Friday, April 25, 2014

Free Play: Creating low-cost play environments for babies and toddlers

Originally published in NPN/Neighborhood Parents Network's newsletter Parent to Parent, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2014.

With the help of Pinterest, fanciful playrooms for young children across America have taken center stage.  However, through my education and work, I’ve learned that I don’t need to have the perfect color scheme or designer furniture to create an inspiring place to play!  I’ve found that these simple steps are all that it takes to create a safe and engaging space that any child can freely explore, without spending a dime.

Materials: Score!  I already have the perfect play materials in my house!   Children love exploring real life, everyday materials.  I may find a Tupperware lid boring, but my baby can’t wait to get her hands on it.  When scavenging for materials, SAFETY FIRST.

I discovered that these household items are perfect for play!

   Lids (pan, pasta and salsa lids are shiny!) - Measuring spoons and cups - coffee canisters - tea towels - plastic soda bottles - bowls - wooden spoons - muffin tins - silicon cupcake liners – tupperware containers.   

Tip:  I like to collect and display items in multiples to add an extra ‘wow’ factor.

Get Organized:
Since I don’t keep all my belongings in one box, why would I expect my baby to?  Little ones need an organized space so that they can get to work without feeling overwhelmed.  Instead of a toy chest, I prefer open shelving that neatly displays materials.  I enjoy organizing the materials by shape, color, or type in fun baskets or containers.  Everyday objects always look more intriguing in a pretty container so am I frequently scouring area thrift stores. 

I know that babies and toddlers like to put stuff in and out of other stuff, so I pair materials with this in mind.  Here are some examples:

  • Muffin tins and rocks
  • Coffee canisters and balls
  • Plastic soda bottles and popsicle sticks.

Less is more!  I frequently rotate materials to keep my play areas fresh and uncluttered.  Children focus better when there are less options and an open floor space. 

Use ordinary objects in extraordinary ways:
The toddlers I’ve worked with love little surprises.  For example, hanging wind chimes in arms reach.  Other fun tricks that inspire play are adding colored water or rice to a soda bottle (secure the lid) or stuffing scarves in an empty Kleenex box. It’s fun to tap into my inner baby and see objects for the first time.  The possibilities for play are truly endless.

Make it a YES environment:
Since I don’t want children playing in the potting soil, I cover the base with cardboard.  If I don’t want something to go in the mouth, it doesn’t belong in the play space.  Get the idea?

I love that I don’t need a large space or big budget for play.  By following these simple steps, I am able to sit back and enjoy observing my baby as she brings the materials and environment to life!

Creative Toys to Engage Babies; Janet Lansbury

Simple Toys Make Things Happen; Nicole Vigliotti

Monday, April 21, 2014

Want Nothing and Gain Everything

I'm lying on the floor next to my 8-month daughter El, wanting nothing.  She's not propped to sit or stand, she's just lying on her back, assessing her environment.  I resist the urge to wave a book around, sing a song or roll a ball to grab her attention. Instead, I quietly watch.  

El picks up a metal bowl and taps her fingernails against it.  From past observations, I've learned she begins most explorations by taptap-tapping.  

She looks at me and smiles. I return the smile and say, "I hear the noise you're making." 

Magda Gerber would describe this scenario as Wants Nothing time. I learned about Wants Nothing time after reading her book, Your Self-Confident Baby

As a mother and early childhood educator, Wants Nothing time is an important, challenging and exciting part of my practice. By being fully present in mindful observation, I tune into my distractions and quiet the desire to sneak off and check social media for the umpteenth time to be with my daughter, without judgement or agenda.  

During this time, I put on baby goggles and see the wonder in the ordinary objects my child brings to life.  One afternoon, I observed El exploring a wax paper bag I had rinsed out and given to her for play.  I was delighted by the sunlight streaming in through the window, illuminating the water droplets and causing the bag to glow as she waved it around, crinkled it up, and held it close to her face to study. 

As I become proficient at just being, I realize how much is demanded from babies on a day-to-day basis from well-meaning adults who desire to engage and interact.
Grab the toy!  
Smile smile smile!  
 Clap your hands!

When babies become more verbal the quizzing starts...

What does a sheep say?  
What color is this?    
What letter is this?  

To truly know a child, habitual distractions and agendas need to be recognized and dissolved. 



In Magda's Words:

Wants Nothing time is a free flowing space in which the child does not have to perform...We fully accept the child's beingness just by our own receptive beingness.  We are telling the child that we are really there and aware.

To read more about Wants Nothing time, check out...

Choosing Wants Nothing Time; Choose your Own Journey

Emptying our Minds in Order to be More Present with Babies; Regarding Baby

Magda's Gift to Grown-ups; Janet Lansbury

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Be Strong and Cry

The week my husband's step father, Papa Bill, passed away was full of confusion and loss.  My husband's family came together to prepare for next steps.  When I asked my sister-in-law, how my niece (age 8) and nephew (age 10), took the news she told me they hardly responded.

Throughout the week, I took advantage of the down time I shared with my niece and nephew.  We played games, chatted about school, and made-up jokes. Occasionally, we talked about Papa Bill.  We all agreed we were sad, but nobody in the house was acting like it.

My niece confided, "You know, it's like it's not even real.  Like he's still here and nothing happened."    

Finally, the funeral day arrived.  We dressed-up to bid Papa Bill a formal farewell.  My sister-in-law and I, along with my 4-month old daughter, entered the funeral parlor with my niece and nephew. We gravitated towards the slide show chronicling Papa Bill's life.   I began to feel the swelling lump in the back of my throat as the four of us stared at images of our beloved flashing across the screen. I told myself, "Be strong Mary Sue, be strong for the children." 

I swallowed the lump.  

We stood hypnotized by the slide show with blank faces and I reworded my thoughts.  

"Be strong Mary Sue and cry."

In that moment, being strong meant having the courage to let the tears roll.  I wanted my niece and nephew to know that it was okay to cry, that they were safe crying here and now with their family.  The only way to send that message was to let my guard down and give myself permission to expose my own vulnerable feelings.  Through blurry and watery eyes, I noticed their faces streaked with tears.   

Thankfully nobody felt compelled to say...

  • It's okay!
  • No need to cry, he's in a better place. 
  • Let's celebrate his life, focus on the good times.  

At one point, visitors asked if we were waiting in line to offer our condolences. 

My sister-in-law responded, "No, we are just standing here, crying." 

Without shame or reason to hide, we exposed our grief. 

As parents, it's common to hide our grief so that our children do not think we are weak, or even worse, human.  

Through this experience, I rewired my definition of strength and realized that in this moment, being strong meant accepting my truth and allowing the lump in the back of my throat to surface and dissolve into tears.  Tears that may someday help my daughter navigate the complex and tender feelings of grief.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Practice What You Promise

This post is an extension of, The Benefits of Allowing your Baby to Struggle.  Through observing my daughter, El, I discovered the feelings I projected onto her experiences were interrupting her play and process. The following promises emerged as a guide, so I can better support my daughter as she discovers her potential and navigates her world. 

Making promises is easy, keeping promises takes practice. 

Our playtime started in the usual manner; I laid El down on her back with a few simple toys scattered around her.

I promise to believe you are capable.

El ignored the toys that were closest to her and began to take interest in the one toy I placed at a challenging distance. In this case it was a bright yellow jar lid. She reached, reached, and reached some more. Straining her body and arching her back, she crossed her midline with both arms and legs until she almost flopped over on her belly. After her first attempt she stopped, looked at me, cried out and then paused. At this point I began to sweat.

I’m the one who put the jar lid so far away in the first place!
I can fix this!
It doesn’t have to be this way!
It’s my fault she’s struggling!

I promise to give you permission to fail.

But instead I did nothing. I acknowledged her frustrations and continued to observe. I watched in suspense as her fingers grazed the jar lid, pushing it further away.

How long should I allow this to go on?

I promise to accept you fully, as is.

Periodically she looked at me, red-faced and crying, and then suddenly turned back, focused on her chosen task. I learned my daughter is persistent.

 I promise to give you time to succeed. 

Then something happened. She switched strategies. She began pulling the blanket
the lid was sitting on. With a few gentle tugs, the lid moved closer. She picked it up, waved it around and smiled at me.

I smiled back and said, “You did it!”

Phew, she did it.

Anxiety was replaced with the calm of relief and we were both giddy with delight. There are times throughout every day I give into temptation and fall back into my old habits of avoiding the tough feelings that accompany struggle. However, when I swoop in and ensure success, the experience is never as satisfying, engaging or interesting for either of us.

I promise to TRUST your process.

Each time she plays, I have the opportunity to practice resisting the urge to fix, rescue and remedy, and in return I am reminded that the value is in the process, not the prize.