Toy shop shelves are laden with toys claiming to be educational. For toddlers and babies, this usually means something noisy, requiring batteries. I have always held that there is little educational value in such toys. In my experience children play with them for a short period of time before moving on to something else.
Alison Gopnik discusses the manner in which children experiment with toys in her book the Philosophical Baby. A toy that worked by moving levers was presented to a group of 4-year-olds. The adults demonstrated to the first group, how it worked, while the second group were left to work it out for themselves. The second group spent significantly more time playing with the toy than the first, who quickly abandoned it once they understood its function.
Another recent study led by Professor Anna Sosa of Northern Arizona University focused on children between the ages of 10 and 16 months old. She gave families three different kinds of toys to play with; books, traditional toys like stacking blocks and electronic toys. The toys that stimulated most conversation were books, closely followed by blocks. The families playing with the electronic toy shared very little conversation, allowing the toy to do the talking for them.
If you are considering which toys to buy for a young child, these points may help.
The most important resource we can give to babies and toddlers is ourselves. Spend time playing tickling games, singing to them, playing rhyming games, blowing bubbles or rolling a ball.
Other suitable toys for babies and early toddlers include small musical instruments for exploring sound ( saucepans, spoons and homemade shakers work equally well), a treasure basket or board and cloth books.
Think about toys that they will play with for a long time. The best toy investments for our family include magnatiles, wooden blocks, paper and pencil, a magnetic drawing board and play food.
Toys do not need to be expensive. Children can have hours of fun with a balloon, pot of bubbles, home-made play dough or a cardboard box.
The infographic below has many more developmentally appropriate ideas for play.
Research has shown that singing increases happiness and emotional well-being. People feel happier after singing than simply listening to music, probably due to the release of neurochemicals in the brain.
It isn’t news to me that singing lifts your mood. The quiet teenager that would skip along the road after my weekly singing lesson, head held high and ready to conquer the world is testament to that. When I sang I came alive, through singing I could truly let go. I grew up loving musicals, perhaps because it is perfectly acceptable to sing and dance down the road in a musical and everyone is always happy.
Singing as a group has additional benefits, according to recent research from Oxford University. Singing in a group encourages social bonding, and singing groups form friendships more quickly than in other group activities. Group dancing also produces similar results, suggesting that a shared musical experience and working together are key factors. Many of my closest friends were made during my musical theatre days and joining choir was the perfect way to meet people and make friends, when moving to a new country. A large proportion of the ladies in my choir joined because they were new to the area and wanted to meet new people, whilst sharing their passion for singing. Perhaps if we mix in a little dance we will be even closer?
Singing is a natural way for parents to bond with babies . As a singer, I instinctively sang to my newborn babies when I was alone with them for the first time. Often a parent will get their first reactions from a baby when they sing to them. Smiles, laughter, calming, eye contact or gesture can all be encouraged through singing.
When my eldest was born, I felt privileged that as an early education teacher, I knew lots of songs to share with my baby. With this in mind, I started a baby music group with my antenatal group. My aim was to reach out to others and introduce them to songs that they could share with their babies. With hindsight, this not only helped the babies but also gave this group of new mothers the chance to socialise, at one of the most vulnerable times of their life. As new mothers singing to their babies, it didn’t matter if they felt they ‘couldn’t sing’ and we quickly built strong friendships.
Group singing was an important part of my teaching day and something I was very comfortable leading. This confidence wasn’t shared by all the teachers but some approached singing time with enthusiasm and energy, even if they believed their own singing voices to be terrible. The children responded to the teachers who could have fun and draw them in, musical proficiency was never a factor. Singing in a group is a fundamental part of many preschool settings and is one of the ways in which children learn to work together. In order to create a unified sound the children have to listen to one another and share in the experience together.
Young children are instinctively drawn to music and dance and sing without restraint. This usually remains with them until the age at which they become self-conscious and concerned about whether they are good enough. Reluctance to sing may also arise as singing becomes performance focused rather than purely for pleasure.
One of my favourite memories of Christmas time, was the year my great aunts came to visit my grandparents. The sisters sat around the keyboard as my Auntie played and we all sang for hours. That family togetherness is difficult to replicate in other situations. My great aunts grew up in the era before television, when singing around the piano was part of everyday life. I believe that it is important for children to see that singing (and dancing) isn’t about winning a talent show. Sing along to the radio on car journeys, make up silly songs or fire up some karaoke videos and sing along.
When we have friends around it nearly always ends up with a round of karaoke and it has paved the way to some of the best parties. I love that young and old, singers and non-singers join in and it is always accompanied by laughter and friendship.
When I ask the girls where they would like to go, a popular response is the zoo. In the UK we were members of Bristol Zoo and visited there regularly. Having membership made our visits more relaxed, we didn’t have to run around trying to see every animal and if the children wanted to play in the playground all day that was fine too.
Woodland Park Zoo is more spacious than the zoo back home so we are able to see larger animals. Recently, we were invited to Woodland Park to see some of the activities available in the Zoomazium – a nature inspired play space for the under 8’s. To be honest we have always avoided Zoomazium during previous visits, expecting it to be a large, noisy soft play. I was pleasantly surprised however, to see a mix of play spaces and activities. There is a designated space for toddlers, fully enclosed and safe, with a library area to the side. The children can also explore the cricket exhibit.
The play area for older children has rope bridges, places to climb and lots of little caves that are perfect for hide and seek. There are also tables with toys for building, a stage area and a sensory area to explore.
Zoomazium is the perfect place to explore if you want to escape the heat (or cold) for a while but it is also a good starting point for your visit to the zoo. Creature Feature occurs every morning at 10.30 and encourages children to get close to some of the smaller animals at the zoo and learn about them from zoo staff. Our visitor was an armadillo.
My favourite Zoomazium offering was activity backpacks that the little ones can take with them around the zoo. Each one has a different theme and they are packed with activities, toys, books, magnifiers and things to look out for during your visit. After a lot of deliberation,the girls chose one each; the back yard and big cats.
I love the design of the backpacks, they look so cool and we had lots of comments as we wandered around. The backyard backpack had a number of activities to complete in the backyard of the Zoomazium or when exploring the rest of the zoo.
The big cats backpack was a good starting point for exploring the new Banyan Wilds exhibit.
Having the backpacks, encouraged us to take it slowly as the girls wanted to stop and take in the contents of their packs.
The squirrel puppet from the Backyard pack was a definite favourite and was a constant companion.
Completed activities can be traded for Nature points at Zoomazium’s Nature Exchange. The points can be exchanged for interesting, rocks, fossils and natural materials on display. Nature loving children can also create projects at home to earn additional points. Older children are not left out, there are activity sheets to suit all ages. My eldest chose a worksheet relating to the otter exhibit.
Our favourite part of the day was having the opportunity to feed animals. Bird seed on sticks can be purchased for $1 and the birds fly down to feed from your hand.
The best experience of all though was getting close to the giraffes and hand feeding them. The keeper was great at encouraging the children to ask questions and it was a truly memorable experience for all that I will definitely do again. Giraffe feeding is $5 per person and under 5’s go free with a paying adult.
A day at the zoo was perfect for my nature explorers.
Zoo membership is perfect for families with young children. There are a number of membership options to suit different needs and admission is free for children under 3.
Right from the Start readers can benefit from a special offer.
Quote MOM15 at checkout to receive a 10% discount plus entry into a draw to win 2 giraffe feeding tickets and 2 tickets for a carousel ride.
Disclaimer: Complimentary tickets for 4 people were received. All opinions are my own and we were under no obligation to write about our visit.
Regular readers will remember that when I moved to the US, I struggled to find a preschool that I was entirely happy with. I became so disillusioned that I decided to home preschool for a year. I’d lost faith of ever finding a preschool that valued play, independence and individuality above academics and rigid schedules until a friend told me of a preschool situated on a farm. The preschool shared my belief that children learn best by doing things that have relevance in their lives through exploring, discovering and creating.
The school is so popular that it was a whole year before I had a chance to visit and see the school for myself. Children were busy pulling apart sunflower heads on the covered deck area whist others moved freely between the different activities indoors and outdoors. The teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for both the children and the setting was evident immediately and a bubble of excitement rose up within me. Our name was put on the waiting list for Sept 2015 but before Christmas a place became available in the co-op class so finally my youngest daughter had the chance to attend. This was perfect as I also had the chance to be involved in this wonderful experience as a parent helper.
There was little doubt in my mind that this was the perfect preschool for my outdoor loving daughter. My expectations were high. I have been fortunate to teach at a highly acclaimed nursery in the UK and to visit the best preschools in my local authority as an advisory teacher. My experience of this school has surpassed all my expectations, I couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect preschool for my daughter and I am only sad that my older daughters didn’t have a chance to go there. After she started, it just seemed to get better. Regularly she would come home covered from head to toe in mud. To some parents this would be horrific but to me it meant she had the freedom to be herself and have fun.
Being a part of the co-op class means that I get to help out once a month. This is the most exciting part for me as I get to join in. I love the covered deck area which enables the children to play outdoors all year. The children explore the whole farm for the 2nd part of the session, mud, water, animals, climbing and balancing. They are actively encouraged to take risks.
What makes it so perfect?
1. Children are individuals
Small classes and the dedication and experience of the teacher, mean that she understands each child as an individual. My daughter who is uncomfortable speaking in a group or to unfamiliar adults is given time to think about what she wants to say, often being presented with a question at the start of a session and returning for a response later. The child who hates to get his hands dirty is offered alternative tools and all the materials are open-ended so that children can use them as they see fit.
2.Children are competent
Children are always encouraged to try things for themselves, even when they ask for help they are first encouraged to try. The children are trusted to use adult tools for woodworking and tinkering, peeling vegetables and cooking. The teacher shows them how to use the tools safely and responsibly and thereon in they are trusted with them. The children cook their own green eggs and ham on the tiny stove, they dig with metal shovels, they observe candle flames and peel carrots with a peeler. Outside they are permitted to climb trees, feed the animals, hold guinea pigs and dig in the mud. The children are trusted to handle precious materials like birds eggs, chicks and nests.
This tinker table is always available. I regularly see children sawing pieces of wood placed in the clamps, hammering nails or taking apart electronics with a screwdriver. In the nursery I taught at we had a tool bench with real tools but we weren’t confident enough to leave it out all of the time. I have never seen a child have an accident or do anything dangerous with the tools.
3. The Preschool fosters understanding and respect for nature.
Many of the activities involve the natural rhythms of the farm, collecting the produce, understanding the cycles of the plants and learning about the animals and creatures they find.
After the first few sessions, my daughter told me they had unicorns at preschool but that it was too small to have grown a horn yet. A preschool with unicorns? Could it get anymore magical?
4. Children’s thoughts and opinions are important
Each session the children are asked a question and the answers are recorded for parents to read on the wall outside. The children listen to each others responses and discuss them with respect. The children’s choices are respected as they are presented with a number of activities to choose from at leisure. They also have opportunities to choose the songs they will sing and are confident at asking for things. The children are offered a snack, they choose when and if they would like to eat it .
5. They have fun.
Best of all, I feel that my daughter experiences something here that she would never have the chance to experience elsewhere. I feel so fortunate to have found this preschool and that my daughter has one more year there. When our time is over I will be so sad but I hope I can remember her teacher’s words of wisdom.
My 4-year-old has just learned her first Welsh word ,’canu’ meaning to sing.
How does a child living in the US with non- Welsh speaking parents learn such a word? From the wonderful, bilingual album, the girls received as a gift. The album was created by a friend of mine who runs ‘Babi Bach’ a bilingual music group in South Wales. The girls are fascinated by this unfamiliar language and love it when I tell them the meaning of a Welsh word.
The songs are familiar favourites, including, row, row ,row your boat, incey wincey spider and one finger, one thumb and are sung by male and female voices, in both English and Welsh. The Welsh versions brought back distant memories of my days as a student teacher in Wales. As an added surprise, when browsing the cover, I recognised one of the singers as a child who attended my after-school club in the 90’s. My friend confirmed that it was him, all grown up and singing professionally. More happy memories of home.
Living in the US, my children are unlikely to hear the Welsh Language. I’m not a Welsh speaker but the Welsh language was at the forefront of my early school years. We had Welsh assembly once a week, played games in Welsh and learned the Welsh language. The girls are fascinated that there is this strange language that is only spoken in Wales.
The girls sing along in English and try their best to join in with the Welsh. Initially, they spouted gibberish, laughing hysterically at the complicated words in ‘head, shoulders,knees and toes. My Welsh isn’t really strong enough to help them but I point out the words I recognise. My next step is to print off the Welsh lyrics , so I can sing along. The songs are separated by enthusiastic conversations between a group of friends in both languages, so it is easy for them to follow.
After hearing the songs a few times, they are already beginning to sing along in Welsh even without my help.
I can highly recommend this for Welsh parents who have moved away from Wales. It is the perfect introduction to the Welsh language. Equally, it is a simple and fun way to learn Welsh for children living in Wales.
Digital copies of Babi Bach yr Albwm are available from Amazon Music and other digital music platforms.
Disclaimer :This is not a sponsored post no payment was received.
‘ Let’s just go camping for our Summer holiday this year’
Hold on a moment, did those words really come from my mouth? Until my mid twenties I recoiled in horror at the thought of camping. After I left girl guide camp half way through the week because I hated it so much, I convinced myself that camping wasn’t for me. In truth, I didn’t hate it at all. A rumour that newcomers would be pushed in the cesspit if they didn’t pass initiation had worried me so much that I begged to go home. After a few great camping trips as an adult, my views changed but I’d never have considered a camping trip for my main holiday.
A yearning to explore the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, good weather and the children’s eagerness to go camping, convinced me it was a good idea. An 8- hour car journey with a canoe on top of the car, 3 young children, a dog and a heatwave; perhaps I had lost my mind?
Amazingly, the car journey was fine. The first couple of hours were spent playing ‘would you rather….’ and guessing the names of characters from books or screen. The rest of the journey we listened to cd’s of musicals and admired the view.
Our destination Curlew Lake State Park, chosen for it’s beauty, a place for the children to swim and for my husband and the girls to go fishing. “Fishing!” I hear my 20- year-old self, with an irrational fear of fish exclaim, ” are you intent on sending me on the holiday from hell?” Strangely none of those sentiments cross my mind as we set up the tent in a quiet corner of the campsite on the shore of the Lake.
Without a shop or a playground in sight, would the children be happy? For now the excitement of sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking outside and trying to catch their first fish fuelled their enthusiasm.
They were eager to go to the beach to swim. I was amazed that we were the only people on the beach. The ground wasn’t soft like the lake at home but filled with slippery algae. It didn’t put them off. They used the algae and stones to create patterns on the ground and then set up their own foot spa, spreading the algae over their feet and washing it off.
I sat and watched from a distance, joining in when they asked me too. At that moment I knew why this holiday was no longer my biggest nightmare. The children were immersed in the moment, playing, discovering and sharing. In the distance, my husband was on the lake in the canoe and I was here in a rare moment of quiet. This wasn’t one of those family holidays where we rushed to cram in every little experience. I’m sure that these unhurried moments are the ones they will remember most.
There was a child went forth everyday,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
They found magic in the simple things.
Look I think Eeyore has been here
Maybe it’s his barbecue?
Really! Do you think so?
My eldest had big girl time with dad, paddling the canoe at sunrise. Nights weren’t the most restful we had ever had, with five people and a dog in the same tent but there are few things more peaceful than the middle of a lake in the early morning.
It didn’t take us long to understand the rhythms of nature; the time of day that the deer would wander down the hill to visit, geese would fly across the lake, fish would start to bite or that darkness would fall.
Sometimes though, nature takes you by surprise. One night, as we were snuggled in the porch of the tent telling stories, the poles holding the porch open, fell down. As if from nowhere, the winds whipped up and tugged at the tent. Before we knew it dad and big sister had us zipped up inside while they battled against the wind and dust to secure the tent. I tried to drown out the rangers talk of trees blowing down, by telling the story of ‘My Favourite Things’ from the ‘Sound of Music’ and singing. Enraptured, the little ones soon forgot about the storm. They implored me to tell the story of ‘The Sound of Music’- the whole story, all 3 hours of it complete with every song. Thankfully the storm was short, the tent and trees survived and unlike my 11-year old self, I didn’t get the urge to run home.
One of the reasons for choosing Curlew Lake was the fishing, so in the early evenings we took the canoe out to explore the lake and try to catch fish. The girls had only ever caught small fish and were eager to catch one they could eat. Our family trips in the canoe lacked the quiet and patience needed to catch anything of note. However, on the last day their wish came true. Our neighbouring campers, who visit every year to fish, offered to take us out in their boat and help the girls to catch trout. The fish came one after the other.
Then the fish got bigger
They were so proud of their catch.
After the holiday, fishing has become a regular pastime. When dad goes out on his own, the girls greet him eagerly to see if he has caught anything we can eat. Other times, we all go to the lake together and mix up fishing with swimming and playing. On a recent trip, we explored the river bank , a place we probably would never have visited if it weren’t for fishing . Watching the girls excitement at their discoveries and creating with sticks and stones was magical. We returned home with a pile of sticks and ideas for making things with them. Moments like this are important for all of us. Resting our minds through daydreaming and play increases productivity and creativity says Daniel Levitin author of ‘The Organized Mind’. Without time for spontaneity, children lack the mental space to come up with new ideas and ways of doing things.
As I looked out across the river at the jumping fish, the blue skies and the green trees, I could picture an old couple; man fishing, wife painting the landscape or writing in a notebook. I suppose fishing isn’t so bad after all. I’m happy to spend many more years waiting for the fish.
We have recently received some very exciting news. Our family have been selected from over 700 applicants as one of 50 semi-finalists in America’s Most Playful Family Contest. To enter we were asked to answer a number of questions about our play, including why it is important and how we make time for play.
I strive very hard to make my children’s lives playful and to share the things we do with others, so to be chosen as a semi-finalist makes me very proud.
As a semi-finalist we receive a video camera and have been asked to create a 90 second video sharing tips to encourage other families to be more playful and showing that play can happen anywhere. I have a huge list of things that I would like to show and it will be a big challenge to my editing skills to fit everything into 90 seconds. Brevity isn’t always my strength, so it will be good for me to pin down the most important messages to share.
The videos will be posted on a You Tube channel, so families can get tips and ideas about play and will be judged by a panel. You will be relieved to know that I won’t be asking for votes but it would be nice if you would view the video and tell us what you think (I’ll embed the link here once it goes live).
The winner gets to choose a community in their state that deserves a very special playground. This will be a great way to learn about local worthy causes and help disadvantaged kids. Of course there are prizes for us too but for me being chosen as a playful family is a great prize in itself.