Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Freedom, Responsibility and Compassion

Two years ago I fell in love with the idea of democratic schools. At the time I was struggling with how my son didn't seem to fit at any preschool. Two schools turned us away and a third accepted us only to change their mind after having him in class for two weeks. So the idea of honoring all persons and their ideas in a classroom was widely appealing. But I couldn't find any democratic schools in or near my 'hood.

After we moved to a new glorious mountain town I was tickled to find a democratic school in my zip code. Their website confirmed everything I had hoped. Their motto is "Freedom, Responsibility and Compassion." LOVED it.  So I scheduled a tour and enrolled my daughter for the fall. The last thing to do was a participatory visit - spend a morning, mother and daughter, at the school so we could feel it our (and they could feel us out).

When Anna and I arrived for our participatory visit was feeling pretty sure of myself. Thanks to Janet Lansbury, I was not new to the idea of children as individuals deserving respect. I was familiar with using "I" statements to sportscast things that were going on. And all that knowledge (and the practice using it at home) served us well on that first day. We seemed to blend in to things. I read some books with Anna and other children. I helped serve snacks and clean up messes. Mostly though I stayed out of the way and watched while Anna made friends and negotiated her way around the school. It was lovely to watch. But of course I learned some things, too.

I noticed that when the teachers began their statement with "I feel" it usually ended with "scared," "frustrated," "worried," or some other negative feeling followed by a description of naughty behavior like "because you're throwing blocks." I don't remember hearing anyone say something like "I feel happy because I see Anna taking turns with Rocco." It reminded me about my unofficial goal of recognizing good behavior as well as worrisome behavior at home.

The MOST interesting thing I learned was from the "Group Meeting" and I plan to steal it to help me parent every day, especially through the summer.

After an hour or so of free-play the group cleaned up and came together to greet one another in a circle song. Then we all went to have a snack during Group Meeting. The teacher added a number to the calendar, with the help of a student, and then sat with a white board to take notes. First, she asked who had an idea to share. She made a short list of names and then began asking each child in turn what his or her idea was. It was a time of day for the children to share an important story or ask a question. More importantly, it was when they decided what they were going to do that day.

Suggestions came flying in and included: painting, cutting shapes, going to the indoor sensory room, field-tripping to the neighborhood playground, etc. The possibilities were endless, though. No one even mentioned feeding the animals on campus (cockroaches, dog, chickens, rabbit), going to the school library, or working in the garden. After each suggestion, the teacher asked who wanted to participate. Who wanted to paint? Who wanted to cut shapes? Who wanted to go to the sensory room? And she tallied the children's names. After everyone who wanted to suggest something had said their piece, the teacher observed that nearly everyone wanted to paint and nearly everyone wanted to play in the sensory room. So those would be the first things the group would do. And, of course, if someone didn't want to participate then there were other acceptable options, too.

The children helped clean up after snack time. Then they proceeded to help the teachers prepare the painting space with tools and materials.

It seemed like such a simple thing to do. To ask people what they want to do and then do it. Somehow it was a profound leap for me to make, though I do not know why. We already take turns picking music in the car. My kids help me pick food for their snacks. Why not have this simple structure in place to help us plan our days, too?

The breakfast table is the sensible place for our family meetings. We can voice opinions or raise questions to each other; we can each pick something (reasonable) we would like to do that day. I tried it out this past week. It was important to Anna that we go to a playground. It was important to me that I work in the garden. It was important to Mikey that we read a Ninja book. And over the course of the day all those things happened. I was amazed the power democracy had in helping me parent. When Mikey was frustrated about being at a playground I could say, "this is what is important to Anna. We already read your book, which was important to you." Asking for ideas and then following through to pursue those activities was really amazing for us. And I plan to use it all summer long.

Let's Lasso the Moon suggested a way to have a really relaxed summer by offering a teeny amount of structure to your summer week. Mondays library, Tuesdays art, etc. I loved that suggestion because it appeals to my compulsive nature. But I'm going to think outside my comfort zone a bit. Instead of having the activities be the teeny bit of structure, I'm going to have the process of planning and executing the day be the structure: making time to listen to people's ideas in the morning, helping them pursue their ideas in the afternoon, and reflecting on the day during bedtime, treasuring the experiences that brought us together by pursuing adventure, art, and engineering the way we can in only an undirected summer.

Maybe by the end of the summer we will have earned the right to use the school's motto as our own: "Freedom, Responsibility and Compassion." I can't imagine something more succinct and heartwarming than that.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Thinking in Very Small, Detailed Pictures

Toward the end of our first meeting with a developmental pediatrician the doctor observed Mikey, not quite four years old, laying on the floor an examining the mechanical properties of one of her toys. He was not playing with it as it was meant to be played with: he was not driving the little truck around in pretend play. She asked me if that up-close examination was typical to which I replied with a laugh, "yes!"

Like most children, my son loves to explore the world. He observes it, plays in it, tests the limits of it. And it is his way-too-up-close way of looking at things that has provided him with some powerful insights. So I wouldn't change this particular "symptom" of autism for the world. It has provided us with fodder for some pretty awesome conversations. (I'll save those conversations for another day.)

The reason I'm writing this post is because of what Mikey's up-close view on the world has taught me about picture books. Many picture books are run of the mill variety. Stories range from mediocre to inspiring. Illustrations are sometimes extraordinarily artistic. Other times the pictures are not as impressive but they are equally valuable for telling the story. Then there are handfuls of picture books that have photographs so amazing, like The Secret Life of a Snowflake or Raindrops Roll, or drawings so detailed, like Busy Builders and An Earthworm's Life, that they warrant special attention from me, for you.

New technology in photography affords us these remarkable works. In The Secret Life of a Snowflake , the artist/author is a physicist studying snowflakes and crystals. In pursuit of science, he employed some really interesting methods for capturing data, i.e. taking pictures of snowflakes. The book includes descriptions of these wintery crystals but for me the breath-taking images are enough to capture and hold my attention.
Snowflake Art
 Raindrops Roll is another demonstration of how engineering has aided new art. Cameras that can take pictures of the micro view of dew drops and raindrops are now nearly commonplace. In this book, the artist/author provides simple prose to help describe the photographs of water drops and water droplets in nature.

We found An Earthworm's Life at the library just in time for gardening season. The illustrations provide up-close views of earthworms...including a picture of one eating! I have never had the opportunity to actually watch an earthworm eat and this media, this tool to aid learning, this wonderful book showed me what I would otherwise not have seen.

Busy Builders is similar to An Earthworm's Life in that the illustrations provide an up-close view of each insect. In fact, each insect is introduced as an illustration that spreads the body over a two page spread! Readers can see each bod part in detail and marvel at the anatomy of these tiny creatures.

All four of these books offer pretty cool images of our world for you to enjoy with your children. They let you see things you would not necessarily see in every day life. The artists use their favorite, sometimes innovative, technology and their unique perspective to share a view of the micro-sized life that surrounds us. And in reading these books, it is a pleasure to think about how engineering is interwoven in art and in our lives.

Monday, May 18, 2015


Travel season is right around the corner. I have a handful of small trips in the works 2-4 hours car rides to campgrounds and national parks. Plus, I have one doozy of a trip planned - 20 hours in the car spread out over three days and two nights on the road. I am thinking about how long we will be traveling, what the children will do while I'm up front, where we can stop along the way, and I am sharing all my ideas with you, here.

My parents were school teachers and I spent many summer vacations on the road. We would drive from Michigan to Maine, or to Florida, or to the Grand Canyon, and back. It was a time before traveling screens and I remember the rumble of the van underneath me, playing games with my brother and sister. So, I think riding quietly in the car and watching the landscape speed by is a wonderful way to see our country.

But when we traveled I wasn't a preschooler. I was older, wiser, content with my nose in a novel to pass the time. So planning a roadtrip with my own preschoolers I realize that they might not be content to sit and stare out the window or into the pages of their books for too long. Their little minds will need a certain amount of thinking; their bodies a certain amount of wiggling.

I am approaching our summer trips the same way I try to approach many things in parenting - trying to manage the balancing act of doing what I think needs to be done (arriving at the destination in a relatively timely manner) with what my children think needs to be done (playing). That, combined with my commitment to not letting screens rule our life, have led me to this list of ideas for making our trips not just bearable but fun!

My first rule is that we will exhaust all our resources before turning on the iPad to watch "Bob the Builder." There is no reason we can't be creative in the car. We just need the right tools to use to build, to do art, and enjoy a good story. And here are those resources:

Taking regular building materials and a table in the car is not practical. Blocks will topple, marbles in a marble run will rolls every way but where you want (which might be a cool experiment but not during a roadtrip), and train tracks between car seats would need a substantial amount of bridge support. So I choose things that bring their own sticking power - toys that help defy the laws of gravity.

Squigz stick to each other and to windows. I think these little "suckers" bring their own togetherness that is perfect for building in a car.

Like Squigz, magnets have a stick-to-it-iveness that make them ideal for travel. I love the Imagination Patterns by Mindware. The carrying case doubles as a magnetic foundation for free-building. It also comes with some index cards with pictures on them for your child to try to copy.
Tegu boasts that it is the original magnetic block and I just love them. They are beautiful, wood sanded 'til they're soft, and holding them is a pleasure. Plus, the movement is inspiring. The magnet strength is the perfect amount to hold the pieces together but allow for easy spinning, reassembling new sculptures, etc.


Arts & Crafts
Ribbon, scissors and tape are the most-used materials in the house. Together they accounted for the majority of activities for our 13 hour roadtrip last autumn. There must be something really intriguing about pulling ribbon off it's roll, something powerful about using "real" scissors to slice through things, and something peculiar about the sticky-but-not-too-stickiness of masking tape. You can pick ribbon, scissors and tape at your local craft store, using the easy-to-find 40% off coupon for Michaels or Hobby Lobby. For the sake of ease, I'm adding some fun ones to my aStore.

Carry the scissors and tape in one of the zippered pockets in an "Alex Toys Artist Studio To Go." It will also hold crayons in the second pocket and a pad of paper. (I recommend crayons because you don't need a sharpener nor will you have to worry about ink. The only concern is if they melt in an overly hot car!!)

ALEX Toys Studio To Go
Perfect! One child can build with magnets while the other is using the drawing desk.

Consider yourself lucky if your children don't insist "children's music." While my kids will tolerate and even enjoy some rock n roll, their first choice is always something that has lyrics that are easy to understand and topical. My son's first love was Truck Tunes, which was one of the first things that propelled us into the life of Preschool Engineering. Other favorites are "educational," too, because my son is sooooo literal and focused on facts more than whimsy. Here are the albums I'll be taking with us:

Truck Tunes 1
Truck Tunes 2 (available only as MP3 from
Moose Tunes
Sea Tunes
(There are also albums about cows and bears by Brent Holmes that I haven't heard yet.)
Incredible Flexible You

Yes, audiobooks for kids! We had great success with audiobooks on our latest roadtrip and I expect the same kind of success on our next ones. You can either DIY with your favorite books or you can search for some that have been done for you. My first glance at the library left me feeling disappointed because all the audiobooks I saw were of chapter books - clearly for older children than mine. However, I did find a pretty awesome looking collection on Amazon of Winnie the Pooh! The first listen made me feel very excited. Each character and the narrator has a different voice, performed by a different artist. I've added it to the Preschool Engineering aStore for you and if you poke around you'll see other classics like "The Cat in the Hat," "Frog and Toad" and "Frances."

Update 7/5/2016: I have made a list of audiobooks that we have listened to and enjoyed: 14 Audio Stories for Little Kids.

When adults might be able to put off eating and roll with a different eating schedule, children are less flexible. We are on the go quite a bit to geocache, hike, go to playgrounds, zoos, or museums, or just plain be out of the house. So I have developed a pretty workable system for taking snacks on the go. I always pack in two containers. Each child has his or her own snacks in a Goodbyn and all our lunches are packed together in an insulated lunchbox - sandwiches each in a plastic sandwich container plus some snack-sized cheese.  What I love about the Goodbyns is that they are easy to open and have nice deep places to contain the food. They are sturdy and dependable things for sitting on laps in the car. Check out all your options at or just pick one up (in your choice of color blue, green, pink or red) at the aStore.

Getting the Wiggles Out
Lastly, how in the world will they get their requisite exercise? My children are movers and three hours per day outside is just about the right amount. But what happens when I don't have the option for kicking them out into the back yard to spin, twirl, run, climb, and dig? Well, I have heard that there are indoor play areas in McDonalds but I haven't tried that yet. Instead, I'm taking a page from the RVer's handbook (thanks to my parents who dipped their toes in that world last year).

State Parks and National Parks are great places to stop along your roadtrip. Along I-80 I was able to see a LOT of options that were less than 30 minutes from the highway. They are often located near lakes (good for splashing and throwing rocks) and the websites always can tell you what amenities are available like restrooms, picnic areas, and PLAYGROUNDS!

You'll have to do a little digging. Each state has their own website or you can look at For instance, I searched for "Everything" in Nebraska. Viewing as a map I was able to see which campgrounds were close to my route and check them out accordingly. Branched Oak State Recreation Area looks good. It is in a good location for my trip, it has a playground, and I can even check the weather forecast according to NOAA directly from the Branched Oak site.

The only downside is that I expect a day-use fee at each site. But since I'll be packing lunch I will consider the cost about the same as ordering McMeals for the whole family to play in a McPlayplace.

There you have it! I think I covered all my bases. And I have made a special folder in the Preschool Engineering aStore where you can find all these goodies to buy through Amazon: my aStore. What are your tips for traveling with preschoolers??

[Disclosure Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and purchase, I receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. To see how I spend the money see my "Philanthropy" page. ]

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Gift Ideas

People are often asking for recommendations for gifts for newborns, one year olds and two years olds. Well look no further because I have started some small but awesome lists of gifts ideas. Besides surfing around in other categories, you can just navigate to the appropriate age category and see some toys I have hand-picked for preschool engineers!

Have fun shopping!!

Preschool Engineering aStore

p.s. I will add a three year old category soon. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Update on Screen-free Diet

It has been seven weeks since we began our screen-free diet. I had been curious what a screen-free diet would look like in our house. I wondered if there would be any positive effect on our lives. And I was determined to try...all I needed was an opportunity that could be seen as "fair" - a natural consequence of losing the TV (we had already shelved gaming devices). Inevitably, I said "if you cannot agree to the rules of watching TV then I will take the TV out of the house." And, inevitably, the persistent arguing that comes from a child with Aspergers and a threenager made that consequence come to fruition. The results of the screen-free living have been profound.

The most amazing change has been a drastic reduction in nighttime parenting. After three weeks of screen-free living my son began sleeping long and uninterrupted. He now falls asleep between 7:30 and 8PM and sleeps to -almost- 6AM WITHOUT coming to our room or calling for our support...usually.

There has been a trickle-down effect as a result of his improved sleep habits. We, his parents, are better rested and can be more patient with the challenges of the day. And he is better rested and can also be more patient and more flexible with the challenges of his day. Don't get me wrong. He still has Aspergers and the challenging behaviors that come along with it. His persistence and his single-mindedness that accounts for his giftedness is still evident every day. But when I say, "enough for now" he is able to shelf his concerns for later and redirect himself to some other interesting thing. His sensory-seeking repetitive physical needs are still there -- jumping, running, flapping his arms and spinning in circles remain a part of our daily play. But they are less likely to be used aggressively; propeller arms are now part of dance instead of used as weapons and jumping is joyful instead of launching himself as a cannon ball. Everyone is noticing these improvements - from his friends to his teachers.

However, like any elimination diet, there has to be a gradual re-introduction of the eliminated substance. Plus, I really like watching TV with them so I would love to have a little back in my own life. By reintroducing screens into our lives we will be looking for short term as well as long term effects. If sleep deteriorates again then I will have to find a way to remove it again...but so far, so good.

Our first reintroduction was not our doing. Mikey was invited to our neighbor's house to play with the big kids. They were in the "man cave" watching TV. I was nervous for several reasons. First, I was concerned that the coming night would be full of wakings and lots of nighttime parenting. Second, I was curious about what, exactly, the boys were watching. Was it age-appropriate for my son? Last, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to peel Mikey away when it was time for dinner. It turned out that there were no short-term effects from that first reintroduction and so we proceeded with caution.

Next, the new rules would be that we would only watch TV on Saturday mornings. I think part of the problem before was the daily doses of screen time. Even being within the limits recommended by the American Pediatric Association, was too much. I'm convinced that Mikey and Anna's sensitive little brains and bodies were having some sort of addictive reaction to watching TV and there was some cumulative effect going on.

We had our first Saturday morning cartoons last week and, for now, it seems to be perfect. There were no immediate problems. Behavior didn't change drastically and sleep remained excellent. I am determined to remain vigilant. I want the TV and other screen-based media to be part of our lives but I don't want it to rules our lives.