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   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 ( 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

Vacation, With the Kids

 Summertime is upon us.  The school year and our regular activities are winding down for a few months.  The unstructured hours of the long summer days are a blessing for young children and their parents.  Traditionally, this is a time when families put commitments on hold for a few days or weeks and embark on a summer vacation.  

Maybe you are taking a long weekend at a nearby beach or traveling half way around the world to visit family. You may attempt a “staycation,” visiting local attractions instead of going away.  Whatever you choose to do, family vacations can be fantastic, allowing us to enjoy uninterrupted time together building memories that your children will be sure to carry with them into adulthood.

     Sounds nice, huh?

     It can be.

     It will be.  Right?

Well, moments of your time together will be amazing.  But some moments with young children in tow, will inevitably be unpredictable, not go at all according to plan and even be a bit stressful.  Along with daydreaming about the long hours lounging on the beach, you may consider, for example, how the time at the beach may actually be shorter than the time it takes to pack up and get out the door.

After spending a much anticipated week at our family beach house with my husband and three kids, I left feeling disappointed. We had traveled extensively since the birth of our first child 4 years ago – we certainty know how hard it is.  But this was our first real vacation in years – most of our travel involves visiting family with lots of running around, but this time it was just us.  A whole week together! I imagined the kids playing out on the lawn while I grilled burgers, followed by a relaxing dinner on the deck, staying up late, long mornings at the beach, breakfast at the local diner, and walking around town shopping for souvenirs.  

The reality was much different.  By the time the oldest woke up in the morning, the baby was ready for a nap, so breakfast was at the kitchen table, and the cooking and cleaning still needed to be done!  Staying up late only left us with an overtired 2 year old, who is much harder to put to bed and wakes up earlier the next day.  And his 5am wake-up calls lasted the whole week. I began to feel like I was working harder than normal and doing it without having a babysitter to call on.  And then it rained.  And rained.  And rained.  There were no long mornings on the beach and not too much to entertain the kids with while we waited for a glimpse of sun.

This feeling of frustration and disappointment was lying right below the surface, a feeling that our three emotional sponges absorbed and punted right back to me.  And it got me thinking about what we could have done differently to prepare for our vacation.  I had spent a lot of time collecting the necessary supplies, packing and planning, all in an effort to prepare for a smooth and pleasant trip.  What I forgot to do was prepare mentally and emotionally.  I learned a few lessons on this trip that I’d like to share, not only from a child development perspective, but from a personal one too.

Your trip’s been planned and you are ready to go.  Here are some ideas you may consider packing, that won’t exactly fit into a suitcase!

1. Before you leave, make some time to discuss expectations (and possible realities) with your partner, trying to get on the same page before the vacation begins

  • Do you expect to keep your normal schedule while traveling or do you plan to shake up your routine and not worry about naps and what time meals are at?
  • What about commitments outside of the family – how will you both feel if one partner steps away from the fun to answer some work emails or join a conference call?  
  • Sleeping arrangements can be challenging when traveling – if your child sleeps soundly in their bed at home but not in a hotel, how will you both feel if you share your bed on vacation or split up and sleep in separate rooms?
  • Chores!  Being away with little kids can often be more work than being at home, especially if you’re in a rental house without a hotel maid to make up the room.  If one partner is the primary caretaker while the other works, it can be challenging to suddenly divvy up chores and child related responsibilities while away.  Talking about these things before you leave and coming up with a plan can help alleviate the feeling that one parent didn’t get a break or that the other is being ordered around on their vacation.

2. Give each other some time off

  • Spending time together as a family is wonderful, but the adults deserve a break and since you probably won’t be able to get a break together, try giving each other some established alone time…a round of golf, a trip to the nail salon, a long run or some alone time alone at the beach or a local museum can do wonders to replenish your energy and help you enjoy the rest of the day.

3. Go out on a date

  • If you are comfortable with this idea, line up a sitter so the adults can go out for a few hours alone.  Many hotels have babysitter recommendations and sites like or can have a pre-screened, certified babysitter at your door in a matter of hours.

4. Spend some one-on-one time with your kids

  • If you have more than one kid, they no doubt have different interests and energy levels.  Take your oldest on a special sea shell collecting trip while your baby sleeps or take your toddler out for breakfast before the other kids wake up.

5. If your kids are old enough include them in some vacation decision making

  • You may remember hearing your own parents complain that you weren’t thankful or appreciative of the trips they planned, but did they ask you what you wanted to do?  Of course the parents make the decisions, but giving your kids, even children as young as two, occasional decision making power (what restaurant to eat at? Mini-golf or the hotel pool? A long walk or a trip to a local playground?) can create a feeling of inclusiveness and good feeling that carries over throughout your time together

6. Discipline can be tricky when traveling - be prepared

  • What behaviors you are going to insist on and what you will let slide when on vacation?
  • You may have to relax your rules around well balanced meals or technology - ice-cream before dinner and Sesame Street at 5am to keep the others still sleeping for example! Remember that children are flexible and with consistency, will go back to their regular diets and rules when you return home.  
  • What are some reasonable consequences – this is important to think of before you are stuck in a lockdown with your toddler.   Remember that consequences must be immediate and related to the offending behavior for them to be impactful.  Be careful not to punish yourself by saying “If you don’t stop _______, we aren’t going out to dinner,” when indeed that was your only plan for a meal!
  • Go easy on yourself and your kids – the change of routine and environment can be extremely stressful for a young child.  Be careful not to misunderstand their behavior by taking it personally if it feels like every day is a battle and they are unwilling to participate in all this family fun!  If your child is sensitive to being overtired, hungry, and in an unfamiliar place, try hard to carry on a few of your usual routines, such as bedtime and mealtimes…and if you cannot do that, it’s ok, just remember to be empathetic to how your child is feeling and prepare them for what is coming next: “After nap, we are going to put on our bathing suits and go swimming before we go to dinner tonight.”

If we can remember that things will likely not go according to plan, we may find a moment to enjoy the completely unexpected and unplanned moments in between.  One rainy afternoon on our recent trip my boys were napping and I went to read a magazine.  My husband texted me and said, “Lucy and I are sitting in the garage watching the rain fall.”  

That is a magical moment you don’t get every day.  Look for them.  You will find them.  Cherish them and remember that one day your family vacations will be different, and you may actually miss the days when your children didn’t want to spend one waking (or sleeping) moment without you!

-Barbara Nelson  

Princess Mania?

Last week, I attended the workshop given by Peggy Orenstein - author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter (New York: Harper, 2011).  After recently becoming the mother of a little girl, the workshop was helpful in highlighting the problem of “too much princess” and finding solutions (or at least moderate responses) to the “girly-girl” culture that seems to be taking over our daughters. I decided to write this article in a Q and A format…enjoy!

Q:  Haven't little girls always wanted to be princesses? Is there really anything new here?

A: Yes, some little girls seem to be wired toward things sparkly and pretty but know that current media and consumer culture have blown the exposure to particularly the Disney princesses way out of proportion.  Whereas before the year 2000 Disney would bring out a princess (like Snow White) every seven years, and for two weeks Snow White, including all her products, would be on the market and then go back "in the vault" - now the princesses have joined forces, making it possible for the marketing and products to be constantly out 365 days a year.  The facts: there are currently 26,000 Disney princess products and they are making $4 billion per year off of our daughters.  Young girls are being more than inundated with this one way of being a little girl.


Q: What is the problem with the princess culture anyway?  

A: Besides the scripts that it gives to children because of its link to the movies (vs. more open ended princess/fairy play) there are a couple of key problems with this “over emphasis” on the princess. First of all, it focuses on outer beauty - sending a strong message to our daughters that the way to success is through your looks.  This leads, as you can imagine, to a whole host of other problems (think about self-esteem!) as princess culture turns to make-up culture for seven year olds, and an over-sexualization for pre-adolescents and adolescents.  Second, it teaches our girls that those looks alone will lead them to being rescued by prince charming for a life of “happily ever after”.  Yikes.  As one wise woman once told me, "We didn't fight through Women's Liberation so these little girls could aspire to be princesses when they grow up!"


Q: But why does my daughter looove the princess thing so much?  

A: Orenstein talks about preschoolers being in the state of gender impermanence - meaning they believe their gender can change at any moment (e.g. if you make me where pants to school I will actually become a boy!)  So, they often cling to whatever culture gives them to hold on tightly to their BOY or GIRL identity.  There is nothing wrong with this gender expression, or conversely, with the girl who experiments with what it would like to be a daddy when she grows up.  These are a normal and healthy part of growing up.  However, the author suggests we give them some other narratives of gender expression to experiment with, rather than say Snow White, Cinderella, and Ariel.  Read on…


Q: Won't censoring my little girl from the princess culture backfire though? 

A: Yes, it is true that completely sheltering your child (even if it was possible) from the princess mania could lead to the “forbidden fruit” narrative.  What Orenstein suggests instead, are a couple of well balanced approaches.

  • Allow the princesses without comment, whereas express genuine excitement and enthusiasm about other interests.
  • Take her to see the movie when she begs, but talk with your preschooler about the messages in the princess movies.  
  • Tell her your concerns - even the youngest children can surprise us with their insights and understandings. 

You may not be able to take all the princess away but you can add in other strong feminine, yet imaginative, narratives - like wizards and sorcerers, Greek goddesses, and what ever happened to queens?


Q: What are some other practical things parents can do to counter the values of this new "girlie-girl" culture?

A: Provide gender neutral toys like legos, blocks, tinkertoys, trains, firefighter dress ups, balls, etc.  

Encourage cross-sex play through playdates or commenting positively when you see this happen naturally.  The research says that cross-sex friendships are critical to the emotional and psychological health of our children (boys too!), and even impact their future romantic and professional relationships. 

Orenstein has the “fight fun with fun list” which includes books, toys and activities that offer alternative portrayals of princesses and feminine identity.

In honor of all the women who fought for us so we could be where we are today...let’s keep up the good fight!

-Rebecca Walsh


Great news from Tulane University and LSU.  Yet another deep, collaborative inquiry in the current state of early childhood education, and the urgent need to do more in the FIRST FIVE YEARS of a child’s life.  Asked why Professor Nagle presented the number “1,826” in his presentation of the evidence, he stated, 

“Why 1,826?   That’s the number of days till the fifth birthday.   That’s our time to build the fundamentals, the strong base that children need.” 

Let’s not forget how essential this small window of opportunity is - to really impact the youngest and most impressionable amongst us, for life.

Read more at Early Childhood Education Urged   

-Rebecca Walsh

ECM Approved Holiday Gift Guide-2012

It’s holiday time and it can be lots of fun (and sometimes overwhelming) picking out toys for the little ones in our lives!  A couple of things to consider before you buy:

-Is it open ended? E.g. a lego or block can become many different things whereas a pirate ship will always just be, well... a pirate ship.

-Does it encourage the child to be an active participant in the play (e.g., a doctor’s kit) or a passive bystander who sits back, pushes a button and is entertained?

Here are some ideas to get you started on holiday gift giving that encourages creativity and curiosity!  Happy Playing! 

For the TRUCE 2011-2012 Toy Guide: Toys of Value and Toys to Avoid Click Here!

-Rebecca Walsh

Active, Direct Play and Hands-On Experiences

In a recent piece, Nancy Carlsson-Paige was interviewed by Early Childhood Education - NewsWatch, and asked to give her take on where early childhood education most needs direction.  Her thoughts are refreshing to hear:

Children need active, direct play and hands-on experiences. They need to see facts in meaningful contexts, to invent their own ideas and problems to explore and solve, to share their own solutions. Children need literacy activities that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and dramatic reenactments that grow out of their experiences; they need open-ended materials to build with, arts activities of all kinds, recess and time in nature. And they need teachers who know how to build curriculum from where children are. What we are seeing today is the replacement of this optimal early childhood environment with a narrowed curriculum and formal instruction in literacy and numeracy. I have been in many classrooms where four- and five-year-old children are sitting in chairs receiving direct instruction from the teacher who is following a script or a prescribed curriculum often aligned with tests the children will be given. These practices are harmful to young children and reflect a loss of trust in their intellectual capacities and an institutionalized crushing of their insatiable love of learning.                          

Burnes, Kelly, "Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Education.” Weblog entry. ECE NewsWatch. 11.05.12.  11.07.12 (

Let’s keep up the good fight for play-based education.  Our children's "insatiable love of learning” is fostered in these early years.  As we say at Early Childhood Matters, PLAY and learn!

-Rebecca Walsh

One Skinned Knee at a Time

In our last newsletter, we responded to an interesting NY Times article, "Fast Tracking to Kindergarten," and talked about how to step back from the anxieties we feel as parents to make sure we are "doing enough" for our children. The same day we issued our newsletter, out came the Atlantic Weekly article “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” which argues that doing too much can be just as bad, if not worse, as doing too little. This article has created quite a buzz among my friendship circles and various online forums - leaving many people with more questions than answers. “Is she saying being attuned to our children's emotions, and being involved in their lives, activities and school life is suddenly not what we are supposed to be doing?” “Is she arguing against helping children build conflict-resolution skills?” “I thought giving choices built self esteem - now the research finds it creates anxiety?” Well, here's a little Early Childhood Matters perspective...

We believe that being emotionally attuned and involved, helping children with conflict-resolution skills, and offering choices are all definitely good things.  But what I think author Lori Gottlieb is trying to say is that too much of any good thing (including choices) can be detrimental, and with that I have to wholeheartedly agree.  Gottlieb is identifying the problem with "pendulum-swing parenting" - one generation tries to do things differently than the last and instead of using new understandings of social science and emotional intelligence and making adjustments accordingly, we do what seems to make sense - the complete opposite of what our parents did!  

From the article, and from my experience working with hundreds of children and families over the years, I recognize two trends which can limit a child’s ability to learn to cope with disappointment, and ultimately (as more and more Universities are noticing) life! 

The first is the hovering parent - one who swoops in so fast and protects so much that children don’t have the opportunity to experience pain or frustration. This parent inhibits the child from learning that they can get through frustration, or overcome hurdles, by taking reasonable risks to build up their sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.  This parent holds the child back from solving problems because they are always solved before the child has a chance to even think about solving alone.

The second is the parent who struggles to set limits, i.e., “Sure you can have that toy today,( even though you have 12 just like it at home)", or “Ok, even though we really have to leave now, you can stay for another 5 minutes.”  With this approach the child does not learn what disappointment feels like, let alone how to get over it.  We often say in our classes that teaching children to cope with disappointment, in the safety of their most caring and nurturing relationships, should be among our top goals as parents.  As the article says, just like physical immunity we must build up our child’s emotional immunity and resilience.  And believe it or not, this starts now; even at 12-36 months, one lovingly navigated tantrum and skinned knee at a time!  

Come learn more about finding that delicate balance between setting limits and encouraging freedom, and more skills for building up your child’s emotional resilience at local Early Childhood Matters classes, workshops and playgroups.

-Rebecca Walsh


Tantrums.  To parents of a toddler, this is a four-letter word.

We dread them.  Anticipating their arrival from our babies' earliest days, we often do anything we can to avoid them or stop them from escalating, hoping that our child will regain control and spare us the embarrassment or the frustration that accompanies them.  Every child has them, but why?  Let's look at it from the perspective of your child's developing brain.

When you baby is born the only part of the brain that is fully developed is the brain stem, which controls involuntary actions such as breathing and blinking.  The part of the brain that regulates self-control, the neo-cortex, isn't fully developed until the age of 25.  When your child experiences stress (which for a toddler can be something as seemingly insignificant as stopping one activity to move onto the next) they downshift to the primitive part of the brain.  What follows might not be so pretty.  When we look at tantrums from this perspective we can understand why we can not always expect our toddlers to be reasonable and exhibit self-control during frustrating times.  What we can do is expect this behavior, know that it is normal and then try to stay calm and operating out of our neo-cortex!  Try telling yourself this simple mantra, "I believe I can handle this behavior, and I believe you can handle this disappointment!”  Learn more about your child’s development and strategies to help you get through the day while wiring your child’s neo-cortex for success! 

-Barbara Nelson & Rebecca Walsh

Help with Transitions

Ever wonder how to make your day run more smoothly with minimal tantrums? Here are some tips...

Set a timer:  Give your child a heads up a few minutes before a transition so that they know it is time to move onto the next activity. Let them know that when they hear the beep it is time to move on. It can be a kitchen timer when you're home or an alarm on your cell phone when you're out.  When little ones have a chance to adapt to the idea of changing what they doing, tears are less likely to flow.

Allow for a Transitional Object: Knowing that changing gears can be the hardest part of your toddler's day-allowing them to take something with them as they transition to the next activity.  For example if your child doesn't want to leave the bath, ask them to choose one bath toy who wants to listen to the bedtime story.

Make them your helper: Get down to your toddlers level, look them in the eye and ask them to help you. For example, when getting ready to leave the house, ask them to bring a bag to the car or find their shoes.  Let them know how important their help is!

Keep things light and fun!  For example, sing a song about putting on shoes to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

-Barbara Nelson and Rebecca Walsh

Am I Doing Enough?

I empathize with parents.  It is hard when your friend’s kid knows all their colors or can count to ten in three languages. I’ve caught myself thinking, “Oh no! Am I doing enough? Am I priming or stinting my son's genius potential?”  These thoughts creep up despite parent intuition and my years of early childhood education.

It is hard for parents to resist the societal pressure for their child to "get ahead" with popular academic programs such as Junior Kumon. But trust your intuition when something doesn't feel right about seeing an overwhelmed three year old doing letter drills as depicted in the New York Times "Fast Tracking To Kindergarten" Article.  And get the facts! Fast tracking to kindergarten is actually developmentally unwise. A child misses the very small window of opportunity to develop the limbic part of the brain, from where social-emotional intelligence comes, by focusing too early on reading and writing (cerebral area of the brain). This emotional part of the brain, unlike the more malleable cerebral cortex, can not be re-wired later in life!  Furthermore, the potential of the brain's higher regions are dependent on the lower regions fully developing - a process that is almost complete by the age of five.  This is why we say early childhood matters! 

So, what can we do as parents of children under five to make sure the limbic systems fully develop? Connection, affection, and lots of time for free, uninterrupted good old fashioned play!

Learn more about brain development, supporting your child's growing sense of curiosity, and what you can do to stay connected during these first five years at local Early Childhood Matters classes, workshops and playgroups.

-Rebecca Walsh