Tag Archives: development

Wait for it…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Periods of Disequilibrium

Does it seem to you that there are periods of time when parenting is easy? That you’ve mastered it and you’re cruising along with a well-behaved child whose needs you understand? And are there other periods when it’s all really hard? When you feel like you’re incompetent, like your child is out of control, and you have no idea what they need and the things that used to work no longer work?

Did you know that’s totally normal?

And that all families experience this?

Children go through very predictable cycles, or developmental spurts. Sometimes they settle into a quiet period of equilibrium where they take time to incorporate all that they have learned and practice learned skills to the point of mastery. Whenever they’re on the verge of a new and exciting development, they go into a period of disequilibrium… there’s some new skill they can see and it’s just out of reach, and they are striving toward it with every part of their being and frustrated at everything else along the way.

One of the first developmental spurts is a 6 week old baby… they cry and cry and cry… and then…. they smile at your for the first time and really connect with another person. Lots of 6 month olds struggle with sleep – they’d much rather be figuring out how to crawl. Although we hear about the “terrible twos”, it’s really the one-and-a-halfs and the two-and-a-halfs. The 18 month old knows that other people talk and that helps them get what they want. And yet when she tries to speak, nobody understands! Meltdowns are common at this age. (Learn about toddler language development here.) At 2.5, they have discovered that you set rules and make them do things they don’t want to do. And they rebel against that. You’ll hear the word “No” a lot at this stage! And they get very angry or upset when you don’t do things like they want you to. (Something like cutting their sandwich into triangles when they wanted squares can lead to a huge tantrum.) The more you can follow routines and set clear limits the more manageable this period can be.

These cycles continue throughout our lives. But they get longer… we have longer periods of equilibrium and longer periods of disequilibrium… where that 6 week old baby was out of balance for a week or two, a midlife crisis could last a couple years. One of the most challenging situations is when multiple members of the household are in a disequilibrium stage at the same time!

Expect more hard times at 3.5, 4.5, 5.5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc.

One hard time for kids is 4.5 years old. When my second child hit this stage, it was really hard. She had been on an easy cruise for a long time. And at 4.5, sometimes she was an absolute delight to be with – so many thoughts going on in her head, a great imagination, lots of budding passions and capabilities. And other times she was so exhausting to be around that I wanted someone to come and take her away!!

She was a rules negotiator and protester. She knew the rules – things like “only two sweets a day” (where a sweet equals a candy or a cookie or juice) and “you need to stay in your room at bedtime.” But, she would say “but today, I can have three sweets” or “tomorrow I’ll stay in my room.” And if I said no, she’d yell, hit, and more.

I thought “I need a book. A book about how to manage this.” I hadn’t felt like I needed to buy a parenting book in years, because I’d been feeling pretty competent. But now, I felt in over my head. So, I went looking for a book called something like “Your Five Year Old” that would tell me how to manage this.

And then, in the bookstore…  I realized I already owned that book.

I’d bought it when my first child was 4.5.

I’m not sure I really read it, because I think she may have moved out of that developmental stage into a period of equilibrium at about the same time as I bought that book. And we went into the smooth ease of parenting a five year old. Just remembering that I had bought the book and that she had moved on from that phase before I read it helped me realize I didn’t need to read a book to manage my second child… I just needed to be patient. It was, in fact, “just a phase”, and she soon moved through it.

And now, it’s child #3’s turn to be 4.5. He was sick about two weeks ago, and after that he became difficult to manage: some clinging, lots of wild behavior, lots of rule negotiating, lots of defying me when I enforce the rules (yesterday he head butted me when I said he couldn’t have a second bag of fruit snacks.) At first, we thought “well, it’s just because he’s been sick. It will get better soon.” But now, I’m coming to terms with the fact that no… it’s his period of disequilibrium. I’m trying to focus on all the joys of where he’s at developmentally (the language skills, the imagination, all the cool conclusions he’s coming to) and remember that “it’s just a phase… and this too shall pass….”

Read more:

How Many Toys is Enough?


Parents often complain about the overwhelming clutter of toys in their home, and yet they have a hard time letting go of the toys they have and/or they keep acquiring more toys.

Let’s look at ways to think about the toys that we take into our homes, which we decide to keep, and how to decide when it’s time to let go.

Toys as a cure for boredom?

I often hear:

“My daughter gets bored of any toy after just a few minutes, so I need to keep getting new toys to keep her busy.”

Kids learn what they are taught. And the more we reinforce it, the more ingrained the learning. If every time your baby fusses, you give her a new toy to entertain her, you’ve trained her that the way to happiness is more new toys. And you’ve trained her that your job is to keep her entertained at all times.

On the other hand, if your child complains about being bored, and you don’t “rescue” her by offering new entertainment, she will learn that she can entertain herself. I know that many of my kids’ most creative moments followed after they said “I’m bored!” I didn’t fix it for them by handing them new toys. Instead I left them to their own devices to figure out a new game or project. Suddenly, the “same old toys” took on new life.

For young children, like toddlers and preschoolers, they may not be able to invent a new game on their own, but you can offer “invitations to play.” You can put out old toys in new combinations, or allow them to play with various household objects. For example, they may not have played with the blocks in the living room or the toy horses in their bedroom for a long time. But if you put those toys on the kitchen table, suddenly they’re building a stable, and when they want a ramp, they grab a wooden ruler from the desk.

Children throughout history and across cultures have had a fabulous time playing with whatever materials were available to them. And the fewer the materials, the more creative they have to be. What’s the best all-time toy? The stick. (Check it out – it’s in the Toy Hall of Fame and in this list of the 5 best toys of all time, and here’s a great blog post on all the things a stick can become.)

Could less be more?

I have worked with many parents who said things like:

“My child never focuses. He flits around the room, from one thing to another. I keep getting new toys, hoping to find one he likes enough to play with it for longer.”

I recommend that they instead put away half the toys in the room and see what happens. Almost always, they find that the child slows down, calms down, and focuses more.

Having lots of toys in their environment can be very over-stimulating for children. Feeling surrounded by choices can create an internal pressure to play with everything, and stress over choosing which thing to play with next.

If we add in auditory clutter (such as background TV) or visual clutter (whether it’s piles of unfolded laundry or carefully curated artwork and decorative displays), it’s even harder to focus. “Experiments show children who play in rooms where a TV is broadcasting… spend less time with individual toys and shift their attention more quickly from one activity to another…” (Source)  “…children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.” (Source)

Parents.com has a nice article on helping young children learn to focus. But an easy place to start can be having a calmer, more focused play space with a smaller number of quality toys, not a lot of décor, and some quiet time.

Can we learn to appreciate what we have?

“Their grandparents love to buy them things, and my sisters give me all their kids’ hand-me-downs, so there’s this never-ending flood of toys. I’m overwhelmed, but every time a relative comes over, my kids expect to get a toy.”


Another benefit of focusing less on acquiring more stuff can be more time to focus on  gratitude for what you do have, especially if we make gratitude a conscious focus of our family life.  (Find great tips for this on Hip Homeschool Moms and check out this post on Momastery titled “Give me gratitude or give me debt“, it’s about taking a moment to notice all the amazing things in our homes (running water!! a refrigerator with food in it!!) and worry less about all the things that magazines, catalogs, and advertisements tell us we need to be happy.

We’ve got a great little independent toy store in my home town. At least it looks great from the outside. But we’ve never been inside. My 3-year-old and I walk past it all the time on our way to the park, the farmer’s market, and the fountain that he likes to splash his hands in. I suspect that if we ever went in, then he would want all the toys in there, and would sob whenever we passed in the future. It’s easy to get captivated by consumer products – after all, that’s what makes our capitalist society run. But, he’s happy with the toys that we do have, and I’m grateful that we can walk to the park, the market, and the fountain – those are the memories of his childhood that I want.

If I decide we want new toys, then there’s always our Buy Nothing group to check with first. It’s a Facebook group where people freely give away anything they don’t need anymore. (Check their website to see if there’s one in your area!)

Some day, as your child gets older, they may notice that other kids have more toys than they do. This can result in some yelling and some tears and some “you’re so mean” moments. But, it also opens up an opportunity for discussions with your child about your family values, what you choose and why. It can also tie into financial literacy, and helping educate them about how to make consumer choices that work for them.

What about developmental stimulation?

“I worry that he’s not going to get all the stimulation he needs to reach his potential, so I buy all the stuff that’s supposed to help with brain development.”

One of the ways marketers convince us to buy their toys is by telling us a toy is “developmentally appropriate” or “stimulates language development” or “encourages creative thinking” or “will guarantee your kid will get into Harvard.”

I promise you… there does not exist “the one best toy that all kids need” in order to learn and grow. Our kids can, and do, learn from everything in their environment.

We do want to think about a diversity of experiences for our children. This is the best way to stimulate brain development.

As we choose toys and activities, it helps to think about choosing toys that help with all the areas of development. I also think about the theory of multiple intelligences to ensure my children and my students have opportunities to develop them all. Look at the toys you own: Does your child have toys that stimulate gross motor development? small motor development? Pretend play? Artistic expression? Musical appreciation?

Here is a handout on choosing toys to develop multiple intelligences. And here’s my post on how this theory plays out in real life – in other words, what toys does my three year old own for each category, and is that working for us?

Also, I don’t worry about having in my home everything my child needs to develop. Think about your community resources: the library (ours check out videos, CD’s, stuffed toys, and puzzles – not just books), indoor playgrounds (our local parks departments all host them in their gyms on winter weekday mornings – they set out lots of ride-upons, balls, and other great toys for big motor play), other parks programs, zoos and pet stores, and children’s museums. (Check out this great article on why we need children’s museums.)

Rotating Toys

“I spent all this money on special toys for Christmas, and she still hasn’t really played with any of them. But I’m going to hang on to them for a little while longer to see if they catch her interest. But we’ve just got too many toys now!”

A friend of mine is in the process of selling her house. So, she packed up most of her toddler’s toys to keep the clutter in the house at a minimum in case an agent wanted to show the house. She made 5 plastic tubs full of toys to store in the garage. She gets out one tub at a time, that has a small collection of toys in it. She says her toddler will happily play with that one small collection of toys for days on end without complaining or getting bored. And even better, she’s even started to put away all her own toys in the bin at the end of each play session. Every once in a while, they put those toys away and bring in a new bin. If there’s any one toy from bin #1 that’s really popular at the moment, then they keep it out, and swap one of the bin #2 toys into bin #1 to take its place.

My friend says that in the new house, she plans to continue this method, because it’s working so well for them.

More Resources

Also check out: Elizabeth Pantley’s advice on buying toys for babies and toddlers. These articles on Why Fewer Toys will Benefit Your Kids, and Seven Ways to Build Your Child’s Attention Span (which include minimal “entertainment” and more open-ended toys).  Dr. Toy is a helpful website that reviews toys.

photo credit: r0Kk via photopin cc, geirt.com via photopin

Child Development and Early Literacy

[This is my second post on early literacy. Look here for tips on how to get your child excited about reading, and here for how to read to your child, and here for other games and activities that build literacy skills]

Developmental Stages of Literacy

12 – 18 months: can hold or carry books, look at board books independently, points to pictures in the book, may gaze at one book for a long time, or may switch between books quickly

18 – 24 months: may carry a favorite book around; will hold books and pretend to read; may want you to read the same book over and over. When you read favorite books, your child may say some of the words and phrases with you

2 – 3 years: can learn to turn pages in a regular book, names objects in pictures, may recite parts of books from memory, starts to relate what they’re reading about in books to their life experiences

3 – 4 years: understand that words on a page have meaning, begin to recognize letters, might recognize some words, enjoy longer stories, can guess what might happen next, like to discuss stories, can easily turn pages

What kind of books do kids love?

Young Toddlers (12 – 24 months): choose sturdy board books with only a few words on each page. Look for simple rhymes and predictable text (e.g. a repeating phrase that appears throughout). Look for simple pictures that match the text. They like books about things they see and do in their day-to-day lives, like eating lunch or going to the park, more than fantasy or books about exotic experiences.

Toddlers (2 – 3 years): Choose books that tell simple stories. Pay attention to what your child is passionate about – animals, trains, dinosaurs – they’ll love books about that. Look for non-fiction on topics like shapes, numbers, letters. Choose books with rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. Lift the flaps. (These are my favorite books for toddlers.)

Preschoolers (3 – 5 years): Children are able to enjoy longer stories, and stories about things outside their daily experience. You can choose non-fiction books about simple ideas like telling time, counting, opposites, and also about anything they’re excited about – planets, sports, kittens…

Aim for a mix of familiar books and fresh ones – kids love to hear the same book over and over – the familiar is comforting and repetition helps them learn. New books introduce new ideas and new things to fall in love with. At any reading session, offer multiple books and let them choose.

Source for developmentally specific recommendations:

Getting Ready to Read is a short booklet on helping your child become a confident reader. (It also includes lots of great tips for language development and development in general.) www.zerotothree.org/child-development/early-language-literacy/cradlingliteracy_ready2read_8-14-09.pdf

These Pathways for Literacy gives very specific guidelines for each developmental stage.

Sources for book recommendations for each age group:

Lists of recommended books are available on websites for many library systems or in person at the library. Check out some here: www.kcls.org/kids/whattoread/booklists/ and here www.bklynpubliclibrary.org/first-5-years/read/toddlers/books

I often look at these lists for ideas, then go to Amazon to read reviews of the book to learn more. (Then back to my library website to put the book on hold. We read 15 new books a week – we couldn’t afford this habit if we bought all those books!)

Another great collection of resources and recommendations is: http://www.readingrockets.org/audience/parents

Here is a printable handout on Literacy for age 2 – 6  and one on Pre-literacy for toddlers. Find more handouts on my Resources for Parent Educators page.

Child Development Milestones

When we look at child development, we always want to look at the whole child, not just one set of skills, so experts have divided developmental milestones into the 5 categories below.

Children develop skills on a fairly predictable timeline, but can have uneven development – for example, a 24 month old may have the motor skills we expect of a 30 month old, and the communication skills typical of an 18 month old… if you look at that same child 6 months later, they may have surged in their communication skills. Temperament and interest levels have big effects on which skills they focus most on, but parents can also ensure they have opportunities and encouragement to develop in all these areas.

It is helpful for parents to have a good working knowledge of typical development (see the resources post for great information) so they know if their child is on track, and children may also benefit from occasional screenings to make sure children are progressing well. (You can complete the ASQ developmental screening online anytime.)

Gross Motor (aka Large Motor)

These skills include: running, jumping, throwing, kicking, climbing, and dancing.

To build these skills, ensure that your child has plenty of time and opportunity to move: playgrounds, indoor gyms, hikes in the woods where they can balance on logs, going up and down stairs, tumbling on a mat. Try for a mixture of free play time where they explore movement on their own, and playing together. Kids love wrestling with parents, dancing, chasing around the house together, kicking a ball together. You can teach basic skills of any sport – just don’t expect them to follow rules yet!

Fine Motor

Fine motor skills allow a child to pick up and manipulate small objects. These skills help them to feed themselves, dress themselves, hold a pencil, and other essential skills for independence.

You can help build these skills with activities like: coloring / drawing / painting, threading beads onto a pipe cleaner, threading pipe cleaners through the holes on a colander, putting dried beans inside a bottle, taking lids on and off containers, feeding them small and slippery finger foods (like diced peaches), letting them feed themselves with a fork or a spoon, and stacking blocks.

If your child tends to still mouth small objects, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them use small items ever…  but you should supervise them when they play, and put small items away when you’re done.

Social-Emotional Development

These skills can be seen when your child copies your actions, notices the emotions of other people, shows empathy for others, or plays games where they are pretending to be/do something.

These skills are primarily built in interaction with others. However, children can also learn a lot about social interaction and emotions by reading books or watching TV. When you read to your child, talk about the emotions the characters may be feeling. Talk about the ways they are interacting with each other – are they being nice? Mean? How does their behavior make the other characters feel?

Language & Communication

Communication is not just saying words out loud. Especially for a young toddler, we want to know: do they seem to understand the words that are said to them (e.g. Can they follow simple directions – like ‘close the door’? If asked to point at a picture of a cat, can they do so? Do they point/gesture to indicate what they want? Do they follow your gestures? Can they name a few familiar objects?)

The best way to build language skills is to follow your child’s lead… rather than throwing language at them about what you see around you, first watch them. What are they looking at? What has their attention at the moment? Talk to them about that, giving them words to describe what they see.

Cognitive Development: Problem-Solving

This is about using tools, and solving challenges. For example, a child who sees a toy you put on the counter out of reach, then gets a stool and pushes it over to the counter and climbs up on the stool to get the toy is a great problem-solver! (And a frustrating child to parent!)

To build problem-solving skills, give them challenges: puzzles, shape sorters, tasks that require multiple steps (first you take the lid off the box, then you put the toy in, then you put the lid back on the box), sorting objects by color or size or other characteristics, and putting toys away in their proper places. Allow your child to become frustrated without always “rescuing” them from that frustration. Notice their triggers, and signs that frustration is building, and move in for a little extra support, but don’t just take over and do the task for them – they can learn through those challenges. You can sit with your child and provide emotional support for their feelings of frustration while still encouraging them to keep trying to solve the puzzle. You may suggest things they could try, but don’t do it for them.

It can be helpful to watch other children at the playground in your child’s classes to get a sense of typical development, but try not to compare your child too much to other children. They all develop in their own way at their own pace.

I still remember something that happened when my now 20-year-old was a toddler. I was very proud that they were stringing together simple 2 word phrases – ‘throw ball’, ‘more crackers’, and ‘doggy book’. Then I talked with a friend who had a child the same age… she said her child had said the day before ‘Hey Grandma, Grandpa, come downstairs, breakfast ready.’ I was devastated, feeling like there was something wrong with my child. But then later in that conversation, I shared how my child had played at the park that week, climbing up the ladder on the slide, sliding down, then climbing up the slide itself and sliding back down. The other mom sheepishly admitted that her child could barely climb on and off the couch!

That’s when it became clear that at that moment in time, my child was working on physical skills and hers was working on verbal skills. Developmental theorists will tell you it all evens out in time, and I can also tell you the same from my experience. Those two children are now a sophomore at Oberlin College and a sophomore at Reed College, and both very bright independent young adults with solid skills in all developmental areas. It all works out in the end…