Less Stress, More Magic, and Gifts That Will Last - Holiday Gift Guide 2016

The holidays are upon us once again. With small children around us, many of us have a renewed magical holiday spirit about us. The holidays can be a wonderful time to share family traditions, create new rituals, and enjoy extended quality time with friends and family alike. Of course the holidays can also bring a tangible feeling of stress, and sometimes the desire to give our children the “perfect holiday season” can only add to this stress, and probably doesn’t end up feeling so magical for our children in the end. I have learned (through trial and error) that sticking to simple activities like making cookies at home with a few friends, caroling with neighbors, or driving around to look at Christmas lights, are the things that my children remember the most fondly. We try to limit our big holiday events to one or two things like visiting the life size gingerbread house at the Fairmont, or riding on a cable car. Keeping in mind their bed times as much as possible, we have learned to schedule these things earlier and earlier in the evening to reduce the holiday fatigue syndrome for our little ones.

With all of these Holiday moments also comes comes the question… what to get our children? There is the temptation to go overboard in attempt to give them a magical, unforgettable day, forgetting that for our youngest children they are probably completely content with 1 or 2 well-chosen gifts. Before you and your children become heavily laden with a mountain of toy clutter that you might not want in your house after January arrives and the initial joy has worn off, we encourage you to take some time to consider what items will bring the most meaningful use to your child throughout the coming year(s). Buying with intention will help ensure that items are well loved, used, and cherished, and actually teaches children to value, be grateful for (and play with!) their toys so much more. 

In last year’s toy list (also a great reference for this year), we focused on helping you envision creating a home play space with intention, shopping like a preschool teacher, and engaging your children in various areas of play. With these same concepts in mind we have added a several new favorites!  Gifts that are open ended in nature and inspire imagination and creativity, gifts that get out some of that abundant energy, and gifts that inspire dramatic play are at the top of our list this year.  We have also added an “experience” section, particularly helpful for well-meaning grandparents and other relatives to consider giving a museum or zoo memberships as well as special outings and quality time that will literally “keep giving” the whole year through!

Onto the toys… Our suggestions are broken into categories and include items that are made to last, both in materials and across age ranges. Most of these (Magnatiles, Jungle Jumparoo, forts, sturdy blocks, etc.) are things your children can use for years. Each category fits particular interests and making sure your child has a balance of elements in each category in their play space will help expand their play.

As you make careful, conscious shopping decisions, please remember to shop locally when possible. Many of the links below are reference suggestions. Some of our favorite local shops include Recess, Green Apple Books, West Portal’s 3 toy stores, and, of course, consignment shops like Chloe’s Closet.   We also highly recommend reducing your family’s carbon foot printby buying secondhand from parent listervs, Craigslist, school rummage sales, neighborhood parenting pages on Facebook, etc. Not only is it greener to shop local and second hand, but it’s also a great way to connect with like-minded parents around you, help out folks in your community, and of course reduce the stress of the financial burden of the holidays.

Blocks & Manipulatives

All Ages:

Magna Tiles: If you haven’t discovered these yet, let me be the first to introduce you to what will likely lead to hours of engaged, happy, creative children! These colorful tiles will hold a child’s interest well into elementary school.  If you got your first collection last year, consideradding another set as children can certainly construct new and different things with a bigger selection.  You can also add a “wheels” set!

Light Table: To add extra fun to your Magnatiles, and life in general, a Light Table is absolutely amazing.  This is definitely an item that will grow with your child. Its uses are endless. You can use clear shapes to teach counting, enjoy sorting activities, and have fun with tracing.

Floor Blocks-perhaps you started your block collection last year? You may consider expanding or adding a collection of floor blocks which are still going strong in my house for my 7 year old! A great thing to try to find second hand, but if you have to buy new, this is probably the most reasonably priced.

http://www6.discountschoolsupply.com/Product/ProductDetail.aspx?product=21934&Category=

Toddlers (Up to 36 Months)

Balls-a good collection of indoor soft balls to help redirect the toddler throwing stage, as well as some balls to bring along to the park!

Scarves- store bought or a thrift store collection to encourage dancing, imagining and moving in creative ways.

Play Tunnel

Three and Up:

A great stacker for little ones to learn their colors and manipulate objects are Lakeshore Learning’s Crystal Climbers. This pairs perfectly with a light table.

Design & Drill: This drill can hold the attention of a little one for hours on end. The mechanical drill allows them to put colorful screws into a peg board and reverses to take them out again. This is great for color patterns. It comes with suggested patterns, or your child can create their own picture.  

 Wooden Dominoes: Endless sorting, stacking, and fun domino runs! Click here.

Marble Run: Children can create their own marble run and learn about cause and effect by testing their design to see if their marbles make it through to the end. There are also suggested designs with varying levels of building difficulty.

Fantacolor Junior Pegboard

Tinkertoys

CitiBlocs/ Keva planks

Castle Blocks

Discovery Ramps:  For those budding engineers, a great way to learn about force, motion, and gravity. http://kodokids.com/discovery-ramps

Dramatic Play

Fort Magic/Fort Builder – Children love forts! They are a safe place to hide, help them feel powerful, and create plenty of opportunity for imagination. Fort kits, such as Fort Magic https://fortmagicstore.com/ provide the basic building tools to provide structure for unlimited possibilities.Costumes

Playmobil

Dolls

Arts & Crafts

Foam Rollers & No-Spill Paint Cups

Magnet Board: Can be homemade (framed metal sheet). IKEA has a great one.

Clay, Clay Tools, Wooden Hammers

Water Paper: Paint it, let it dry, paint it again. Reusable and wonderful! http://kodokids.com/water-paper

Active Play/Gross Motor:

Jungle JumparooBy far one of the coolest toys around. This looks like it would be ideal for a backyard setting, but is an amazing indoor addition. It doesn’t take up a ton of space and is a safe, fun way for toddlers and preschoolers to get their energy out.  You can also attach a swing to the top for added fun.

Hoppity Hops

Monster Feet: https://www.amazon.com/Toysmith-2708-Monster-Feet/dp/B001E6IQP0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480606649&sr=8-1&keywords=monster+feet

Balance Board: https://www.amazon.com/ALEX-Toys-Active-Monkey-Balance/dp/B000N40SDC/ref=pd_sim_21_1?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=B000N40SDC&pd_rd_r=KEXZHPAD5CXYHRQ1MPVA&pd_rd_w=DsLFc&pd_rd_wg=AA6mM&psc=1&refRID=KEXZHPAD5CXYHRQ1MPVA

Bop It Bag

Climbing Dome: For those of you with outdoor space, this is a great investment. Children from 3 up to pre-teens will benefit from a geometric climbing dome. Add to the fun by attaching a swing or spinner to the top. Another great idea is to get magnetic letters to put on the sides and do a “word hunt” with older preschoolers. Climbing to the top and searching for letters adds to the adventure.

Gorilla Gym: https://www.amazon.com/Gorilla-Gym-Indoor-Plastic-Climbing/dp/B01DAXUT4K/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1480607052&sr=1-1-spons&keywords=kids+gorilla+gym&psc=1

GBOP Ball 

Jumbo Parachute – Aside from the obvious ways to play with this toy, draping it over a fort or play dome make an instant hideout.

Science/Sensory

 Sensory Sand

Sensory Table/Bin (homemade) 

Ball Pit (Kiddie Pool/Plastic Balls) 

No Spill Bubble Pails

Sensory Swing: Similar to https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00KAH7C4U/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Educational Insights Playfoam: https://www.educationalinsights.com/category/our-brands/playfoam.do

Other:

Family Board Games: Make family game night your new tradition in 2017.

Literacy: There’s nothing better than a good book. Please check out your local used bookstore or buy online used if possible.

Pout Pout Fish

Cars, Trucks, and Things That Go

The Whale & The Snail

Caps for Sale

Harold & The Purple Crayon

Boogie Monster

Go Dog Go

I Spy books

Don’t Squish the Sasquatch

Little Blue Truck

But Not the Hippopotomus

Some ideas for extended family of “experiential” gifts include:

-        Experiences: A picture that depicts going to a nearby park, to a science museum, aquarium, boat ride on the bay, picnic at the beach, etc. or something else they plan to do with the child in the coming months

-        A Memoir: Give a blank journal or one with questions that you write to an older relative to write the story of their lives or memories from their childhoods for your children to enjoy for years to come and pass onto their children

-        A family photo shoot with a local photographer

-        For long distance relatives, the promise of a real letter each month. There’s nothing quite like real mail and the anticipation at the mailbox.

-        A craft kit that incorporates family handprints. There are some amazing casting kits around that are fun to make. http://www.castingkeepsakes.com/Family-Hand-Casting-Kit-p/1995.htm

-        A game or book that they enjoyed in their childhood and the promise to share in the fun

-        Movie tickets (to share together)

-        Teaching your child how to prepare a favorite family dish, basic sewing, etc.

12 Ways to Include Your Children in Acts of Gratitude This Thanksgiving

By Kellam Eanes

  1. Have children make place cards for visiting family members. You can also ask them to say something positive or something they appreciate about that person and write it on the back of the card. You can write it for the smaller ones.
  2. Interview children and/or adults individually prior to the Thanksgiving meal about what makes them thankful/happy. Read out what children or adults said to the larger group before (or during) the Thanksgiving meal.
  3. Set the tone when friends and relatives come over or when we enter someone’s home. Greeting everyone with excitement and welcoming them when they walk through the door shows our children the importance of making someone feel special.
  4. Have children make cards specifically for older family members.
  5. Write sweet thank-you's together for teachers or other caregivers.
  6. Involve children in making at least one dish for the big meal. Whether it’s stirring, dumping in the ingredients, or rolling pie dough, make sure everyone knows your gratitude in the role they played.
  7. If you are going to someone else’s house this year-tell the story of Stone Soup and how each person brings something for a wonderful communal meal.
  8. Include your child in shopping for a local canned food drive (even if its easier to do it yourself).
  9. Have your child help you gather coats, sweaters and other outgrown warm clothes around your house for a coat drive.
  10. Share family stories and have older relatives tell your children about their own childhoods. It’s fascinating to watch how intently little ones listen to and are captivated by these stories. Making children aware of their family history makes them feel a sense of belonging.
  11. Give a Thanksgiving "interview" to your children each year where they reflect on what they are thankful for either through drawing, writing, or dictation to you. Record in a single notebook or folder, so that they look back on it when they are older.
  12. Hand turkeys, feet turkeys, elbow turkeys - There is no greater Thanksgiving joy!

Handing Down Traditions of Human Kindness, Dignity, and Emotional Presence

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
— – Albert Schweitzer, Philosopher, Physician, Nobel Peace Prize Winner


 This Thanksgiving, perhaps more than other years, I find myself in need of some rekindling. I find myself struck with the “meaning” of Thanksgiving at a time in history where our nation is grappling with discord, fear, injustice and inequality. 

Growing up in a family where my father's side was Jewish and my mother's side was Christian, I have always felt that for our beautifully diverse nation Thanksgiving represents the potential for people of all races, ethnicities, and religions to unite and celebrate at one table.

When we listen to the news and feel that things are spiraling beyond our control in the other direction, we might find comfort in remembering Gandhi’s words to “Be the peace we wish to see in the world.” We may even find moments this Thanksgiving to gather together and draw courage from one another while we contemplate action to translate our anger and fear into concrete steps of helping create the world we want our children to grow up in.  

But we must also keep in mind that whether we gather with like-minded friends, or family members with conflicting views, our children are listening and watching and we must set the tone and model this peace we wish to be for our children. I believe modeling how to handle our emotions and maintaining our own centeredness, while also being honest with our children about our feelings, are some of the greatest gifts we can give our children during these times. 

When we try to pretend that nothing is wrong and our words don’t match our facial expressions or the outburst they just overheard, children often assume the worst. Because of the egocentric stage of young children, they may even assume that we are angry or upset with them. We can be honest without scaring our children by saying things like “Mommy is angry about some things that are happening that are not fair for all people, but our family is going to help make sure that things stay fair for all people.” 

When politically heated discussions arise, we can try to bring the conversations in front of children back to neutral or set limits beforehand with adults about the tone so that all of our children feel secure. In order for children to develop the parts of their brain that code for compassion and self-control, they need not live in fear, but need loving reassurance from the adults around them that they are safe and protected and that the world is full of goodness and full of love. 

My 8-year-old niece reminded her mother after a heated political exchange with a neighbor in New Orleans, "Mommy, remember what you told me? We won't let this fill our hearts with hate. We have to keep loving and fighting and filling our hearts with love. You are the kindest person I know and you can't hate anyone." It is difficult to stay grounded in love while deeply hurting and deeply angry, and yet perhaps now more than ever, this is what we are called to do.

We also model our centeredness when, during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, we continue to include moments of being present and fully awake to our children. I believe that when children are listened to, respected, and allowed to express ideas and feelings that are different from our own, they grow up to be adults who will do the same for others. When we look our children in the eyes and say, "I am thankful for you, that of all the millions of possibilities, I am so thankful that I ended up with you," we light a little flame of love within them that is not easily extinguished. We invite you to celebrate and be present with your child or children this season, who truly are and will be the light for our world.

May our little lights shine this year, and may you have a truly Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Warmly,

Rebecca Walsh

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
— Chinese Philosopher - Lao-Tse - 6th century BCE

Sunny Day Shadow Play!

The easiest, most fun and mess-free science experiment for our (finally) sunny days!

The sun is finally starting to shine on us here in San Francisco and this science experiment allows you to capitalize on those sunny moments with no advance planning or purchasing of materials.  Follow instructions below for 5 steps to build curiosity, awe and joy on your next sunny day!

Step 1: Pick a place indoor or out where the sun is shining and shadows are casting. (If you are outside you may want to place a light-colored blanket or sheet down over the ground).

Step 2: Start to talk to your little one about shadows.  Experiment with your hands and bodies first-then ask your child to find a couple of objects and to guess what shapes the shadow will be. 

Step 3: Once they have discovered that the shadows generally make the same shape as the object (though sometimes bigger or smaller), talk about the color of the shadow and how it is usually dark, even though the objects may be different colors.

Step 4: Now comes the fun part-grab something colorful but translucent and watch the joy as they discover “color shadows.”  For verbal children be sure to ask why they think these objects are making color shadows and these other objects are not.  For all children, but especially the younger set, try not to talk too much and focus on the joy of discovery!

Step 5: Go on a “see-through” hunt around your house to find colorful translucent objects and let the learning, fun and scientific discovery begin!

Happy Mother's Day! Beyond breakfast in bed: Self-care all year long

By Rebecca Walsh

...when your cup is full, it runs over to fill those around you.
— Aviva Jill Romm

As Mother’s Day approaches each year, we are inundated with messages that we deserve “the day off” or to be pampered with breakfast in bed, spa visits, flowers and gifts. While these can be gratefully received and sincerely appreciated, what if this message to take extra special care of ourselves was a year-round approach? Sadly, I think we often encounter the opposite message: the expectation that we should be able to do it all, take on more, care for all, and care least for ourselves.

The other day, a friend texted me that she had just had surgery on her shoulder and was now spending the day in bed for the first time in 10 years. She told me this felt like the first day she truly “had off” since she had become a mother. I could relate to the feeling: several months ago, I had spent a day at the hospital and in some strange way, it felt like a retreat. This bothered me greatly. It seemed that everyone did survive without me that day, and it begged the question, "Why don’t I take a day off every once in a while? Why don’t I take a morning, an afternoon, anything?” I would readily hire a babysitter to go to work, to volunteer in my son’s class, even to run errands for the family, but when, if ever, did I hire a babysitter to sit in a cafe alone with my thoughts for an hour?

Self-care seems like a buzz word these days and often seems like one more thing we don’t have time for, or one more thing we are failing to accomplish. The past few years I have been trying (often desperately) to see it differently. Instead of a big hovering to-do list, I’ve been learning to see self-care as small acts of intention that we choose each day. When we make a point to extend the same care and respect we show our children and families to ourselves, we nourish ourselves. We are sending the vital message to our children that we are worth taking care of.

When we take the time to prepare a healthy meal for ourselves, instead of absently grazing as we hurry through our days, we are practicing self-care. When we make the time to care for our bodies through exercise, acupuncture, or even scheduling that dental check-up, we are practicing self-care. When we decide to take our kids on a walk through the Canyon instead of the playground they are begging for, because we know the time in nature will be more life-giving for us, we are practicing self-care. When we decide to put down our phone or computer and eat our lunch on a real plate, uninterrupted, or read a book, or go to bed early, we are practicing self-care. When we acknowledge that we can’t do it all, and we seek out support from others, we are practicing self-care.

And when we finally admit to ourselves that the “super mom” concept is as elusive as Wonder Woman herself, we are finally, I believe, heading down the road to better care of ourselves. As mothers, especially in this hectic, demanding chapter of raising young children, it can be very difficult to carve out protected time to care for ourselves. It can be helpful, then, to identify moments where we can care for ourselves in the midst of parenting. These small, ongoing moments of mindful self-care can keep us nourished year-round as we grow through this season of life.

Wishing all mothers a joyful Mother’s Day. May we find strength in supporting one another through this journey!

Warmly,

Rebecca Walsh

Tips for a Low-Stress Holiday Season

For me, one of the most stressful parts of the holidays is the pressure I put on myself each year to give my children a season full of rich and meaningful traditions and experiences. Ice skate in Union Square, Check. Make cookies and give to neighbors, Check. Make home-made ornaments, Check! And the list, of course, could go on and on.

Over the years, I have learned that, in fact, all of my holiday traditions do not have to be relived in their entirety each year! Keeping in mind that these memories were created over a lifetime and will be recreated over my children’s lifetimes has allowed me to relax and enjoy the season without overdoing or overscheduling. I have sought balance by picking one or two special holiday activities that I try to do with the children each year. Beyond that, I think of anything else as a bonus: if they work out, wonderful! If not, maybe we will try to do that activity next year.

This year, I begin our holiday season with a newborn and I think with the newborn comes somewhat of a “free pass” to not expect myself to do everything. So far, I am finding that without the pressure, there are surprisingly sweet holiday moments popping up around many turns. Here, we offer a few tips and ideas to reduce the holiday stress meter in your life!

 
1. Keep it simple. It is so tempting to buy lots of gifts for our children during the holidays in an effort to give them an unforgettable day. It can be helpful to remember that the more toys children have, the less they value them. Overall, having fewer possessions helps children have longer attention spans and be more resourceful, cooperative and creative. Giving your child a few lovingly chosen, made-to-last toys is far more valuable than a mountain of toys that will quickly get lost or forgotten.
 
2. Manage expectations. Remember that the holiday season can be overwhelming for your child. Try to keep your child’s sleep and dietary habits as consistent as possible, and let your child know what to expect before any events that might be overstimulating or involve a lot of unfamiliar people. At this stage of parenting young children, less is more. Simple, low-key activities can be a great way to keep stress levels down and create warm, positive family memories.
 
3. Cultivate gratitude. Keep the focus on gratitude for the blessings in your life, and model this gratitude to your child. This article has great, concrete suggestions (including holiday-specific ideas) for fostering gratitude in young children.

If you are considering donating your time or resources to families in need this season, here are some of our favorite organizations working to support strong, healthy, safe families in the Bay Area and beyond:

Homeless Prenatal Program
Talk Line Family Support Center
Hamilton Family Shelter
Rita de Cascia Program
La Casa de las Madres
Every Mother Counts
 
4. Take time to care for yourself. As parents, the holidays can add another layer of stress and expectation to our already demanding lives. Be sure to factor in time for self-care. A few suggestions on how to easily incorporate self-care into your daily life:

  • Have a couple spare moments? Need to detox after a trip to the mall? Try the Mindfulness app for an easy, guided daily meditation anytime, anywhere.
  • If guided meditation isn’t your thing, try relaxing with a mindfulness coloring book for adults-a great way to de-stress and settle your thoughts.
  • Practice deep breathing and yoga poses when you have a few moments. We love the Daily Yoga App or if your children are underfoot-include them! Books like Good Night Yoga by Mariam Gates are a great way to introduce basic poses to children.

 
Here's to a low-stress holiday and new beginnings in the New Year!

-Rebecca Walsh & Shannon Jerolmon

Think (and Shop) like a Preschool Teacher: The ECM Holiday Gift Guide is here!

By Rebecca Walsh & Shannon Jerolmon

Ready or not…the holidays are here!   Holidays with little ones can be a marvelous and nostalgic time to reignite holiday traditions and bring back a little bit of the holiday magic.  At the same time, they can include stressful travel, disruptions in schedule and childcare, and lots of extended family (and their well-meaning gifts!)  

When I became a parent six years ago, I immediately began to think about the home play space I would create for my child. After carefully designing countless preschool and toddler classrooms over the years, I excitedly set out to organize my own child’s play space. Play is the work of childhood, and a child’s toys and the environment in which she/he plays has a significant impact on their “work.” Years later, many of the same considerations about play environment continue to inform my holiday shopping decisions.

One way I have avoided accumulating so many toys, and being pulled into purchasing the latest and greatest gadgets, is to basically not buy anything that I wouldn’t find in a high quality early childhood setting.  When I think about what toys would benefit my children, I think about the curriculum areas of a preschool or toddler room-each of which support specific areas of child development.  From there, I consider how to diversify and enliven each area to engage my children in all areas of play, deepening their specific areas of interest and thoughtfully expanding their play in ways that might not come as naturally. As we create a more intentional balance in the play materials offered to our children, their play will become more balanced as well.

It is so tempting to buy lots of gifts for our children during the holidays in an effort to give them an unforgettable day. It can be helpful to remember that the more toys children have, the less they value them. Overall, having fewer possessions helps children have longer attention spans and be more resourceful, cooperative and creative. Giving your child a few lovingly chosen, made-to-last toys is far more valuable than a mountain of toys that will quickly get lost or forgotten.

Read on for the 2015 Early Childhood Matters’ Gift Guide. You will find toy suggestions arranged according to their corresponding preschool curriculum area. I hope you find this guide helpful as you build up your toy libraries in thoughtful and creative ways.

While we have provided some online links for your reference, we strongly encourage you to shop local wherever possible. Some of our favorite local shops include Recess, Green Apple Books, West Portal’s 3 toy stores, and, of course, consignment shops like Chloe’s Closet. We also like to check out local parent listservs, Craigslist or neighborhood parenting pages on Facebook for gently used children’s items. A quick online search will yield an abundance of postings for items like balance bikes, play kitchens, train sets, clothing and baby gear. Not only is this a great way to keep costs down during the holidays (and throughout the year), it is also a great way to connect with your community, reduce waste, and help your neighbors de-clutter!

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

ECM Approved Holiday Gift Guide: 2015

 

BLOCKS/MANIPULATIVES (Fine motor skills, mathematical thinking, collaboration, problem solving)

·         Wooden Blocks: If you don’t have a solid collection of wooden blocks, I would recommend starting here. It is great to have a large selection in a variety of shapes and sizes, to inspire limitless creativity in building. Ages 2-still going strong at 6!

·         Shape Stacker (Maple Landmark): This stacker grows with your child. A very young child can grab and stack the pieces, and this stacker’s unique geometrical shapes extend the learning well into 18m-3years. Available at Recess!

·         Magna Tiles: If you haven’t discovered these yet, let me be the first to introduce you to what will likely lead to hours of engaged happy creative children! Ages 2-still going strong at 6!

 

DRAMATIC PLAY (creative thinking, social emotional, collaboration, problem solving)

·         Wooden Play Kitchen/Kitchen Toys These are available in a wide range of styles and price points. Keep an eye out for gently used play kitchens that have plenty of life left, or if you’re feeling crafty, try making your own!

·         Baby Dolls These are beloved by toddler boys and girls alike. When selecting baby dolls, think about dolls that are diverse in ethnicity/gender/appearance as a way of enriching your child’s play space.

·         Baby doll strollers can add great fun for indoor and outdoor walks and nurturing imaginative play. Doll-sized baby carriers and wraps are also a sweet, hands-free way for toddlers to transport their lovies just like grownups (and can be helpful in the adjustment to having a younger sibling!).

·         Tool box: Wonderful for imitating and “helping” parents with home repairs; these also help develop fine-motor skills and teach cause-and-effect.

·         To encourage your little helper to join in household tasks in a more practical way, child-sized brooms and dustpans (like these) are a great place to start.

ARTS & CRAFTS (Creative expression, fine motor skills)

·         Toddler-sized crayons Left-Right Crayons (International Arrivals): These crayons are erasable, ergonomically appropriate for even the earliest drawers, super sturdy, non-toxic, and eco-friendly. And the colors are beautiful! (These left/right crayons are available at Recess!)

·         Do-a-dots are great for creative expression with minimal mess and cleanup required

·         Easel and washable paint in primary colors for hours of mixing fun!

SCIENCE/SENSORY (Sensory integration, scientific thinking)

A great home-made gift idea is to make some play-doh, moon sand, kinetic sand, or Gak as a holiday present for your child. This can also be a wonderful gift for an older sibling to make for their younger toddler-aged sibling! (Recipes can be found online; a great resource for sensory recipes and ideas is Ooey Gooey)

MUSIC

No matter your age, there is something special about having a real instrument of your very own. Ukuleles are just the right size for toddlers to strum, and are quite pleasant to listen to (as long as they are in tune!). Small instruments such as kazoos, egg shakers, tambourines and harmonicas are also great fun for budding musicians and make for very affordable gifts for the younger set.

GROSS MOTOR (big body play, energy release, muscle strengthening, balance, and lots of sensory input)

·         Balance Bikes are preferable to scooters for building left/right hemisphere connections and, well, balance

·         Mini Trampoline great energy release on rainy days!

·         Radio flyer rocking horse-Great indoor energy outlet and proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation

·         Door swing/ladder-for an active toddler (and way beyond!) a door swing or ladder to climb will provide countless moments of indoor fun, muscle building and energy release

·         Punching bag or bop it bag - a great energy release for the active child!

·         Hoppity hops-a classic bouncing toy for developing balance and releasing energy

·         Balls-a good collection of indoor soft balls to help redirect the toddler throwing stage, as well as some balls to bring along to the park!

·         Scarves- store bought or a thrift store collection to encourage dancing, imagining and moving in creative ways.

LITERACY

The holidays are a wonderful time to build your child’s library. Listed below are some of our recent favorites-books that our children request time and again, and that we are happy to read as often as they like. Our favorite books tend to include rich, detailed illustrations (often with humorous hidden details), books that highlight and celebrate diversity, and books that carry valuable messages in a beautiful, lyrical voice.

·         Little Humans by Brandon Stanton. The creator of Humans of New York wrote and photographed the images in this book. Simple, empowering text with gorgeous portraits of children in New York City.

·         All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon. A lovely, gentle book about families living through the simple joys and disappointments of a single day. A great story to read before bed; its nature-centered illustrations and mellow, reassuring rhyme are incredibly soothing for children and adults alike.

·         Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback. A simple folk tale with a message, masterfully illustrated with die-cut images and plenty of hidden details that will make adults chuckle. There is a song version of the book that is fun to sing with toddlers.

·         The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathman. A funny and tender story of a small child coming to the rescue when a group of babies escape from a pie-eating contest, written by the author of the classic Good Night, Gorilla. The illustrations are all in silhouette, making it visually striking to look at.

·         Cars and Trucks and Things that Go by Richard Scarry. We love this book (and really, anything by Richard Scarry) and so do our kids. The incredibly detailed, whimsical illustrations and meandering storyline mean that there is always something new to notice in its pages.

·         The Ultimate Book of Vehicles from Around the World by Anne-Sophie Baumann. If your child loves vehicles and/or Richard Scarry books, this gorgeous book is a great next read. It features realistic but fun illustrations of a wide variety of cars, trucks, boats and planes (even rockets!) and has pop-up features and moving parts throughout the book. A fascinating keepsake.

·         The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman. Another beautifully illustrated book, filled with detailed illustrations that even the littlest readers will pore over with interest. This book explores and celebrates families of all kinds. It is a fantastic book to have in your library as your child grows, gracefully addressing big topics and opening the door for meaningful discussions.

·         Life-Size Zoo by Teruyuki Komiya. This is a fascinating book that will grow with your child. It features up-close, fold-out, life-size photographs of a variety of different animals. Toddlers will enjoy looking at their favorite animals and pointing out body parts; older children will love learning interesting facts, which are written and illustrated in small comics along the margins.

When Halloween is More Tricks than Treats

ASK REBECCA:
Parenting insights and advice from Rebecca Walsh, director of Early Childhood Matters

“My three-year-old is very frightened by Halloween decorations. From the giant spiders and bats on the walls of the grocery store to the truly spooky decorations in our neighbors’ windows, he seems to get scared every time we leave the house these days! How can I help him be less afraid, and make sure our family makes it through all our scheduled Halloween festivities in one piece?”

Rebecca says:
First off, it’s important to remember that, at this age, young children cannot separate fantasy from reality. Images that may seem benign or silly to us as adults (such as a fake flying bat or a plastic mummy) can be very frightening to a young child. While we may try to avoid exposing our children to scary images or media, it can be impossible to avoid during the Halloween season. The following tips can be helpful for taking some of the fear away:

1. Talk to your child about what is real and what is not. 

If they are afraid of a spooky bat decoration, you can tell them about bats in an objective, scientific manner. “This is a pretend bat. Real bats are animals who fly at night and sleep upside down.” Have your child make the whooshing sound that a bat’s wings might make. Encourage your child to touch the fake bat to reassure himself that it is not alive. Giving your child the opportunity to confront their fear in a supportive manner will empower him, and take some of the power away from his fear.

2. Help create positive associations with fearful things.

Visit the library to find books with friendly protagonists (for example, if your child is afraid of bats, check out the classic children’s book Stellaluna). If your child is frightened of vampires, The Count from Sesame Street can create a positive and humorous association. If the giant spider in the grocery store is causing your child some anxiety, try singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and then changing the words to “The Big Hairy Spider” in a silly voice.

3. If the daytime fears are manifesting themselves into nightmares, stay calm at night and simply remind your child that he is safe. 

Don’t ask for details about the dream unless he brings it up, then calmly and lovingly reassure him. The next morning, you might bring up the dream again. Help your child to process by talking about the dream using some of the strategies described above.

4. In planning Halloween activities, be mindful of events that might be too frightening for young children. 

Daytime activities tend to be more family-friendly and less anxiety-provoking for little ones than events after dark.

5. Talk through events with your child before they happen.

If your child will be trick-or-treating for the first time, explain the sequence of events in detail, several times if possible. You might want to prepare your child that there will likely be people wearing a range of costumes, some of which might be scarier than others. Continue to emphasize the difference between fantasy and reality.

6. Focus on the fun of getting to delve into the fantasy of wearing a costume and pretending to be something or someone different. 

Follow your child’s lead and keep things light and fun. And parents who love haunted houses and scary costumes, take heart: before you know it, your children will be older and able to engage in the holiday in a new way.


Good luck!

Off to Preschool!

Your child is about to start preschool! This is a wonderful opportunity for your child to develop new friendships, gain new skills, and grow in independence. Of course, this transition can be a time of mixed emotions for both you and your child.

Like so many things in life, preparation is key. Here are some ways to help prepare your little one for their big transition. Try to keep your efforts low-key and lighthearted-conveying excitement and confidence in your child’s readiness for this next chapter.

One or Two Weeks Prior to First Day of School

Visit the preschool if possible. Ideally, your child will have explored the environment and met their teachers before their first day of school. Ask about arranging such a visit if one is not offered. Note: often these visits happen well before two weeks prior to the first day of school and that is perfectly fine.

Read books about going to preschool, take advantage of any opportunities that arise to talk about the feelings the character in the book and/or your child might be feeling. Some of our favorite “first day” books include The Kissing Hand, Llama Llama Misses Mama, and Bye-Bye Time.

If possible, you can also make your own book including pictures of your child’s new preschool: the entrance, the indoor and outdoor environments, the teachers, etc. Photos such as these can often be found on the school website, and if you can snap some during the visits with your child in them, even better!  You can also add to this book as the year goes on. Having a personalized book such as this can make a huge impact for a young child’s sense of belonging in a new space.  It also allows a natural way for the child to reflect with you about their day.

Allow your child to select any necessary school gear such as a special backpack, lunchbox, or nap mat of their choosing. Write your child’s name on their personal items together.

Start adjusting your child’s bedtime and morning waking if need be. Try to get them on their “school schedule” prior to their first week if possible. You can adjust the timing by 15 minute increments each night/morning for a smooth transition.  

The Day/Night Before Preschool

During daytime hours, mention that school will be starting the next day. Answer any last-minute questions that may arise. Explore feelings if need be, acknowledging and normalizing ambivalence or mixed emotions. Convey confidence in your child’s ability to handle change.  

Let your child choose their outfit for the first day of school if that is something that works in your home. Some children do better with fewer choices, you know your child best.

Create a visual routine for their morning including breakfast, special time (see note below), getting dressed, bathroom, teeth, shoes, etc. This visual checklist can work wonders to give your child a sense of ownership and independence during this daily transition out the door.

Pick a bedtime that gives your child a good night’s rest before his or her first day. Keep the bedtime routine soothing and relaxing.

At bedtime don’t focus too much (or at all!) on the first day of school unless your child initiates the topic.

The First Day

Wake up early enough to allow ample time for your morning routine so you and your child don’t have to rush to get to school on time. If possible, leave enough time for some floor time or special time with your child before you head out.  This emotional connection with you can help to ease the morning time transition and “fill their cup” for a day independent of their parents.

Make breakfast for your child and, if possible, sit down to eat together.

Review the day’s routine: what preschool will be like, who will be dropping off and picking up.

Let your child choose a special stuffed animal or blanket to bring to school with her. These “loveys” can help children make the transition from home to school, and can also make naptime easier, too. You may want to send your child with a family photo or favorite book as well. These familiar objects can help if she feels lonely during the day.

Saying Good-Bye

Plan to stay a little while. Staying for up to 15 minutes on that first morning can help ease the transition. Together, the two of you can explore the classroom, meet some other children, and play with a few toys. When you see that your child is comfortable it is time to leave. If he is having a harder time getting engaged you may want to ask your child’s teacher to stay with your child as you say good-bye so when you leave he can turn to another caring adult for support.

Think about creating a special good-bye routine. For example, you can give your child a kiss on his or her palm to “hold” all day long. Or, the two of you can sing a special song together or read a book together before you leave. Good-bye routines are comforting to children and help them understand and prepare for what will happen next. 

DO NOT SNEAK AWAY. It might be tempting to sneak out when you see your child is occupied, but your little one will feel more afraid and insecure if you suddenly disappear.

Say goodbye. Keep your tone positive and upbeat. Children pick up on the reactions of the trusted adults in their lives. Try not to look worried or sad (even if you are), and don’t linger too long. Say a quick, confident good-bye and reassure your child that all will be well. “Mommy/Daddy always comes back”.

Resist the urge to rescue. It is natural for your child to feel a little sad. If you hear your child crying try not to run back in the classroom to help them. Instead allow the teachers to comfort your child and get them acclimated. If you run back in it could send the message that he is only okay if you are there, and it will likely prolong your child’s distress and make it harder for them to adapt. Even if you have to run to your car afterward and have a good cry, it is important to display confidence in your child, her school, and her teachers while you are in front of your child. After all, they will take their cues from you about how comfortable they should be with this transition!

Rest assured, teachers are adept at helping children adapt to their new environment. They will typically contact you if your child seems too distraught for an extended period of time.

Take care of yourself! Emotions can arise for parents too, especially if you have left your crying child behind. Express your feelings to a trusted friend or partner and practice good self-care during this time of transition for yourself as well!

 Wishing you and your family a smooth and happy start to the school year!

-Karin Appleton and the ECM team

 

Plenty to Sing About: Music in Early Childhood

Since becoming a parent, I find myself singing my way through every day. I am, to put it generously, a below-average singer, but my toddler son delights in music, and his joy and enthusiasm are contagious enough to force me to set aside my self-consciousness. Walking down the street, riding on the bus, preparing lunch, playing on the floor-we are always singing, humming, shaking instruments and dancing. We love music in our family, and for good reason.

Music is tremendously valuable for young children in so many ways. Singing to babies and toddlers is precious bonding time that helps deepen the connection between children and their family members. Listening to music introduces new words, teaches the concepts of rhythm and rhyme, fosters language, listening and pattern recognition skills that help prepare children for school, and is a wonderful way to expose children to different cultures. Music can help calm children when they are overstimulated, or enliven and “reset” children after a meltdown. Predictable songs can also help young children with daily transitions, like getting in the car or being put down for a nap. And above all, listening to, and making, music is endlessly fun!

We listen to all kinds of music in our home, and we have found that our son loves plenty of music that is not specifically intended for a child audience (I have yet to meet a child, for example, who hasn’t responded positively to Paul Simon’s Graceland). But while, in my pre-child life, I derided the idea of “kid music,” I have since found some great musicians whose songs are geared for children. They are catchy, with kid-friendly themes and lyrics, but still enjoyable for the grown-ups who are listening too. These are some of Early Childhood Matters’ favorite musicians for kids. If you haven’t checked them out, we recommend giving these artists a listen!

Putumayo Kids These compilation albums of kid-friendly music from around the world are delightful for children and adults alike. “Playground” albums are lively and upbeat; “Dreamland” albums are mellow and soothing. Our favorite albums include Reggae Playground, New Orleans Playground, and African Dreamland.

Elizabeth Mitchell This New York-based “all-ages folk singer” has an achingly lovely voice and sings a variety of folk, international, and classic children’s songs. She began her musical career while working as a preschool teacher, when she discovered the power of music as a profound point of connection between herself and students. My wife and I like her music so much, we actually listen to her albums when our kid is asleep.

Raffi A childhood staple for many of us, Raffi’s songs-at once both silly and gentle-still resonate greatly with little ones. His songs work great for transitions-we sing the “Brush Your Teeth,” “New River Train,” and “The Corner Grocery Store” songs regularly as we go about our days.

Crosspulse Percussion Ensemble We started listening to this group after stumbling upon their album in a Vermont library, but were lucky enough to see them perform live within a week of moving to the Bay Area. Based out of Oakland, this performance arts nonprofit project delivers “rhythm-based, intercultural music and dance.” Their music is fun to listen to, and it is a treat to see them perform live-the artists make music from all manner of unexpected instruments.

Who are you and your children singing along to these days? Let us know!

To learn more about the benefits of music in early childhood, check out the following resources:
"Music and Movement-Instrumental for Language Development"
"Playing With Music at Home"
"10 Ways Babies Learn When We Sing to Them!"

Singing through Transitions

If transitions are turning into power struggles for you and your little one, try singing! Predictable songs for getting dressed, changing diapers, getting in the car, or brushing teeth can ease transitions and make trying times into fun bonding experiences. Here are a few tried-and-true examples that you might try:

Getting Dressed: "This is the way we put on our shoes, put on our shoes, put on our shoes, This is the way we put on our shoes, so early in the morning!"
Changing Diapers: "What's inside your diaper, oh what's inside your diaper, what's inside your diaper, oh what's inside today?" 
Getting in the Car: "Take me riding in the car, car, take me riding in the car, car, Take you riding in my car, car, I'll take you riding in my car!" (credit to Woody Guthrie; learn the full song here)


-Shannon Jerolmon

Kitchen Time with Toddlers: From Frustrating Whines to Squeals of Joy!

To a child, the kitchen is a sensory wonderland of textures, colors, shapes, smells, sounds and tastes. It’s no wonder children are so often underfoot in the kitchen!

Unfortunately, this can often be a source of frustration and anxiety for parents who are trying to get dinner on the table, and who worry about having their little ones in close proximity to hot/sharp/spill-prone objects. However, with proper baby-proofing and careful supervision, the kitchen can be a source of endless learning and enjoyment for children and parents alike.

Read on for engaging sensory activities that await your child in the kitchen. These activities will help keep little hands and minds busy while you find yourself likely spending many hours in the kitchen. Using these tips, you can turn a frustrating time into a positive and productive time for all.

Get to know your food

While you are cooking, give your child the opportunity to engage with whole foods. Let her hold fruits and vegetables and point out their unique colors, textures, shapes, smells, and of course, their flavors! Describe the similarities and differences you see (i.e. an onion has a papery skin while an orange has a thick, squishy peel). Allow your child to sniff different spices while cooking and help you knead dough while baking. Engage all five senses in the sensory delights of food. 

Let them help!

From a very young age, children have a fundamental desire to feel a sense of belonging and to contribute as a valued member of their family and community. (In child development parlance, this is referred to as “social interest.”) A great way to foster your child’s sense of ability and belonging is to let him or her help out with household tasks. Toddlers and preschoolers are naturally interested in mimicking our behaviors and want to help out. As parents, our first impulse might be to just do things ourselves because it is faster and more efficient. Giving children an opportunity to contribute sends the message that they are capable and needed in the family. Try letting your child help pour cereal, mix batter, sweep the floor, wipe down the table, or wash shatter-proof dishes in a sink of soapy warm water. These are valuable, affirming activities for little ones.

Make some dough!

Homemade play-dough is very inexpensive, very easy to make, and ensures endless hours of open-ended play for children of all ages. We’ve included our favorite tried-and-true play-dough recipe here, but there are countless varieties. A quick online search will yield plenty of dough options: cook/no-cook, edible, gluten-free, scented, glittery… (so don’t worry if you don’t own cream of tartar and never plan to!). Dig out cookie cutters, kid-friendly utensils, and found natural items like shells and leaves to enhance play. If you have a handheld garlic press, it can be used to make great spaghetti-like strands of dough that kids love!

Homemade Play-Dough

1 cup flour
½ cup salt
1 cup water
1 Tablespoon oil
2 teaspoons cream of tartar

Optional: a few drops of food coloring

Combine all ingredients in a pan and stir.  Cook over low heat, stirring, until a ball forms. Cool before playing. Dough will last for several weeks if kept in a sealed container or bag. 

Make a sensory table

Look in your pantry for dried items that could facilitate sensory play for your child. Dried beans, lentils, rice, grains, cornmeal and pasta are all great staples-not just for cooking, but also for creating an in-home sensory table. Pour them into a large bin for your child to play with. Add measuring cups and spoons for scooping, a small colander for straining, empty jars and cardboard tubes for pouring, tongs for lifting, and watch your child stay engaged for hours. This type of hands-on, open-ended play fosters fine motor skill development, teaches cause and effect, and cultivates problem-solving and creativity. See http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=227 for more details about the benefits of sensory tables and more suggestions for materials.

Water play

If your child loves playing in the water, you can help make their play even more exciting and educational with “new” toys-consisting of infrequently used kitchen gadgets. Different sized funnels, a turkey baster, new sponges (try cutting them into shapes), plastic containers (i.e. yogurt containers), and strainers can all be repurposed as water toys. The tub or sink is obviously the most contained indoor area for water play, but putting a large tub filled partially with water on the kitchen floor, surrounded with towels, might make for more a comfortable play area for your child. It will likely make a mess, but it’s only water. In our family, we regularly remind ourselves that “water is the only mess that cleans itself.” Like sensory tables, water play cultivates learning and growth in many areas. Playing in water also has a soothing effect for many children (and adults!)-a good thing to keep in mind if your child appears overwhelmed or tense.

Above all, have fun! Enjoy the learning process alongside your child.

-Shannon Jerolmon & Rebecca Walsh

Toddler Travel Tips!

For many of us, the holidays mean traveling to visit loved ones or heading to a new destination for a family vacation. If your holiday plans will include planes, trains or automobiles, read on for a few tips to help your toddler (and you!) enjoy the journey...

Read, read, read! Books with lift-the-flap features and various textures are a great option and will hold your child’s interest for some time. So will books with lots of details and hidden illustrations (Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go is a perennial favorite. Find Goldbug on every page!). Also consider packing books that might prepare your child for new climates or experiences they will encounter on your trip (for example, Ezra Jack Keats' classic winter tale, The Snowy Day).
 
Play! Try to introduce different toys and activities gradually on your trip, rather than all at once. Some parents find it helpful to present a new activity on an hourly basis to add an element of excitement and anticipation. A few great options for little ones on long flights:

  • Finger puppets! Easy to pack and encourage imaginative, interactive play.
  • Snacks can serve double duty as toys! Have your child practice her fine-motor skills by threading Cheerio’s onto yarn (or chenille sticks and larger round cereal for smaller hands) or see how many crackers she can stack on her tray table before they topple.
  • Dig into your memory bank and play old-school road trip games! I-Spy can be a great way to practice identifying colors and shapes and keep toddlers engaged! Remember an engaged child is a happy child!
  • Other great ideas located on our blog 5 Toddler Friendly Airplane Activities (Screen-Time Free!)

Get your wiggles out! Obviously, it can be challenging to give your child opportunities to move on flights or long car trips. When possible, help your child walk down the aisle of the plane to stretch her legs. Some basic stretches that can be performed while seated can also help your wiggly child feel more comfortable--"Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" can be performed while sitting!  During layovers, look for a less-trafficked area of the airport and do some jumping jacks, "Ring-a-Round the Rosie" or "Motor Boat". On road trips, plan for regular rest stops for everyone to get some fresh air and exercise. Utilize apps, such as Trekaroo, to find playgrounds and kid-friendly venues along the way.

Show and Tell: get ready to see the relatives! Will your child be spending a lot of time with relatives he rarely sees? Talk to your child about who you’ll be visiting. Bring along photos and tell your child tidbits that they might enjoy (Aunt Kate has a new puppy we can meet; Grandpa Joe makes the best pancakes; Cousin Leah can do cartwheels!). This will drum up excitement for seeing relatives and help break the ice upon arrival.

Preserve routines when possible. While traveling can be an exciting adventure, the stimulation and disruptions to routine can also be very disorienting and stressful to children. Whenever possible, try to maintain the structure to which your child is accustomed. This is especially important at bedtime: help your child relax in an unfamiliar environment by following the same pre-bed routine, playing the same bedtime sounds (try apps like Sleep Pillow for white noise on-the-go), and, of course, remembering to pack your child’s beloved comfort objects!
 
Keep calm and travel on. Traveling during the holidays can be especially trying, with crowded airports, flight delays, and emotions running high. Remember that your child is very attuned to your emotional state and will likely mirror your emotions, for better or for worse. Practice self-care and model self-soothing (deep breaths!) to your child during times of stress. When the journey feels endless, remind yourself, “This too shall pass.”
 
Leave room for silliness! Nothing resets a tense moment like a giggle. Put on temporary tattoos (or stamps or stickers). Surprise your child mid-flight by putting on a fake mustache. Pack a compact mirror and practice making your funniest faces.  Bring a balloon and bubbles for hours of "trapped in a hotel room with no toys" kind of fun! Learn a few new kid-friendly jokes to debut during your travels. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “These things are fun and fun is good.”
 

Happy travels!

-Shannon Jerolmon

Mindful Holiday Shopping for Young Ones

Do you notice that that your child’s favorite toy is often a box or the Tupperware drawer? In times where simplicity is underappreciated, parents as well as children are bombarded with the overabundance of choices of toys available on the market. Especially with the holiday season upon us, it is important to practice mindfulness when selecting toys for children.
 
Here are some considerations when shopping for our little ones:
 
Avoid the Flash
Look beyond the flash of commercials and marketing for toys. Does a toy subtly (or not-so-subtly) perpetuate gender stereotypes, glorify violence or promote passive screen time over active play? Try to select toys that are not tied into TV shows or other character branding, as they often carry with them a prescribed way to play with the toys, and lead to less creative and open-ended play.
 
Open-Ended Toys
Toys that are open-ended encourage creativity and grow with your child’s developmental skills and interest. Rather than beingone-dimensional (like a pirate ship that will always be a pirate ship), they can bring their own ideas and interest, which will certainly change over time, to toys such as blocks, magna tiles, and Lego sets. Check out Preschoology’s 2014 Open-Ended Play Gift Guide for suggestions on toys that promote open-ended play.
 
Gender Neutrality
Currently, the big money maker in the toy industry is to create and market toys separately to boys and girls.  If you recall when you were young, tricycles and ride-on toys just came in red, along with your gender neutral highchair and car seat.  Not only are these basics gendered now, but toy companies spend a lot of money making sure toys fit into gendered stereotypes (for instance, girls should like all things sparkly, or related to shopping, cooking or mothering, while boys get to create, discover, build and destroy). Most of us here in the Bay Area are trying to break these stereotypes for our children’s generation and yet we often forget how much their toys are communicating to them about their role in the world. Can Your Toy Choices Affect Your Kid's Future Career? from the Huffington Post, explores the importance of being mindful of the messages of gendered toys. This holiday season, try to avoid toys that are specifically marketed to boys or girls, or break stereotypes and buy your little boy a doll so he can practice being a Dad, or your girl her first train or Lego set.
 
Get Creative & Resourceful
Handcrafted gifts always make for thoughtful gifts. Especially for young children who are newly discovering the world around them, natural materials such as shells, leaves, rocks, drift wood, and found materials from daily experiences of the child can elevate play. Check out hardware stores and container stores for creative gift ideas.
 
Teachers Advice
If your child is in school, ask his or her teacher for advice on toy selection! Teachers have years of experience working with diverse toys and can offer insight on the child’s interests at school. Some website resources that teachers utilize for supplies: Lakeshore, Discount School Supplies, Land of Nod, and Hearth Song

And last but not least...
Top Ten Early Childhood Matters Approved Toys for Toddlers & Preschoolers


The Bay Area has many wonderful, independently-owned shops offering great ECM approved gifts for kids and families. Some of our favorites include Carmel Blue, The Ark, and Chloe's Closet (for new and gently pre-loved items). Consider supporting local businesses this holiday season!

Nature Blocks

Magna-Tiles

Balance Bicycles

Kinetic Sand

Wooden Instruments

Light Box or DIY Light Table

Foam Paint

Wooden Toy Bus

Wooden Doctor's Kit

Cookware Set

Tips for Transitioning to a New School Year

It feels like summer just started and here we are with shorter days reminding us that September is just around the corner.  While we may be looking forward to the Bay Area weather improving, it can be hard to make the transition back to a more hectic routine and schedule. For some of us, our children will be starting preschool for the first time or kindergarten.   Even the most enthusiastic students will likely have some fear and anxiety before starting something new.  Here are some tips to get the school year off to a great start!

  • Tighten up your routine before schools starts and during the start of the school year - keep things predictable and mellow at home.
  • Expect limit testing and be prepared to respond in a loving, but firm manner.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough sleep.  Anxiety can cause sleep disturbances, so be sure you are getting to bed on time and don’t be afraid to add a nap to your routine even if your child has outgrown it.
  • Eat healthy foods and have plenty of your child’s favorites on hard.  This is not the time to try new foods!  Excitement and anxiety can decrease appetite; so don’t be surprised if your normally good eater slows down at the start of the new school year. Crunchy foods like carrots, apples and pretzels can be calming for some children.
  • Talk to your child about what they can expect at their new school and visit if possible.  Kids handle information differently - some like to know every detail and for others, less is more.  Tailor your conversation content and frequency to meet your child’s needs.
  • Schedule play dates with classmates early in the year - connecting with their peers outside of school can help your child make friends more quickly and bridge the home-school connection.
  • Make a book about your new school with pictures of the school, class, teachers and classmates. Along with simple text this is a great tool for the especially anxious child.
  • Floor time!  Give your child lots of 1:1, child-directed attention.
  • Celebrate by buying a new backpack or schedule a special dinner on the first day of school.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to the teacher or director if you have any special concerns about your schools transition - a good ECE program will focus on bridging the gap between home and school during those first few weeks.

Before you know it this new routine will feel like old hat!!

-Barbara Nelson & Rebecca Walsh

Easy Fine Motor Activity: Jars!

Need to keep the kids busy?  How about cutting a slot into the top of a jar and giving them some bingo dots or coins to put inside.  

This was inspired when a game of bingo got a little out of hand and the small, plastic bingo markers were all over the floor.  Needing to get the kids on board with picking them up, I made a game out of it. Voila! The floor was clean in just a few minutes, the little guy has a new instrument, I found a use for the apple sauce jars I can’t seem to throw away and they all got to work on their fine motor skills.

-Barbara Nelson

Fatherhood: From Ambivalence to Hooked!

When you care for your kids, you become more attached to them.
 

This is the theme that author and financial journalist Michael Lewis explores in his novel, Home Game (An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood) (New York: Norton, 2009) - based on a collection of his parenthood writings that appeared in Slate over the early years of his fathering.   He admits that fatherhood isn't really something that comes naturally to him - and is often avoided, "I'm working late, or I'm busy, or I secretly just don't care."  But in his experience, and with daring honesty, he realizes that his bond with his children grows in direct relation to the amount of time he puts into the relationship.  

Making the choice "to care" for your baby can be particularly challenging for dads who are already nine months behind their partners on the "connection" front, and who are just not essential in their baby's first few
days (months).  However, as Lewis writes, it is in taking the time to care for our babies that we start to grow something new inside of us - a unique father-child bond.  Easy to avoid because of everyday distractions, a really late start in the game, and the painful grunt work involved, this journey from indifference to care is one of the toughest challenges of fatherhood-and yet one of the most rewarding!  I have certainly found in my own life that when things get busy and I feel this uncomfortable distance growing between me and my kids, if I (even begrudgingly) make an effort to upthe diaper changes, the bedtime routines, and making the morning oatmeal,  it is then that I find myself feeling the most confident, connected, and undeniably hooked in my role as dad.

-Justin Walsh

Drop and Dramatize: Increasing Cooperation through Connection

Getting down on my child’s level is hard to do.  I mean, really, to get on the floor I have to stop what I’m doing, thinking, planning, turn off the phone, turn off my whole adult mindset.  I might even still be in my work clothes, which I can’t ...really ....move ...in.   And my back might be hurting, or my knees sore.  But... that said, WHEN I make the effort and get down on my child’s level, I notice that life afterwards happens with a little more ease.  Requests and expectations are met with surprising willingness.  Moods are lighter.  My child and I have a shared experience - a connection - and that makes life just more fun!

Every time I recommend Stanley Greenspan’s (http://www.stanleygreenspan.com/) floortime approach to parents - I always acknowledge the difficulties of putting this into practice.  But parents often respond by saying that when they’re less verbal, less cerebral, and actually spend some silly time with their kids, that routines and transitions are much easier. 

Seriously, taking time out for a little “finger puppet” show with the vegetables you’re about to cook with makes for some great laughs and more connected and cooperative kids.

I’ve been struggling with a very active and obstinate toddler lately.  But last night his art project became a self-transporting-mind-altering-dramatic-enhancing-state-changer.  The tops of the egg carton (thoroughly decorated with fluff, straws and eyeballs) became buttons that could transport you into other worlds.  Each time you pressed a button, you changed.  Dragons one minute.  Ghosts the next.  Then zombies, frogs, monsters, insert <category I’ve never heard of>, etc.  This became a hilarious, energetic, drama.  And my baby was so receptive to later transitions that everyone felt a little better.

I guess it’s about quality time in day-to-day life.  Even if it is only 5, 10 or 20 minutes long - it is just a great check in (also a great check in with the rambunctious toddler within all of us).  Floortime is very much like a dance.  Let your partner take the lead and follow the steps.  And just watch those mirror neurons fire away.  When you follow your child’s lead, you join in your child’s emotional flow, creativity, skill development, sensory input.  This can be an exciting exploration of your child’s ideas.  

Floortime is awesome.  And our Early Childhood Matters parenting workshops, Play-and-Learn Groups and classes just for Dads around San Francisco (Carmel Blue, Recess Urban Recreation, Kaiser Permanente, Pacific Primary School, to name a few) really emphasize this.  So drop and dramatize with your child.  Get down.  Get physical.  Get play.  

-Justin Walsh

Mother's Day: What Matters Most?

I recently had the pleasure ofslowing down a bit over the spring break holiday with my three young children, ages 1, 3 and 5.  Technically only the oldest was on “spring break,” but with her mornings spent at preschool five days a week and my adherence to afternoon naps for the boys, we don’t have much time these days to do a lot of the things we used to enjoy.  We relished in slower mornings, trips to the playground, play dates with our pals and visiting our local children’s museum.  While out and about, I had some time to observe lots of children and their parents interacting in environments specifically designed for children. 

 One of the things that struck me was the intensity by which we parent.  In our current culture, parents are expected to create a marvelous, exciting and perfect life for their children and children are expected to perform, in subtle ways, from a very early age.  This creates a lot of anxiety for both the parents and the children.  I noticed parents shadowing their young toddlers at the museum, a safe environment expressly designed for their exploration.  I watched parents force their children to share. I saw children who were old enough to solve problems with their peers, run to their caregivers when another child did something they did not like (my child, in fact).  I saw parents blush with embarrassment when their child did something, well, childish.  As I sat on the edge of the room, watching from afar as my three kids explored and interacted with their peers, only intervening when my toddler was rough with other children (the youngest of three is having a hard time learning the rules of the playground), I felt my own anxiety creeping in.  I felt like I wanted to jump in and direct their play, tell them to quiet down, move faster down the slide, hand over the toy that another child is demanding to have a turn with.  I felt the eyes of other parents--as I have so many times before while at the playground as my little monkey climbs higher than other parents are comfortable with--boring through me, wondering why I was just sitting there doing nothing as he negotiated the wonderful world of childhood on his own. 

It took a lot for me to hold my anxiety, sit with it and remember what is important to me – that my children are given the room to grow, make mistakes and emerge more resilient than before.  For a few days I couldn’t stop thinking about this experience.  How do we hold onto what we value as parents in a society where parenting mores are no longer being passed from one generation to the next? How do we make the choice to parent differently from our peers without giving into the pressure to follow their path, instead of our own?  In our house this means teaching self-reliance and resilience.  

On the outside it may seem as though I don’t care they my chubby 18-month old fell down on the playground, but on the inside he is learning is that he can stand himself up, brush it off and keep on playing.  And for the times that he does need a kiss and a cuddle, he knows that I am there, loving him unconditionally. Recently, when my 5 year old proactively and independently, procured pieces of cardboard for her “recycling center” from our new neighbors, who had an abundance from all their moving boxes, the pride on her face reminded me that this value is working for us. 

 On mother’s day each year, we will undoubtedly run around buying cards and flowers for the special women in our life; planning brunches, outings and my favorite, making reservations. This year I have a new tradition that I invite you to put on your mothers day to-do list.  Take some time this mother’s day to reflect on what YOU value as a parent.  Not what society says you should care about, but what deep down in your heart are the 3 or 5 most important things you want to focus on in your home.  You might put things on your list such as less screen time, more floor time, a tighter routine,  or more unstructured activities.  Maybe you want to focus on yelling less and connecting more, or finding a reason to laugh together every day.   Write these things down. Share them with your partner in parenting or anyone who is especially involved in your child’s life.  Focus on these things daily. Let the chatter about how to be the perfect parent fade into the background.  Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, even when it makes you the unpopular person in the room.  Next year on mother’s day reflect on your values, how have they changed (because they will), what needs to be re-tooled and begin again.  We often say that the parent is the child’s first and most important teacher.  As parents, you are at the helm of this ship and the more clear you are about what is important in your lives while living in this messy and complicated world, the easier it will be to chart your course.

-Barbara Nelson

5 Toddler Friendly Airplane Activities (Screen-Time Free!)

With the holidays in full swing, many of us will be traveling by plane, train, boat or car!  Here are some quick screen-free tips to keep your child entertained while on the road...

 

1 - Young toddlers love to collect, empty, dump, and accomplish small challenges.  How do you make this travel friendly?   Create a simple game out of a (clean) yogurt cup by cutting a slit in the top big enough to push things through, such as gallon milk caps, baby food jar lids or even Medela bottle caps and put those developing fine motor skills to work!  My daughter was entertained in a recent car-ride for about 45 minutes with this simple game!

 

2 - FLOAM!  If you don't know about Floam let me be the first to tell you about it.  Made up of tiny styrafoam microbeads, this squishy material will keep your little one busy as they mash, squish and create.  Floam leave virtually no mess, making it ideal for travel.  The added bonus is this sensory activity may help calm your overstimulated or overtired toddler.

 

3 - Stickers and Paper - so simple yet children love to keep busy peeling and placing this old-fashioned toy!  

 

4 - Books on tape, as we teachers still call them,  are a great way to keep your child engaged on long trips. A more modern approach would be downloading a few favorite books to your smart phone or mp3 player to stream on your cars bluetooth or to use with special children's headsets.  My kids love listening to Winnie the Pooh and Frog and Toad!  I have also recorded my voice reading their favorite books using my phone's memo function and my son will listen to his mom reading books over and over again!

 

5 - Food, lots and lots of food!  Fill little baggies with a few favorite snacks and some things they haven't seen in a while.  Freeze dried fruit and crackers aren't very messy and don't need to be refrigerated.  Hard, crunchy foods, like crackers, and baby carrots for those old enough to chew have the added bonus of some proprioceptive (muscle) input and relieving stress.

 

While it might be tempting to plug your child into a portable DVD player or Ipad, try to limit screen time ( AAP recommends NO Screen time for children under 2).   These modern marvels can be incredibly stimulating and while work well in the moment, often leave your child more wound up then we you started.  For more great ideas about increasing creativity, curiosity and building the limbic (emotional) brain check out one of your local Early Childhood Matters classes!

-Rebecca Walsh & Barbara Nelson

5 Tips To Help Get Your Toddler Dressed

Toddler is code name for independent. And as you well know dressing is one of those areas where this independence asserts itself.  While getting dressed is something you want “them" to do, your toddler may have different ideas. There is usually some looming time constraint, and your patience is wearing thin with the pressure to get out the door.  This is a perfect scenario to trigger your toddler's autonomy button (AKA really-important-idea-to-mommy-so-must-rebel-against-it button!)  

Here are some tips to keep it on the fun side!

  1. Engage them in the process.  For the younger toddler: The good old fashioned, “Where’s Janey’s hand?, Where’s Janey’s hand?, There’s Janey’s hand!” can work wonders!  Describe every body part and even sub body parts (toes, ankles, knees) to make it all that much more interesting - helping your toddler forget this was ever your idea in the first place!  For the older toddler: Holding up their pants ask, “Should we put your head in this hole? NO! Your arms in these holes? NO!" The key is to be relaxed and to move the toddler out of the resistance mode and into an enjoyable experience (maybe even playful bonding moment) for both of you!
  2. Give them choices, but not too many.  For the younger toddler: Ask, “Should we put your shirt on first or your pants on first?” Remember too many choices can actually overwhelm a child and make her feel anxious that she has to make too many decisions for herself. For the older toddler: Older toddlers may want to chose what they will wear - I encourage parents to let this be a place for creative expression and autonomy - even if it means mismatched clothes.  Set limits around weather-appropriate clothes and changing-outfits like, “Oh you picked this outfit already but I see you want to change your mind - let’s put this in a special place so we can remember to wear this other outfit tomorrow.”
  3. Get dressed in motion.  A mom once shared this strategy with me in one of our workshops and I thought it was brilliant-especially for the younger toddler.  Put each part of the outfit in a different room and have the child run to each room to find each article of clothing! Daniel Siegel, M.D. writes in "The Whole Brain Child" that movement is often key to getting children out of resistance mode and into the cooperative mode - this mom was really onto something!
  4. Set a timer.  Let’s see if we can get dressed by the time this timer goes beep beep beep (or quack, quack, quack... thank you smartphone).  Children love little challenges like this to keep things moving.  Be careful not offer a reward if it happens (such as a sticker or a treat) as usually children are satisfied enough by the game itself and the rewards can backfire when the child is old enough to say, “That’s ok I don’t want a sticker today!" 
  5. Sing A Song.  When all else fails, turn getting dressed into a song (or any other resisted activity!).  Try this one (to the tune of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush) or make up your own, “This is the way we put on our socks, put on our socks, put on our socks, this is the way we put on our socks so early in the morning!”

The key in all these strategies is encouraging cooperation without getting into a power struggle.  In this way we set limits and stay in control (as opposed to letting our children go out naked, or staying home because it’s just too hard) while encouraging autonomy and independence (something you will be thankful for when they are 30 and not living a home!)  Learn more about your child’s development, strategies for striking that balance, and more at your local Early Childhood Matters workshops!

-Rebecca Walsh