Dump Dora, and 7 More Tips to Help You Enjoy Reading to Your Young Child

IMG_2974 We all know we’re supposed to read to our kids. And while I often truly love our snuggle time with a book, reading to a child — let’s be honest — can also sometimes feel like a bit of a chore. Especially the third time that we’re both plodding through the same book in a row.

And I’m a notorious bookworm! As a child, I was such an avid reader that I would walk and read at the same time, floating obliviously through the hallways of my elementary school like a bespectacled nerd zombie.

Still, reading is one of those no-compromise parental duties. Despite decades of programs like “Stop, Drop and Read,” many children are not read to enough by parents or caregivers, and the richness of the “print environment” for kids varies widely and tragically among neighborhoods and income levels.

James Trelease’s classic, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,”  notes these differences in fairly stark terms according to social class. He writes about a 2005 study of 42 families over 1,300 hours of observations, and starts with the similarities:

Regardless of socioeconomic level, all 42 families said and did the same things with their children…. [But] when the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old from the “professional” family will have heard 45 million words, the “working-class” child 26 million, and the “welfare” child only 13 million.

That’s a gap of 32 million words, which is a lot for schools to cope with when kids start kindergarten. Trelease goes on to explain that although all those conversations help to develop the brain and interest kids in what can be accomplished with language, spoken words are not enough.

Turns out that kids need exposure to words, images and concepts outside of things like “where are your shoes?” and “finish your spinach.” To better stoke their imagination, equip children with a wide range of “background knowledge,” and keep pace with the fact that kids’ comprehension far outstrips their ability to speak, we must expose them to all the “rare” words in books:

Whereas an adult uses only nine rare words (per thousand) when talking with a three-year-old, there are three times as many in a children’s book and more than seven times as many in a newspaper.

So, how should we think about the job of reading to our kids in a way that makes it fun for both parents and children? And what really matters in the act of reading a book, anyway? While I found Trelease’s book was mostly a screed on educational policies about reading, he did have a few good tips (and includes helpful reading lists by age group at the back).

IMG_2978

Here’s his useful insights plus a few of my own, picked up along the way:

  1. The most important: Make reading a snuggly, relaxed time from the very start. Beginning with your newborn, read as many books as they seem interested in with an easygoing manner. Spread focused times for reading out across the day, and extend the time as the child remains interested. (By the time Maya was 10 months old, we were looking at books for at least an hour a day. It’s easier to find and make this time if TV and other screens are not in the equation.) Don’t force reading time, and discontinue it if your child becomes uninterested. As they get older, talk with them about how nice it is to read together, and make it a habit. We snuggle with books first thing in the morning, before dinner, and at bedtime, at a minimum. Singing your way through Mother Goose is a nice way to be with a toddler, and the rhymes are contagious and help with memory development to boot.
  2. Create a text-rich environment: Leave baskets of books near play areas and around the house where they are easily accessible without adult help. For toddlers, books near the potty areas are a no-brainer. Keep a mix of books, including board books, around, but focus on reading the ones that are more challenging to your child at that developmental moment, and let them look through the simpler ones by themselves unless asked you’re specifically to read those, more or less for old times’ sake. And think about playing with letters and text! Put magnet letters on the fridge, make felt shapes in letter forms for a felt board, play with tracing letters and building them (here’s a nifty set I really like, despite the plastic!), print your names and trace them, etc.
  3. Build patience and stamina for stories by sustaining interest: According to Trelease, by the age of three, most children should be able to endure some stories with longer blocks of age-appropriate text on one page of a two-page spread. Alternate picture books with more textually dense, but well-paced, stories. Audiobooks can also be used to build patience for listening, as they ask kids to use their imagination: start with books they know (we like both The Polar Express, and Blueberries for Sal), and then branch off into new books. When reading, ask questions about the text, prompting your child for predictions about the contents of a new book based on the cover to develop observational skills, or connecting the subjects to something they know (“we picked blueberries, didn’t we?”). Be ambitious in picking stories that keep introducing new subjects, places and kinds of people, and that ask for patience from your child. They will let you know when you’ve gone too far!
  4. Introduce books as beloved creations: Read the name of the author or illustrator, explaining that’s who wrote or drew in the book. Insist that books be treated with care and respect, and ask your child to help keep them neat and organized. Three- and four-year-olds can make books as an easy craft, drawing pictures on folded paper and “binding” them with yarn tied through two punched holes. You can act as scribe for their book ideas, and help them write out a story, talk about and do illustrations, and read it aloud back to them.
  5. Change it up: To combat boredom (mostly for me!) and maintain interest, I like to have a lot of books around to choose from. (While I liked many of the suggestions in the parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, I was staggered by the suggestion that a child needs only 12 books! That’s just absurd.) If you’re like me, you’ll need to find ready sources for cheap books (or time for weekly trips to the library). Luckily, book and library sales, garage and yard sales, thrift stores and used books from online sources are all good options. I like to circulate books, moving them from the playroom to the bedroom and back again about every three months, and getting rid of the ones that are no longer needed. A little re-org on a Saturday morning does wonders for making our collection “new.” Because we have storage space and to keep our many books affordable, books are another thing I buy ahead when I see classics on sale for pennies at the thrift store. When you have limited time to ascertain a book’s quality (or attend as Darwinian a library sale as the one here in Takoma Park — LOL), I’ve found it’s helpful to eyeball the quality of the illustrations. Beautifully designed images or drawings, often by someone other than the author, are a tell-tale sign of more thoughtful execution and expense by publishers.
  6. Dump Dora. Really. Yes, my dear daughter also is drawn to the unnaturally wide-eyed perky wonder that is Dora the Explorer. But over time, I have painstakingly weeded out all of those books, as well as ones starring “The Wiggles,” or containing any Disney princess-y BS or other objectionably idiotic, marketing-driven nonsense. Why? Because they are painfully unpleasant and dull to read, lack a plot or any character development, and are poorly drawn to boot. Anything I don’t enjoy reading is out. I can’t tell you how much this simple principle has improved both our lives since I became a merciless hard-liner for quality reading material. Do it! You won’t regret it one minute. (Still need convincing? Just order or borrow any book by Jan Brett and read it aloud back-to-back with some commercialized dreck that found its way onto your bookshelf like an unwelcome house-guest, and then you tell me.)
  7. Re-write as you read: Since I have a daughter, I can’t help noticing that most books are stuck in, say, 1975, when it comes to gender pronouns. The default of a male persona for animals and other characters is irritating. So I just read them as “she.” I’ll also soften some scary parts of fairy tales a bit to lessen the blow. More fun, though, is playing silly games with substitutions when I find myself reading the same book six times in two days. I’ll sub in preposterous first letters for the existing words (so it becomes “Bleen Beggs and Bam”), and make Maya correct me. Or I’ll add in odd adjectives, nouns or verbs (“Purple Eggs and Spam” ) and insist that they are right. Sometimes pickles just appear at odd moments in the story. The wackier, the better. On occasion, Maya wants the comfort of repetition rather than a game, and she lets me know! But other times, this silliness keeps familiar books alive for both of us, and makes her giggle at me while showing off what she knows better than mommy.
  8. Let imitation be flattery:  When your child talks, don’t correct their language, but do repeat, like a parenting parrot, what they say much of the time by subtly filling in their intentions. For example: “Mom, park today.” becomes, in your words, “You went to the park today?” Fill in and translate emotions for them as well (“Were you sad about that?  You seem sad. You were sad at the park today.”) I’ve used repetition consistently since Maya started speaking until now (she is 3 and a half). While it seemed strange at first to repeat nearly everything she said in a conversational tone, after a little while it felt perfectly natural, and the impact on her vocabulary and grammar is obvious. This modeling of course works the way ’round as well, so let your child catch you reading. Obviously, it’s more difficult to raise a reader if you are not reading books, with interest, yourself. In this age of the digital, young children won’t connect your time in front of a laptop with reading a book. Making sure that books are a feature of your own free time when possible (including reading aloud from recipe books when you cook together!) will bring home the message that books and reading are a life-long pleasure, and a key to life in the larger world.

What’s missing from this list? I don’t think (and research agrees) that pushing academic-style phonics lessons on children is a good idea, unless the child repeatedly asks for more information about learning to read without parental prompting. Fostering a sense of self-directed intellectual curiosity is the point, and that can be stifled by pressure to learn.

While a few very young children do pick up reading easily on their own, and that’s fine, the goal of all this is to ensure that reading is exciting, pleasurable and a point of connection for parents and kids. Stay tuned for my next post on dazzling adventure stories for young children!

Do you have tips for me? I’d love to hear them!

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Why Telling Working Moms to Lower their Standards on Parenting Is Actually a Bit Insulting

cartoon made using Toondoo

cartoon made using Toondoo

An acquaintance from law school recently posted the following on Facebook:

Just wondering – are there any parents out there who work full-time and don’t constantly feel like they are coming perilously close to failing at everything? If so I would like to know your secrets, especially if they don’t involve substance abuse.

My friend is an accomplished legal professional and mom of three. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability, so I weighed in with my own 2 cents about the challenges of work and parenting.

Including mine, there were about 25 responses. Most were kind attempts at reassuring my colleague that she has high standards and is doing a great job. One suggested that she might ease off at work at times (alternating by easing off at parenting). Others chimed in to say, with sympathy, that they experience the concern about failing at parenting as well. But what struck me was the unmistakable sub-current through the comments that parenting — of the two “jobs” — was the one she should worry less about.

One friend said: “Parent” is more or less a pass/fail course, and failure is a flexible concept.” Another came outright with: “Lower your standards. Do not let the great be the enemy of the good.” Another, sweeter version, was:

I think that parenthood, by definition, means feeling like you are, or are about to, fail. But, you aren’t! You are doing fabulously. But, when you feel like you aren’t – cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission to let go of things that don’t have to be done, ask for help when you need it and know that as long as your kid is clothed, fed and loved you have done your job. Oh, and wine.

I have no doubt that the intent of these comments was entirely positive. They were merely trying to cheer up a friend: one with high standards for many aspects of her life and aspirations. And the last one was funny, and had some sound advice. I happen to agree, among her other points, that wine is a necessary aid to family life.

But I came away wondering whether a quiet but clear devaluation of the skills and time needed to be a great parent is in fact one of the problems working moms face. It’s so much a part of the culture it’s an essentially invisible bias. Just ask yourself: of the jobs that working moms have today — is it really the case that their paid work is more important? To whom? Even those of us (like me) who find tremendous satisfaction in our work, and work on issues we find meaningful, still love our kids more than our work. Of course we do.

Just at the level of practical demands on parents, here are the tasks involved to do that job:

  1. Finding affordable, reliable, safe and appropriate child care arrangements, schools, after-care, holidays and summer activities;
  2. Attending events related to the above, paying bills on time as needed or volunteering as expected;
  3. Cleaning the house, doing laundry, dishes, etc., or paying others to help with same;
  4. Shopping for groceries, seasonally appropriate, suitable and correctly sized clothes, any needed sports equipment, car seats or other gear, as well as developmentally appropriate books and toys;
  5. Making breakfast, lunches, snacks, dinners;
  6. Celebrating birthdays and holidays;
  7. Finding suitable, well-located physicians that accept your insurance, including pediatricians, eye doctors, dentists, and any other specialist needed; oh, and…
  8. Playing with, talking to, and reading to your child.

Even if we were phoning it in (and let’s face it, none of us really are), this is a ton of real work. Yet the hard truth is that you could do all this and still feel like, at some level, you are failing. Does that mean that the folks on Facebook are right to tell my colleague to let her hair down a bit?

I’m going to climb out on a limb here and say, no. While it shouldn’t be about generating anxiety, thinking hard and carefully about how well we did today (or are doing generally) at this most important job — helping to guide a human being in formation — strikes me as, well, another job of parents.

If we feel something isn’t right with how we are making choices, or in our conversations with our child, or how we structure the time we do have with our kids, we need to take a closer look at see if something large or small should shift to make it better. The intuitions involved here are important, and should be valued. Our gut is telling is something about our relationships, or what our child needs. There are no do-overs on this one: paying attention in real time is the best guide we have to what’s going on, what could be improved, and when we need to call in the Calvary.

There is a tremendous amount to learn in parenting, from the practical to the emotional, and thinking about parenting (and unpacking our own inherited family baggage) is an important part of the learning process. All of us intend to be great parents, but it’s a job that changes rapidly all the time, often without notice, and that inevitably triggers left-over stuff from growing up. There’s almost always things to notice about your child and yourself that surprise, challenge and humble you.

Yes, trying to be good at it (as my friend clearly is) matters, and keeping kids clothed and fed and safe is essential, but trying is not enough, and those other pre-requisites are not enough either. It’s not a surprise to me that women who are high achievers in their professional lives want to reach for more with parenting, too. Creating a real, stable bond with any child requires responsiveness, patience, steadiness around limits, highly intentional communication and a crazy-making level of tolerance for needless emotional outbursts over the wrong shoes. At least if you have a kid like mine.

And our lives are hectic, ruled by contradictory impulses and goals. A parent’s time and level of availability to accomplish these moods with our kids are under constant pressure. Even when we do have time together, slowing down to have a sense of ease, to allow for play, and to create calm is often not easily accomplished. Becoming a parent who says less, but is emotionally present, who observes more, who is earnestly delighted by their child, who finds pleasure in between the hassles and deadlines and schlepping, this is the goal, and everything about the way we live inveighs against this connection.

There are also steep — even untenable — political costs to the pretense that the current situation is acceptable for working parents. We are the first generation, really, of women committed equally to work and family. What we are discovering is that there is incredible meaning in both work and parenting (which is one reason I object to Sheryl Sandberg’s framing: “leaning in” and “leaning back” implicitly assumes the thing that matters most is work).

Yet there are not supports for parenting that both value who we are — and what we aspire to — and hold open space for us to do other things when we are ready. The New York Times piece last week on the shrinking options for women who left the workforce to have families a short decade ago made maddeningly clear the punishment they face for their choices.

Add to that the grotesque over-burdening of families from the lack of reliable, affordable and safe daycare and preschool options, the anemic child care tax credits, the inflexibility of employers on workplace policies, including flex-time and part-time work, and the generally terrible economy, and you have a recipe for trapping women (and men) in ambivalence, feelings of incommensurability, and yes, even failure. Other countries have solved these issues far better than we have here. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic social science.

It is up to us, then, to talk clearly, even angrily, about the impossibility of our lives in this uniquely American and ruthless economy. Given all this, I don’t want to be told, even by sympathetic friends trying to be kind, to lower my standards on parenting. I want a system that works for everyone — working moms and dads, work-at-home moms and dads, and those without families too.

The kids we are raising today in this stretched-tight world are the grown-ups of tomorrow. They will inherit a complicated world, and have much repair to do. They need what we have to give them, as parents, and as people who speak up for the significance of parenting. Let’s not accept less on their behalf, and reassure each other it has to be enough. Instead, let’s make space to make sure they get what they need, first, and aspire also — dare we dream? — to love our lives as parents and workers, both.

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A Mule Named Sal: American Folk Music for Toddlers

Pete Seeger, American folk singer

Pete Seeger, American folk singer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday may have seemed like a normal day to you, but that’s because you were likely unaware that it was, in fact, my stage debut. After rehearsing together quietly for the past few months, I was invited to embarrass myself publicly on-stage by the ever-generous local children’s musician, Mr. Gabe.

We sang six or so songs, including some of his originals from his awesome CD and other classics like Erie Canal and Froggie Went a’ Courtin. I love to sing simple, good music, and it was a wonderful feeling to think that those of us with passable — rather than great — voices still have something to give.

So I thought that in honor of my new adventures in harmony, I would write about some of my favorite children’s music, as well as my favorite music for children. There are many musical options now for young children, and I often check out the CDs for sale at yard sales and the thrift store. Of course, engaging the natural interests of children in rhythm and dance, and in music, is a wonderful way to enhance and round out their development and to relax.

We listen to music whenever we can: at home, in the car, and before bed. In the children’s music category, we like Marvelous Day, by Steve Roslonek, some of Laurie Berkner (but, sadly, some songs are irritating) and Frances England, and a few of the totally nutty songs by John Lithgow from his children’s album (like “You Gotta Have Skin,” or “At the Codfish Ball”– but beware grating ones like “Singing in the Bathtub,” which is, oddly, the title tune). Although fun, the older-kid pop stuff by groups like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies still mostly goes right over Maya’s head, and will have to wait.

The truth is, it’s hard to write music for kids that is age-appropriate, musically interesting, and strikes an emotional chord. And — most importantly for the adult listeners — is not annoying. Just as in the world of children’s “literature,” there’s a lot of dreck that poses as enrichment.

Which is why it’s often easier, instead, to think about the music that is part of the American tradition and that forms a child-friendly core of songs from the larger culture. These are famous for a reason — they combine music, story-telling and emotional truth. Some children’s music actually comes from this place — like Pete Seeger’s or Leadbelly’s — and is a joy to behold. Newer entertainers also have takes on the classics, like Elizabeth Mitchell (who’s channeling Seeger much of the time, and also has a tribute album to Woody Guthrie), Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb.

While I was pregnant with Maya, I undertook to compile my own personal list of songs that would both appeal to young children and are part of this American folk musical tradition. This is music I grew up with, and are the songs Maya now knows and sings with me. I wanted to go beyond the obvious — “Itsy Bitsy” and “Twinkle Twinkle,” though those have their place — and find the wonderful, revealing and gritty music that is in the air, that all of us know and love.

The playlist we use is below, with suggestions on artists, and in no particular order.

American Folk Music for Toddlers: A Few Ideas       

  • This Little Light of Mine                  Sam Cooke                 
  • Red River Valley                  Moe Bandy                 
  • You Are My Sunshine                   Kevin Devine                 
  • Sixteen Tons                                    Tennessee Ernie Ford                 
  • Molly Malone                                The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem   
  • This Old Man                                         Bob Dylan
  • Michael Row the Boat Ashore                  The Brothers Four                 
  • Sloop John B                                    The Beach Boys                            
  • Circle Game                                    Joni Mitchell                 
  • Waltzing Matilda                               Burl Ives                 
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot             Mavis Staples & Lucky Peterson                 
  • Shoo Fly – Don’t Bother Me                 Sweet Honey In the Rock                 
  • Zip-a-dee-doo-dah                                    Anthony the Banjo Man                  
  • Streets of Laredo                  Moe Bandy                 
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River                 
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken                   Mavis Staples                 
  • Scarborough Fair / Canticle                Simon & Garfunkel                 
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain                  Blind Boys of Alabama                        
  • Morning Has Broken                         Cat Stevens                 
  • Ol’ Man River                                    Jeff Beck
  • The Rainbow Connection               Willie Nelson
  • Sea of Love                                  The Honeydrippers
  • The Water Is Wide                             Eva Cassidy
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water                  Simon & Garfunkel
  • Motherless Chil’                                    Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Amazing Grace                  Spivey Hall Children’s Choir
  • Kumbaya                  Peter, Paul and Mary
  • Peacetrain                   Cat Stevens
  • Father and Son                                Cat Stevens
  • Jumbalaya (on the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Sunshine On My Shoulders                  John Denver
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River
  • Forever Young                                    Bob Dylan
  • Sweet Baby James                  James Taylor
  • One Little Light                                    Gary Jules
  • Cotton Eyed Joe                                    Nina Simone
  • You’ve Got A Friend                  Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
  • A Change Is Gonna Come                  Sam Cooke
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I See            The Dixie Hummingbirds
  • Hey, Good Lookin’                                     Hank Williams  
  • When the Saints Go Marching In             The Hit Crew
  • What a Wonderful World                        Louis Armstrong
  • We Are The Ones                          Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Leaving On a Jet Plane                           John Denver
  • Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes            Paul Simon
  • The House That Jack Built                        Aretha Franklin
  • A Tisket a Tasket                                       Ella Fitzgerald
  • You Make Me Feel So Young                    Frank Sinatra
  • Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)            B.B. King
  • Swinging on a Star (Single)                        Bing Crosby
  • My Way                                                Frank Sinatra  
  • Shoo Li Loo                                       Elizabeth Mitchell
  • Shoo Fly                                    Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Rockin’ Robin                                         Sha Na Na                 
  • Erie Canal                               Dan Zanes & Suzanne Vega
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter                      Loretta Lynn
  • City of New Orleans                       Steve Goodman                 
  • I’ll Fly Away                             Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch                 
  • My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains      The Lost & Found                 
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy                  The Andrews Sisters
  • Midnight Train to Georgia            Gladys Knight & The Pips                                   
  • Coconut                                        Harry Nilsson                                   
  • Lean On Me                                    Bill Withers                                   
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • Cat’s In the Cradle                         Harry Chapin                                   
  • Summertime                                    Sam Cooke
  • Children Go Where I Send You             Nina Simone
  • Tea for Two                               Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie
  • At the Zoo                                      Simon & Garufunkel  
  • The Battle of New Orleans                     Johnny Horton
  • You Are My Sunshine                               Norman Blake
  • The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)                  Harry Belafonte
  • King Of The Road                                  Roger Miller
  • Moon River                                         Jerry Butler
  • Mr. Bojangles                                       Jerry Jeff Walker
  • You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile        Dan Zanes
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry                    Hank Williams
  • St. James Infirmary                  Chris Thomas King
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • We Shall Overcome                  Mahalia Jackson
  • The Streets of Laredo                  Johnny Cash
  • Octopus’s Garden                  The Beatles
  • Big Rock Candy Mountain                  Harry McClintock
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat                  Schoolchildren Of Wanseko, Uganda
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain                  Pete Seeger
  • (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay                  Glen Campbell
  • This Land Is Your Land                  Woody Guthrie
  • Dinah                                         Bing Crosby And The Mills Bros.
  • Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)          Michelle Shocked
  • Wabash Cannonball                  Boxcar Willie
  • Jump In the Line                                    Harry Belafonte
  • Cotton Fields                                       Odetta
  • Talkin’ Bout a Revolution                      Tracy Chapman
  • Jambalaya (On the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Home On the Range                               Moe Bandy                 
  • Down in the Valley                                David Grisman & Jerry Garcia                 
  • Oh Susanna                                           Lisa Loeb                 
  • Fever                                                   Peggy Lee                 
  • Yellow Submarine                                    The Beatles                 
  • Sippin Cider Through a Straw                  Susie Tallman                 
  • Little Red Caboose                                    Lisa Loeb                 
  • When I’m Sixty-Four                             The Beatles              
  • Yankee Doodle                                    Boxcar Willie                 
  • Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree          Lazy Harry                 
  • Little Boxes                                          Malvina Reynolds                 
  • Keep On The Sunny Side                       The Whites                 
  • It’s Not Easy Being Green                   Kermit the Frog
  • Down to the River to Pray                    Allison Krause
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic                  Boxcar Willie 
  • Our House                                        Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Into the Mystic                                     Van Morrison
  • Canned Goods                                    Greg Brown
  • Keep Me in Your Heart                        Warren Zevon
  • Circle ‘Round the Sun                         Woody Guthrie
  • This Land Is Your Land                        Bob Dylan
  • Redemption Song                               Bob Marley
  • Wild World                                          Cat Stevens
  • Corinna, Corinna                                 Bob Dylan
  • He Gives Us All His Love                    Randy Newman
  • Across the Great Divide                      Nanci Griffith
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads         John Denver
  • 500 Miles                                          Roseanne Cash
  • Blackbird                                          The Beatles
  • Summertime                 Sam Cooke (more cheerful than Billie Holiday’s version)

While these are the “core,” I also trolled through my music generally and created a large playlist of Maya-friendly songs outside the folk tradition, including world music, Motown, jazz, and other genres. When we tire of these, that larger list is the go-to. If you’ve already gone digital, this takes an evening and solves the endless question of what to put on the player…

Please do tell:  What’s on your list? What gems and touchstones am I missing?

Happy New Year & Fun with Felt

Happy New Year

I’ve had a bad case of the Crafties this holiday. So I though I would subject you to one more post on a DIY gift that needs no special occasion: an easy way to make a felt play-station for a toddler or young child.

Felt boards are simple to create and can be used for hours of open-ended play. I gave two felt boards as gifts to my nieces, and made one set of felt cut-outs for Maya. For the board, I used a stretched canvas for the ones I made as gifts, and a large piece of felt cut and punched to fit on our easel over the whiteboard for Maya.

Whiteboard markers are dubious due to the xylene they contain, so that part of a child’s easel is better converted to something other use. (Magnet boards are also great and can be clipped on.) If you do use whiteboard markers, there’s a marker made without xylene by Auspen that allegedly works well.

Basic materials:

  • Felt in a wide range of colors (some is made of post-consumer recycled fabric, which is nice; you can also get fun felt with animal prints), and a larger piece in a neutral tone for the board backing
  • Sharp scissors (fabric scissors are best)
  • Stencil stickers for numbers and letters (like those used on posters)
  • Stretched art canvas for the board (I used these ones, which are a nice size, but the price fluctuates), a staple gun with staples, and velcro strips for hanging; or an easel or bulletin board
  • Optional: Fabric glue or thread and seed beads for making animals, trees, clouds, houses, etc.

For the shapes and letters:

For the letters and numbers, to keep things uniform, I used large-format sticky poster board stencil stickers from an office supply store. I further trimmed any useful shapes from inside the letters when I could to use in the sets.

H cutH pieceAfter some random trials, I found it simplest, particularly as I was making multiple sets of numbers and letters, to go through the alphabet in order, making sure to cut many copies of vowels and other letters often used in pairs (t’s, or p’s, for example).

In front of the TV, it was a pleasant diversion and allowed me to re-watch all of Downtown Abbey just in time for the start of Season Three (tonight)! I then divided them up into sets after laying all the pieces out on a board.

The sets for three familiesI also tried my hand at a few animals, using this allegedly non-toxic fabric and felt glue, with only modest success. When so inclined, Maya can easily pry the creations apart, showing the glue. So for the younger crowd, you may want either to keep it very simple with the shapes, or to invest the time in sewing the pieces together for durability. Still, for the few I’ve managed to keep intact, the pieces are cute.

Eden When pigs flyTo make the board:

If using an easel, just cut the felt to match the whiteboard or other support you are using, punch a hole with the scissors and slip onto the screws.

If you would prefer to make a separate felt board, it’s very simple to do so. Cut the felt in the size of your board, leaving three to four inches of fabric on all sides around the canvas.

IMG_5940Then fold and tuck the felt into the backside of the canvas on all sides, making “hospital corners” with the felt on each corner to keep it smooth on the front.

IMG_5947Using the staple gun, work your way around the back edges, paying special attention to keeping the corners flat. Hang with velcro or a nail as you prefer.

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Maya has enjoyed playing with the shapes and trying to name the letters, which often occasions the alphabet song. I’m hoping her cousins are enjoying the sets as well! I’ll be adding more animals, and sewing some, as Downtown Abbey gets back underway…

Next week: A guest post on Type 2 diabetes from a blogger pal, and the full scoop on children’s “flame retardant” pajamas — so stay tuned!

Playdough Showdown: Fake vs. Natural but Unimpressive

Mr. Belligerently Artificial vs. Mr. Give-Me-Four-More

Sigh. Sometimes the right candidate doesn’t make such a strong showing. On occasion, the better politician is all downwards-looking, weak and vague, and even seems slightly embarrassed about his own record.

Sometimes such a candidate disappointingly lets every single opportunity for a zinger go by, and spends almost an entire debate talking about the flaws in his opponents’ phantasmagorical policy proposals rather than focusing on stonewalling he’s faced from his opponents’ partisans, or on, say, math.

And sometimes the artificial — even the utterly invented and commercially suspect — triumphs, in a brilliant show of plumage, like a peacock made only of lights and sound.

Such was the depressing outcome of my playdough showdown yesterday, pitting food dyes against natural colors for home-made playdough in a twisted mom’s homage to both the Presidential match-up and the playdough-like consistency of our national political debates.

When tasked several weeks ago by Maya’s preschool to make up a batch of brilliantly colored blue playdough for a color study, my research showed that blue in natural coloring is typically achieved by boiling red cabbage. Furthermore, it seems, sometimes this particular playdough retains a strong cabbage-y odor, or, in Thrifty Mama’s words, “really stinks” and is “tacky” in texture.

I will note that there is no odor on the blue dough from my wonderful Eco-Dough, which I gather also uses red cabbage, but they likely have fancy ways of extracting dyes that I do not.

Having no desire to stanky up the preschool, I violated my principles and ordered the most assertively blue food-dye I could find, which worked like a charm. If you’re gonna’ go fake, go big. It was blue, all right, and not at all smelly.

Since the kids are unlikely to eat the dough, I really didn’t feel that it posed much of a risk. (There is a lot of evidence generally that food dyes are terrible to actually consume, though they are fed to kids like, well, candy.)

Still, when a follow-up was given to me to tackle orange playdough, I couldn’t help but wonder about the natural alternatives to the small bottle of “peach” dye that came as part of the set. So I set up a head-to-head — an oh-so-titillating contest (I don’t get out much) between the dye and the power of paprika, which was recommended on several blogs for producing orange.

It looked good at first, with the bright orange paprika promising to school the buttoned-up bottle.

I used this basic recipe both times, which works really well. There are no-cook options, but the preschool teacher mentioned that the cooked ones have much more staying power.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, but suspect any oil would do)
  • natural or (gasp) artificial food coloring

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large pot (bigger the better) and stir over medium heat until it starts to clump around the spoon.

Add dye or coloring and stir a little more. You can — and even perhaps should by all rights — take it off the stove for a minute to let your assistant take a turn.

After a minute or two, remove from heat and scrape onto a cutting board. When cool enough, knead firmly until the color and consistency are uniform. Shoo kids away until you are done playing.

###As you can see, the paprika on the left, which was the good stuff from Bulgaria courtesy of my folks, produced a very disappointing light orange-ish hue, like pumpkin flavored pasta. On the other hand, the food dye, corrected with a squirt of the yellow that came in the same box, morphed into a convincing, if not bright, orange.

Ah well. We can’t win them all. And my little contest was, well, slightly less important than that other one.

It’s possible that I should have considered a third party for the platform — perhaps carrot juice works better? I suppose if you are using this at home, slightly orange-y might be fine next to other colors dyed with more assertive beets, berries and the like. (There are great ideas on this from one of my favorite crafty green bloggers here.)

In the end, I mushed it all together and bagged it up as orange enough. Punching the dough into a pliable mass was satisfying in between muttering at the television.

Still, it’s frustrating when the one you know to be best for the country stumbles a bit, and lets the insubstantial, chemical-laden candidate win the day.

Related articles:

My Daughter Will Be Fine. How’s Yours?

Preschool

Preschool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like an inversion of Project Runway, we were “out,” but now we’re “in.” This week, we learned that Maya could move off the wait list into a spot for the neighborhood’s co-op preschool, which only takes 12 children in her age group.

We were thrilled by this, obviously. The Co-op is close to our house and follows a Reggio-inspired curriculum, with a ton of fantastic literature, music and art.

Of course, getting in, as random as it was (a family is moving), also made us officially feel like Good Parents. We had checked the boxes, found the right school, gotten a babysitter, attended the two information sessions, submitted the application and the check. And, with perseverance and luck, we did it! At 20 months, our daughter is now on the Road to Success. (And we will have ample chance to prove our dedication to the model, as the co-op’s parental contributions are no joke.)

As ridiculous as this seems, for achievement-oriented parents, such ability to deliver the goods does feel, truthfully, like at least one important measure of how well we are doing.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on parents when really terrific resources are scarce, and makes parenting into a far more competitive sport than it should be.

When we were on the “outs,” I’ll admit to feeling a mild despair, along with the exhaustion of having to look around for a suitable alternative. We’d visited several other preschools over the past year, none to our liking. I had also been compiling a mental list of back-ups, including the local Waldorf school, and the Audubon Society’s preschool that I blogged about last week (which is lovely, but not that close to us).

The lack of really strong preschool options stunned me, actually, as we began this search. And it’s a sad statement, really, of how we have not updated our educational systems to take full account of the research, which, for more than 20 years, has pointed unequivocally to preschool (and pre-preschool) learning and environment as the foundation for educational attainment for kids.

For just a few examples, we now know that:

Contrast that with the bad news on this front that I heard on the radio in just the past few days: DC high schools fail to graduate (on-time) 60 percent (!!) of students. And Marketplace, a show I normally loathe for its pro-market bias and triviality, ran a decent series this week on projects happening around the country, some financially doomed, to engage low-income children in learning earlier in order to close educational gaps.

Along with everyone else, I’ve also followed the work in Harlem of Geoffrey Canada in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone. (I recommend the book by Paul Tough describing his efforts, “Whatever It Takes” which is a fascinating read.) Canada set up a system for students that was intended to provide the safety. security and growth of a suburban upbringing. As Tough writes, his supports are “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods.”

One of Canada’s many key innovations was his recognition that parenting classes – for parents of newborns – and access to high-quality preschool programming, would make kids far more ready to attend school, and would create the building blocks for success even among very low-income families with lower educational levels among the parents.

Canada’s pioneering work has been successful in moving children to become academic successes. And he’s been at it for almost a decade. What’s really amazing is that his set of comprehensive tools, commonsense as it is, and his focus on the critical period of infancy and early childhood, remain largely disregarded in practice elsewhere in the country.

There isn’t the money, nor is there the political commitment, to ensure that every child in America gets a learning-friendly environment at home, and that every child attends a quality preschool. In fact, the new budget fight being waged this week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) would slash and burn supports for low-income families in order to pay for military spending, which is just sickening, really. According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md), a report by the Congressional Budget Office “found some 22 million households with children would lose aid to buy food, 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs, and 300,000 children would lose health insurance under the House plan.” To pay for bombers, literally. It’s like a bad joke on a bumper sticker.

In short, we have a long fight ahead of us. But the costs of not doing this are astronomical, both as measured in the quality of children’s lives and in the social and economic price.

Of course, if Maya had not gotten into our preferred school, there would have been another preschool, perhaps less convenient or ideal, but still high quality. And her home environment is nurturing in every way I know to make it, based on both my reading and on how my parents raised me.  Put that with the quality of the food she eats and my persistent (albeit quirky) efforts to provide a healthy environment for her, and the advantages compound quickly.

But even as I do what it takes to ensure her health and growth, I also recognize that for every child like Maya, many more children lack basic things, like enough food to eat, or a caring and attentive adult in their lives. (Case in point: I once spent several days sweeping broken glass and wires out of a DC elementary school classroom, helping to get it ready for a teacher friend. The computers given to the school by some foundation were being used as doorstops, because there was no one that could be spared to maintain a network and lab.)

When you have a child, and must engage in the current, demanding contest for resources directly on their behalf, these sharp distinctions become far more real. And it’s far too easy to “get yours” and move on, being happy because this time, you happen to be on the list instead of off.

But if all the more resource-rich parents merely wangle a way for their family, it will never create the urgency we need for change on a much more fundamental level. Simply put, it’s clear that we will never address the underlying causes of poverty unless we take far more seriously what we must do to provide a strong foundation for very young children, from infancy through kindergarten.

We’re falling far short now, both on addressing poverty and on challenging families to do what they can to develop strong foundations in early childhood. Almost one-third of children 2 and under have television sets in their bedrooms. In their rooms! Which makes them more sedentary and emotionally stunted, studies show. And a shocking one-half of preschool-age children do not get a chance to be outside and play daily, meaning that some of that mental mapping is just … missing. Combine that with the chemicals and sugar in children’s foods and it’s easy to see where the obesity epidemic is coming from.

(And I think the official explanations on this point are facile: chemicals likely play a much larger role than anyone is admitting. The Institute of Medicine’s report this week on childhood obesity focuses on diet and exercise, but fails to explain why those factors alone could possibly be enough to cause Type 2 diabetes in children to go from ZERO in the 1970s to far too common today. Having grown up in the 70s, I remember kids eating a lot of Little Debbie snackcakes while watching Three’s Company all afternoon. If those kids didn’t have diabetes, I’ll submit that there must be something more to it.)

To my larger point on early childhood: perhaps it’s hubris, but I can tell you right now, sitting here today, I firmly believe that Maya will be fine. (Or at least as “fine” as someone can be with nutjobs like us for parents.) But that doesn’t mean I’m ok letting all the other two-year-olds who didn’t make the list, or, more likely, weren’t on any list, just watch TV, inside, eating crap, instead of playing outside and attending a really good preschool that will make them into the kind of kids who will be good pals to Maya and help me cross the street in my old age.

It’s as though the project we all started more than a hundred years ago – this task of publicly educating children – remains half-done. What we now know is that the period before kindergarten is just as critical, and may be even more critical, to a child’s success in life than the time after.

So why isn’t there more urgency on this question? There should be a school like our Co-op on every other corner – so many that there aren’t any lists to get in. And if government funds are needed to make it happen, this modest investment would likely pay for itself many times over, in more productive and valuable workers, artists, and innovators (and fewer prison cells).

Sure, most parents want the best for their children. But there’s a lot stacked against their ability to deliver nurturing and challenging opportunities. What I take away from our own relief at now, as of this week only, being on the “inside” of a good preschool for our daughter, is that what we really need is for parents – and the politicians they vote for – to want the best for every child.

How do we get there? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and ideas…