Tag Archives: kids

Nature Connection Pyramid

pyramidi like this infographic from the Nature Kids’ Institute, which gives “recommended daily allowances” style of recommendations for getting your child outside. (They have a free five part series of short videos on “Let’s Bring Childhood Back Outside.”)

They talk about free, unstructured outdoor play once a day. This is about the little stuff, like finding some tree stumps in your neighborhood to climb and jump off of, or stopping at a local plant nursery, going on an autumn leaf hunt or a scavenger hunt in your neighborhood, or walking to the store, or playing in the backyard, or weeding the garden or digging in a sandbox. In the video, they say the best thing is an empty outdoor space with no toys or obvious activities so children get creative and invent their own play.

They suggest that once a week, you make a plan for a nature outing, like a trip to the dog park (whether or not you have a dog), a visit to a farm park or petting zoo, a hike to search for wildlife. You could even just visit the same woods or park every week, and make friends with a tree. At this time of year, try the pumpkin patch.

Once a month, check out a regional, state or national park. Here are some new favorites we found this summer. And once a year, go somewhere wild.

If you find yourself making excuses for why you “just can’t go outside today”, check out my post on overcoming the barriers to outside play.

Why do this? There are so many benefits to outdoor play! Increased creativity and self-direction, decrease in ADHD symptoms, large motor development, lower obesity rates, better vision, and more… As winter sets in, you’ll often feel like your child is “bouncing off the walls” inside. Bundle them up, take them outside, and let them play!

Have you gotten your recommended dose of nature today?

Mixed Age Play

A 16 year old buried under a puppy pile of 7 year old, 3 year old, and 2 year old buddies...

A patient and tolerant 16 year old buried under a puppy pile of 12 year old, 7 year old, 3 year old, and 2 year old buddies…

I’m working now on a longer post about the benefits of multi-age classrooms. (To be posted September 2) but I wanted to share some observations from my recent personal experiences with multi-age play.

Modern American kids tend to spend much of their time in age segregated activities: schools, sports teams, and extra-curriculars where all the kids were born within a one year age span. During the school year, much of what my child does is with his own age cohort.

But this summer, my three-year-old has had lots of opportunities for mixed age play:

  • Lots of spontaneous play on public playgrounds with whatever strangers happen to be there… he tends to play most with kids age 2 – 6.
  • Monthly social for a club we’re involved in. We gather in a gym, and there tend to be about 5 kids…. last month they were 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 years old. My son has played with each of them a few times before.
  • Play time on the playground at church. There’s usually about a dozen kids, ranging in age from 3 – 12. We’ve known them for six months.
  • “Dinner in the park with friends” – we gather with two other families once a week in the park. Our 7 kids are 20, 17, 16, 12, 7, 3, and 2 years old. And they’ve all known each other since birth.

As I watched him play in each of these settings, here’s what I observed (and also what is described by authors and researchers in this area.)

What do I love about mixed age play?

Benefits for younger kids:

  • They get exposed to new ways of thinking. My son doesn’t yet do a lot of imaginary play on his own, but when playing with older kids, suddenly, he’s talking about how they’re pirates on a pirate ship. Or he’s serving up “ice cream cones” made of bark.
  • They learn new ways of moving. My son has learned how to use all the playground equipment – even the challenging stuff – by watching the older kids do it. He learned how to do somersaults recently.
  • They learn new skills. My second child (like many younger siblings) learned to read, write, tie her shoes, dress herself, and more by watching her big sibling do it. I’ve heard countless stories of kids potty training after attending a camp or class where older kids routinely use the potty.

Benefits for older kids:

  • They learn to be flexible. At the social we attend, I watched the kids play an improvised ball game with invented rules. The older kids had teams, and were always trying to move the ball toward their team’s goal. But they understood that the younger ones couldn’t remember or follow the rules reliably. So, the littlest kids could kick the ball any direction they wanted to, and the older ones just worked with the chaos of that.
  • They learn to explain and enforce rules. But the older kids also did set limits sometimes on what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. They had to figure out how to explain it so the little kids could understand.
  • They learn empathy, to be gentle and watch out for little ones. At church, I watched kids on the swings figure out that if big kids are walking near them, it’s OK because they know to be careful, but if little kids start to wander near, they call out a warning and they slow down their swings.

Benefits for parents:

  • Can give parents a break: If there are responsible (or semi-responsible) older kids around, the parents of the little ones may be able to sit back a little. For example, when we’re with our friends in the park, often the teens and tween supervise the 3 little ones while the parents relax and talk.

What can be challenging about mixed age play?

  • Kids get exposed to new ways of thinking: Sometimes things they might not have otherwise thought of…. In the movie Boyhood, there’s a scene where the 6-year-old and the older neighbor boy are flipping through a lingerie catalog ogling the models in their lacy bras. The 6-year-old probably would not have pursued “girly magazines” as young without that influence.
  • They learn new ways of moving: I still remember when my oldest was 6 or so, a girl who was probably 12 years old was shimmying up the pole of the swing-set till she was 15 feet in the air. My daughter watched her very intently, then pulled off her socks and shoes and scaled the pole. Something that would have never occurred to her to do on her own. And that was much higher in the air than I wanted her to be!
  • They learn new skills. I learned how to work pocket knives, matches, and other cool tools from my older brothers. Probably much younger than my parents might have wished I learned those skills.
  • Big kids aren’t always nice. We’ve had two incidents with my little guy this summer. One was at a playground where there was a group of 4 girls who were probably 9 or 10 years old. When we arrived, they played happily with my son and were having a great time. Then they decided they were bored of the “baby” and wanted him to go away. He had a hard time understanding what had changed. Another was at a different playground where there was a large group of older boys (age 7 or 8 maybe). My son was following them around, and laughing and engaged with them, but when we moved close we discovered that what was happening was they were asking him to say things like “I’m really stupid” and then laughing at him when he did. He didn’t get that it was mean – he thought it was a fun game. But clearly it was bullying and not appropriate behavior for those kids. (Their camp counselor was not providing sufficient supervision to even notice, much less intervene in the situation.)
  • Parents of older kids don’t always pay attention. When my child is the youngest one, he may be getting into situations that are more dangerous than he might typically be in (see above under “learn new ways of moving”). So, I have to supervise more closely than I normally would. But the parents of the older kids may be used to not having to do much supervision at all of their child, and may not realize that a) their child might need guidance on what is and is not appropriate play when younger kids are involved, and b) the parent who is supervising the youngest one then kind of gets stuck supervising all the kids by herself and managing all the needed interventions.
  • Unfair Expectations: In mixed age settings, it can be easy for adults to expect the younger children to have the same capabilities as the older children. When my younger daughter was 8, she was placed in a class where most of the kids were 10 years old. Academically, it was a good fit. She was one of the most advanced in the class. Socially, she did fine. She had a big sister, so she was used to playing with older kids. But emotionally it was hard. If something upset her, she had a hard time calming herself down. Parents who volunteered in the class sometimes had a hard time managing it, because they were used to their older children. Even the teacher failed to manage it well – reporting to us that our child was just much less emotionally mature than the other kids in the class. It was as if she’d forgotten that all those other kids had 25% more life experience than our daughter.

I think it’s important to be aware of these possible pitfalls, but don’t let it deter you from multi-age play.

I grew up as the youngest of four kids, with piles of kids of all ages in the neighborhood, at church, in 4-H, Girl Scouts, etc. I want my kids to have that experience of all the benefits  that mixed age play can give. And for that, I’m willing to take the challenges – think of them as learning experiences…

Great Resources for Songs for Kids

Each week in my class, we have a circle time where we sing lots of great songs that toddlers love. Here is my lesson plan for a full year’s worth of Circle Time for Toddlers.

Circle time is a lot of fun for the children in the room and for the parents, but beyond that, singing songs with your children helps your child to learn in many ways, and enhances your connections as a family. Singing builds:

  • Musical skills
  • Mathematical and spatial skills
  • Vocabulary
  • Memory
  • Connections to traditions
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Attachment

Learn more about music and development.

Here are a few of my favorite resources for kids’ songs:

The King County Library has produced videos of librarians singing LOTS (hundreds!) of classic children’s rhymes: http://kcls.org/content/. If you’re trying to remember the tune of any childhood song, this is a great place to look!

Jbrary is a channel on YouTube featuring two children’s librarians singing songs, lap songs, and finger rhymes from library story times: www.youtube.com/user/Jbrary/videos. I LOVE all their videos.

Nancy Stewart has gathered lyrics and made audio recordings (.mp3) of lots of traditional songs, including her Baker’s Dozen of songs every child should know and a collection of campfire songs: http://singwithourkids.com/song-library.htm. She also has lists of recommended books which include songs, or have rhythmic text that can be sung to children, to reinforce both music and early literacy skills: http://singwithourkids.com/bookshelf.htm.

Nancy Kopman has lots of great songs for toddler classes and preschools.  https://nancykopman.com/learning-centre/#parents

Let’s Play Music was developed by Sara Mullett, based on 15 years experience teaching kids’ music classes. It includes over 150 songs – each has lyrics, sheet music, a video of the tune being played on a xylophone, and activities / motions to go along with the song. http://www.letsplaykidsmusic.com

Math Songs: https://familymath.stanford.edu/activities/singing-together/

Spanish Story-Times. This post includes links both to online story-times and lots of videos of children’s songs and rhymes in Spanish.

YouTube has a huge collection of animated videos featuring traditional and new children’s songs, in a wide range of languages. For example, not only would you find countless versions of the traditional alphabet song, plus many variations in melody (like ABC Rap), plus many elaborate alphabet songs (Animal Alphabet, Alexander Alligator, etc.), you can even find several different songs each dedicated to a single letter of the alphabet. (Even Q has 8 or more songs!)

As with everything on YouTube, the quality ranges tremendously, and there are some that are frankly inappropriate for children; however, it’s worth searching through and finding some of the great ones and setting up your own playlist. I will includes links to some good ones on my “favorite songs” page. Most kids love watching the videos along with the song, but if you’d rather not expose your child to videos, you can easily find a free program online which will allow you to convert videos into .mp3 audio files. (I use YTD Video downloader)

Music Connections offers some great posts on teaching rhythm and a steady beat to kids age birth to five: A Parent’s Guide to Beats and Rhythms, Developmental Progression of Steady Beat, and “Catching” a Steady Beat with Very Young Children.  This includes tips like: help your child experience steady beats by singing with them, dancing with them, or tapping on their knees in rhythm. When they’re doing repetitive movements, like tapping on something, sing or dance along in a steady rhythm that’s similar t o their rhythm. Have them walk or march to a beat.

Bounces, Lifts, Tickles and Rhymes for Baby. A nice collection from Storytime Shenanigans.

Click here for my favorite songs to sing with young children.

Time to go wading!


What could be better on a hot day than wading in a cool creek?
It’s cool, the sound of the water is relaxing, it’s building big motor skills (staying balanced on uneven ground), small motor skills (picking up pebbles to throw), caution and limits (don’t go to the deep area), entomology (water bugs!), mud-ology  (check out this great post on the benefits of mud play http://rightfromthestart.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/build-a-mud-kitchen-why-playing-with-mud-is-good-for-children/) fluid dynamics (water moves much faster over the waterfall than on the flat), mama’s limits (you can’t play near the waterfall!)
Lots of great stuff!
Do be aware of safety. Watch for broken glass in the water if you’re wading barefoot. It’s great if you know drowning rescue and CPR just in case. And it’s best to go with friends to help keep an eye out for everyone. Shower or bathe when you get home to wash off any buggies…

Wading at Everest park in Kirkland, WA

Wading at Everest park in Kirkland, WA

These pictures were taken at Everest park in Kirkland, WA. Plan to park in the lot north of the ball-fields. The creek is between parking and fields / playground. I was surprised to find we were the only ones in the creek on this hot hot day, but this park is never crowded… It is one of those almost- undiscovered gems.  http://parksofkirkland.com/everest-park/

Note: You do need to closely supervise here… the middle picture above shows the waterfall at the edge of this little pond area.


Screen Time: Making it Work for your Family


Screen time no longer means just TV in the living room. We now have DVD players, computers and video games at home, and tablets and smart phones we carry all day everywhere we go. And kids get lots of screen time.

Most parents have heard expert advice that warns of risks of screen use. But we also find there are benefits to using them, so we use them – maybe with a twinge of guilt each time…

So, rather than taking a “just say no” approach, many parents are trying to find a way to make screen time work well for their family. Here’s a wide variety of suggestions from parents and experts:

  • Plan what your child views; preview what they use: Choose developmentally appropriate programs and tools that teach skills you want your child to learn and demonstrate values that align with your family’s values.
    • For babies and toddlers especially, choose slow-paced shows and games, with calm backgrounds and without loud, jarring sounds and actions. Choose shows where the characters do everyday things that children do, like go to the park, take a bath, or spend time with friends at preschool. These shows may seem boring or goofy to you, but they engage young children without overwhelming them.
      • Shows that focus on fantasy / unrealistic experiences (a trip to the moon or a superhero battle) do not engage the brain as well as those that involve everyday experiences familiar to your child.
      • Fast-paced TV grabs the attention of the sensory / motor parts of the brain, but doesn’t engage the pre-frontal lobes which relate to attention, and decision-making. In an experiment, children were assigned to a 9 minute activity: drawing, watching a slow-paced educational TV show, or watching a fast-paced entertainment show. Afterwards, children were given four tests that looked at executive function. Kids who had been drawing performed the best on these tasks, those who watched educational TV performed less well; those who watched fast-paced TV performed poorly on all four tasks. (Source: The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function – Lillard and Peterson – http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/09/08/peds.2010-1919.full.pdf.)
      • Children this age also respond well to shows where the television characters occasionally speak directly to the child, or ask the child to participate in some way – “can you help me find Blue’s paw print?”
    • Pay attention to the way social / emotional issues are presented in the stories. Research found that some shows that aim to teach good behavior instead model negative interaction. They may spend the first 20 minutes setting up the conflict by showing kids behaving badly, then resolve it in the last ten minutes by kids behaving well (apologizing, confessing to a lie, etc.) Young children remember the emotionally-charged content at the beginning of the show more than they remember the pleasant resolution at the end. They may then practice bad behavior for the next few days…
    • Pay attention to what academic skills and life skills are being taught and whether they are taught effectively.  “Educational programming” ranges a great deal in how educational it really is. Use independent reviews and ratings such as Common Sense media to learn more before letting your child use a product.
    • Choose the right tools: infants may respond best to touchscreen devices that let them learn hands-on. School age children may learn hand-eye coordination and decision making through video games, and can learn important school/work skills by using a computer. Tweens can practice communication skills with a cell phone. Facebook and other social networking are appropriate for teens, with guidance.
    • It’s important to know what sites our children are using online, and what they’re doing there. Limit access to the Internet, use systems to block inappropriate content, know how to check the browser history (but don’t tell your child how to clear it!). Consider limiting internet use to public spaces of house, where parents can see / listen in.
      • You may need to learn new tech skills to keep up with your child’s abilities.
    • Use technology to your benefit: use DVR, on-demand or streaming TV to choose the best programming (rather than just watching what’s on at the moment), to skip over commercials, mute parts you don’t want your child to hear, or pause things to discuss.
      • Watch out for apps with in-game purchasing! Some devices have systems which can block your child from spending money at least. But these games tend to cause addictive behavior and can lead to children who are very upset when you won’t let them purchase the next level.
  • Watch/ Play with your child and Discuss
    • Although 40% of parents say they always watch TV with their child, many others report that they do not, because the whole reason they’re letting their child use media is so they can get other things done while the child watches! (AAP) But, when possible, watch with your child, play games with your child, or watch while they use an app.
    • Co-watching enables us to maximize the educational benefit of the media. Examples:
      • Point out and name things they see on the screen
      • Answer questions as they come up – children often don’t understand everything they see on the screen
      • Quiz them about what they saw: “What’s the closest planet to the sun?”
      • Practice skills they used with the media – if they were practicing tracing letters on a touchscreen, give them fingerpaints or a pencil and let them practice more
      • Act out a show together, or use puppets to re-tell the story you just viewed, or make up new stories with the same characters
      • Talk about real-life tie-ins to media: “in the show, they went to the grocery store and bought apples – would you like to go to the store with me now?”
    • Co-watching give you opportunities to share your values with them.
      • Talk about programs. Ask them what it was about, what characters they liked or disliked, how it made them feel, what choices the characters made, what they would have done in the same situation.
    • Co-watching or playing games together helps us to connect with our kids. It’s another way to have fun playing together with something that captures their interest.
  • Don’t feel like media is an essential tool in the education of your child.
    • The best preparation for school and life involves you spending time with them, reading, talking, exploring things hands-on, and exposing them to diverse experiences.
    • Children who live in households with heavy media use are read to less, and read less. Make a conscious commitment to read to your children more often. Even after they can read themselves, you can continue to read to them – choosing books that are a little above their reading level – or you can read a book together.
    • When you are using media, tie it into real life. For example, if they see a TV show about an animal, go to the zoo to see that animal in person, paint a mask of the animal at home, go on the internet to learn more, and then pretend to be that animal.
  • Eliminate background TV – or be conscious about your use. In addition to the times that children are actively using media (cited above), they are also exposed to background television – when the TV is on but no one is really watching it, or when a parent is watching TV while the child is theoretically engaged in other activities. Children between 8 months and 8 years are exposed to an average of 232 minutes a day of background TV. (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/5/839.full) This media distracts the parent’s attention and significantly reduces how much time the parent spends talking to the child (and since a child’s vocabulary growth depends on interaction, this can cause language delays). It also distracts the child: 1 – 3 year old children have shorter attention spans when the TV is on, moving from one task to another quickly.
  • Avoid couch potato behavior:
    • Don’t eat in front of the TV. This unconscious eating may well lead to obesity increases seen in those with heavy media use.
    • Do activities that you see on the screen: dance to the music, jump on the floor like the monkeys jumping on the bed, and so on.
    • Do other physical activities while watching TV. Exercise? Stretch? Fold laundry?
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom.
    • Internet access in the bedroom increases the chances of children accessing inappropriate content of all sorts.
    • The presence of a TV in a child’s bedroom has been linked to obesity, poor performance in school, difficulty with sleep, and substance use.
    • 30% of parents report using TV to help their child fall asleep, but TV actually increases resistance to bedtime, causes anxiety, delays sleep, and shortens sleep duration. (AAP)
  • Set limits: Some experts recommend against having an outright ban on screen use – saying it can become the forbidden fruit your child craves – but it is fair to set limits. Some examples:
    • Establish routines – when in the day are screens an option and when are they not? If your child knows they can never use a screen in the morning before school, then they know not to bother asking in the morning. But, if one day you change that rule…
    • Teach that some times and places are OK for mobile device use, and others are not.
      • Note: your children pay very close attention to what you do! If you tell them that they’re not allowed to use screens during dinner, but then you check your email or take a phone call during a meal, they won’t take your limit seriously.
    • Teach your children to ask you whether it’s OK to turn on media.
    • Privilege? Some parents find it works well to have media be a privilege that a child has to earn. For example, if they read for 30 minutes, they earn 10 minutes of screen time. Other parents are against this, fearing that then we’re setting up a value judgment that says reading is the boring thing you have to do so you can do the fun thing.
    • Place limits on screen time. AAP recommends <1 – 2 hours daily for kids 2 – 8, less than that for kids under 2
      • Count total screen time: TV + DVD + video games + computer time + mobile device. Make sure that tablet time is replacing TV or other screen time, not displacing physical play, reading or other essential activities.
      • Consider a screen curfew for the whole family – a time at night when the screens go off. We know that screen use (especially blue light from screens) too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep (see above).
  • Encourage balanced activities
    • Environment: Set up you house so that the screens are off in a corner, or in rarely used rooms, versus lots of other options in plain view, easily accessible and ready to use. Have available: board games, art supplies, books, sports equipment, etc. Spend time outdoors with no screens in sight!
    • Activities: Build into your routine plenty of other activities: sports and exercise, creative projects, household chores, social time with friends, and so on. Spend more time in unstructured play, which helps children learn to problem-solve and think creatively.
    • Model good behavior. Turn off your screens or set them aside for a portion of each day. Model a balanced life of social time, physical activity, time outdoors, reading, etc.
    • Ask yourself: “if I didn’t have my [device] with me right now, how would my behavior be different?” If your answer is that you’d be talking to your child, or singing to avoid boredom, or coming up with other ways to distract them in a meeting (like say, reading to them) then you may want to consider setting aside the device for now…
    • Have unplugged time. One author advocates setting aside “one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per year” when the whole family sets aside their screens.

Reviews of kid’s media and other tips at: www.commonsensemedia.org

Design Tips: If you (or someone you know) designs apps for kids, check out Sesame Street’s great tips on how to build the best kids apps possible.

photo credit: cafemama via photopin cc