSci camp, starts melting down on Thursday and on Friday they ask me to take him home partway through the day. I love that they’re starting to note “sensory-friendly” camps on their schedule that are a better match for kids with autism or sensory issues. I wish they’d realize that a shorter schedule would also help. (With optional extended day for the parents who need full-day care.)
  • Wilderness Awareness. Day camps for ages 4 – 13, overnights for 11 – 18. Day camps in Kenmore, Issaquah, Seattle, and Carnation. Nature games, story-telling, songs, hikes in the woods, animal tracking, and more.  Camp Terra at Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon is supposed to be fabulous, but we’ve not been able to attend yet.
  • Pedalheads. Because of my disability, I’m not able to teach my son to ride a bike, so I love having a bike camp option. They offer everything from 60 minute long camps for 2 – 3 year old beginning riders to full day camps for older kids with strong skills. I know many parents who had a 5 or 6 year old who started the week not knowing how to ride, and was riding independently by the end of the week. My son went for one week at age 5 and ended that week still on training wheels. He went for a week at age 6, he could just barely ride without training wheels. But he still had a great time both weeks. Pedalheads also offers a Heroheads sports camp he has taken twice and greatly enjoyed. (The photo at the top was taken there.)
  • Skyhawks offers many sports camps at many sites. Many are focused on a single sport, but I really like their multi-sports camp. Although we’re a physically active family, we don’t really play team sports, so I like that my son gets to spend a couple weeks each summer being trained in baseball, basketball, and soccer skills so that if a buddy on a playground asks him to play he at least has a clue.
  • Family Camp. With my older kids, we thought about attending a family camp, like the YMCA camps at Camp Orkila and Colman, or Cascades Camp, or North Cascades Institute. But, we never did. Then, four years ago, we started attending Eliot, a week-long family camp for Unitarian Universalists. Partway through that first week, I looked at my partner and said “I guess we know what we’ll be doing for one week every July from now on.” It is a joy to spend a week at camp, singing, tie-dyeing, dancing, listening to Harry Potter under a tree, swimming in the lagoon, and re-connecting with people we see every year at camp, who range in age from birth to 90-something. We love family camp!
  • Some cooperative preschools (like Pine Lake Coop preschool) will offer a few summer camps each summer for ages 3 – 5. These can be especially helpful for young ones who are just about to start drop-off preschool or kindergarten to get them used to being without you at class.

New Camp: Mercer Island is offering an Adventure Playground Camp for the first time this year. They’ve had a loosely supervised Adventure Playground the past few years (read about it at that link) so I look forward to my son trying out the camp!

Flexible Options:

  • Arena Sports – these win for most flexible camp option! 5 locations. Half day OR full day, with extended care options, for ages 3 – 12. They play soccer and active games, they play on the bounce house. As a friend once described an activity: “it sweats ’em up good.” We would attend these on weeks when we had plans on some days but had other days free, and I wanted to have my child to have a chance to burn off some energy while I caught up on projects.
  • Steve & Kate’s Camp – It’s been held on the campus of Bellevue’s The Little School for many years (although they’re at different sites for 2019). The advantage is their flexibility. It’s a huge age range from pre-K to 7th grade. You don’t need to sign up in advance – once you’ve registered for the year, you just show up there in the morning, whenever you want to for as many days as you want to. And when kids are there, they have virtually complete freedom to choose from many different activities (film-making, bread-making, games, robotics, sewing). It’s a “free range” approach. Works great for many kids – I have a friend who says it’s an incredible opportunity for his daughter to learn skills and use her creativity! But for my kid, he basically sat in the “lounge” reading books or watched other kids programming on tablets. It was fine for days I needed child care, but it’s lot more expensive than Arena Sports.

We’ve also done various one-shot camps that were great but we never happened to return to. Like one year I visited friends in Portland for a week while my kids attended Do Jump circus camp. There were summers where my child’s interests of the moment led to Fashion Design or Nature Illustration camp. We  attended several camps sponsored by the zoo and our local parks departments. So, the ones listed here are just a sampling of what our family has done, but there are SO MANY MORE great options out there.

What have I missed? What other camps in King County have you had a good experience with? Add a comment below. (If possible, include with  your recommendation: what ages it’s for, where it’s located, and what you loved about it.)

And if you’d rather just spend time hanging out at parks with your kid, read my posts about local parks, or if you have a toddler too young for camp and need ideas for activities, check out cheap dates with toddlers.

Teaching Language is Not Just About Saying More Words

The Oto Monitor

There is a new product called Oto – “the First Monitor for Your Baby’s Healthy Brain Development”. (Learn about it at https://www.oyalabs.com/)

They’re  electronic monitors you place around your home. The website says they use AI and Natural Language Processing to tally how many words a child hears, how many engaged, back-and-forth exchanges you have with your child, and the quality of your language including the ratio of positive to negative words.

If this were an academic study that I’d been asked to participate in with my child, I would absolutely say yes, because it would be fascinating to participate and see the research results!

But I’m a little troubled by the marketing of the device. It says “These indicators are proven to be critical for their IQ and emotional development.” The implication is that this device is essential for helping you ensure your child reaches their full potential. They also say “The number of words you speak to your child daily is a core metric – the more language, the better child’s outcomes.”

I worry that the parents who purchase this device would then become anxious, feel guilty when they weren’t talking, and become overly focused on talking and talking and talking to their child. This onslaught of words would be exhausting for me to produce as a parent and exhausting for a child to hear and may totally miss the point of how children most effectively learn language.

Bronson and Merryman (source) say “For years, the advice has been that the way to kick-start a child’s language learning was to simply expose kids to massive amounts of language. However, as we explain in our book NurtureShock, the newest science has concluded that the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the child and respond accordingly.”

Let’s look more at what we know about language learning.

Can there be too little language in a child’s world?

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There are definitely “linguistically poor” households, and this can absolutely lead to significant “vocabulary gaps.” In general, children from households with lower income and lower family education know fewer words. (source of chart above) Some examples from research:

  • A child in a low income home will hear an average of 616 words in an hour, a child in an average professional home will hear 2153. (source)
  • In one year, children from poor families hear 250,000 utterances at home, while children from wealthy families hear 4,000,000.  (source)
  • By age four, middle and upper class children hear 15 million more words than in working-class families, and 30 million more than in families on welfare. (source)
  • By second grade, a middle income child will know ~6020 words. A low income child will know ~4168. (source)
  • By 18 months, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency. (source)
  • 5-year-old children of lower SES score two years behind on language tests. (source)
  • When 18 month olds were shown two objects, then one was named aloud, higher SES toddlers could identify the right object in 750 milliseconds, lower SES toddlers were 200 milliseconds slower to respond. That slower mental processing speed means they have a harder time keeping up with teacher’s words. (source)

Not only are there fewer words spoken in a lower income household, the discussions that do happen are likely to be focused on daily life, such as what to eat, work schedule, and other practical topics. They are less likely to have wide-ranging discussions around the dinner table on a variety of topics. The parents may also work multiple jobs, which means less opportunity for reading bedtime stories. This may lead to the same words being used a lot, and fewer novel words that broaden the child’s vocabulary.

Also, in single parent households or homes where one partner is away at work, it may be more likely that the television is on in the background much of the time, which leads to less engagement and conversation between parent and child. (Source)

A child who understands fewer words and has slower processing speed  when they begin school will not just start behind – they’ll stay behind. As the teacher talks and some kids understand all the words and all the concepts, and some kids can’t even understand the words used, they get lost before reaching the concepts. (source for graph below)

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So yes, if there are too few words being used in a child’s environment, that child can be word poor. And yes, that will create academic challenges. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is to just talk a lot more…

What Is Responsive Language?

Imagine two scenes.

  • A toddler is sitting and poking at her cheerios and poking at her spoon so it rattles on the table. The parent, wanting to be sure the child is receiving mental stimulation, talks about their day: “As soon as you’re done with your breakfast, we’re going to put your new red shoes on and we’re going to go for a walk, and maybe we’ll see some butterflies again. Remember, the last time we went to the bakery to buy bread and we saw two blue butterflies?” The child keeps poking at her food as the parent talks. “I’m going to get a book now – we can read it together.”
  • As the toddler pokes, she looks up at the parent for their reaction. The parent sits with the child and says “you’re poking your cheerios with your finger. You pushed them all into a big pile on that side of your dish.” As the parent speaks, they point at the big pile. The child pushes a few more cheerios into the pile. “Now there are five more cheerios in the pile.” Then the child pats the spoon. “You’re using your hand to pat the spoon. The spoon makes a fun noise, doesn’t it?” The parent pats the spoon and says “It’s going rattle, rattle.” The toddler rattles the spoon some more, parent says “rattle, rattle” again. Then the child holds up the spoon to show it to the parent. “You picked up the spoon – can you use it to pick up some cheerios?”

In the first example, the parent’s voice is mostly background noise for the child whose attention is focused on the cereal and the spoon. There is also the chance of “criss-cross labeling” where if every time the child touches the spoon, the parent happens to talk about butterflies, the child could get confused about whether the thing they’re touching is called butterfly.

In the second example, the parent closely observed the child’s actions and where the child’s attention was focused, then talked about that. This gives the child the words for what they are experiencing in the moment with all their senses. This builds a much stronger connection between the words and their meaning. When you talk about a spoon later, the child can remember this moment and remember what the spoon felt like in their hand and the noise it made on the table.

To some parents, it may seem like talking about cheerios and a spoon is boring. They may feel like they need to jazz up the child’s learning with talking about bigger ideas. But slowing down to your toddler’s pace and tuning in to what they are in the process of exploring offers a meaningful connection for their learning.

There are three characteristics of responsive language: it’s prompt (happens within seconds of the child’s behavior, it’s contingent (related to the behavior) and it’s appropriate (parent responds in a positive and meaningful way). (source)

So, if a child showed a parent a ball, the parent would quickly respond, “Oh, you have a  ball in your hand!” If the child said “ba”, the parent would say “Ball. Yes, it’s a green ball.”

Does responsive language increase learning?

  • One study showed that when parents were more responsive, their children would reach all these milestones sooner: imitating parent’s words, first words, speaking 50 words, combining words to make a “sentence” and talking about the past.
  • A parenting style that includes parental warmth, high expectations and clear routines is associated not just with language ability but also better memory and higher achievement. When parents use a lot of negative strategies, their children have more limited language skills. (Source)
  • Children who hear more child-directed speech – not just overheard speech – process language faster and learn words more quickly. (source)

Here is a summary of other research:

In the second year, when infants begin to understand and produce words and simple phrases, responsiveness predicts the sizes of infants’ vocabularies… the diversity of infants’ communications… and the timing of language milestones… Infants of high-responsive mothers (90th percentile) … achieved language milestones such as first words, vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6 months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers… Toddlers of low-responsive fathers were 5 times more likely to display cognitive delays than were toddlers of high-responsive fathers… fathers’ responsiveness to their 2- and 3-year-olds predicted toddlers’ cognitive and language abilities within and across time… (source – includes citations for all studies)

How can you use responsive language?

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words recommends three steps for parents and caregivers to expand a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Tune In by paying attention to what your child is focused on
  2. Talk More with your child using lots of descriptive words
  3. Take Turns with your child by engaging in his or her conversation. (source)

Additional recommendations:

  • The Hanen Centre says that step 1 is OWL: “Observe Wait Listen. The parent needs to give the child the opportunity to take that first turn, so that the parent has something to respond to.”  (Learn more about OWL – Observe, Wait, Listen.)
  • Their next step is follow the child’s lead: imitate what the child says, interpret (what the child would say if they had the words), comment (giving the child words to describe what they are doing) or join in child-directed play. (Learn more.)
  • Use parentese – that sing song higher voice parents use to talk to babies.
  • Use motion – point to things as you talk about them, touch them, shake them. All this helps the child focus their attention while you label the objects.
  • Talk about what they want to talk about (what they are doing or are paying attention to in the moment). Don’t change topics quickly.
  • Don’t interrupt their attempts to communicate with you. Wait for them to get their thought out. Look at their face to show you are listening.
  • Children also benefit from hearing lots of different people speak – at different pitches, tempos, and with different accents and facial expressions. So take them out in the world, so they have an opportunity to interact with diverse people.
  • Reading to your child is also a huge influence on language learning. Learn about how to read to a child and lots of other literacy topics.

Don’t feel like you have to talk all the time

For brain development in general, children need three things: novelty (new experiences), repetition (the chance to explore something over and over to learn about it in depth from all angles), and down time (restful periods without lots of input when they can process all that they’ve seen and heard). This is true of language too.

Children need new words, they need to hear the same ones over and over in different contexts, and they also need quiet time for their inner thoughts to unfold. It is fine to have long periods of silence at home too. Even if you choose to have an Oto monitor listening in.

Learn more about responsive language:

Child-Directed Play: Floortime

floortime

Child-directed play is an intentional practice where you sit and play with a child, allowing them to guide the play, as  you follow along. The Greenspan Floortime approach describes this as:

  • Follow your child’s lead, i.e. enter the child’s world and join in their emotional flow;
  • Challenge her to be creative and spontaneous; and
  • Expand the action and interaction to include all or most of her senses and motor skills as well as different emotions

Floortime was created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan for children on the autism spectrum and those with developmental delays. It can also be used with typically developing children. It is helpful for any parent or caregiver who wants new ways to interact and have fun with a child, wants to feel more engaged with and connected to a child, and wants to know how best to interact with a child to foster communication skills, social-emotional development and cognitive learning.

How Floortime works:

Set the Stage

  • Find a time when you can focus on play, when you and your child are both well-rested and fed.
  • Be present – set aside your mobile devices and other distractions, relax, and stay focused on the interaction.
  • Gather items that interest your child and have them available, but not so many that it’s overwhelming.
  • Your position is important. Be in front of them – that’s better for connecting than it is to be side by side or for you to be behind them. Get down to their level – typically on the floor. Your physical nearness, affectionate touch, and eye contact help them to stay engaged.

Follow their Lead

  • Let them choose the activity. Offer toys that they love. It doesn’t matter what you play, it matters how you play.
  • Join in their play. Match their level of play – if they’re low key, you are too. If they’re very energetic, match that (without escalating up to wild.)
  • Don’t feel like you have to teach them. Just let them explore and discover. Copy the way that they play. If they signal that they want your help doing something, then help them, but don’t just jump in and do things they haven’t asked for.
  • Measuring intent. Watch their gaze, expressions and body language. Where is their attention? Let them know it’s OK to take initiative and start an activity.
  • If they are motivated, don’t change the activity. It’s OK to do the same thing over and over again.
  • Be playful! Find joy in your interaction. Their current interest may not be inherently interesting to you. But tune into how it gives them joy.
  • Look for the gleam in their eye. That’s a great sign that it’s working.

If it’s not working: Are you trying to control the play too much – do you need to step back? Are you being too passive and aimlessly following them around – how can you join them in interactive play? (Learn more about following their lead.)

Narration

If you feel tempted to ask a lot of questions, or do a lot of teaching, or you’re just over-talking, try observing silently, or responding to their play with simple reactions “uh oh!”, “what’s that?”, “hurray”.

If you want to talk, try narrating what they are doing. “You’re putting the toys in the basket. You noticed there’s only one toy left on the floor. Whoa, you dumped all the toys back on the floor so you can do it again!”

This narration tells them that you’re paying attention and that what they’re doing is important to you. You’re also building their language skills by giving them words to describe the things they do.

Use Emotional Expression and Responses to Engage

  • Expression – Use your eyes, facial expression, tone of voice and body language to connect and communicate. Your emotions (especially anticipation, surprise, and delight) help to attract their attention and keep them engaged. When you pair your words with emotional expression, it gives your child a better understanding of both the words and the emotions.
  • Observation and Response – Can you read their emotional cues? Do your expressions engage them more? If so, keep it up. If they’re seeming overwhelmed by you, back down a little – you’re following their lead.

Circles of communication

When Floortime is working well, it’s like a game of volleyball or ping pong. You know your child’s interests, so you “serve” by offering a toy. They “bounce back” to you by taking the toy. You talk to them about the toy. This back and forth interaction is where all the magic learning takes place. A young toddler, or a child with autism or delays, may only be able to go back and forth a few times before disconnecting. The older they are and the more play experience they have, the better they’ll get at this. The goal of Floortime is to build persistence – more of these circles of connection.

Once it’s working well, you settle into a flow of play – Floortime calls this “getting it cooking.”

If it’s not working: Are you waiting long enough for them to respond? Are they overwhelmed – are you talking too much or moving too fast? Are you following their interests and joining them where they are? (Watch for any expression, sound, or gesture that might invite you into their play.)

Stretch the Play

Once you’re “cooking” – you’re connected and have a nice back-and-forth pattern established, then you can work to take their play up a level.

Expand the play by adding in some new toy or new aspect of play, or offering some choices. For example, if they’ve been using blocks to make a stable for their toy horses, you can put a “roof” on one of the “stalls.” If they’ve served you the toy pizza over and over, ask for a drink to go with it. If you were playing peek a boo, drop the scarf and pretend to have a hard time finding it.

Expand just enough, but not too much. Your goal is sustained engagement – we want to keep out back-and-forth exchange going as long as we can. So, if your new extension keeps them engaged, and you’ve got that gleam, keep it up. If you lose their attention, back up a little.

If it’s not working: Some parents try to intervene too much. Some are too passive and don’t help child stretch.  Try to find the balance between following their lead and challenging them to interact, communicate, and think.

Tailoring to the Individual Child

Some children have sensory preferences – they really respond to sounds or to touch or to movement. Some children are easily overwhelmed by certain kinds of stimulation – sound or touch or smell might be too intense for them. Children may also prefer different speed of interaction – some like things to move slowly, some like fast moving play. This worksheet may be helpful if you feel like there are sensory or timing issues involved.

Benefits of Floortime

Some parents wonder – if I’m just playing the same simple game over and over, is my child actually learning anything? According to Autism Speaks, the back and forth play of Floortime “builds the foundation for shared attention, engagement and problem solving. Parents and therapists help the child maintain focus to sharpen interactions and abstract, logical thinking.” They also note these key aims: self-regulation, engagement in relationships, communication skills, and emotional learning.

Learn more

Learn more about tips for Floortime sessions, and see videos of parents and caregivers demonstrating these skills:

Child-Directed Play

sand2

For a young child, most of their activities are directed by adults: we tell them when they need to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, listen to stories and so on. Even when they play, sometimes we direct them – telling them how they should play with something, or else we interrogate them – “what color is that car? how many cars are there?”

Just take a moment to imagine what that would be like for you to be told what to do all day long. And then when you finally settle in to some “me time”, someone comes along and asks you question after question. It would drain your energy tanks, right? You might get cranky at that person. You might start to tune out their questions, or resist their suggestions.

Do you have a child who you feel is tuning you out – not listening to you? Do you have a child who is resisting doing what you tell them to do?

Try listening to them. Try letting them tell you what to do for a little while each day. I don’t mean put them in charge of discipline for you! What I mean is spend a little time each day that’s all about play, and even better, is all about your child deciding what to play, and you following along. Let them take the lead for a while and have fun discovering where they’ll lead you.

The Incredible Years program talks about “building up your child’s bank account” of energy, connection, and good will towards you as the parent. If they have a full bank, they’re much more willing to listen to you and do what you ask than if they’re feeling drained.

Many things fill their bank, including: praise, support, love, attention, and special time playing with them one-on-one.

To build a stronger, more positive relationship with your child, try dedicating at least ten minutes a day to a focused session of child-directed play. Here are some tips:

  • Call it “special time” or some other words that cue them that this is the time when they get to decide what happens.
  • Let them choose the activity.
  • Follow their lead. Model cooperation by doing what your child asks you to do.
  • Don’t focus on “the right way” to play, and don’t feel like this needs to be a time when you’re teaching them. This is just about building connections.
  • Praise their initiative and encourage their creativity.
  • Laugh and have fun.
  • Don’t quiz them on academic questions that have a right answer – these questions drain the bank. Either they don’t know the answer, which is stressful, or they (and you) already know the answer, so nothing new is learned by asking the question. Instead, try:
    • Silent observation.
    • Narration – talk about what you see them doing. “You picked up the red car and ran it down the ramp. Now you have the blue car.” Try to use descriptive comments much more often than questions.
    • Notice what they’re interested in and talk about that. That way, they’re setting the agenda, not you.
    • Open-ended questions – questions that you don’t already know the answer to. “What are you planning to do next?” “What would happen if…?”
  • Give just enough help to help them with frustration, but don’t take over the play, and don’t leap in to solve every problem for them.

You can use the Attention Principle while you play. Pay special attention to anything that you like about what they’re doing: “I appreciate that you shared that with me”, “you kept trying even though you were frustrated, and look, you did it!” If they do something annoying or something you don’t want to encourage, just ignore it. (Unless of course it is unsafe or breaks a family rule – you do still need to set reasonable limits.)

You’re modeling for your child what cooperative play looks like, and helping them develop social-emotional skills that will help them also play well with others.

Learn more tips for child-directed play using Greenspan’s Floortime method. https://gooddayswithkids.com/2019/01/15/floortime/

For parent educators and other professionals, here’s a handout on this topic you can share with parents: Child Directed Play handout.

Booster Seats for Travel

On a recent field trip day at my son’s school, I was watching kindergarten to second graders try to lug around their booster seats and car seats, and watching volunteer parents try to figure out how to strap the car seats into their cars. (I personally just volunteered to drive, because it was easier than unfastening and refastening my son’s car seat!) Then, one child came up holding this little thing the size of a clutch purse, telling me it was her car seat. (Image from Amazon)

I talked with the mother a little, but was having a hard time seeing how this could possibly be safe – so I did my research. (Meaning – I contacted a friend who is a CPST carseat technician and asked her! She gave me some great articles to read.)

The seat was a mifold Grab-and-Go Car Booster Seat. It’s advertised as being

  • More than 10x smaller than a regular booster seat and just as safe
  • The most advanced, compact, and portable booster seat ever invented designed for kids aged 4 and up, 40 to 100 lbs, and 40 to 57 inches tall

It’s available for around $40.

At first glance I didn’t understand how it worked… I thought the purpose of a booster seat was to get the child up high enough that the shoulder belt goes across their chest, not across their neck. This seat is 3/4 of an inch thick, so how does it work?

Instead of thinking of the mifold as a booster seat, think of it as a belt-positioner. Instead of lifting the child up, it pulls the seatbelt down. The belt guides on the seat ensure that the lap belt goes low across the child’s hips (not their belly – on top of all their internal organs, and not on the thighs where they could slip forward in case of an accident.) The strap pulls the shoulder belt down lower, so it will go across the child’s shoulder and chest, not their neck.

To transport, it folds up very small, with the strap wrapped around it. To install it, you unfold it, press a button to open the seat belt guides up wider (there are three possible widths to adjust to your child’s size). Use the setting that is closest to your child’s thighs without touching their thighs. Once child is seated on the mifold, you take the lap belt through the belt guides on the seat, then use the strap to clip the shoulder belt down at the right height. (Watch the videos on Amazon or in the reviews.)

Check for proper belt fit: the lap belt must fit snugly, low across the hip bones, just touching the top of the things. The shoulder belt should be across the center of the shoulder.

It appears that the mifold works very well with many children in many vehicles. However, in some vehicles, it just can’t position the belts correctly, which means it would not be safe in a crash.

Here are detailed reviews of the mifold, from Car Seat Blog and Car Seats for the Littles. Here is a video review. Here’s another video review. (Note: the video reviewers do not appear to be car seat experts.) Here are the ease of use ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety note: the IIHS, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, will not rate the mifold because, instead of raising the child up, “the device pulls the belt down to the child. There aren’t any data about how this new type of device works with real kids in real crashes. For these reasons, the Mifold isn’t comparable to the boosters that IIHS evaluates and isn’t included in the ratings.”

The consensus of the reviews cited above, and user reviews on Amazon:

Pros: Incredibly portable! Great for travel, taxis, and so on. Affordable. Older children are not embarrassed to use it, as they may be with another booster when their friends have outgrown theirs.

Cons: Won’t fit all kids in all cars. Can slip around on seat or fold up a bit, which can make it hard to get into. Younger children won’t likely be able to buckle and unbuckle themselves as this is a bit tricky.

My personal choice, as a mom – not as an expert in the field – is that the next time I go on a solo trip with my son, I’ll get a mifold. As a handicapped mom (I have one leg), being able to tuck his carseat into a suitcase instead of having to schlep a separate seat around airports is a huge advantage to me. But for this week’s trip when my husband will be with me, we’ll just stick to our traditional backless booster. We’ve got two 2-hour drives and two 4-hr drives so want to ensure he’s comfortable and up high enough to see out the window of our unknown rental vehicle.

For our everyday use, my son is still in a 5 point harness seat in my car and my husband’s car, or in a traditional booster for the once a week ride with grandpa or school field trips where I won’t be around to help ensure it fits properly in another parent’s car.  I want him to be as safe as possible, so I always keep him at each level of car seat as long as I can. (My son is 8, but he’s just 50 inches and 52 pounds, so he’s got a long ways to go before he maxes out the height and weight limits on seats.)

But if a highly portable carseat is a necessity for you, this may be a good option.

The mifiold is available at Amazon, Target and elsewhere.

Alternatives:

Some alternative small portable booster seats to consider for travel, carpooling, field trips, after school playdates, visits with grandparents, taxi or bus rides:

BubbleBum Inflatable Backless Booster Car Seat, Black. Here’s a review of the BubbleBum. This is an inflatable booster seat! So, it weighs one pound and squashes up small in the suitcase. $27

Ride Safer Delight Travel Vest, Small Yellow – Includes Tether and Neck Pillow cost around $150. This is a vest that you buckle child into, then buckle it into the car. Comes with a bag so kids can carry their own seat easily. Helpful when there’s not enough space in the back seat to fit three car seats in a row. Putting one child in this travel vest can solve that problem.

Or, if you just want a fairly small and portable traditional booster seat:  Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong Backless Booster. Here’s the carseatblog’s review of the TurboBooster. $33.

Note: I am NOT a Child Passenger Safety Technician. I am not an expert in this field, so please do your own research with reputable experts to make the safety decisions that are best for your child.

Best Podcasts for Kids

Logos for 9 kids podcasts

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time hearing my kids’ little voices from the back seat as I drive. And when they try to strike up a conversation while I’m focusing on driving, I have a hard time following it and we both get frustrated. So, I love using car time to listen to something together which is entertaining and/or educational. When my older kids were little in the late 90’s, we listened to Boomerang audio magazine (you can still purchase recordings of this), Broadway shows and kids’ music. As they moved into their tween and teen years, we shared the experience of listening to audiobooks together, which helped us connect. These days, with my youngest, we listen to a lot of podcasts. (If you’re not familiar with what a podcast is, check out my post on Podcasts 101.)

Benefits of Podcasts

  • Free. There are lots of great podcasts you can listen to for free.
  • Portable. Can listen to anywhere – at home while doing art or Legos, in the car on the way to school, on an airplane, or at the dentist’s office.
  • Screen free distraction. We all know there are times where parents just need a few minutes to themselves to get something done. We may be in the habit of turning to screens for this, but audio is also a good option.
  • Educational. Kids can learn about science, history, ethics and more.
  • Learning benefits. Listening to podcasts trains them to listen closely and builds vocabulary. If they read along with a transcript while listening, it can help build their reading proficiency. Audio allows them to visualize ideas in their head, unlike videos. And:

When words are spoken aloud, kids can understand and engage with ideas that are two to three grade-levels higher than their reading level would normally allow. Aural learning is particularly helpful for students who have dyslexia, are blind, or for whom English is their second language, who might struggle with reading or find it helpful to follow a transcript while listening. source – see also http://www.readingrockets.org/article/reading-aloud-build-comprehension

Potential Pitfalls

  • Ads. Some podcasts have no ads. Some have ads that kids can tell are ads. But many have a host reading the ad, which makes them more powerful for kids and may distract from the main point of the podcast.
  • Inappropriate content. Many podcasts NOT kid appropriate. (I’ve definitely had times where I was with my son and I was listening to one of my podcasts that suddenly went somewhere not suitable for young ears!) You can consider using a specialized kids-only podcasting app to be sure everything’s appropriate.

How to Listen

You could use Stitcher, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or whatever app you prefer. Since we always listen in the car using my iPhone, I use Apple Podcasts for all of the podcasts my son listens to. However, if you want your child to be able to manage their own podcast listening on their own device, you might choose a kid-only app such as:

  • Kids Listen. iOs app: or listen online at https://app.kidslisten.org/search. On the app, you can choose from these categories: Seasonal Sweeps (collections of episodes on a seasonal theme), Brand New, Dive into the World of Books, Curl up with a Story, Jump Into a [Serial] Adventure, Explore your Curiosity (mostly science shows), Meet Cool People (Interviews), Launch Your Imagination, or my favorite “Starter Episodes” where several podcasts suggest the episode they think is best for you to listen first. You can also create a “stash” of episodes you’ve downloaded to listen to. They have 30+ member podcasts, including several of those listed below. Curated by a grassroots organization of podcasters, parents, teachers, and listening advocates. It is free to download, and you get the most recent episodes for free. There’s a monthly subscription fee for those who want access to archives of older episodes.
  • Leela Kids. iOS and Android. Free. You select kids age (3-5, 5-8, 8-12, 12-15) and interest (e.g. stories, music, animals, space, ocean, dinosaurs, math, science, religion, language learning, “curious”) then browse through options. For example, I searched for science for age 5 -8 and got episodes from Wow in the World, Tumble, Fun Kids Science Weekly, Sid the Science Kid, Brains On, Surgery ABCs, and Show about Science. (There were 147 episodes in the category, which is a little overwhelming to scroll through, but certainly plenty of content!) You can also subscribe to and download favorite shows. The Free app includes visual ads in the app and allows up to 3 downloads, up to 3 items in playlist, and up to 3 subscribed shows. The paid premium subscription has no ads and unlimited downloads, items, and shows.
  • Pinna Children’s Audio Stories. iOS. $7.99 per month. Age 4 – 12. Audio stories, podcasts, and audio games categorized by age, genre, listening setting (travel, family time, bedtime), and more. Includes exclusive content. To search audio content by age, choose your kid’s age range from the top menu bar (4-5, 6-8, or 9-12). To choose by content type, scroll down to view selections: Featured, Pinna Originals, Activities, Popular, Audiobooks, or Genres. Genres include classics, adventure, animals, fairy tales, science, and more.

What to Listen To

Story Podcasts

Stories Podcast. Writer Daniel Hinds and narrator Amanda Weldin tell lovely, engaging stories, often with catchy little songs included. Some are original, many are based on classic fairy tales from around the world. We love listening to these on the way to school. Can range from 10 – 12 minutes, or there are some that are told over the course of multiple episodes, but we haven’t tried these yet. Best for ages 5 and up.

Sparkle Stories. Original audio stories. Some fairy tales, some cultural tales. My favorite stories are the ones featuring two kids named Martin and Sylvia. Only a few episodes are available broadly, but if you like them, you can access 875 (!) Sparkle stories on their app. OK for age 4 and up, best 6 – 8.

Story Pirates. Kids write short silly stories, and then adult actors and comedians build them into full stories and act them out, sketch comedy or musical theater style. Silly and wacky. Appeals to kids 4 and up.

Here’s some podcasts that we haven’t tried yet, but I’ve seen many recommendations for.

Little Stories for Tiny People. Around 10 minutes. Mostly whimsical tales about animals. For toddlers and preschoolers at bedtime or anytime.

Peace Out Calming stories that teach mindfulness and meditation and help children calm down at the end of the day. Episodes include breathing exercises and visualizations on feelings like jealousy, anxiety and fear. Best for preschool / early elementary.

Story Time. 10 – 15 minute original bedtime stories, told in a soothing British accent by host Rob Griffiths. Best for preschool / early elementary.

Circle Round. (NPR) Story-telling for age 3 – 10. 10 – 20 minute episodes of carefully-selected folktales from around the world. Topics such as inclusivity, kindness, persistence and generosity.

If you like stories, be sure to also check out my posts on Books Toddlers Love and Books About Inventors.

Science Podcasts

Tumble – A Science Podcast for Kids. They tell stories about science discoveries with the help of scientists. They both address interesting topics and try to get kids excited about science by interviewing scientists who share their passions. 8 – 15 minutes. Age 6 – 12

Brains On. Episodes are 25 – 35 minutes long. Each week a different kid joins host Molly Bloom and they interview scientists. Answers questions from kid listeners using science and history. Listeners also submit “mystery sounds” which are played early in the episode and described late in the episode. Age 6 – 12.

Wow in the World. (NPR) Science education show on the latest STEM news by Guy Raz from NPR and Mindy Thomas. Professionally produced, so great soundscapes. They have a schtick where Mindy suggests wild and crazy ideas and Guy is the voice of reason – I find it tiresome, but my son loves it. And the science content is excellent.

But Why. 18 – 45 minute episodes. Each episode takes on several questions submitted by kids, tied to a single theme, and answers them with the help of experts. (We haven’t tried it yet, but reviews say it’s good for kids who aren’t ready for Brains On.)

If you like science and are looking for fun science experiments and engineering projects to try with your child, check out my other site, www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.

Other Educational

The Past and the Curious. Comedic actors perform little-known stories from history, aiming to make them inspiring, amazing, and relevant to everyone. Ends with a quiz segment. Professional music scores and original songs.

Dream Big. 15 – 20 minutes. 8 year old host and her mom interview celebrities and award winning experts. Inspires kids to pursue their passions and make their dream a reality.

Silly Podcasts

This Podcast Has Fleas. (NPR) Waffles, a dog, starts a podcast and so does her rival Jones, a cat. There’s also Benny the Gerbil and Mr. Glub the Goldfish. There’s only 6 – 8 episodes. We listened when my son was 6 and he LOVED them and wanted to listen over and over again to each. (And today at age 8, when I mentioned this podcast, he wanted to listen to them again.)

What If World. Listeners call in with questions, which Eric O’Keefe writes original stories in response to. Describes in imaginative detail answers to questions like “What if Elephants Were Alive?” We listened to the “What If I Turned into a Hamburger” episode and enjoyed it.

The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd. We’re looking forward to trying this one, where Dr. Floyd tries to fend off his evil nemesis while learning about history, geography and science. Old time radio in style.

Music Podcasts

I haven’t tested any of these, but here’s what many sites recommend:

Ear Snacks. Songs and discussions with kids and experts. Best for preschool to early elementary.

Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child. “Indie music for indie kids.” Music aimed at kids (Moona Luna, Ella Jenkins, Lunch Money, Caspar Babypants, and They Might Be Giants) and kid-friendly tracks from The Ramones, Mike Doughty, Ella Fitzgerald, Brian Eno, Pizzicato Five, Fishbone, and more.

OWTK’s Kids Music Monthly. Out with the Kids playlist, including the Not-It’s, Recess Monkey, Dan Zanes, Alphabet Rockers and More.

Saturday Morning Cereal Bowl – 2 full hours of kid’s music that’s smart, funny, and interesting.

More Recommendations