Tag Archives: child development

Let Your Child Explore Fine Motor Skills

Introducing Playdough

Today in a Facebook group, a parent of a 12 month old asked for the best playdough for a child who still puts everything in their mouth. Lots of parents and teachers in the group had great advice:

They recommended edible options like

Note: just because they’re edible doesn’t mean you should let your child eat them! The point of using these, in my mind, is to help children learn NOT to eat their art supplies, but if they do mouth these, you don’t have to worry about it.

Many preschool teachers said to just use any good homemade playdough recipe with no toxic ingredients. (Here’s my favorite playdough recipes.) Some of these have A LOT of salt in them, so it wouldn’t be good for kids to eat much of them, but they won’t, because they taste nasty. A couple tastes and they’re done, no harm done.

But a few respondents to this Facebook post said things like “I wouldn’t recommend playdough till they are around 3 or 4 when they know not to eat anything you put in front of them.”

There are so many benefits for young children in playing with playdough. (Read about the benefits of playdough and more on the power of playdough.) I think it’s ridiculous to deprive them of years worth of that experience because of the worry that they’ll mouth or maybe swallow a few tablespoons of non-toxic ingredients.

And besides, learning not to eat non food items is a good thing to learn! And playing with non-toxic playdough is a great place to learn that.

Now, I wouldn’t introduce playdough for the first time by setting some on their high chair tray and walking away. Of course they would eat it! (Maybe especially if it’s made of marshmallows…) However, you can absolutely introduce playdough to a young toddler – one year old is perfectly appropriate. The first few times, you sit right there with them, showing them this exciting new thing and showing them how to interact with it. Role model – tell them what to do. (Don’t even say “don’t eat it” because they may not even think of putting it in their mouth till you say the word eat. Children are new to language, and may hear “eat” and not hear the “don’t” part of the sentence.) Play with it, explore it, then put it out of reach when you need to walk away. If they do begin to move it toward their mouth, that’s when you would say “oh, yuck, don’t eat that. It tastes icky.” And make your icky taste face. That usually does the trick. If they end up with it in their mouth, just say, “oh yuck – let’s spit that out.” And then gently say – “let’s put this away for now, we’ll try again another time.” (It’s a good time to put it out on a tray or plate the first time so if you need to remove it you can.) With clear guidance, toddlers can learn to use playdough appropriately, and then have access to all the great learning that can come from playdough activities.

This whole topic just brings me to a larger topic.

Building Fine Motor Skills

In order for children to learn skills, they have to be able to have hands-on experiences with things. Almost everything they interact with could potentially have some risk. But often the chances are small. And with supervision and playing alongside, we can reduce the risk of severe injury to extremely unlikely.

In order for children to learn fine motor skills, they have to be allowed to use them! That means they need to be allowed to explore small items that they have to use the pincer grasp to pick up. Some of that happens with eating finger foods – peas and cheerios and slippery diced peaches all provide lots of pincer grasp practice. But children also need to be able to practice things like threading beads onto a pipe cleaner and once they’ve mastered that, threading beads onto string. They can practice things like dropping pompoms into a water bottle or putting buttons into slots cut in a plastic lid.

I do developmental screenings with parents – the 9 month old questionnaire asks if the child can pick up a string, the 18 month old asks if they can draw a line with a crayon or pencil, and the 22 month old asks if they can string beads or pasta on a string. I can’t tell you how many times the child hasn’t met that milestone and parents have said they just have never done anything like that with their child where their child handles small objects. Often they have avoided this because of fear of choking.

What about choking?

Yes, it is well worth being aware of the risks of leaving your child unattended with small items that they could choke on. And, it’s absolutely a good idea for all parents and all caregivers to be familiar with choking rescue. (Here’s a video.) And it’s good to know infant and child CPR too, just in case. (Videos of infant CPR and child CPR.) But this doesn’t mean that you should never let your child touch anything smaller than their fist.

Introducing Fine Motor Activities

Toddlers can do all sorts of fine motor activities with small objects. Like with the playdough, do a really good and intentional job of introducing the item under close supervision. Use role modeling and demonstration to be sure they know what to do with the items, and if they start to do inappropriate things with the items (like put a bead in their nose or in their ear), then we correct that. (Note: I do sometimes count how many of an item I put out, so that when I clean up I make sure I can account for all of them – if not, I search the floor to see if one just rolled away.) After they’ve interacted with an item safely multiple times, you can let them play with it more independently. I also do this approach with food – I don’t slice up grapes for my child. Instead, the first time I introduce grapes, I sit down with them and show them a grape and show them how I take one little itty bite out of the grape and chew it up, then take another itty bitty bite… Once we’ve practiced this multiple times, they can eat grapes independently.

Why Fine Motor Skills Matter

If we don’t let our children have this fine motor practice, then they’re going to be missing important development. Children need fine motor skills and finger strength to be ready for kindergarten tasks like writing, using scissors and turning pages in a book. They need them for self-care tasks like: buttoning a shirt, tying shoes, eating with a spoon, and opening food packaging. They need them to play with toys at preschool and not be frustrated by their inability to do things other children can do.

Fine Motor Development

These sample activities offer ideas for what sorts of things your child should be capable of at each age;

  • 3 to 6 month olds – give them small toys that they can practice passing from one hand to another or hold them and shake them. Hold your baby on your lap and place a toy on the table in front of you that they need to reach for.
  • 6 to 9 months – show them how to clap their hands or give high fives, they start “raking” things toward them, so try something like ping pong or whiffle balls or baby toys or finger foods like cheerios, take toys out of a container
  • 9 to 12 months – continue to offer finger foods, encourage them to try picking up a block and putting it into a cup, encourage them to try picking up a string or a noodle, show them how to bang two toys together, wave bye-bye
  • 12 months – build simple towers by stacking two or three items, let them scribble, practice eating with a spoon, turning pages in a board book, take off socks and shoes
  • 2 years – practice using a fork and drinking from a cup, put on lids and take them off, string beads on yarn, show them how to draw a line, build a tower 8 blocks tall
  • 3 years – button and unbutton clothes, use scissors, draw shapes, make a cheerio necklace, place coins in a piggy bank

Fine Motor Activities for Toddlers to Preschoolers

The pictures above are a random collection of activities we have done at our parent-toddler class for children ranging from 12 – 24 months old. Here are more ideas:

  • Play with playdough: for the youngest child, this is smushing it with their hand or poking it with a finger. Then pulling it apart into smaller pieces. Then you can introduce tools to squish it flat (rolling pin), or cut it (plastic knife, cookie cutters) and so on. Hide small toys inside the playdough that they have to unearth.
  • Shape sorters and puzzles: start with big and simple shapes, get more complex as they are ready for that.
  • Build with megablox, then Duplos, then Legos.
  • Twist pipe cleaners into shapes. Insert pipe cleaners into the holes on a colander.
  • Dress-up clothes: put on gloves, zip zippers, fasten snaps, button buttons
  • Stringing Beads (or pasta or cheerios): first, putting BIG beads on a stick or dowel, then medium beads on a pipe cleaner, then small beads on a string.
  • Drawing: first scribbles, dots, lines. Later: Draw pictures, trace letters, color inside the lines.
  • Collage: For a one year old, I use contact paper – take off the backing and leave the paper sticky side up – they can stick on pompoms, feathers, small pieces of paper… As the child gets older, have them practice putting glue on paper, then carefully sticking on small items like gems and googly eyes.
  • Painting – first, just glop paint (or shaving cream or an edible substance like pudding) onto paper or foil or a plate and let them smear it around with their whole hand. Later show them how to paint with one finger. Then with a brush with a large handle, then a small handle.
  • Filling containers: pick a small item (baby socks, pompoms, cotton balls, plastic lids, clothespins, dried beans, dowels, straws, q-tips, raw spaghetti, etc.) and a container to put it in (muffin tin, ice cube tray, jar with a big opening, water bottle with a small opening, boxes, a cardboard box with a small opening cut into it, a container with a plastic lid with a slot cut into it, a spice container or parmesan cheese container with small openings in the lid, a colander turned upside down). For one year olds, you’ll choose larger not-chokeable items that are easy to pick up and containers with large openings. For older children, smaller items and smaller openings. Once they’ve mastered putting items in with their fingers, let them use tongs or tweezers.
  • Pick berries. Pull weeds or pick carrots – you need to pull just hard enough but not too hard, so it’s good for practicing how much strength to use.
  • Sensory bin play – read my Ultimate Guide to Sensory Tables
  • Water table play – read my Ultimate Guide to Water Tables
  • Just go to pinterest or Instagram or google and search for “fine motor activities for toddlers” and you will have thousands of ideas. Don’t be afraid to try them! With you alongside as they learn, your children can safely explore and discover all sorts of wonderful things.

Autism 101

For parents who are wondering why their child interacts with the world differently than some other children do, and are wondering whether it might be autism, it can be hard to understand all the different ways that autism might present. This post is intended as an overview of: the clinical definition of autism, understanding what “the spectrum” means, some of the signs and symptoms of how autism might present, information about screening and diagnosis, and resources to support parents of neurodiverse kids.

The Diagnostic Definition

When I was a kid, we tended to think of autistic people only as the people who showed significant impairment in multiple domains: non-verbal, developmentally delayed, frequently stimming (e.g. rocking, flapping their hands).

Then there were a bunch of other kids who were skilled in many areas, but had some unusual behaviors. We called them “quirky” or “odd ducks” or said they “march to the beat of their own drummer.”

Then the term Asperger’s syndrome appeared, and was often applied to kids who were gifted and “quirky.” And we would talk about people in terms of “where are they on the spectrum” or “are they low functioning or high functioning?”

Now, Asperger’s is no longer a distinct diagnosis. It’s been pulled back under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The criteria for an ASD diagnosis in the DSM-V require showing symptoms in both of these categories:
A) Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction (deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction and in developing, maintaining, and understand relationships) and
B) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (as manifested by at least two of: S
tereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech; Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of behavior; Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input.)

Or to put it in a less deficit-based language: A) may have challenges interpreting and following the same social rules as their neurotypical peers or expressing / responding to emotions in the same ways neurotypical people might  and B) strong preferences for predictable routines, specific interests and repetitive movements. Reactions to sensory input and external demands may be more intense than typical.

I really like these images from @neurodivergent_lou that translate the diagnostic criteria / view of autism from the outside into strength-based, empathy building views of what autism feels like from the inside perspective of an autistic person.

photocollage_2022102204220351

About 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with autism. Within the diagnostic criteria, there’s a range of behaviors from subtle to blatant, and from minimal impact to major impacts on school and home.

What is a spectrum disorder?

When autism is described as a spectrum, it doesn’t mean this. (source)

continuum labeled not autistic at one end, and very autistic at the other end

Or this (source)

continuum, labelled "a little quirky" on the left, "definitely autistic" in the middle, and "tragic" on the right

Autism is a more complex way of interacting with the world that can’t be described on a simple numeric scale, and can’t be simplified to either “not a problem” or “tragic”.

I’ll share a few different ways that it has been illustrated, so you can find the one the best resonates with your experience.

The autism spectrum can look something more like this:

An illustration of a circle where the "pie pieces" are labeled language, executive function, etc. and dots indicate where the person might have more strengths vs. more difficulties

(That image comes from this great comic on “Understanding the Spectrum” by Rebecca Burgess – I highly recommend reading it.)

This graphic (source) breaks the spectrum into five categories, similar to Burgess, though the colors and the way they break things out are a little different:

GAO

And they explain that “the type and severity of characteristics varies from person to person” as seen in this diagram of three individuals’ ‘spectrums.’

Picture1

C.L. Lynch on theaspergian.com uses this illustration

spectrum

Then gives a few examples of how this would apply for an individual person.

spectrum 2

I don’t know which one of these graphics might be helpful for you, but I find it very helpful to think of these more nuanced descriptions rather than a single axis of “a little quirky” to “tragic.”

I know that if someone asks me if my son is “high functioning” or “low” or asked “how autistic is he”, I would find it difficult to answer those questions. It’s much easier to tell you – “here are the things he’s good at, here are some behaviors he does that might seem odd to you but don’t harm anyone or anything, and here are some challenges he has and some accommodations you could make that might help him to manage them.”

More Zones to Consider

The DSM-V criteria are two-fold: a) social-emotional differences, and b) restricted, repetitive patterns.

You’ll notice in the illustrations above that they each split the signs of autism a little differently, but here are some of the typical patterns that some autistic people might display. [Note that all autistic people are individuals, so any individual may have some of these signs and not others. As a parent, I found that if I went down any checklist of signs, I had many that I said “nope, that doesn’t describe my kid” and others where I went “ooh boy – that is exactly what I see!”]

  • Social-emotional: may have challenges reading social cues, inferring what behavior is expected in a social situation, expressing their emotions in the same way a neurotypical person might expect them to or understanding / responding to other people’s emotions. Some may avoid eye contact. May be content playing / working by themselves and not appear to need the same social connections that others might. (Or might long for social connections and be very sensitive to rejection.)
    • The Floor Time approach to child-directed play can help an autistic child connect with others in play.
  • Sensory Processing: some autistic people may be hypo-sensitive to stimuli; many may be hyper-sensitive.
    • Tactile stimulation (like tags on clothing or seams on socks or being touched) may distract and distress them. Or, they may seek tactile input, banging their heads, pressing up against others, wanting lots of hugs and loving weighted vests and blankets.
    • Some may have lots of oral sensory issues. They may be super picky eaters or may gag easily. Others seek sensation, sucking and chewing on a variety of items.
    • Many autistic people can get overwhelmed by sounds – they may be less able to filter out all the noise that neurotypical people ignore (traffic on the road, the hum of the refrigerator…) and may be happiest with noise cancelling headphones on in loud situations.
  • Emotional regulation challenges: may have bigger reactions to a situation than typical. This could mean being so excited they bounce up and down, gallop around or flap their hands because the joy is too great to contain. It can mean meltdowns where too much stimuli, too many demands, or big disappointments overwhelm them and they react by screaming, hitting, or other behaviors for a prolonged period of time. (Note: the Zones of Regulation tools can be very helpful for autistic kids to work on emotional regulation skills.)
  • Preference for routine / difficulty adjusting to changes and transitions. Many thrive in an environment with lots of structure, and very predictable routines. When a transition between activities is coming, they need a little more warning that it’s coming and help letting go of one thing and moving on to something new. Sometimes even with all the help you can give, an unexpected change or hard transition from a beloved activity to anything else can cause big meltdowns.
  • Specialized Interests: A common characteristic is long-lasting, all-consuming  interest in specific topics, whether that’s dinosaurs, astronomy, flags, Rubik’s cubes, or collecting memorabilia. When they start to talk about that topic to someone, it may become a prolonged monologue where they may not recognize when the other person has lost interest and is ready to move on, because they cannot imagine ever losing interest in that topic. They may also love repetition and repetitive movements.
  • Impulse control and executive function may be harder for some autistic people. Discipline techniques that work with neurotypical folks may not be as effective with autistic children. (I find the Incredible Years and Ross Greene have the most helpful approaches.)
  • Language / communication: some autistic people are less verbal or non-verbal.
  • Motor skills: some autistic people may have motor challenges, ranging from “clumsy” to limited ability to control their movements,

Not everyone who has a few of these behaviors is autistic. And not everyone who is autistic has all these characteristics. And all of these characteristics can manifest in subtle, barely noticeable ways or can be blatantly obvious to the casual observer. Again, autism is a spectrum disorder that can be a bit hard to pin down.

It’s also worth noting autism can present differently in girls and be more difficult to diagnose especially for gifted girls).

Awareness vs. Acceptance

In much of popular culture, autism is viewed in a very negative light. You’ll hear people talking about it as a tragic diagnosis, and people seeking a “cure” for their child’s autism, and using deficit based language, even a supposed “advocate” may do so during events like Autism Awareness Month.

The Autism Self-Advocacy Network recognizes Autism Acceptance Month, which “promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people… making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.”

Autistic people have unique strengths. For example, many have intense attention to detail, a high degree of persistence, and ability to analyze data. Their “obsessive” interests can lead to stunning expertise in their chosen career fields. And “Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions.” (Source)

A Note on Co-Morbidity and Social Issues

Autism also has several co-morbidities: conditions that often occur with autism.  “Over half of autistic youth [also had] attention deficit disorder (53 percent) or anxiety (51 percent), nearly one quarter had depression, and 60 percent had at least two comorbid conditions. Other common comorbid conditions include sleep disorders, intellectual disability, seizure disorders, and gastrointestinal ailments.” (Source) Many of the challenges we think of as being due to autism actually come from these co-morbidities. We should think of them as separate issues and handle them separately.

And many of the “challenges” of autism actually come from societal attitudes toward autism. For example, if a child jumps up and down with excitement, is that really a problem behavior that needs to be corrected? If a teenager gets overwhelmed by noises, so chooses to wear noise-canceling headphones in many situations, is there a reason anyone else should care about this? If someone can’t stand it when the different foods on their plates touch each other, isn’t it easy to use just a little extra care when dishing them up instead of using a lot of energy telling them that “you just have to learn to cope with that”? If the neurotypical community understood more about neurodiverse people, and made simple adjustments, it would greatly reduce the “challenges of autism.”

Screening and Diagnostic Testing

If you’re wondering about your child, or a child you know, start with this list of symptoms, or red flags to watch for. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

If you’re still concerned about possible signs of autism, use a screening tool:

If you’re still concerned, talk to your child’s health care provider, and/or contact your state’s public early childhood system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. This is sometimes called a Child Find evaluation. If your child is under three years old, look at the ECTA website. If your child is 3 years old or older, contact your local public school system. Look here for all the details about how to access testing.

In King County, Washington, some resources for diagnostic testing include: Kindering (especially for kids under age 3), UW Autism Center (this is where my daughter was tested at age 20), and Seattle Children’s Autism Center. Some private practice psychologists also offer testing. For example, our son was tested by Heather Davis at Brook Powers Group, who had worked with him in their Incredible Years program.

Here is a podcast with tips for what to do when you’re waiting for an autism diagnosis or a PDF on the same topic.

Are you debating about testing?

Some parents debate about whether or not to test. Or they test, and get a diagnosis of “we can’t say it’s autism but we can’t rule it out.” They wonder about whether to seek out special education services. For more on those topics and on what to do while waiting for a diagnosis, check out my post on “Autism? ADHD? Delayed? Or just quirky?

What was the Cause? Is there a Cure?

It can be tempting to ask “what causes autism” and for many parents, that’s a quest to understand whether they “did something wrong” that led their child to be autistic. There’s no one cause for autism. There may be genetic factors, or environmental factors, or a combination of environmental factors with genetic susceptibility. Personally, I have not found it helpful to look backwards and wonder about the cause – it’s better to focus on what we need to do to move forward into the future.

I also do not seek a “cure” for autism. (Partially because that implies it is a problem that needs to be fixed rather than just a different way of being in the world which benefits from accommodations.) Some parents spend a great deal of time and energy seeking a way to fix their child. There are some effective treatments which can help make things more manageable for the family, but there are also some “treatments” you’ll find on YouTube videos or random people’s blogs that can either cause harm, or simply just take more time, energy and money than they are worth.

For example, many parents have reported significant improvements in behavior problems with dietary changes. If you find diet changes that are generally considered nutritionally sound and they prove helpful for you, then hurray! But if a special diet is prohibitively expensive, or if it deviates from mainstream nutritional advice and might cause nutritional deficits, or if your kid is just a super picky eater and it’s a huge battle, it’s worth knowing that there’s not a lot of research that proves this is essential.

Resources on Autism

General Resource Guides

There are lots of resource guides from various organizations. Try these from the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, Autism Parenting Magazine, and the AAP. Plus these communication resources. Note: I have not vetted all these resources. If you discover any materials that approach autism as a terrible disease to be cured, or focus on ways to “fix” autistic kids, set those aside. I personally choose materials that talk about autism as a neurological difference that shapes who they are and how they interact with the world, and talks about ways we can increase accessibility for them. 

Autism Navigator has a free online class (approx 3 hours) on Autism in Toddlers. They have handouts you can print on everyday learning activities, how parents can support language and emotional skills, and Q&A for parents.

Discipline and Behavior Challenges

  • This article is short and helpful: 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism.
  • There are tons of helpful resources at challengingbehavior.org: visual schedules, tip sheets on making daily routines easier, handouts on teaching emotional IQ, addressing behavior like hitting or biting.
  • If it’s available in your area, I highly recommend the Incredible Years program. (We worked with Shanna Alvarez in Seattle, who was fabulous.) While the parents meet, the kids attend “Dinosaur School” which teaches social and emotional skills. Note: my Discipline Toolbox is highly influenced by what we learned at Incredible Years.
  • Ross Greene has some really helpful tools, summarized as “Kids Want to Do Well – If they’re not doing well, ask yourself what skill or resources they are lacking.”
  • If emotional regulation is a challenge for your child, check out my post on Big Feelings and the Zones of Regulation approach.

Building Connections with Your Child

Floor Time, or Child Directed Play, is a powerful way to connect with any child, but especially children who have challenges with social-emotional connections. Click here to learn about Floor Time: child-directed play. On Autism Navigator, learn how to support social communication development, and transactional supports to promote learning.

More resources

There are helpful resources at https://brightandquirky.com which has webinars with leading experts on how to support kids who are gifted AND autistic (or have other behavioral issues).

And for your child, here’s my list of Children’s Picture Books about Autism and other “quirky kids” stories. Seeing themselves reflected in a book might be helpful for them.

If you’ve got one of those kids whose brain and body are always moving super fast, leaping from one thing to the next, make sure to check out my post on “the race car brain.” If you’ve got a shy child who observes more than they engage, check out my post on the slow to warm up child.

Resources for Understanding Child Development

This is a collection of all my favorite resources for understanding developmental milestones, and enhancing your child’s development at any stage.

Checklists and Activities, Tailored to the Age of Your Child:

Just in Time Parenting from eXtension. 8 page newsletters, which include sections on milestones (how I talk, how I understand, how I move), activities parents can do to enhance development, and tips for managing the predictable challenges of each phase. Issues are available in 2 month intervals (e.g. 19 – 20 months; 21 – 22 months, etc. Up to 5 years.) You can subscribe to receive free automatic email updates every two months, or you can download any newsletter issue now at: http://jitp.extension.org/

Pathways. https://pathways.org/ Age groups are: 0-3 mo, 4-6 mo, 7-9, 10-12, 13-18, 19-24; 2-3 years, 4- 6 years. Each section includes an overview, articles on how to support learning, videos of key ideas, and abilities checklists for: play and social skills, coordination milestones, ability to manage daily activities, and self-expression.

Learn the Signs, Act Early from the Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/index.html. Lists of milestones at each age, and suggested activities to support development. Guide to what to do if you’re concerned about development. Up to 5 years. In the past, they had handouts in English and Spanish, but the 2022 revision is currently only available in English. You could also download the CDC’s Milestone Tracker app, which is in English and Spanish.

Zero to Three. Healthy Minds, Nurturing Your Child’s Development: Each 2 page handout includes a summary of what your child is capable of, ideas for activities you can do to enhance development, and questions to ask yourself about your child. Toddler handouts for 12 – 18 months, 18 – 24 months, and 24 – 36 months. www.zerotothree.org/about-us/areas-of-expertise/free-parent-brochures-and-guides/age-based-handouts.html

Screening Tool

Ages and Stages Questionnaire: http://asqoregon.com/. This questionnaire takes about 15 minutes to complete online. It will ask 6 questions in each of 5 areas of development: small motor skills, large motor, communication, problem-solving, and personal-social. If your child is developing normally, you will see that you will mark some of the skills as “yes, my child has mastered this”, some as “my child can sometimes do this” and some as “not yet.” After you complete the questionnaire, you will receive a brief summary of the results. Learn more about the ASQ and interpreting your results. Up to 6 years. (Note, this screening is also available at www.easterseals.com/mtffc/asq/)

In Seattle/King County, professional ASQ screenings are available free at Parent Trust for Washington Children. www.parenttrust.org/index.php?page=asq

Resources for activities to support development

Ideas for Activities to enhance all areas of development, and an overview of brain development: www.bbbgeorgia.org/parentsActivities.php

Learning Opportunities in Everyday Activities (e.g. laundry!) www.bornlearning.org/learning-on-the-go

For each age, ideas to enhance learning in creative arts, language, literacy, math, science, emotional growth. Up to age 8.
www.pbs.org/parents/child-development/

Learn about Developmental Concerns

updated 2022

Social Skills After Quarantine

In 2021, as we are beginning to come out of the isolation of COVID-19, parents may feel a special urgency to make up for lost time on social development. Learning about developmentally normal stages of social development can help you to prioritize what support your child needs and how to help them make connections.

Making Up for Lost Time

Early childhood is prime time for learning social skills. For children that were socially isolated during those years due to coronavirus, parents may worry that their child’s social skills will be irreparably damaged. But children are so resilient – when social play opportunities open up, they’ll catch up!

First, remember – your child has been practicing social skills! Even if it was just one child and one adult living together, there was plenty of opportunity to practice talking and listening, taking turns, playing together, and conflict resolution. (If there were additional people or animals in the mix, even better.) If you want to evaluate whether they’re on track with social skills, check out this checklist of play skills (or this one) that children typically develop at each age – you may discover they are right where they should be developmentally. If they haven’t yet mastered some of the typical skills, the checklist will give you a sense of what to work on.

Learn what’s normal / what’s next:

It’s helpful to know what we’d typically expect at each age for children so as they start to play together, you can watch for these skills. It’s also helpful to know what’s next in typical development, so you can foster opportunities for learning.

Infants – if your baby was home with only you during the first few months, that’s fine! A young baby can get all the social cues and interaction they need from just one or two caring adults. Just practice serve-and-return interactions, where your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Your baby coos and you coo back. (Learn more.) And learn about infant cues to guide your responses. If your baby has the opportunity to interact with additional adults or older children, they will likely happily engage with anyone.

Older Babies. From 6 – 12 months, your baby learns to play more interactively with you and will likely enjoy peek-a-boo, copying your actions, clapping with you, passing toys back and forth, and finding toys you have hidden. Some babies may play happily with all they encounter. However, it is important to know that even in normal times, many infants develop a fear of strangers at around 7 to 8 months, so interacting with other people in person prior to that may help to reduce that. If you’re just introducing your child to other people at this age, reassure yourself that stranger fear is developmentally normal, not just a product of coronavirus quarantine… they will outgrow it just as all babies have always outgrown it. Here are tips on reducing separation anxiety. And more tips.)

Young Toddlers – up to 2 years. Before 18 – 24 months, children primarily engage in solitary play, where they engage with toys, but often appear uninterested or unaware of other children. So, if your child was in isolation during this period, don’t worry about it! If you bring them back into connection with other kids during this period, know that it’s normal for them to not really engage much. They do engage with adults or older children more effectively than they do with peers, so if you’re choosing only one COVID playmate to help build your toddler’s social skills, 71 year old grandma or 17 year old babysitter may be as good a match as a 17 month old buddy. To build social skills, try Floortime play, which begins with child-led play, then “stretches” the play to be more interactive and turn-taking.

Onlookers: Around 2 years old, they begin to shift to spectator play, where they may begin observing other children more. This is a great time to take them to public parks where they can watch other children at play, up close or from afar.

Older Toddlers – 2+ years. Children begin to engage in parallel play. They will play next to each other, often mimicking what the other child is doing. They may not often engage in reciprocal back-and-forth play with a peer, but they are learning from each other. If your child was isolated during this stage, they almost certainly did parallel play with you. If you’re re-integrating them into social play at this age, they can do fine one-on-one or in groups, with familiar kids or with children they’ve just met.

“Stealing” toys is very common at this age. They are not intentionally trying to deprive the other child of something… it’s just that they noticed what the other child was doing and they want to do it now. One of the most effective ways to handle this issue is distraction – let the child who seems more focused on the contested toy keep it, and distract the other child with a new toy. That will work better, and is more developmentally appropriate than telling children to share.

Three Year Olds. Around age 3, children begin to do more associate play. They start to interact more with each other, trading toys, copying each other, or “inviting” the other child to participate in what they are doing. They become more interested in the other child than in the toy. They may work together on a goal – like building with blocks, but there aren’t usually “rules” to the game. They can learn social skills by playing with adults or with older children, but it’s great if they can have peer interaction at this age. It does not have to be in a large group pre-school. One-on-one or a few children at a time is fine. It may be tempting to enroll in classes as your primary place to connect with other kids, but if your main goal is social skills, it is easier for children to learn those in settings that allow lots of free play (a playground, playdates with other families, a play-based preschool, or a family size child care setting) than in a structured class (like a gymnastics or soccer class where the teacher is trying to keep them on task.)

Check out the “skills to practice at home” section below.

Four and Five Year Olds. At this age, they have moved into true cooperative play. They share toys, they share ideas, they create “rules” or agree on which role each one will play in a pretend game, and work together toward goals. They start learning more about cooperation, compromise, and fair turn-taking. Whereas at younger ages, it’s fine to have your child play with lots of different kids, this is an important age for children to have a few consistent buddies to play with repeatedly, to build friendship skills. If they are enrolled in a group setting, like preschool or extracurricular classes, look for children there that they most connect with, and try setting up playdates with that family to give them more opportunity to connect. Or, if you’re still limiting exposures to other kids, find just one to three families for a low COVID risk playgroup. Check out “skills to practice at home” below, and my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.”

Reducing Coronavirus Risk

Every parent has to make their own calculations, but here are some things to consider.

  • If the number of vaccinated people in your community is high, and the number of current cases are low, there is less risk of community transmission than when there are fewer vaccinated folks and case numbers are growing.
  • The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings is lower. The risk at indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings is higher.
  • If the parents at the playdate are vaccinated and wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • If children (over age 2) wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • Fewer people involved means fewer exposure risks.
  • You can plan activities that make it easier for children to stay distanced, or provide supports to help them remember to be distanced (like hula hoops or sit-upons to mark places to sit.) Teach them to wave hello rather than hugging or high fiving. Have them wash hands before and after play. Save snacks for after the gathering.

Skills to Practice at Home

You can boost their social skills by practicing in advance of playdates. Do lots of pretend play, puppet shows and role plays, and talk about the social and emotional experiences of characters in stories that you are reading.

When teaching about emotions, I have always taught children to recognize how facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate emotion, but especially when masks cover up much of our facial expressions, the other non-verbal cues are especially important to teach.

Practice give-and-take conversations, where you take turns fairly, don’t interrupt each other, and ask the other person questions about what they said rather than always just telling them things. Role model social skills by how you interact with friends, family and people in the community.

Introduce the ideas of taking turns. Play side by side with your child, and occasionally ask: ‘can I play with that toy now?’ Or say ‘you can have that toy for one more minute and then it’s my turn.’ If they try to take a toy from you, say ‘I’m playing with it now. You can have it in a minute. Here’s another toy you can play with now.’ Don’t expect 2 – 3 year olds to be good at sharing and taking turns! It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and they just have to reach a stage of development where they can empathize with another child’s feelings. But practicing at home gives them a chance to build trust in the idea that if they let you have your turn that you will give it back when it’s their turn.

If your child seems shy or withdrawn, don’t assume it’s because of COVID. It could just be their natural temperament. Just search online for tips to help with a shy or introverted child, or what I like to call a “slow-to-warm-up” child. Some simple ways to help them are: get together in smaller groups in quiet, not chaotic environments; arrive before the other child(ren) to get settled; sit on the ground and let your child sit on your lap till they feel ready to venture out. Don’t push.

Learn more in my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.” Also check out “Making Up for Lost Time” from Bright Horizons, Helping Your Child Make Friends Again from PBS, and my tips for Successful Playdates.

Keys to Brain Development

Infographic with Keys to Brain Development

In the first five years of life, a child’s brain grows from 25% the size of an adult’s brain at birth to 92% of adult size. All that growth comes from making connections – connections built through hands-on, multi-sensory experiences of their world. There are several ways parents and teachers can support children’s growth and development. This 90 second video gives a quick summary, and there’s more details below.

Novelty – New Experiences

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

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

I have a whole collection of easy free activities with toddlers to get you inspired. Everything from “nature shopping” to “counting cars”, from “construction theater” to year-round egg hunts.

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

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

Repetition – Doing it Again and Again Builds Mastery

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

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

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

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

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

Down Time to Process it All

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

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

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

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

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

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