Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I recently read an article on good ways to learn new skills. The focus was began with how "interleaving" a variety of gross motor activities to enhance overall skill. And, of course, the interleaving idea was extrapolated to include learning cognitive things as well. All good stuff but what stuck with me was how this would look for a preschooler.

"Schmidt is a retired professor of psychology at UCLA, and an authority on how humans learn and develop motor skills. 
As Schmidt watches the golfers practice the same swing with the same clubs, over and over, he chuckles. There’s a much better way to learn than this kind of rote physical memorization. 
“I give conference presentations to golf instructors and professionals,” Schmidt said. “They’re quite surprised.” 
Schmidt explains that repetitive drilling on the same task is called “block practice.” You do the same thing, over and over, in one block of activity. He argues that a better way to learn is to practice several new things in succession, a technique called “variable practice” or “interleaving.” So a golfer would interleave her exercises at the range by aiming at different targets each time, by mixing up the kinds of shots she takes or switching the clubs she uses."

Gross motor coordination develops naturally when children get enough free play. My children get PLENTY of free play and they always have. However, my oldest developed asynchronously and while his running and jumping muscles were crazy strong, his left-right coordination was (and continues to be) pretty amazingly the point he needs therapeutic services to encourage him to work those weak muscles. Through hours of therapy that targets his left-right coordination we have made some big strides. And finally he is ready to try pedaling (left right left right).

In the past, as soon as we saw he could do something that he had struggled with, my husband and I would rejoice and up the ante. For example. as soon as he pedaled his tricycle, which was way too small for him, we bought him a pedal bike. Of course, Mikey didn't receive a "big boy" bike with the enthusiasm we thought he would. So it sat collecting dust for the past year. Until now...

With stronger coordination and sufficient inspiration from neighborhood kids, Mikey said he was ready to try again. We let him take the lead and make the plans. He suggested taking his pedal bike without training wheels AND his balance bike to a nearby park. And it just so happened that I had just read the kqed Interleaving article about interleaving the previous week so I was amenable to hauling the old technology along with the new technology for him to switch between.

Once at the park it was as if I were watching a perfect example of live interleaving. He casually switched back and forth between riding the balance bike and riding the pedal bike. And now I remember him as an infant - sometimes sitting to play, sometimes laying down; as an almost-toddler - sometimes crawling, sometimes walking; and as he weaned from breastfeeding at age two - sometimes nursing at bedtime, sometimes not. I realize that all these lessons in a young child learning his or her physical body are not what Professor Schmidt had in mind when he studied how adults learn but it is nice to put a word - "interleaving" - to describe my son's learning process. It gives my young child's work power, makes it important, and reminds me to allow him to work through things at his own pace and in his own way.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


My husband often says that my metaphor for understanding health and nutrition is the best parenting tool I have come up with so far. It all started a few years ago when we watched an episode of Curious George called "The Inside Story." The story is a bit like the Dennis Quaid/Martin Short/Meg Ryan movie from the 80s called "Innerspace." Curious George has a dream where he shrinks down and has an adventure inside his body where he meets a blues-singing germ called "Toots." That episode was a jumping off point for me. Since then my metaphor has snowballed into a very powerful tool for discussing health, nutrition, disease, medicine, and so much more. It is, of course, based on preschool engineering concepts.

Toots and the Germettes, Curious George episode 66, "The Inside Story"

The Cast 
Good Toots is a germ that lives in your body. He has a large family and a lot of friends. They all have jobs to do. Some build block stacks; some keep the hoses clear of debris; some fight off Bad Toots.

Bad Toots is a germ that lives outside your body. He also has a large family and a lot of friends. They all have different mischief they like to get into. Some knock down block stacks; some make giant piles of block stacks where they don't belong; some just like to fight Good Toots.

Good Toots and his friends like a balanced diet. They need all sorts of materials for making block stacks and other structures in the body. Just like us! We like to have Squigz, Twigs, Magna-Tiles, and Legos at our disposal. Good Toots needs protein, calcium, and vitamins and minerals. Good Toots and his buddies like colorful blocks, too. The only way he and his good buddies get the materials they need is if we eat the right food. So that is why it is important to eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, potatoes, bread, meat and cheese. It is also why we need to be sure to drink a lot of water.

Bad Toots and his friends like sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. If it is on your teeth then Bad Toots has a party there and gets all crazy and ends up punching holes in your teeth. If it is in other parts of your digestive system then he gets all crazy there. Bad Toots is made stronger by sugar so we have to be careful about how much sugar is on our bodies for him. If all the Good Toots have enough of their favorite foods then they are strong enough to fight the Bad Toots team.

In this metaphor, medicine nominally receives the same treatment as nutrition. Good Toots needs the right building blocks to keep very dangerous and common Bad Toots away. I realize that this isn't biologically correct but it serves the purpose of making information accessible to my young children.

The Good Toots team is essentially a team of engineers. Using calcium they make block stacks of bones. Using oil (from fish) they keep the gears in your head spinning smoothly. Some are in charge of transportation and send the appropriate blocks through your arteries and veins to where they need to be. Electricians are in charge of the electrical signals sent to and from your brain. Others are soldiers who need to search and destroy any Bad Toots that infiltrate your body.

The Bad Toots teams accounts for most diseases. Cancer Bad Toots makes huge messes of block stacks where they don't belong. Party Bad Toots like to get silly on your teeth and end up knocking holes all over the place. Flu Bad Toots block the path to your stomach and throw building blocks (the ones you are eating to give to Good Toots) right back out of your mouth.

Some Examples
Here are a couple short stories about how I use this metaphor...

Eating Healthily
"I don't want to eat my fruit," says Mikey.
"But Good Toots needs all kinds of building materials. And you haven't had any fruit yet today. Please give him some fruit," I reply.
"Ok," concedes Mikey.

"Why does ___ have to go get medicine every day?"
"Because there are Cancer Bad Toots in his/her body and the Good Toots team need special materials that only doctors can give."

Good Toots in Action
The other day my daughter fell on the cement. Her knee got a good scrape. "It is HOT!" she cried through tears.

I turned and looked at her and said, "Good toots is rushing to your skin! They are running fast and fighting all the Bad Toots who are trying to get in. They are moving so fast that they are getting hot (just like you get hot when you run)." I go on to explain (again) that we put bactine and/or neosporin on the wound to get important block stacks to the Good Toots team as quickly as possible." (I animated the story with fighting punches and exciting voice changes.)

Later, in the bath...
"Look Mama, what are these bumps on my knee?" said Anna.
I reply, "At the end of the battle Good Toots set up construction cones and a protective fortress (scab) so they can work to fix the skin-block-stacks. When the boo boo is all healed, Good Toots will take down the construction cones (just like the road workers we've been watching work) and move on to other work."

And On and On
So you can probably see why my husband loves this metaphor. It is powerful, versatile, and has helped us to be persuasive. It has helped us explain difficult subjects. Plus, it is fun to use!

Tell me...what metaphor have you used to help parent and/or educate your young child?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Squigz & Gears

I don't have much to say about this besides that I think it is awesome. I love how Mikey integrated these two types of toys to make something new. These contraptions are the result of spontaneous preschool engineering.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Anna Puts the 'A' in STEAM

Ever since she got her hands on glue Anna has worked in layers. She would start with a piece of paper and smear glue all over it before placing another piece of paper on top, followed by more glue and another piece of paper, then more glue and yet another piece of paper. She would build larger and larger multi-layered sandwiches. (Sandwich is my own description of her work.)

At first it made me uncomfortable. This work of hers could be considered a big waste of materials. There was no real finished product that I would want to hang on the wall or display on a shelf. I struggled to understand the preschool STEM of it. There didn't seem to be a lot of obvious geometry and math that is evident when she plays with Magna-tiles. There wasn't much engineering going on because it wasn't solving a structural problem or creating new tools. I couldn't really see the value of any of it.

But then...

The older she got the more variation there was in her work...although you wouldn't necessarily know it. She would color pictures on the papers before gluing them all together in a sandwich - hiding all those toddler drawings from anyone seeing them ever again. Then scissors were used to cut the paper before gluing, thus making smaller, denser sandwiches.

A "small" set of layers.

Glitter paint was used instead of glue.

Puffballs were glued between puffy stickers.

Experiments in layers.
Layers are wrapped around each other.
Wrapping Layers

At best, I would classify all this work as preschool materials engineering. I want to show you, my readers, the value of this work because I'm convinced that there must be. After all, she has been doing this work for more than a third of her life! However, today, when I looked at Anna's sculptures I am still perplexed by it. That her work leaves me with a burning question, a feeling of bewilderment, and the discomfort of not being able to fit it into my understanding of the world... Well, that might be the most valuable thing my budding artist can offer me.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Father's Day Art

I didn't drink coffee (or any other caffeine) until I was in my late twenties and in graduate school. After graduating I weaned myself from coffee to tea and then completely away from my caffeine addiction...just to know I could do it. Then I had kids and I jumped whole-heartedly back on the coffee wagon. I love the hot cup in my hands as much as the perk it gives me to engage thoughtfully in the day.

When I heard Brady Rymer's song "Keep Up with You" I loved it. The lyrics resonate with everyone in my family regarding our morning ritual around the coffee maker.
Mama needs a coffee
every morning
if she's ever gonna keep up with you.
Like all coffee-drinking families, we all have experience with the mistakes made around the ritual. We've forgotten to empty the pot before making more, which makes for a massive overflow all over the counter. We've forgotten to put water in the water reservoir, making for an unmistakable "hiss" of the machine attempting to do its job. And, of course, we all are familiar with the coffee ring...especially my husband, who is a self-proclaimed klutz and spills and splashes regularly (until he's had his morning coffee).

He is also a physicist. So when I saw the article (including the picture of coffee rings on paper) on NPR about how "Scientists Crack the Physics of Coffee Rings" I felt inspired. I knew just what my physicist husband might like for a Father's Day gift - coffee ring art.

Ideally my kids will make some art on their own. But before I could facilitate such an undertaking I knew I would have to do a little research first. Plus, by documenting my research I figured I could show you my process and share what I've learned so you can make your own art.

First I had to find the right paper. I tried making rings on all the stuff I had sitting around the house. I made coffee rings on all kinds of paper and paper towel. Some paper is too glossy and the coffee would roll off more than make the desired ring. The pre-stretched canvas was too glossy, too. Paper towel was too absorbent (duh). Computer paper was too thin and didn't leave me with anything that would make a good gift. Then I realized that water color paper would probably be the perfect medium. So I headed to the store looking for something easy. I was hoping to find something like a pre-stretched canvas so that I wouldn't have to frame our art. But most of the pre-stretched canvas was labeled that it was designed for work with acrylics, not water colors.

Then I found some canvas-like materials. They are "panels" which means the paper is stretched around a narrow board as opposed to the canvases that I was familiar with, which are 0.5" or 1" deep. The panels come in various sizes 5x7, 8x10, 9x12. I'm testing my process with a small one:

I set up my work station with the panel and a saucer filled with a shallow puddles of coffee and an empty coffee cup.

I dipped the coffee cup.

Then I tried to use it as a stamp. It made some nice patterns on the panel.

My second test was to let the mug sit for a while. I set it and left it for a while. Since all three of us were sick that day it sat for a LONG time...the length of the new Tinkerbell movie.

You see the stamp had dried with the unique coffee pattern with coffee color dark at the edges than in the middle. The shape made by the mug sitting was enclosed.

Over the course of the afternoon I played with stamping and letting the mugs sit for short periods of time. The full ring can be made after sitting for a few minutes (you do not have to wait the length of an entire feature-lengthed film). This is the result of the dried coffee ring art:

There are different ways you can finish this art. You could leave it as the rings. You could write a catchy coffee phrase on it. I chose to use some watercolors to fill in the enclosed spaces.

This will be my part of the coffee ring art that I will give my husband. I will invite Mikey and Anna to make their own coffee ring art. And I'm hoping that I can "finish" theirs by writing a variation on Brady Rymer's song: 

"Papa Needs a Coffee..." on one panel,
 and  "...Every Morning." on the other.
Like any art project I don't know what to expect from Mikey and Anna. I think they will be able to do their own coffee ring art. I will just have to decide how much input I have and how much I will let them choose their own creative plan. But with this as a model, they might have some patience to listen to my ideas. Plus, having done my research I feel prepared to offer guidance so we can make my husband a beautiful and personal gift.

Mikey's Coffee Stain Art

Anna's Coffee Stain Art