Toys Should Be Selected

One of the first rules Play Therapists learn is that “toys should be selected, not collected”. I’m super anal about where I take my kids to play because I find toys to fall into two categories: beneficial or detrimental. Yes, a toy can hinder development and learning just as much (if not more) than help it!

Toys should be carefully selected!

Avoid:

  • Electronics
  • Battery operated
  • Cause/Effect
  • Toxic (lead paint, stinky plastic, foams)
  • Games/Puzzles

Choose toys made from natural materials that allow for limitless possibilities! The child should play WITH the toy, the toy should never play FOR the child. Sidenote: The adult should never play FOR the child either. It is not the parents, grandparent, or teachers job to entertain the child. Play is about processing emotions, creativity, imagination, self-expression, and learning about the world and self.

Role Play:

  • Costumes
  • Pretend food or recycled containers
  • Workbench
  • Kitchen
  • Dollhouse
  • Barns
  • Shopping carts
  • Rags, buckets, window scrapers
  • Garden tools, wheelbarrow

Art:

  • Pipecleaners
  • Cla, play-doh
  • Crayons, markers, paints
  • Paper, tissue paper
  • Packing peanuts, bubble wrap
  • Pom poms
  • Kinetic sand
  • Water beads
  • Beads, string, yarn
  • Paintbrushes, easels
  • Chalk
  • Fabric, felt
  • Spray bottles

Miniatures:

  • Gnomes, fairies
  • Insects, bugs, snakes
  • Animals
  • Cars, trucks, planes
  • Trees, flowers, wood slices, grass, moss
  • Dolls
  • Gems, rocks, marbles, stones
  • Furniture

Building:

  • Blocks
  • Nesting toys
  • Stackers
  • Squigz
  • Magnetiles
  • Qubes
  • Lincoln logs
  • Legos

Calming:

  • Teepees, forts, tents
  • Pillows, blankets
  • chairs or futons
  • Rugs
  • Lava lamps, shakers

If you find yourself wondering what a toy “does”, then it’s probably a good toy because a toy should never “do” anything. The child does something with the toy instead. I love the garden section at Hobby Lobby and I love parusing antique stores and Goodwills for “junk” I have no idea what it actually is! I also search for Waldorf toys online via Amazon or Fat Brain Toys and my favorite brands are Janod, Kid-O, Melissa & Doug, Tegu, & Grimms! Remember that the less toys a child has, the more they play, so keep things to a minimum and very well organized. An overwhelming playroom doesn’t spark imagination, it can be over stimulating and cause a child to shut down. Happy playing!

Stay gold, 

That Girl

Harmful Message Good Parents Send Their Kids

We are all a product of our raising and we tend to make decisions involving our own children based on how our parents did it, or the complete opposite of how our parents did it. We will also mix in tidbits we’ve picked up from books, movies, blogs, and friends we’ve observed (or even stragers). In short, most of us are just winging it at the parenting thing. It’s rare to meet a parent who has thought long and hard about the messages they’re sending to their children and its even more rare to think about the messages SOCIETY is sending to our children. Often, we just roll with it cause that’s how its always been. Well, I think it’s time to challenge some of the messages we send children without even realizing it.

Here are some of the most common messages even GOOD parents send their kids that are HARMFUL .

You can be anything you want to be.

Whoops! Not true. Unfortunately this is a message sent to our kids via parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and TV, but it’s one of the biggest lies. No, your child cannot be anything they want to be. My stepson wanted to be an astronaut when he was a little boy. He loooooved space! We took him to NASA Space Center, bought the galaxy stars for is room, and read countless books about space to him; however, we were always honest with him when he talked about wanting to be an astronaut. We told him, “I know you’d really like to be an astronaut, but you were born to two tall parents. Doctor think you will be nearly 7 ft tall and rocketships aren’t built for someone your height and weight”. We then would discuss what other space related careers would be available to him and even invited him to be an engineer and try to design ships for tall space travelers. We’re not doing our kids any favors when we let them think they can be ANYTHING they want to be. We can allow them to pretend and use those active imaginations, but also inject reality and forward thinking to avoid setting them up for failure.

I promise.

I have had a rule for working with young children nearly two decades now. I do NOT make promises to kids and I don’t allow them to make promises to me. A promise implies we, as parents, have control when we don’t. When you promise a child, they believe you can do it and nothing can get in your way. Unless you’re the almighty, all powerful, omnipotent being, this is a harmful message to send a child. “I promise I’ll make your play”, or “I promise we’ll go to Doughnut Haven on Sunday” and then you come down with the flu the night of the play or Doughnut Haven is closed for construction. The child then feels lied to. Never make a promise to a child, instead try, “I’ll try my hardest because this is important. I hope nothing gets in our way”, or something similar to remind your child that we are not in control of the universe, nor are they the center of it.

Everyone is created equal.

This is one of the biggest, and in my opinion most detrimental lies we send to children and people. No one was created equal. We were all made to be different and we’re limiting our children’s potential when we tell them we’re all equal, or when we allow everyone a trophy because we all “worked hard”. Let’s be honest, not everyone on the team worked hard. Some never made a single game and sat on their asses during practice watching the grass grow. This kid shouldn’t get a trophy! Some people are weak, dumb, slow, cruel, lazy just like some are strong, gifted, fast, kind, and hardworking. Some people are whole, while others missing limbs or eyes or ears. If  we teach our children that everyone is created equal, we’re not encouraging them to look at people and evaluate them based on character, actions, strengths and weaknesses. I want my child to notice the peer who’s missing their arms and offer to read stories with them or paint a picture for them. I want them to know that if they practice and work hard, they can win at something because it’s possible to be the best. Competition should be encouraged to bring the highest potential out of each child and it can be encouraged in a healthy way.

Happily Ever After

If you read original excerpts of fairy tales from Grimm’s books, most don’t end with “happily ever after”. In fact, this is one of the cornerstones of The Danish Way, a parenting book that encourages authenticity. The Danish, voted happiest people in the world over forty years, don’t teach happily ever after. They teach fear, sadness, frustration, disappointment, nd even death. This authentic view of the world is accredited for much of their happiness. The children are not shielded from life’s realties, but instead are groomed to cope with it and more importantly, to expect it. Parents, we’re not doing our kids any favors when we teach them life is one big happy ending. It’s not! It’s ups and downs, let downs, disappointments, failures, and hurt. But, by allowing our children to experience these things and providing empathy and love, we can allow them opportunities to learn decision making skills, coping skills, problem solving and logical thinking. We’re raising stronger happier people in the end!

Things matter.

This is one of the hardest to recognize you struggle with and the hardest to change! Think of how often we reward, or celebrate, with things. When you go to the doctor’s office, your child a dumdum. After a haircut they’re given a sticker. At the grocery store they’re given “buddy bucks”. Teachers and parents are now using elaborate sticker charts and treasure chests to award children for chores, grades, and behavior, all things that children should be doing because they’re the right thing to do, not because they get a prize. What’s happening is we’re shifting the focus from what feels good (intrinsic motivators) to “what do I get (extrinsic motivators). We’re raising our children to be reward seekers, but we’re also sending the message that joy can be found in “things” rather than within the self.

Even he focus of holidays has shifted towards materialism. Christmas, Valentines, Easter, birthdays and even Halloween for some is celebrated with things, gifts, candies. If we remove the material items from the holiday, we’re left with a focus on family, togetherness, and experiences to enjoy. Imagine Christmas morning after everyone opens A gift, the family makes breakfast together, plays outside, reads a story, and sings songs or has a dance party by the tree. Imagine a birthday celebrated with a silly string fight before school and then telling your child their birth story and all the wonderful things you enjoy learning about them each year. What if we stripped the holidays down and rediscovered the reason for each season? Would we find opportunities for learning and character building?

Our job as parents is not to entertain our children, always keep them happy, or prevent them from learning about the world. This is a very serious undertaking and shouldn’t be entered into lightly. It’s important we take a step back and really think through the messages we send our children and make decisions based on what’s best for them LONG-TERM, and not allow society to influence our parenting choices. Being a good parent in today’s world means being counter-cultural; not being afraid to do things differently.

“If they stare, let them stare. You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out” -Wonder

Stay gold, 

That Girl

Empathy is Key

As an educator, I have the privilege of visiting child cares and preschools around my city. They all fall into a category of sorts to define their program and they all think they’re doing the best they can for young children. Whether they’re play based or curriculum focused, nature vs. nurture, or Waldorf vs Montessori, the key ingredient to a successful early childhood program is…

EMPATHY

I visited a school recently that really focuses on teaching independence. They have a few guidelines for their staff including not picking the children up, not doing things FOR them, and allowing them to explore “free range”. In fact, there’s an entire movement encouraging free play called “free range kids”. This school hits the mark on that. One thing I observed though is a lack of empathy. Empathy is the foundation for learning. By ignoring it, we may subsequently teach the opposite of our intent.

For example, I saw a child trip and fall over a step. No one rushed to the childs aid, which may rub some adults wrong; however, the child wasn’t hurt and is capable of picking oneself up. The child laid there for a moment processing what had occurred and looking around confused. Then she got up and went to the table to eat.

What did the child learn? Likely nothing other than when you fall, get up. That’s not a bad message, but it can be enhanced further by an adult guide. Something like, “I noticed you fell and you felt surprised. I saw you catch yourself with your elbows. You’re able to care for yourself”. With that statement I empathized, identified her feeling, and told her she’s strong and capable. Another helpful approach could be, “This time you fell, but you’ll have other chances to succeed”. That sends the message that failure is not the end and provides opportunities for learning.

Another moment I observed was a child wanting to be held who missed his parent. Having just come back after a vacation, he’s likely having trouble adjusting to being independent again and was seeking love. The best way to feel love is to give love. His teacher wasn’t picking him up and even stated that he was being clingy and needy, which isn’t like him. He was an age he could understand these words, even though he was too young to say them, so I intervened and modeled for her a more effective approach. I used an empathic statement, “When I want to be held, I find something to hold. Let’s go together and find something to love”. Then, I took the child’s hand and led him towards some toys in the sand and encouraged him to find something to nurture and love.

Empathy is also vital when setting limits. The ACT Limt Setting method starts with A for “Acknowledge” the feeling. Rather than shout an order at a young children or simply state a rule, start with empathy so that learning is enhanced and the info will be absorbed. When a child is rushing out to eat their lunch, nearly knocking over friends, it’s in our nature to shout, “No, it’s not time. Slow down!” However, a much more powerful approach is ACT limit setting.

Acknowledge the feeling: “I know you’re hungry and anxious to eat’.

Communcate the limit: “But it’s not time to eat yet”.

Target alternatives: “You may wait here patiently or you can be held”.

The choices are strategic and key as well. Having the child wait patiently is of course the goal, but if he doesn’t, the second choice of being held is a great option because it’s the adult’s nature to grab the child if he’s about to knock other chidren over. Then, a powr struggle may begin because chilren don’t like to be controlled. If the child said he chooses to be held it’s a win win.

Whether you are a parent, an educator, program director, or therapist, EMPATHY is crucial to building relationships with young children and guiding them towards their highest potential. Children need to feel understood, valued, respected, and acknowledged. Free play will backfire if the children don’t feel seen, just like structured content won’t be absorbed if they child can’t relate to the material. In play therapy, we practice the mantra, “I hear you, I see you, I understand, I care”. When one of these four is missing, the work being done with that child is pointless.

Empathy is the foundation of successful work with young children.

Stay gold, 

That Girl

 

The “Rules” of Play

The rules of play are simple. There are no rules for the child. There are, however, rules for the adults. Adults can either hinder, or help, play be what it is intended to be. Play, by definition, is intrinsically motivated, self-directed, and natural. “Play is a child’s natural language and the toys are their words, ” Garry Landreth (The Art of the Relationship, 2001.) Play is not only how children communicate, but it is how that express themselves, process experiences, and make sense of the world around them. 

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These “rules” are what we Play Therapists live by.

Disclaimer: Although these are the rules Play Therapists follow in the playroom with clients, following these rules does not make you a Play Therapist. Sixty-one graduate hours and several thousand clinical hours under direct supervision have taught me to use these guidelines in a very specific way to form a therapeutic relationship with my clients and create an environment for positive change to occur in the child’s perception of self, the world, and circumstances.

That being said, parents can apply these same rules if they’d like to encourage a more active imagination, independent play, and allow more learning to take place naturally through play.

Rule #1: Allow the child to lead.

Play is natural for children. They do not need an adult to intervene and show them how to play by moving objects, making sounds, or deciding what happens next. Child directed play is best. This is why toys with batteries or electricity actually work against play. Imagine being a child playing in what looks like a kitchen and placing something on the stove and the stove responds, “Yummy. I like spaghetti!” But, you weren’t cooking spaghetti. In fact, you were pretending to be a mad scientist concocting a potion to kill aliens from the planet Zonkatron. Or, the adult in the room intervenes and says something idiotic like, “Oh, are you making something special for me?” This not only pulls the child out of the fantasy, anchoring them to reality, but also changes the motivation of the play to serving the interest of the parent and pleasing the parent, not the child.

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Rule #2: Play is not a time for education.

Learning takes place naturally during play. The infant/toddler brain is maze of channels, twists, turns, and roadways, but if not all of the passageways get engaged often, “roadblocks” go up. Parts of the brain actually die off and get pruned away if not activated. Just the same, parts that are engaged often become stronger. Do your best to fight the urge to teach the child colors, numbers, shapes, and sounds. Quizzing the child on what they know is also not appropriate during play. Things like, “What’s the horsey say?”, have no business in play. Learning letters, numbers, and so forth will happen in due time, in the classroom, or while you’re out and about as a family and talking about things you see.

Rule #3: Don’t ask questions you know the answer to.

I see adults break this rule ALL the time. They walk up to a child holding a ball and say something like, “Are you holding a ball?” or, a child slams a car into another car and screams, “Boom! They just crashed!” and the adult says, “Uh oh, did they crash?” Asking questions like this can make the child feel misunderstood (and make the adult look stupid). Remember, play is about expressing one sef so if there’s enough information for a question, there’s enough for a statement. Instead, try, “Whoa, they crashed hard. I heard the boom”. The child feels seen, heard, and understood.

Rule #4: Grant in fantasy what you can’t grant in reality.

This is a big one! Children’s play is not always an indicator of their deepest, darkest secrets, nor is it predictive of future actions. The child who plays “good guy, bad guy” and has the two beating each other up isn’t necessarily going to be aggressive or violent as they grow up. Just the same, the child who plays army and blows up the whole town isn’t necessarily going to make bombs in their garage and blow up their school as a teen either. Children use play to explore different sides of their personalities, try out various behaviors and actions, and sometimes something like blowing up a town in their play makes them feel powerful and strong n a day when they may have felt weak and misunderstood. Children may also use play to give alternate endings to real life experiences, but they don’t need to be reprimanded for pretending they punched Aunt Helga in the face for that smelly kiss. It’s pretend and it’s natural and therapeutic.

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Rule #5: Don’t label things the child hasn’t labeled.

To the adult it’s a stick, but to the child it may be a sword, a hammer, a magic wand, a syringe, a whip, a light saber, lipstick, a cane, Cruella Deville’s cigarette, a plane, or something that’s never even been invented. Don’t assume you know what the child is pretending, or that they even want you to know, by interfering and giving their object a name. If you’re wrong (which you probably will be), you’ll pull them from the fantasy into reality and distract from the process.

Rule #6: Don’t set limits until limits need to be set.

The average two year old hears the word, “No” over seventy-five percent of the day. From their, it just continues with “don’t touch that”, “don’t put that there”, “don’t do that”, “stop that” and on and on. Play should be a time in the child’s day where rules don’t exist until there’s really a problem. A child shouldn’t pick up a doll, walk to the pretend kitchen and hear, “Remember not to dump the food all over the place and be sure you don’t get her wet this time”. I roll my eyes and shake my head at this parent. I just want to scream, “Why not?! Who the eff cares if the plastic doll gets wet?” Play should be freeing, unlimited, cathathartic…so only set limits when there’s danger or the possibility of irreversible damage to something.

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There are many more I won’t get into, but these are my favorite of the basics.

So, as a parent, what can we do? Let them play! Let them lead! Let them decide how objects are used, where they go, how they move, who gets to be what and say what. Let the child explore, imagine, be creative, be destructive, and be expressive. Respect play for what it is, don’t try to change it, and recognize it’s value in your child’s development metally, emotionally, socially, and even physically. Children need play free of adult interaction, intervention, and direction.

Stay gold,

That Girl

The Case Against Toys

My mother texted me last week and asked me about a couple of gifts she was thinking about for my twins for Christmas (she shops early). I googled the items she was referring to and read about the products. When I read the words “teaches your child,” “educational,” and “your child will learn,” I knew the toys were not for us. Ironically, the toys that “teach” your child actually counteract learning and stunt development. Shocker, right?

I refuse to have toys in my home that teach my children.

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I texted my mom back and reminded her that I don’t allow toys that have batteries or electricity. In fact, I dont have toys in my home that “do” things. A toy that does for a child robs them of the opportunity to do. The play becomes limited by what the toy has been programmed to do. It does not require imagination, problem solving, creativity, exploration, or observation. It is entertaining the child, which is not what play is about. It’s not about entertainment or distraction.

Play is a child’s natural language. It is how they make sense of their world, how they communicate, how they express feelings, and how they process their experiemces. Play by definition is intrinsically motivated, therefore a toy that gives the same response each time a button is pushed, or a lever is pulled, trains the child to seek extrinsic reward, rather than introinsic. So, once again, play is negatively affected.

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As a Play Therapist I always felt saddened by the child who would come into the playroom filled with open-ended toys, pick up a toy and try to press a button. They’d search desperately for an off/on switch, something to push, pull, turn on somehow before finally looking at me and exclaiming, “It’s broken” or “What does it do?” This child has been programmed for toys to  do the work for him and he no longer knows how to play.

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Toys do not need names either. A toy that comes with a name, or a label, pulls the child from fantasy and anchors them to reality. This is not a good thing. I don’t want my children growing up thinking a stick is just a stick and a box is just a box. The possibilities for items like this should be endless to a child’s imagination. I once put a whisk on the play tray of my five month old son’s walker and my stepson said, “Why did you give him a whisk?” I told him it’s not a whisk to the baby, it could be anything the baby wants it to be. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said, “But what else could it be?” Again, how sad. This child has lost the ability to imagine.

So…what do they play with?

  • ribbons
  • tin foil
  • bubble wrap, corks, sponges
  • spatulas, whisks, ladels, egg beaters
  • Measuring cups
  • salad spinners, drainers, muffin tins
  • egg cartons, boxes
  • bags
  • blocks
  • balls
  • cars, trains, planes (wooden toys)
  • books
  • crayons, shaving cream, play doh
  • musical toys, wooden toys
  • blankets
  • bubbles
  • swings, slides, ladders, jungle gyms
  • hula hoops, jump ropes
  • figurines

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If you buy your children pop up tents how will they learn to build forts? If you buy them the bubble machine how will they learn to blow bubbles? If you buy hot wheels track you’re limiting how far and which direction the cars can go? Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not grow up using iPads and tech toys…they grew up playing with what was around them and as a result they learned how to think and they became creators.

So, my children will not watch TV. They will not have ipads. They will not use smart phones until age appropriate and they will not play with toys that need batteries or need to be plugged in. They will learn to be resourceful, creative, and imaginative to play and to make sense of the world around them.

Stay gold,

That Girl

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Character Development Begins in Infancy

We’ve all observed that parent; the one who appears to think their only purpose as a parent is to keep their child alive. This is the same person who thinks their spouse is a great catch because they don’t cheat on them or beat them and that they have a good job because they haven’t committed suicide by 5:00pm on Friday. I want more out of this gig and I want more for my children. I feel like my duty as a parent is to raise my boys into men of integrity, who live as leaders, and strive to be more like God each day. It’s a heavy undertaking to raise people of character in today’s society, but we, as good people, have an obligation to raise more good people. 

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So, how do we do this and when does it start?

INFANCY

Yup, character development can start as early as infancy…neonates even. 

  1. First, protect your child’s eyes and ears. 

Studies show that infants repeat what they’ve seen and heard in their minds for up to 24 hours. It becomes part of their implicit memory, meaning it’s not a concious understanding; however, it still becomes a part of them. So, you may not think your newborn is paying attention or can understand what’s happening when you’re watching The Walking Dead during that late night feeding, but that violence and terror is getting engrained in their mind. Is there someone in your family that thinks it’s funny to make fun of your new baby’s big ears or crooked grin? This is being repeated in their mind over and over again. Think on that a while.

I do my best to be sure I’m surrounding my babies with positive talk, positive facial expressions, positive touch, and positive movement. Even at 4:30 am when they want to be up for the day, I greet them with a warm smile and tell them they’re loved.

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2. Watch for character traits and comment on them

Your child’s developing their personality more and more each day and their character and self-esteem are also developing at a rapid rate. They’re not just drooling, poooping, sleepy blobs. They’re observant, purposeful humans, seeking interaction and feedback.

When one of my boys wails loudly and it startles the other I notice he brings his hands together and takes deep breaths. I let him know I notice his strong coping skills and patience with others. Sometimes his bottom lip quivers because he feels his brother’s emotion and I comment on his empathy.

When they started rolling over and one day they could do it easily, but the next day they struggled, I acknowledged the effort and the ambition. “Today seems harder than yesterday, but I notice you’re not giving up. You have a goal and you’re working hard to achieve it”.

If we’re at the store and they start fussing in the checkout, I thank them happily for praticing patience with others and being understanding that I have other things to take care of at the moment, but I tell them they’re loved and I’ll hold them when I’m able.

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3. Read to them & discuss the stories

I skipped right over those lame baby books of shapes and colors and went straight to books with story lines. I read these books to my boys and discuss what’s being learned. I talk to them about Harold being a problem solver with his purple crayon, Jack’s disobedience of his mother when he sold the cow for beans, and we discuss Red Riding Hood’s naivety. This isn’t just to develop comprehension skills and vocabulary (which it does), but stories and fables are a great way to develop strong character.

4. Model for them

A wise parent knows that children learn more from what they see others do than what they are told to do so model for them how to behave. I once had a violent student in my kindergarten classroom and I asked the mother about home life so I could get a better understanding of the child’s needs. She said, “He’s never been exposed to any anger or violence at all. Not since his dad left. His dad used to throw tantrums and break everything around him, but that was all before he was two years old”. Too late! The child may have had some hereditary predisposition to violence; however, much of what he was doing could also have been learned behavior in his implicit memory from observing his dad as an infant. It’s important to be aware of how you interact with others in front of your new baby. Think about your mannerisms, your tone of voice…your actions will become their actions sooner or later.

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Babies are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. It used to be believed that infants couldn’t feel pain, but now that seems ludacris, right? Many people mistakenly think that what we say and do around babies, and to babies, doesn’t have an impact on them because they “don’t remember”, but current research says the opposite. They do remember! Everything becomes a part of them. Take advantage of these early years, this crucial period of development, where our children are sponges, and start gearing them towards a positive mindset and raising people of character.

Stay gold, 

Chelsea Vail

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