Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

Bless you with good food, the gift of gab and hearty laughter.
May the love and joy you share be with you ever after.

Happy Thanksgiving, Preschool Engineers!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How to Invite Color Wars to Make Awesome Art

We are several weeks into the school year and I find myself returning to an often-used quotation by Pablo Picasso:

                    “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

No place makes my son dustier than school. Every day we spend a non-trivial amount of time decompressing from the pressures of first grade and coming back together as a family. The most potent tool I have to guide this process is art. The most heartwarming of which is art my son does with his little sister.

Together Art
Doing art together is tricky business. The artists have to share a canvas, share materials, and share a vision of what the process will be. And, like many siblings, there is sometimes conflict around these issues.

Here is how I approach doing art together that has been successful... Read the rest at Fat Brain Toys!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Elimination Series

The Elimination Diet No One is Talking About

Video and Game Lovers
I like my screen technology. I enjoy watching TV. The clever games on my iPad are wildly entertaining. I have vivid memories of Disney movies from my childhood. So, in the name of introducing my children to all the fun things in the world, I didn't hesitate to show them TV shows, iPad games, YouTube videos, etc. We have learned the names and jobs of more working trucks than I new existed (thank you and Mighty Machines), we have watched Curious George's and Tinkerbell's engineering process, and we have played Toca Boca and Duck Duck Moose games until we were blue in the face. Needless to say, we have had our fair share of screen time. It came to a crashing halt about two weeks ago and I cannot believe the results.

In the Beginning
Over the course of three years I have been weaning my son from more than two hours of screen time per day (that was when he was only ~3 years old) to about 30 minutes per day. We have changed house rules from watching/playing only after dinner to never watching after dinner. Each child would get one pick - either one short episode (Curious George, Octonauts) or 15 minutes of a movie or longer program. Sometimes my son would get the first pick and sometimes my daughter. There was always some level of negotiating with them about when they could watch, what they could watch, and who got the first pick. But I hit my limit a few weeks ago.

Necessary Evolution of Parenting
I don't know if it was just the bickering that comes with a five year old and a three year old. Or the fact that my three year old is exploring her identity in that threenager sort of way. Those things combined with the persistence of a child with Aspergers pushed me right past my limit. It was the weekend, a time when I usually relax my rules a little. I had agreed to TV right after breakfast and we had sailed right past the 30 minute mark, which, I thought, would have been well-received. But it wasn't. More was requested. When I said, "no" my kids turned the TV back on. They both came at me complaining, calling me names, and generally being rude.

Setting Limits and Enforcing Natural Consequences 
Complaining was becoming normal. Name-calling was being brought home from preschool. I had warned them over the course of the week that I was not going to let them be rude. If we were going to argue daily about when they got to watch TV and how much they got to watch then I would just get rid of the TV. They knew that I liked watching TV with them. So I think they thought I was bluffing. Until I wasn't.

I unplugged the TV and carried it out of the house.

Unprecedented Sleep Success
I had to watch the new season of House of Cards on my computer screen. That was a little disappointing. But it was a small price to pay for the amazing things that have happened in our home. My son, who had NEVER slept the recommended number of hours (he typically slept 9-10 per night and acted like it) suddenly started sleeping more than 11 hours per night. My daughter who slept 11 hours per night started sleeping deeper and longer. When she used to collapse once or twice a week in a nap, she is a delightful three year old all day every day...with, perhaps, a little more spunk.

Good Sleep = Good Days
Since my son is sleeping more every night (though still waking us a couple times for some mid-night comfort), we are having beautiful days. When he used to lose his temper on a dime and lash out a physical attack, he let's things roll off his back. When he used to almost fall asleep on his dinner plate, he is now gobbling up dinner and running back outside for some almost-springtime after dinner play. As a result, I am running out of patience less. And, the most important thing to me, he is reconnecting with friends.

Good Days = Better (and Renewed) Relationships
Mikey has been going through the growing pains of having moved to a new state in September. He oozes charisma and children tend to like him off the bat. But his bossy, impulsive and aggressive behavior would then scare them off. Ten days after taking the TV away (the iPad was already shelved), his first friend in Colorado re-approached him. The boy had been Mikey's first friend, had come to our house to play after school, and met us at the park. But he stopped asking to play outside of school and his mother had told me a few months ago that he was afraid of Mikey. So, sadly, I let it go and hoped they would reconnect some day or that Mikey would find a new friend. No longer! Mikey's first Colorado friend cannot get enough play dates outside of their preschool. He, too, must have recognized the change.

Why Didn't It Happen Sooner?
We have had HUGE successes around here and it begs the question: why didn't it happen sooner? We were told to eliminate gluten and casein and possibly eggs and peanuts from his diet. We were warned to control screen time and keep it to less than two hours per day (so I thought I was good). But no one ever suggested doing an elimination diet of screens.

Reaping Rewards
Both of my children, one special needs and one neurotypical, have reaped rewards from eliminating screens. We read more books; we build more contraptions; and, we spin more original stories than I ever thought imaginable. We are all more happy more of the time. I like it this way.

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.

Sustenance from Sleep Success
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.

Easier Transitions
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. 

Less Aggressive Play
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.

Gradual Re-introduction
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.

Our New Rules
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.

Part of Our Lives, Not Ruling Our Lives
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.

Go Screen-free in Two Steps

I have written about the process I have been going through to reduce screen time for my children. Our problems with screens started when I introduced it to my 1 year old. It escalated. I changed some things. It escalated again. I eliminated them. I reintroduced screens. And now I am vigilant about regulating the time my children spend in front of TV programming or our iPad.

I have seen the "conversation" on Facebook and other social media about whether or not to control screen time for young children. How some children seem fine with a daily dose. How some children are terrified of the things the see. How some parents have come to rely on that peace and quiet that comes when your children are engrossed in a TV show or game. Some of it is judgmental and some of it isn't. I am not writing this post to prattle on about recommendations for development or anything like that. I am writing to encourage you to look at your life and take control of it.

Step 1: Determine if you have a problem and, if so, what it is. 
We had daily disputes over screens. The first problem was the immediate craziness that happened directly after turning the TV off. The bickering. The inability to go play by themselves. It was driving us all crazy. Things escalated and the arguing was turned away from each other and they focused their energies on me! The 30 minutes of quiet was not enough to compensate for all the stress after turning it off. So I determined that we had a problem.

What I didn't realize is that our problem extended into nighttime. My five year old had never slept through the night. He required nighttime parenting his entire life, usually two times per night. We tried EVERYTHING but the vomit-inducing/self-infliction-to-bloodiness anxiety was more than we were willing to deal with in traditional, commonly recommended ways. After 10 days of screen-free life he was sleeping from 7:30PM-6AM without interruption. No other change was happening concurrently with our screen elimination so I say with full confidence that the screen was responsible for my son's sleep problems.

So, do you have a screen-related problem? If yes, what is it?

Step 2: Do something about it. 
Maybe you want to reduce your child's screen time. Maybe you want to change the time of day he or she is allowed to play or watch. Maybe you want to eliminate it entirely. No matter what you want to do, the change will require some plan. Decide if you want to discuss it with your child and have them help make the change. Maybe you want to be a dictator and say "we're doing this now." I have done all of these things! Each time required some change to our day, our routine, our flow. It wasn't easy but it was worth it.

You might want to leverage summer time and plan to be outside during the time of day when you would otherwise be screening. Get take-out and have a picnic dinner. Go to a playground. Send your child into your back yard and find one rock. Have them draw a picture or color something for you. Let them play in the sink while you're preparing dinner. There are whole websites dedicated to helping you come up with creative ways to occupy your child (I'm partial to The Artful Parentand Tinkerlab). You will know how much you will have to do to "entertain" your child and help them with a new routine. If you're like me then you will also have to prepare yourself as well. Build in a little extra time and patience for your kids and yourself when you embark on a big and possibly contentious game-changer.

So...what's your plan?


For more on TV time I love Janet Lansbury's stuff:
A Creative Alternative to Baby TV Time
How to Break Your Toddler's TV Habit

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Get Going with Toys: Two Small Toys that Get Big Moves

For the Love of Something NEW & Just for Them
I love watching children exchange gifts. They cannot wait to see what their friend or loved one chose especially for them. Their enthusiasm for and interest in receiving something new to play with and learn about is unparalleled.

Sometimes they can’t wait to start building their new LEGO set, reading their new book, or playing a new board game. But we often celebrate birthdays at playgrounds and I love to see children unwrap a gift that makes them take off running.

Not All Smart Play Involves Sitting and Building
Running, climbing, jumping, and simply playing outdoors is imperative for healthy development. And it might surprise you that the author of Preschool Engineering is a wild advocate for getting away from technology, toys, indoor life, and heading outside to live and learn. But I am.

Gotta Get ‘em Moving
I am because I have learned that gross motor development evolves with cognitive and language development. So it stands to reason that we need to provide plenty of opportunity for children to get outdoors and move. In doing so, we support our children’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Get Going with Toys: Two Small Toys that Get Big Moves
One of my favorite tricks to get kids moving is by offering toys that invite them to take off running as soon as the toy comes out of the box. And, in my experience, the most effective toys are ones that get your children to fly.

  1. Wings by Dreamy Dress-up. They smoosh down into a ball I can hold in one hand, but unravel into child-size wings. I have never seen a child put them on and stand still. Instead, they put out their arms, flap a couple times, and start to fly.

  1. Flying Vehicles. Our favorite flyers are helicopters that fit in small hands and can hold a LEGO figure (or other small creature). That is because it is practically impossible to hold a helicopter, rocketship, or airplane without making it fly. I dare you to try.

3, 2, 1, Blastoff!

The countdown has begun. (In fact, does it ever stop? There always seems to be a chance for gift-giving around the corner.) What gift will you give that will get the child in your life moving?

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Must-Have Tool for Autumn

Always on the Lookout for Claws
We are always on the lookout for mechanically interesting toys. The search includes everything from cool trucks to clever uses for simple machines and includes toy stores, kitchen stores, and hardware store.

Using Rakes as Shovels
I have a distinct memory of using a rake as a shovel every autumn. I would rake leaves into a giant pile, maybe play in it or let me little sister play in it, and then begin the laborious work of scooping leaves into a bag or wheelbarrow to transport to compost. I would flip the rake upsidedown and use my hand to fill it with leaves.

Leaf Scoops Solve Two Preschool Engineering Problems at Once
Enter "Leaf Scoops."

They are claws.

They are a simple solution to the precarious balancing act of scooping and hauling leaves at the end of a rake.

They are an invitation for preschool engineers to help with the work of life during autumn.

Find a Set for Your Family
You can order a set for yourself at Amazon but I have also seen them at local megastores. Now that you know they exist, I'm sure you can find a pair (or two)for your family.

Happy Autumn!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Mining for Gold: Four Questions to Guide Your Memory

For the past three days I have had the pleasure of attending a free online conference about mindfulness and social emotional learning. Hosted by Jason and Cecilia Hilkey, the conference features 35 experts from many disciplines, each of whom speaks to the themes of mindfulness and social emotional learning in the context of parenting or education.

The Great Things about this Online Conference
Conferences are intense. Information is packed into every nook and cranny. Like conventional conferences - ones where you sit in auditoriums and listen to people speak in front of powerpoint presentations - Ed: Next Gen is rich with inspiring stories, compelling evidence, and words of wisdom.

Presented unconventionally and online means that you are not stuck in an auditorium seat. You can listen and watch videos of the hosts interviewing other experts. The conversations are relatable and fun to feel a part of. You can pause to go to the bathroom and return later. You can purchase the videos to watch and re-watch at your convenience and with colleagues who could not attend with us.

Awesome Information Overload
The videos are split screens. Half of the video shows Jason and Cecilia; the other half shows their expert guest. There is no powerpoint presentation. There are no audience members coughing, surfing the internet in front of you, or other distractions. Having it so simple is a lovely experience.

Just sitting and listening is important.

But sometimes someone says something that is so profound that you just can't bear the thought of forgetting it.

Four Questions to Guide Your Memory
These questions are based on one of my favorite learning theorists David Kolb, who was an experiential education psychologist. Bear in mind that the order you answer these questions isn't as important as being sure to answer all of them.

  1. What is it?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. How can I use it in my parenting/teaching?
  4. There are limits to this idea. How can I change it to make it work for me?

A Quick Example
This is how I might jot down notes from Dr. Siegel's talk:

1.What is "mind"?

Conventional definitions of "mind" make it synonymous with brain. Dr. Siegel asks us to imagine that mind is bigger than includes our entire bodies, our environment, and the people and creatures with whom we share our lives.

2. Why is it important?

If the mind is not just located in the brain, then teaching and learning MUST consider more than individual performance on tests. Plans for learning and assessments have to account for the stories that surround the teachers and learners.

3. How can I use it in my parenting/teaching?
This theory of mind can be developed further to explain/support my definition of LEARNING within the context of being an advocate for children and playful, independent STEAM learners.

4. There are limits to this idea. How can I change it to make it work for me?
In writing a family story of learning, how do I honor my child's ideas as his or her own? Riding the pendulum between learning together and independent learning is an on-going, important, and valid process.

*EDIT: I just finished watching Sam Chaltain's talk and I'm tickled that he referenced the same point about Dr. Siegel's theory of mind that I did.

What is Your Framework?
I like lists. They are very comforting. This list of questions is one of many systems for making sense of what you learn. As I head into day four of this conference, I need to hold on to these questions as a guide for organizing the essence of each talk. I'm curious to know what other people are doing...

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Fan Favorites - October 2016

101 Books to Read Kids Before Kindergarten

What Should a 4-year-old should know?
if you want him to have those subjects covered then just work it into life and play with the subject and he’ll naturally pick it up. Count to 60 when you’re mixing a cake and he’ll pick up his numbers. Get fun books from the library about space or the alphabet. Experiment with everything from backyard snow to celery stalks in food coloring. It’ll all happen naturally, with much more fun and much less pressure.

Keeping Kids Safe

A Different Take on the Stringbean Teepee

This Squash tunnel is fantastical!

31 Things Your Kids Should Be Doing Instead of Homework
It’s not just that homework itself has no academic benefits for little kids, and may even be harmful, it’s also that homework is replacing other fun, developmentally appropriate, and valuable activities – activities that help them grow into healthy, happy adults.

Using Just the Right Amount
This is why when a child dumps an entire bowl of googly eyes into a lake of glue then empties a shaker of glitter onto it, I no longer see waste. In fact, I know she is using just the right amount.

Simple Statements to Remember Loved Ones

When Grandpa Dies
Last year my father-in-law died. My son was five years old, my daughter was three. In his final days, we visited him in hospice, took him flowers, and read books with him. When he died it shook us all. My son was afraid to see his own father sleeping so I became the primary night-time parent. My daughter, who had been sleeping in her own room, took a new spot on the floor of our master bedroom.

The Day of the Dead
We have had a little more than a year to come to terms with the loss of the beloved man. And I have co-opted The Day of the Dead as a time and way to remember him.

The Day of the Dead is a holiday for remembering and celebrating people who have died. But how do we do that with young children? Like many things, I find it best to keep it simple.

Simple, Not Scary
For our family, coloring is a good way to come together. We sit together at the table and free-draw or color in coloring books. The Day of the Dead is no exception. I did an internet search for "day of the dead coloring pages" and chose one that seemed like it would be inviting to color.

I printed three copies of if, one for me, one for my son, and one for my daughter. Then I offered it as an invitation. He connected dots. She wanted to cut hers out.

How Sportcasting Helps
I said, "Today is the Day of the Dead. It is a special day for remembering people who have died. I remember visiting Grandpa when he was sick."

Then my daughter offered, "I remember when Grandpa shared his gummies with me." My son added, "Yeah. He was a really nice guy."

That was enough.

Sportcasting, stating the obvious, is a powerful tool in our home for communicating. It proved especially helpful for my children to say something about their Grandpa.

Get Started Coloring
Looking for something simple to do with your preschoolers today? Why not get started with an invitation to color.

Here is a link to the skull I chose: