All Posts by Rebecca Fry

About the Author

Rebecca, originally from Texas, migrated to Michigan with her husband and two boys aged 2 and 5 years old. Rebecca is currently a stay-at-home mom but has a background is psychology with a special interest in early childhood development and parenting. She keeps up to date in the latests techniques in both areas whenever she can!

Aug 05

Kids in the Kitchen: Inspiring Independence and Food Exploration

By Rebecca Fry | Toyology Toys Contributors

As kids prepare to start school again, focus shifts to avoiding the summer slide; brushing up on reading and math.

But summer is also the perfect time to work on practical life skills to build independence and confidence. A favorite way to integrate practical life learning and play into our everyday life is to invite our kids into the kitchen with us. From the 6-year-old down to the 8-month-old, inviting kids into the kitchen increases independence, decreases picky eating, and introduces and reinforces fine motor and life skills.

When thinking about kids joining you in an area full of sharp objects, gas, and extreme temperatures, there might be some hesitation. But introducing kids to the kitchen with rules and boundaries will help them to have a healthy respect for being careful when spending time there whether or not you are around. And as much as there are rules and guidelines for the kids, I have to remind myself frequently of the top rules for adults: be okay with mess and expect to add at least 30 minutes to however long the activity would normally take. If I can keep these things in mind and prepare accordingly, I find that playtime in the kitchen becomes just as much fun for me as my kids, and begins to fill those sometimes long summer days with happy and productive activity.

Kitchen set up is the doorway to giving kids the confidence to be independent and desire to participate. I find myself frequently reorganizing our kitchen to make it both safer and more accessible to our kids. The first thing we did to make participating in the kitchen easier for our kids was to provide them with stools so they could reach the counter and be at a safe height when helping with food prep. The next step was to bring their most frequently used items down to their level. For the longest time we stored their cups, plates, and bowls in the same counter as the adults’, but moving these lower immediately changed how much our kids could do in the kitchen for themselves. In this same cabinet, they also find their lunch boxes and snack containers so that they can help with preparing these and work towards doing it on their own. If you are short on cabinet space, a fun solution for kids is Suction Kupz; these can be stuck low on a cabinet or the refrigerator for children to easily access.

We also have a snack corner that contains those snacks they are welcome to help themselves to for snack time and packing for outings. Most recently, we moved foods they frequently eat for breakfast and lunch lower and put our milk into a drink dispenser so that they can start making their own simple meals, with a little help and guidance from a parent. Right now the goal is not total independence, but to gain the skills so that one day they will say to you, “mom I am going to start making my own toast every morning”. That was such a good morning, though I had to institute a rule #3 for myself: don’t watch them prepare their own food because you will be overwhelmed with the desire to correct them to do it your way, and of course still expect a mess.

The boys help with both preparing meals and cleaning up after.  We have a set of kid-safe knives that allow them to help with chopping vegetables and fruits.  This activity has been a wonderful way to work in practical life skills, occupational therapy for my oldest, and encouraging food exploration.  My three year old has always been a challenge when it comes to food, but when he helps prepare something or as he is chopping vegetables with me, he is much more likely to try them than if I try to hide it on his plate.  If the child isn’t quite ready to be using a knife, baking is an easy way to introduce kids to cooking. Baking teaches kids about measurements, fractions, sequencing, and can also involve a good amount of fine motor skills.  

On the flip side, while I expect a mess, I also expect our boys to help us clean when all the cooking is finished.  And while wiping counters and throwing away trash may not be their favorite thing, many kids love to help with doing the dishes.  And if you aren’t looking to have your kitchen counter soaked in water after just having cleaned it, you can always ask them to only help with unloading.  We start having them participate at around 2.5 years old with sorting silverware (remember rule number two: things are going to take longer). With an extra toy set of silverware, you can have your kids start practicing this skill whenever they want, without worrying about what germs they may be getting all over your newly cleaned dishes.  If your kids are hesitant to help out in the kitchen, a costume often inspires creativity and builds excitement and confidence for a new activity.

As part of the setup, we also have a small play kitchen area with play pots, pans, utensils, and food to allow our three year old to participate more in pretend play meal prep.  While I let him chop softer foods like cucumbers and bananas with the kid-safe knives, most of his food prep is pretend. Melissa & Doug Combine and Dine Dinners, Sushi Slicing Playset, Felt Food Pizza Set, and Cutting Food are all excellent options for food play that encourage fine motor skills and also increase food familiarity. To provide more open-ended pretend food play, we also like to use less traditional materials.  Play-Doh is perfect for building knife cutting skills and can be shaped into countless food forms. We also love using SloFlo for open-ended play. It’s a great sensory tool and my sons love mixing it and stamping in it with cookie cutters. The more my kids play with food, even pretend food, the more comfortable they become with the idea of eating that food.

SloFlo

Playful Chef: Knife Set

The kitchen can even be a good place for the youngest children to participate in practical life activities. An easy way to start this is with water play.  Giving a young child a tray of water with different cups, spoons, and nesting cups, Suction Kupz for scooping and pouring introduce a child to the idea of volume. Food storage containers are also a fun and simple activity for babies to engage within the kitchen as stacking and nesting these introduce size and shape concepts.  

I love spending time in the kitchen with my kids and they love getting opportunities to help and create things they know will be enjoyed by others in the family.  A kitchen is a place where learning comes to life as they use reading to follow a recipe, math to measure out ingredients, science as we talk about how batter becomes a pancake, and life skills as their self-confidence flourishes with each new bit of independence they gain.

Suction Kupz

Playful Chef: Deluxe Cooking Kit

May 27

Entertaining Siblings, Keeping Jealousy At Bay While Nursing Your Newborn (Without Screens!)

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play

Having a new baby is such an exciting time for a family.

With your first baby, you spend days dreaming of the nursery and reading baby books, attending showers and learning about how to use all of the gifts you receive. With the second baby, you go in with a hint of confidence; I’ve done this before and that one seems relatively well adjusted, I can do this! But for me there was also a lingering fear of, “but can I expect my son to be ready to be a big brother?” He did not choose this, we did not consult him before getting pregnant, and all he has ever known is being the only child or being the baby of the family. So instead of dreaming up an elaborate nursery, I started to read about preparing an older child for a new sibling. And reading certainly helped; reading to my sons about gaining a new brother and reading articles and blogs about how to make this transition. But once the new baby arrived, I learned a few tricks of my own.

Early on after having my second child, I noticed a pattern of misbehavior developing whenever I nursed the baby. My oldest always needed to go potty right as I sat down to nurse, he often threw fits (and toys) as I was trying to get the hang of feeding a baby again, and he wanted all my attention. So what did I do? Ignore him as to not encourage this behavior? No! I followed his lead. Together, we learned that making nursing about him, as much as possible, made some of those feelings of jealousy fade away. And it was clear to me, that I was best able to give him this attention during this time too. Once the baby latched, I was free to give all of my attention to my older son. This habit of making nursing time about the older siblings carried over to our routine now that baby #3 has arrived.

? by Rebecca Fry

? by Rebecca Fry

? by Rebecca Fry

Of course, there are some limits to what you can do as a mom or dad with your child while you are feeding or holding a baby.  I have a set list of go to nursing friendly activities in my mind so that my older kids don’t start to resent the attention given to their baby brother.  Often when looking for new toys for birthdays or holidays, I think about how easily we can do this together with only one or no arms.

One of our favorite no prep activity is a scavenger hunt.  This activity can be made silly, easy, hard, educational, themed, or anything you need it to be based on your child’s age and interests.  It is as simple as the name sounds. I tell them to find something that starts with the letter P, or find a dinosaur that is a theropod, or find something that is red and white.  There are lists all over Pinterest of different scavenger hunt ideas. To up the fun factor, my kids like to dress up as a spy agent looking for clues to solve a mystery.

Another easy game we like is shadow play. This one is as easy as turning on the flashlight on the back of my phone and letting him discover how his shadow grows and shrinks as he moves close and far from the light. We make stories with his shadows and discover how different toys’ shadows look. There are also shadow playbooks that can make this activity even more fun.

Reading is a simple activity to engage in with older kids. Though, holding a book while feeding a baby can potentially present some challenges. This is where I learned to be strategic in picking the right kind of book. If you do have one hand free, picking a smaller board book allows you to hold up the book with only one hand without the pages falling everywhere. A board book is also simpler for kids to hold themselves and turn pages independently. If your kid will be holding the book themselves, it also helps to pick books that aren’t too wordy and have large text, as kids, at least mine, aren’t known for sitting still well, and reading a bouncing wordy book is not a skill I have mastered. The scanimation books by Rufus Butler Seder are a perfect size. Gallop! and Waddle! also encourage movement asking kids things like, “Can you Gallop like a horse?” Which can help to extend this activity by asking the older sibling to show you how they can do each movement. The simple text makes learning the book easy for kids; on more than one occasion I have caught a big brother reading them to the newest addition. These books include high contrast images, which are perfect for a newborn to engage with too.

Shadow Book 
Good Night Mommy

Gallop!

Magnetic toys also make great sit-down, one hand or hands-free activities.  Magnets help to keep little hands from dropping items all over the floor and asking you to pick them up.  Toys like the Melissa and Doug Magnetic Dress Up sets are fun simple pretend play that can be done in a young child’s lap while you hold a baby. Magnatabs also make mess-free activities you can have your older child do next to you as you review letters and numbers together all while you are sitting and hands-free. If you do have one hand free, you can also play a magnetic board game with an older child like Magnetic Reversi.  The key here is to have something magnetic that a child can hold without the pieces slip-sliding around.

My oldest son most enjoys activities that allow him to be the center of attention but without sitting down.  Puppet shows tick off both of these boxes for him. And for me, puppet shows tick off the pretend play box. I love watching him and his brother create imaginary stories for their littlest brother.  My oldest also loves playing Charades for kids. This set lets even pre-readers participate in this classic game as it gives picture prompts in addition to word prompts. He loves taking out a big stack of cards to act out as I watch and guess.

Magnetic Reversi

Magnetic Pretend Play
Joey

Magnetic Pretend Play
Julia

Charades for Kids

Zoo Friends
Hand Puppets

Magnatab
Lowercase Letters

Of course, there is something to be said about encouraging independent play in your older sibling, but I like to use independent play for those moments when I am trying to clean or cook.  Nursing and feeding times make great opportunities to give attention to my older kids without being distracted by the to-do list. Making nursing about my older children has fostered a love of those times when mommy has to sit and pay attention and lessened feelings of jealousy as baby brother’s needs are met.   

May 06

The Versatility of Puzzles

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play

It’s Spring cleaning time!

That time of year far enough removed from the Holidays that you begin to assess what can stay and what needs to go. Time to decide which toys your kids have outgrown and are no longer relevant to their development and interests. But before you Marie Kondo your kid’s toy closet, let me make a case for holding onto those puzzles that no longer seem age appropriate. Sometimes toy rotation is more about how can you reimagine a toy and less about getting rid of it. And if you are buying new toys for a young child, chunky, knob, peg, and sound puzzles make a great gift that is lasting and can be used across age groups. These puzzles are an ongoing favorite around here with my 3 and 5-year-olds even though completing the actual puzzle no longer presents a challenge for them. Now we use the puzzle pieces themselves for a variety of activities.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Seek and Find

3 year old: For this activity, I use a box, any kind of sensory material (torn up paper, beans, rice, oatmeal, etc), and burry pieces from various puzzles. Then we choose a letter and I ask my 3-year-old to find objects that start with that letter. This game not only teaches letter sounds but also provides sensory input which enhances the learning experience and better solidifies information. My son loves this game and once prepared, he can spend time playing independently as he chooses new letters to focus on.

6 year old: For my older son, the basics of the game remain the same; a box, sensory material, and I bury all of the pieces from the peg alphabet puzzle. I will either ask him to spell various words and he will go on a hunt, digging through the box to find the right letters or I will let him explore through the box on his own to create different words. This makes spelling practice fun as well as adds that sensory component.

Sorting

Land, sky, and sea – For this game, I set out three pieces of paper I have drawn pictures of the land, sky, or water on. Then I set out various puzzle pieces that align with each category. This can be done with animals (giraffe, duck, fish, etc) or transportation (firetruck, airplane, boat, etc). My son will then work to sort the items based on where they are typically found.

6 year old: Digraph sounds – I set sheets of paper with different digraphs written on them (th, ch, sh, ai, ie, or, etc.) and then have my son sort puzzle pieces based on what digraph is used to spell the word. For example, horse contains “or”, sheep contains “sh”, and chicken contains “ch”.

Alphabet Peg Puzzle

What’s that Sound?

This game works the same for both of my kids.  The Melissa & Doug sound puzzles work by light detection. Therefore, the puzzle piece does not need to be over the correct spot in order for the sound to play.  I will hold the puzzle board and cover up one of the puzzle slots to trigger the sound and they will find the puzzle piece that matches the sound. This is great for younger kids to learn different animal sounds and as they grow can identify instrument sounds, letter sounds, and numbers.  They also like playing this game together, taking turns holding the board and finding the right piece.

Stamping

Using the puzzle pieces to stamp in Play-Doh or in the paint also keeps my boys busy and can be used as a learning through play activity.  Stamping with the alphabet puzzle pieces is a fun way to practice letter recognition and spelling. We also do stamping with numbered pieces to practice making numbers past 10.

Vehicle Sound Puzzle

Musical Instrument Sound Puzzle

Kid Charades

This is a family game night favorite.  We place the animal and vehicle pieces into a bag and take turns drawing a puzzle piece from the bag without showing others.  This is followed by silently (or at least not saying the name of the object) acting out the object while others try to guess it.  This is a great way to let pre-readers participate in this classic game.

Open-Ended Play

This is as easy and simple as it sounds. Even though my 3 year old no longer finds completing these puzzles challenging or interesting, he loves using the chunky puzzle pieces as figurines and creating a world for them and often times the puzzle boards can serve as a backdrop.    

Safari Peg Puzzle

Using any toys or objects you find around the house generally works for these activities, and often I do include additional toys for sorting and seek and find.  Still, the most common objects we use for these activities come from these puzzles we collected over the years because I love that with one puzzle I get multiple pieces to use as objects for learning and independent play and there is an easy and organized way to store them when not in use.  

Apr 12

Why Plush is Important.

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys looking at attachment and loss.

One of his most well-known studies looked at how infant monkeys separated from their mothers reacted to surrogate mothers; one a wire surrogate with a milk bottle and the other a terry cloth covered mother with no milk. He observed that the young monkeys preferred to spend a majority of their time with the terrycloth surrogate, only venturing to the wire surrogate when needing physiological nourishment. In a follow-up study, monkeys were assigned to either the wire surrogate or the terrycloth surrogate. Those with the wire surrogates reacted to environmental stressors by rocking themselves and screaming. However, those with the terrycloth surrogates would retreat to their “mothers”, cuddle with them, and calm down.

Okay, so what’s the point?  Apart from the questionable ethics of subjecting young monkeys to separation from their mothers, the idea that contact, touch, and comfort are as important to development as meeting physical needs resonated with me.  And now as a mother, I can see how the implications of this study play out in everyday life. As much as I would like to be able to hold my children as often as possible for as long as possible, life and growth necessitate that I am able to cook and clean periodically and they are able to develop a sense of independence and autonomy.  This is why baby blankets make such a popular baby shower gift and in cultures across the world and across time we see evidence of children playing with dolls. Plush is important. For centuries, plush has provided comfort and confidence for generations of children. I know, it sounds hyperbolic. But hear me out. Just as the terrycloth surrogate proved beneficial to the rhesus monkeys, so dolls and blankets help children adjust to new or uncertain situations.

When encountering the world outside the womb, a newborn finds comfort in being wrapped in a soft blanket and held close to his parent. When afraid of the dark, a toddler’s fears fade away by squeezing a plush friend. When going to preschool for the first time, being met with the friendly faces of fluffy stuffed animals helps a child feel welcome and safe in a new environment. When going on her first sleepover, bringing a favorite doll helps the child feel more at home. Each of these instances represents a child growing in self-regulation, confidence, and independence. I am not saying hand your child a doll and shove them out the door, but giving kids the opportunity to have moments of independence is so important for their long term confidence and a doll can help make those transitions easier.

Plush also presents opportunities for pretend play, building social and language skills. My five year old no longer has a nap time, but he does do quiet time in his room on days without school. Usually, when I go upstairs to let him know he can come back down, I find his stuffed animals lined up on his bed. They are active participants in his pretend play. My 3-year-old is a rather rough and tumble kind of kid and we did a lot of role-playing with stuffed toys before his little brother was born to help teach him compassion and how to be gentle. My three-month-old is just starting to appreciate faces and loves sharing his babbling thoughts with an inviting stuffed toy. At each stage, plush is playing a role in their development.

And what about the parents? What is the benefit of plush? Plush is quiet! I love that we can let our children bring a small stuffed animal or plush book to church and when they inevitably drop it, it doesn’t make a sound! JellyCat not only makes the most adorable plush animal friends, but they also make a fun interactive plush book. When my kids are younger, they love flipping through the pages of books. Plush books are easy for them to hold, turn the pages, and yes, they are quiet when dropped!

I know it is easy for a stuffed animal collection to get out of control. I had an adult size hammock full of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling in my room when I was a kid, and honestly, I loved each one of them. But if you are wanting to make a meaningful collection of plush, here are some ideas. Look for some that are extra soft and lovely to look at. This way they can make sweet keepsakes your kids may want to pass on one day. We like to have some items that are small enough to go in the diaper bag for travel and outings, like the JellyCat book and pocket pals. Larger dolls like the bashful bunnies and Fuddlewuddles make great friends for bedtime cuddles and playtime fun. While I (and the AAP) wouldn’t recommend putting a baby to sleep unattended in a bed with a doll or blanket, for the youngest crowd, lovies like the JellyCat Soothers are perfect for wrapping up a squishy baby to hold in your arms. Another great thing about JellyCat is that if your child falls in love with a Bashful Bunny Ring Rattle, you can find a soother, a diaper bag sized plush, and bigger sized dolls with the same bunny to go and grow with them.

Shop all plush here. Shop all JellyCat here.

Dec 10

Top Toys for Occupational Therapy in Mind

By Rebecca Fry | Toy Guides

Integrating occupational therapy practice into the home is an essential part of growth and improvement for an occupational therapy program.

Attending therapy with a therapist once a week isn’t enough to make lasting changes.  But bringing this work into the home can seem difficult if a child is resistant to participating.  When work becomes more like play, making occupational therapy part of your everyday routine is fun for all involved.  Intentionally choosing gifts that encourage fine motor movements results not only in toys kids will love, but also helps them develop important skills.  This guide will point to some classic fine motor toys as well as toys you may not have thought of that can be integrated into at home occupational therapy work, provide ways to use them in your home and the targeted skill areas.

Dimpl Duo

Textures, colors, shapes, and words!

Ages 1+

  • A unique tablet featuring silicone buttons, textured shapes, and words written in Braille
  • Encourages sensory exploration, tactile learning, shape learning, color learning, reading skills
  • A beautifully tactile early learning experience
  • On one side, buttons embossed with shapes, labeled with shape names in English and Braille
  • On the other side: Buttons are smooth, colors labeled in English and Braille
  • Buttons are a delight to feel, push, and pop

Sloth Popper

Builds hand strength, hand-eye coordination, and pincer grasp.

Ages 4+

  • Simple and engaging design that will entertain the whole family
  • Amount of hand strength needed can be adjusted based on how tightly ball is placed into the mouth
  • Placing the ball into the mouth encourages hand-eye coordination as well as precise hand movements
  • Work towards squeezing with just the thumb and pointer finger to encourage pincer grasp
  • Draw a target on a piece of paper or try to knock over a block tower to turn this popper into a game
  • Poppers come in a variety of characters

 

 

Boogie Board
Play N Trace

A mess-free and portable way to practice handwriting, pencil grasp, and graphomotor skills.

Ages 3+

  • Includes a variety of letters, numbers, and pictures to trace; builds visual motor skills and letter recognition and formation
  • Can also be used as a free drawing platform to encourage creativity
  • Includes three sizes of writing tool which makes it ideal for practicing pencil grasp across ability levels
  • Artist pallet grip encourages the use of both hands
  • Perfect for on the go OT practice in the car, at restaurants, or waiting for appointments

Slice & Bake

Cookie Set

Encourages bilateral coordination, grasping, hand strength, and hand-eye coordination

Ages 3+

  • Promotes pretend play for sustained attention
  • Slicing the cookies requires one hand to use the pretend knife and the other hand to stabilize the dough, utilizing bilateral coordination
  • Taking cookies off the tray and removing the icing builds grasp and hand strength
  • Using the spatula to remove cookies from the tray utilizes hand-eye coordination

Basic Skills Board

A classic toy to practice functional skills and work on fine motor movements.

Ages 3+

  • Enlarged buttons, snaps, zippers, buckles, and ties allow individuals with limited fine motor abilities to practice the mechanics of self-dressing skills before trying more challenging smaller fasteners
  • Puzzle pieces can be removed and easily packed into a bag for on the go portable practice
  • Buttons, zippers, buckle and tie all encourage bilateral coordination
  • Snap and clip build hand strength
  • Grows individual’s independence and self-confidence
  • Bright colors and bear design make this toy inviting and approachable for younger audiences

1-2-3 Build It
Train, Rocket and Helicopter  

Building toy that works bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, and hand strength

Ages 2+

  • Larger pieces are ideal for grasping for young kids and individuals with limited fine motor abilities
  • Bright colors and automobile theme are inviting and exciting for young kids
  • Requires use of grasp and hand strength to put together objects
  • Because many of the pieces are used in more than one of the objects, the individual is encouraged to take apart objects in order to build a new one which further works on hand and grasp strength as well as bilateral coordination
  • Simple picture instructions encourage sequencing skills and following directions  

Catch & Count
Fishing Game  

An interactive game that builds hand-eye coordination, sequencing, and motor planning.

Ages 3+

  • Fish can be ordered by number or size. Have individual collect fish in numerical order or from smallest to largest to work on sequencing
  • Maneuvering the magnet on the rod over the desired fish and reeling it in requires motor planning
  • The reeling motion encourages the use of both hands
  • Having the individual flick the spinner included with the game using their pointer finger works precise fine motor movements
  • The game can also be tailored to lower skill levels by having the individual hold at different places along the string rather than the rod.  The closer he/she holds to the magnet the easier it will be to catch a fish

 

Two Bros Bows   

A fun way to sneak in a variety of OT work for adventure seekers

Ages 8+

  • Pulling back string works on hand strength.  Have individual use different fingers to pull strings in order to work on finger isolation
  • Use of bow requires two hands and builds bilateral coordination
  • The process of loading and shooting arrow requires motor planning
  • The weight of bow works arm, hand, and grip strength
  • Loading arrow uses precise fine motor movements in order to place the string in the slit on the bottom of the arrow

 

Spooner Boards

A gross motor activity that can also be used for preparing to do fine motor work

Ages 3+

  • Spinning and wobbling motions provide vestibular stimulation which can enhance bilateral coordination
  • It is helpful to use Spooner Board prior to beginning occupational therapy activities
  • This is also a great product for working on physical therapy skills such as core strength, balance, and gross motor planning

Crazy Aaron’s
Thinking Putty

Putty that comes in a variety of textures, colors, and effects that make it perfect for play-based occupational therapy work

Ages 3+

  • Firm textured putties are great for hand strengthening activities
  • Softly textured putties provide unique sensory and tactile input
  • Pinch and pull putty between different fingers to work on finger isolation and pincer grasp
  • Hide objects in the putty to encourage bilateral work and fine motor movements
  • Roll putty into a ball and squeeze in hand to work on hand and grip strength
  • Rolling putty into a ball or snake in between both hands works bilateral coordination
Nov 20

Toyology Academy: Cooperative Play – Featured Products

By Rebecca Fry | Toy Guides

Cooperative play: it is a life skill we all want our children to flourish in and a survival necessity for parents of multiples.  

But the question always lingers, how can I get my child(ren) to be better with cooperative play? As a parent of two boys and very soon to be three boys, my sanity depends on my kids being able to play together without constant interventions.  Honestly, this is a skill we still have good and bad days with. We have gone through periods of great success and then we will hit a time where it seems fighting is constant. What I have come to learn is to never pat myself on the back too early and to expect hiccups along the way; remembering that hiccups often come during developmental milestones or changes in routine.

Here are some of our favorite products that encourage cooperative play:

Puzzles


Role Play &
Dress Up Sets

Stack Up

Stikball

Djubi Jr.

Melissa & Doug

Prehistoric Playground Dinosaur Rug

Feed The Woozle

Friends & Neighbors

Nov 06

Toyology Academy: Cooperative Play

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play

Cooperative play: it is a life skill we all want our children to flourish in and a survival necessity for parents of multiples.  But the question always lingers, how can I get my child(ren) to be better with cooperative play? As a parent of two boys and very soon to be three boys, my sanity depends on my kids being able to play together without constant interventions.  Honestly, this is a skill we still have good and bad days with. We have gone through periods of great success and then we will hit a time where it seems fighting is constant. What I have come to learn is to never pat myself on the back too early and to expect hiccups along the way; remembering that hiccups often come during developmental milestones or changes in routine.    

Developing cooperative play in my boys is one of the many things I borrowed ideas from the Montessori classroom.  When I first sent my oldest to a Montessori school, I noticed that much of the work was done independently of other kids in separated spaces; most Montessori classes utilize individual rugs and personal workspace for each child, especially in their earlier years.  Like many parents, I wondered if he would get enough opportunity to socialize and share. After doing some reading on my own, I came to appreciate the idea of forming an internal respect for space, environment, and sharing. We adopted this practice of defining personal space using rugs or yoga mats to help our kids develop this sense of respecting themselves and other’s space.  At a very early age children involved in Montessori work learn that when you are finished with one material you clean it up and place it back in its spot on the shelf. This is not merely a matter of cleanliness but respecting the idea that someone else will be using this item and therefore it should be cared for and returned to a place where others can find it. Without even interacting with another peer, the child begins to develop a sense of responsibility and respect towards others.   Our house is by no means as organized as a Montessori classroom, however, I do try to have specific bins for different categories of toys and I expect items to be returned to their designated areas out of respect for one’s own time and others who may want to use that item later.

In order to develop positive cooperative play skills that will last, Montessori methods emphasize a more organic process of learning these behaviors.  Rather than telling a child he or she must share or force social situations, a young child is allowed personal space and time with items to first develop self-respect and confidence.  For a child, play is their work. And to interrupt the work they are engaged in so someone else can use a toy tells the child their work is not valuable or important. Contrarily, allowing a child to complete their work communicates to them that their work is good and also models to them how to respect others engaging in play with a different toy. This concept is definitely one my whole family is still working on.  It becomes increasingly difficult when you have a younger sibling wanting to take a toy from an older sibling and the easiest solution is to just ask the older child to give the toy to the younger child to avoid a meltdown. But taking the time to redirect the younger child to a different toy communicates to my older son that I respect him and shows my younger son that he cannot take items that are already being used and that waiting for things we want really is a part of life.  Additionally, we spend a lot of time talking about emotions in our house to help our kids identify how they are feeling and how others may feel based on our actions. This helps to develop empathy which can further encourage cooperative play.

Once the foundation of respect and responsibility for developing cooperative play skills is established, there are many toys and games on the market now that encourage cooperative play.  One of our favorite makers of cooperative play games is Peaceable Kingdom. Their games are not only a staple in our home but are also one of my favorite toys to give for birthday and holiday presents. These games teach children about emotions, empathy, and working together to reach a common goal. One of my favorites and the first Peaceable Kingdom game we purchased is Friends and Neighbors.  This game asks children to work together in order to help the characters on the board. In addition to the game itself, they also include a little booklet to help you work with your child to identify the emotions the characters might feel before and after being helped. Other games we have played and enjoy from Peaceable Kingdom are Feed the Woozle and Stack Up. With both of these games, each participant plays a part in winning the game.  Kids begin to encourage one another and see each other as teammates rather than competitors.

As mentioned in my previous post, pretend and dress up play, can also play a role in children developing social skills and working on cooperative play.  Dress up encourages kids to enter into worlds of imagination in which each participant gets a say in how to write the story. The children work together to rescue the city as superheroes or prepare a delicious dinner as top chefs.  Similarly, many sports toys can be used to encourage cooperative play. Most games that involve catching with a partner require the participants to work together in order to be successful. For younger kids, we have found using something similar to Stikball or Djubi Jr. to be a great intro into playing catch.  Puzzles also encourage children to work together as a team to reach a common outcome. This can be difficult when spanning an age gap, but another important tool I gained from looking into Montessori methods was the benefit of kids of different ages and abilities working and learning in the same space. The older child learns to take the lead without smothering and practices patience while the younger child benefits from a peer showing them how to do new things.  

Incorporating cooperative play into everyday routines helps develop a skill that benefits the child well into adulthood.  And in the short term, it gives us moms and dads some of those good days where our kids play peacefully and happily together.

Oct 01

Costume Aren’t Just For Halloween

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play , Toyology Toys Contributors

I remember as a kid having a giant chest full of dress up clothes.  It was filled with my mom’s old clothes and other odds and ends she had picked up at garage sales.  We even had a real wedding dress; a horribly unattractive wedding dress, but to us it turned us into a princess.  Despite it being the age of hundreds of costumes to choose from for Halloween, sometimes I wonder if the art of the dress up box has been lost. Costumes seem to be relegated to Halloween and then tucked nicely away until the next child can fit into it or sold.  The Christmas my son was just shy of 3 years old, I was trying to come up with a wish list for family members. We did not need any more toys but I also knew asking for grocery store gift cards wasn’t going to excite anyone but me. So I began to think about what my son seemed to enjoy doing the most.  Overwhelmingly, he enjoyed pretend play. His Halloween costume from that year, a Melissa & Doug Firefighter coat, was getting more playtime than most of his other toys. So I filled the list with costumes of characters and jobs he was interested in. And thus set off our love for dress up play.

Dress up play is open-ended which encourages both independence and creative thinking.  When a child puts on a costume, they enter into a world of imagination. There is no right or wrong way to wear a costume nor is there a script; just an invitation to play and create.  If a child is not used to open-ended play and primarily participates in more rule based activities, costumes may be the needed spark to get their imagination rolling. Watching my boys create new worlds while wearing costumes is one of my favorite things.  Because there is no limit to the number of stories that can be told, they rarely get bored with costumes making them some of our most lasting options for playtime.

? Astronaut Role Pay Set by Melissa & Doug


Costumes and role play also encourage social skills.  When children enter into a world of imagination together they quickly learn that they have to work together to keep the story going.  If all of the kids playing want to “write” the story, the game devolves into arguments. When this happens, rather than immediately trying to intervene, I wait.  Often, kids start to learn about compromise, listening to someone else’s idea, and work out the disagreement together. For my boys, their games usually involve some kind of problem that needs to be solved and coming up with the solution allows them to practice teamwork.  When in costume, kids also feel more comfortable testing out new ways of behaving and acting. They are the superhero rescuing the city, the helping doctor, the fireman who saves the person in danger. Yes, sometimes they are also the “bad guy” or the dangerous lion, but getting the opportunity to play out the scenario of being scary or pretending to do mean things lets them see how others may react to these actions and learn about cause and effect without displaying these behaviors outside of the story.

Costumes also encourage kids to explore new interests and activities.  When I first started asking my oldest to help me cook, he expressed little interest.  But then I pulled out the chef costume and the next thing you know, he was putting on cooking shows for me with his brother.  And he was more willing to try different foods as we prepped together! Different costumes spark an interest in different occupations, literature, and moments in history and can all be used as a catalyst to explore these in other ways through things like books, museums, or other activities.  Want to go outside and explore? “No.” Want to dress up like an archeologist and go outside to look for dinosaur bones? “Yes!” Do you want to build blocks? “No.” Do you want to dress up like a construction worker and build a house? “Yes!” Same activities, but adding in the costume takes it to a new level of fun and interest.  Allowing them to wear costumes outside of the house makes mundane tasks like grocery shopping seem like a superhero mission they have been sent to complete.

? Chef Role Pay Set by Melissa & Doug

More than each of these other aspects, my favorite thing about costumes is the confidence my kids seem to have while wearing them. Do you remember that scene from Big Daddy where Adam Sandler’s character gives the little boy a pair of sunglasses that make him invisible?  The boy goes from being afraid to meet the girlfriend to feeling confident enough to start talking to her. This is definitely my experience with costumes. My five year old with cerebral palsy often holds back at the playground with climbing activities because he is afraid of his hand not being able to hold on.  However, when he wears a superhero cape or a knight costume his self confidence blooms. Even though he may still fall, he climbs with more confidence and gets back up with less fear. If my boys want to wear their capes or other costumes out of the house I do not hesitate to say yes (unless we are going somewhere like church).  They carry themselves with such pride when dressed up as their favorite occupation or character. And when else but when you are a child is it acceptable to wear a mask outside of the house? On that note, don’t hesitate to join in on the costume wearing fun every once in a while, you may notice a hike in your own confidence and willingness to be silly as well.

Playing dress up can be as simple as a mask or as elaborate as a full astronaut outfit. Next time you’re creating a gift list or thinking about getting rid of last year’s Halloween costume, consider costumes as a way to encourage pretend play and skill development.

Aug 25

Learning Without Flashcards

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play , Toyology Toys Contributors

When my son was just over a year old he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  At the time, he was attending an in-home daycare that we loved for the personal home like feel it gave him.  But with this diagnosis came the need for occupational therapy and more attention given to his hands. We began to research alternatives for day care and I was immediately drawn to Montessori.  My liking for Montessori grew initially out of the emphasis on hands on activities. I knew that each day he would be encouraged to use his fine motor skills throughout different lessons. At the time, I just knew I wanted him using his hands as much as possible.  Over time my appreciation for Montessori methods has grown. The hands-on learning style not only encourages fine motor skills but also helps kids to better and often more quickly grasp concepts.

When I transitioned to being a stay-at-home mom a little over a year ago, I knew I wanted to incorporate learning activities into our weekly routine.  I began to develop activities based off of Montessori ideas and methods. We are about the most unstructured Montessori learning family you will come across.  Our materials are not classic materials and I try to use what we already have around the house, because one income also means the need to budget better. I wanted to be sure to emphasize understanding over rote memorization, which meant eliminating many of the standard “flashcard” type approaches to learning.

My kids are only 2 and 5, so most of our activities are for the early learning crowd.  Montessori focuses on five learning areas: practical life, sensorial, language, mathematics, and culture.  Practical life, sensorial, and culture activities are truly some of my favorites as they teach children respect for themselves, others, and the environment as well as how to make sense of the world around them.  Here I will focus on the other two areas, language and mathematics, which should be helpful for parents about to send their kids back to school (or to school for the first time) who are looking for ways to supplement their kids’ learning experiences at home.

Language

Language learning for the younger crowd focuses primarily on letter shapes and sounds.  Instead of flat cards or toys with flashing lights, I like using materials which can be held, touched, and manipulated.  We love using alphabet puzzles and 3D letters like an alphabet magnet set. With the alphabet puzzle I will keep most of the letters behind me and present my son with three puzzle pieces and point to where one of the pieces goes and ask him “Which letter is B? B says ‘buh’ like basket” and then let him choose which piece to try and put in the B’s spot.  If he chooses the wrong letter I will gently say, “This is E. Can you find the B?” This way he is not receiving negative feedback but still receives correction. Once we have done this with the three letters presented, I give him three more until the puzzle is completed. I try to avoid giving him letters in alphabetical order and in the beginning, try to avoid giving him letters that look similar like O and Q.

With the 3D letters we like to do letter stamping.  This can be done in Play Doh, slime, or even paint if you’re feeling brave!  The goal here is to just let him feel the letters in his hand and play with them.  As he plays with the letter I tell him the letter and the sound it makes. Sometimes I will stamp the letter and ask him to identify which letter matches the imprint, much like our game with the puzzle pieces.

For my 5 year old, language starts to focus more on putting letters together to make words as well as writing letters and words.  When he was about 3 he began working with sandpaper letters at school and we made our own version of this activity at home with a flat dish and sugar.  The idea is to have the child use their pointer finger to trace out the letter over something that will provide tactile feedback. We have also done this with finger paint.  Play Foam makes a great medium for this activity and is less messy than sugar or paint. As letter formation became easier I then began placing objects that started with that letter in front of him as he formed the letters in the sugar.

 

Once he had a hold on letter sounds I would start to encourage word formation.  In Montessori, they encourage word formation before reading using a moving alphabet.  We don’t have a traditional moving alphabet and just used what we had on hand. Alphabet beads can make a good alternative here, because there are multiple beads for each letter.  It is not a perfect solution, as the moving alphabet is made intentionally with colors to indicate consonants vs vowels and also to provide the sensorial input of the shape of the letter but, again, we are on a budget here. This activity is about letting the child practice forming simple words with the moving alphabet without correcting mistakes.  The temptation to correct is strong, but at this stage, the focus is on letting their minds create words and form a positive relationship and strong interest in writing and spelling.

We are now at the stage where we do some correcting by pointing out sound patterns; still utilizing the moving alphabet and sugar dish.  We also introduced phonograms last summer and this allows him to form and read some more difficult words. Phonogram introduction we did much like learning letter sounds.  I would set out pictures of objects that contain the same phonogram, such as a fork, horse, and corn and have him write “or” in his sugar dish and then advanced to using the moving alphabet to spell words using the different sounds. As his writing and word formation skills have improved, I have seen his confidence and capabilities grow with his reading.

Mathematics

For our 2 year old, mathematics involves basic counting and ordering activities.  Counting or number rods are often used in Montessori classrooms for the youngest crowd.  We use our peg set for this, but something like Legos or any blocks that stack can also work well.  I present each stack and say “this is one” and ask him to show me “one” with pegs. Then, “this is two” and then he will copy and show me “two” pegs. When mistakes are made, just like with the letters, rather than saying “no” I will tell him how many pegs he has and will show him how it is different from the one I have. As I present the pegs I will also give him the symbol for each number to hold and look at.  Pieces from a number puzzle or magnet set is a great way to do this. Another great activity is to pre build the pegs or blocks into units 1 to 10 and then ask him to order them from shortest to longest.

For our 5 year old, I love using our version of bead bars to learn about addition, subtraction, and even multiplication.  The idea is to have bead lines with 1 bead, 2 beads, and so on up to 10 beads. We used construction paper to make these, but you can also use a set of multi colored crafting beads and pipe cleaners.  We choose specific colors to represent each number, for example a white paper strip will always have 10 dots on it. The activities we can do with this set almost seem limitless. Here are a few of our favorites.

Adding to 10: I adapted this from the Montessori snake activity. I lay out nine of the pieces of paper with 10 dots.  One number at a time my son will lay one of the other numbers beneath a 10 line and then find the other number that makes the bottom line the same length as the 10 line (placing a 2 line next to an 8 line). We do this for numbers 1 through 9.  This is a simple way to show kids which numbers add together to make 10.

Making teens:  I adapted this from the Montessori Teen Board activity.  I write the number 1 on nine pieces of paper and numbers 0 through 9 on separate pieces of paper. I then make the numbers 10 through 19 by pairing these.  My son will then use a 10 line and add whichever other number line is needed to make the corresponding number (eg. He will use a 10 line and a 5 line to make 15).  This teaches him to recognize teens as well as gain an understanding of how to make these numbers.

Counting by tens and intro to multiplication: I adapted this from the Montessori Tens Board Activity.  Similar to the previous activity, I write the numbers 1 through 9 on pieces of paper and write 0 on nine pieces of paper.  Using these, I make the numbers 10, 20, 30 etc. up until 90. My son then works his way through placing one 10 line, two 10 lines, three 10 lines, etc up through nine 10 lines next to the corresponding number.  This introduces him to the concept that three 10s is equal to 30 and five 10s is equal to 50. Once he had a firm grasp on this we began to mix things up and I covered the 0s with varying numbers in the ones place, like 33, 54, 76, etc.  He would then work his way through placing three 10 lines and one 3 line, and so on. This gave him an understanding of how different numbers are formed as well as an introduction to what the tens place and ones place mean.

Addition and subtraction activity:  Recently we started working with adding and subtracting and our number lines are a huge help for this.  I will lay out numbers for him to add and he will then use his lines to quickly find the answer. His foundation of knowing what numbers add to ten from the first activity help him to add numbers quickly and the lines give him a visual representation of whether the number will carry over into the next set of tens or not. For subtraction, he will turn the line over and cover part of the bigger number and he is then able to tell how many dots are left over.  The foundation he built from the previous activities allows him to look at the lines and pretty quickly give me an answer without having to count each individual dot.

There are much more detailed descriptions about these activities and how to present them to a child that can be found from bloggers like Homegrown Montessori and How We Montessori.  What I pull from the more formal framework of Montessori is to utilize as much hands on and sensorial input as possible when teaching new concepts. The colors of the number lines and separating the numbers in the tens and ones place are visual reminders of concepts that can often be confusing for young kids.  Just the other day my son asked me the difference between odd and even numbers and rather than trying to explain this to him with words or just telling him to memorize 0, 2, 4, 6, 8 indicates even, we sat down with the pegs and I showed him how even numbers can be split evenly in half but odd numbers cannot. He mastered the concept almost immediately and also gained a full picture of what those words mean.  

I am not a trained Montessori teacher and am definitely more casual with my approach and presentation of materials.  There’s probably a Montessori teacher out there cringing at the way we have incorporated these activities into our learning.  But I love to draw from this framework because I can see how it benefits my kids to manipulate objects when learning. Not only that, but neither of my boys are sit down and trace numbers and letters in a workbook kind of kids. Changing up the routine and presenting new ways to look at problems helps them to stay interested, engaged, and having fun.  It also encourages kids to take the lead in their learning; picking out what they are interested in doing that day and telling me when they are ready to move on to something new rather than sticking to a strict timeline. Your kids may be too old for these activities to apply to their skill level, but I encourage you to think of hands on ways to present material to them that they may be struggling with.  This will allow them to take a break from the pen and paper methods at school and incorporate multisensory learning.

Jun 15

Taking Learning Outside

By Rebecca Fry | Toyology Toys Contributors

Sweet, sweet summertime.

We moved here last summer and I immediately fell in love with our new home.  Compared to the 100 degree days we were having in Texas, the weather here was a welcomed change.  We actually wore sweaters in the first week we moved because the 60s seemed a bit chilly to us. I could not get over all of the fun outdoor activities offered around the town; summer concerts, food truck festivals, nature walks.  The boys and I dove right into everything Michigan summer had to offer…except the swimming, we did miss the naturally heated pools of Texas. After what seemed like the winter that would never end, I am so excited to get back into this beautiful season.  Summer is my favorite time to insert learning activities into our playtime. The options seem to be endless and something about fresh air makes my two boys all the more engaged and curious. Summer makes the perfect canvas for parents to discover the joys of child led learning and the beauty of watching your child discover.  I tend to focus on three main areas when presenting activity ideas for the boys to choose from for our outdoor learning activities; nature play, messy play, and physical play, all with an emphasis on letting the kids guide the learning.

Hide & Seek Rocking Painting Kit

Nature play allows kids to grow in appreciation for nature and supports their natural tendency towards scientific thinking.  Even better, it is as easy as opening the back door or going to a park to explore. Playing pretend while we do this by dressing up as scientists, explorers, or a favorite character also encourages creativity and they often immerse themselves even deeper.  This can be as elaborate as a full safari costume or as simple as bringing along a pair of binoculars. We bring along a bag and collect different items as we go. I always point out the different things I notice, like “look how there is moss growing on this tree but not that one. I wonder why?” and encourage my boys to tell me things they are noticing as well.  I bring a notepad with me to write down the questions we come up with as we go. The items we collect either go into our bag or the boys will use them as tools on our journey; a small stick becomes a match, a bigger stick becomes a torch to light our path, leaves and rocks become our food. I find that it is best not to go into our nature play time with a planned activity because letting the boys lead allows me to see what they are interested in and stops me from interfering with their play and learning.  When we come back, we go through our bag to explore the items. For the younger crowd, like my two year old, focus on talking about the textures, colors, smells, and names of the objects. As they grow, you can start talking more in depth about what each object is and look up the answers to any questions that came up during the walk. It is always fun to end nature walks with an invitation for “spin off” activities like the opportunity to look at the objects through a microscope or magnifying glass. The organic quality of nature play and the ease make it one of my and the boys favorite summertime activities.

Often, it is our nature play spin off activities that lead us right into messy play time.  Sometimes that means bringing our bag of goodies home and taking out paint to see what it would look like to use a leaf as a paintbrush, a pinecone, a rock, etc.  Other times, it means breaking out some cups to fill with the dirt we collected to see if we can grow anything in it. As much as I don’t plan out specific activities for nature play, I always plan to get dirty.  Messy play has so many benefits for little hands and little minds. Something about sensory input awakens the neurons in little brains and helps form new connections. Using sensory input can solidify concepts better than paper and pencil.  In Montessori classrooms, you find kids writing letters and numbers in sand and rice before they write on paper. But sensory activities frequently lead to messes, so we take full advantage of clean up during the summer being as easy as tossing some water on our deck (and the boys).  Having a small sand table or place designated for sensory play also helps with clean up.

Walkie Chalk

Other messy play activities we enjoy include using sensory bins, science experiments, and painting.  With sensory bins, you can use a variety of materials including kinetic sand, colorful rice, cooked noodles, slime, beans, jello, or water and couple those with spoons, ladles, cups, and watering cans.  This allows small children to learn practical life skills, experience new textures, sights, sounds, and smells, and discover ways to manipulate the materials. I like to alternate between talking to my sons about what I observe they are doing to foster language and then walking away to allow them space to make their own stories whether out loud or only with their hands.  Walking away also gives me the chance to read a book, check my phone, or do the dishes while I watch from the window. When filled with water we often play a simple science sink or float game to teach basic physics concepts. While many science experiments can be done inside and without a mess, I love being able to open up to new experiments without worrying about getting dirty.  Baking soda and vinegar experiments as well as melting ice experiments are a couple of my favorites. These fun preschool science activities help them learn about chemical reactions. Painting makes a wonderful summer activity because you can use materials found in nature as paint brushes and let them get messy using their fingers, hands, and feet. Learning can come in many forms here; for my youngest we focus on mixing colors and basic shapes and my oldest works on letters, numbers, and words.  Much like writing in sand, the sensory input helps to solidify the concepts. But most importantly, painting gives them the freedom to create. While I may point out colors and shapes and numbers I see on their pages, I let them decide what they want to make and how they go about making it. This creative thinking gives them the power to create without correction or interjecting my idea of “right”, increasing their tendency towards self motivation and self confidence.

Science Academy Jr.: Stardust Putty Lab

Physical play is exactly what it sounds like.  Getting their bodies moving. The mind body connection has become an increasingly popular topic for adults as levels of depression and anxiety continue to rise.  The same principles apply to children just the same. Physical activity through things such as sports, going to the playground, or flying kites increases social learning, emotional intelligence, body awareness and appreciation, raises oxygen levels in the brain, and supports the formation of neural pathways.  The more formal ways we incorporate learning into physical activity include sidewalk chalk games like hopscotch, practicing counting while swinging, or talking about wind resistance while flying a kite. But again, I also enjoy to take a step back and let the learning occur without my interference. When my son plays on the playground pretending he is a knight in shining armor, I have no doubt his mind is growing.  I trust that giving him the time and space to play is the most important thing I can do for him right now.

Parents sometimes reference the “summer slide” when referring to the perception that a summer away from school leads to a drop in learning for their kids.  But the summer is the perfect time to allow kids to take charge of their interests and learning, even if they need a little prompting to get outside or given some ideas to get started.  But really, it may be us as parents who need to remember to let our kids be kids and step back some. With beautiful weather and plenty to explore, summer in Michigan offers parents the perfect opportunity to find the merit in child led, play based learning.