Archive | December, 2012

Fight for their right…TO PLAY!

29 Dec

Frazzled Kid

I hope you are all enjoying your children this vacation. By now, I bet it doesn’t feel much like a vacation. I am sure you have all had your fill of each other. Oh, I hear ya. I, too, have been with my children non-stop for the last 9 days.

While there are only a few days left of this break from school, I’d love to give you a tip to truly enjoy the rest of your vacation. It will sound callous, perhaps even odd. Here goes: leave your kids alone.

What do I mean by this? Do not schedule an activity, do not play with them, and do not turn on the television, video games, or computer. Just let them play. This is tip number one from my list of tips from a couple of blog entries ago: UN-schedule your child.

Some of you may have heard of David Elkind. He is a professor at Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University. He has written many books that have shaped my own perspective as a teacher and parent ever since I was his student.

Here is a statistic Elkind mentions in his book, The Power of Play: “Over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week.” WOW. I’ll give you a moment to digest that. 12 hours.

Where have those 12 hours gone, you may ask? Does the scene in the picture above look at all familiar?

When I think of my happiest memories as a kid, they all involve me playing with my toys and games at home, in the yard, or with friends running around pretending we were teachers, parents, or living in the wild. Why would we knowingly rob our kids of such experiences?

Elkind writes, “…Parents, anxious for their children to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy, regard play as a luxury that the contemporary child cannot afford.” This statement saddens me every time I read it. And it rings true.

Now, back to you and your kids. Your child probably does enjoy the activities to which you (or someone else) bring her, but I encourage you to think about the schedule you have for your children. Does it include an early bedtime? Does it include quality unstructured time?

Elkind states: “The psychological consequences of the failure to engage in spontaneous, self-initiated play are equally serious, and equally worrisome.”

Kids NEED unstructured time to play alone, with friends or adults in their lives, outside or inside. This time is critical to social, emotional, and intellectual development—to name just a few perks. Kids learn to be creative, solve problems, work through their emotions, and occupy themselves.

As a teacher, I used to offer free choice time each day, regardless of what grade I was teaching. Over the course of ten years, I saw a huge change in how my students reacted. At first, kids were excited and thrilled to have free time with math materials, puzzles, art materials, or just to play “pretend.” As the years went on, free time became stressful.

“Denise, what do I DO??!?! THIS IS SO BORING!” I would say, “Well, what do you play at home when you have down time?” Here is a sampling of the answers: “I never have free time.” “My mom chooses for me.” “I watch television.” “My mom or dad tells me what to do.” And my favorite: “I never choose. Someone always chooses for me. If I think it is boring, they choose something else for me.”


As a parent, I have found the younger my sitters are, the less they are able to actually play with my kids. I have come home to find my girls playing on the babysitter’s phone, the sitter lying on the floor texting while my kids literally run in circles playing around her, and even overheard my kids saying “We don’t actually watch TV too much. We love to play together.”

Just tonight, my husband and I wanted to cuddle on the sofa with the girls and watch a movie. They chose to play family with their toothbrush and toothpaste samples from the dentist. (Yes, it does sound odd to say it out loud but it really is cute. Mr. and Mrs. Mint have a very nice life. Our kids spend hours at a time with free floss and toothbrushes. I kid you not.)

Have you ever thought, “If I don’t plan something for my kids, we will all drive each other nuts”? Before you reach for your car keys, I’d like to leave you with this thought: the more you leave your kids alone, the more independent they will become. Provide them with time to explore all the toys, art materials, dolls, etc. in your house. They will have more ideas than you. There is nothing more fun than sitting back and watching your kids play independently—except maybe the downtime you will get for yourself.

Mark my words, when your child has had the opportunity to create, problem solve, and interact with others, he will enter his academic career with the confidence and skills he needs to succeed. He may not be able to solve quadratic equations or be fluent in three languages at age 4, but I assure you he will be happy and well equipped for his future as a life-long learner and social being.


Talk to the kids? Pop the bubble?

15 Dec

Today, it does feel strange to blog about something as trivial as preparing our kids for kindergarten…There is no way to discuss that, as NONE of us were prepared for the day some kindergarteners had yesterday in Connecticut.

The parents of the kids at Sandy Hook Elementary school had no way of preparing themselves or their kids for this. It is an incredible tragedy that has taken over all of our minds—especially parents and teachers.

My husband and I were faced with the same decision as many of you: to tell our children or not to tell our children of this unspeakable event? Do we keep them in their bubble only to have it burst when they hear an older child or a peer with an older sibling talk about it outside of our earshot? Do we hide the news from them? Do we tell them all the gory details or water it down? What do we do?!?!

I was instantly brought back to when I was teaching second grade that fateful September 2001. Keep in mind I was in Northern California—3 hours behind the East Coast. Parents knew.  Most adults were in shock, some were crying, and almost none had told their young children. They dropped them off with us, went home to watch the news and cry. We were left to “act normal” and stay away from news unless we could escape to the teachers’ room to watch the television someone had turned on. It was the hardest day of my career as a teacher. Most teachers would probably agree with that, or they would have until yesterday.

Back then, our principal’s instructions were to act as if life had not changed. We were all instructed to be present at recess and lunch, and to be vigilant about eavesdropping on kids’ conversations. We were to keep the classroom safe and happy. Of course, we were to address any issues we overheard.  No lesson plan, no contrived discussions. Our students were young and many parents did not want to cause them unnecessary stress and anxiety. We were to see what our students and parents needed from us.

Those were the days before I was a mother. It was so difficult to act normal. So hard to smile and ignore how this one day had and would change the rest of our lives. But for my class of second graders, it didn’t change their lives.  It was my job to see that it didn’t.  Part of me resented this. When could I grieve? When could I watch the news and cry my eyes out?

BUT NOW, ten years later, I GET IT!

My husband and I discussed how we didn’t want to scare our kids. One of our daughters would surely not sleep for weeks if we told all details. But then we thought some more. What if she went to school and heard misinformation over which we had no control? What if that scared her more than the facts we did not tell her? What if she did not feel safe coming to us because we pretended it did not happen?

We decided to tell the basic facts to our two older daughters—ages 8 and 6 and 1/2. A man who was very sick in his mind went to a school and hurt a lot of people. It was awful and sad and scary. There are many people who are safe now because of the teachers and others who did so much to keep them safe. We assured them they are safe at their school and that things like this are so rare. It won’t happen to them, we said.  In saying that, we were assuring ourselves more than them. We told them if they have ANY questions to talk to us, or their teachers.

How did it go? My middle daughter asked if he got everyone else sick. They asked where he is now. We said he is dead and can no longer hurt anyone else. And with that, the girls went back to their art project.

I don’t know what will happen when they go back to school and are with other kids. My hope is that they are too young to discuss current events, or that enough time will have passed since Friday and it won’t be a hot topic. I am hoping their school is on the same wavelengths as my own former principal.

Most of all, I am hoping I can keep my girls in this news-free bubble for a little while longer. Actually, I am hoping I can keep them in this bubble of safety and happiness forever. If anyone has ideas how to make that work, please let me know.

Back To Basics With Betsy

6 Dec


My two older daughters and I love reading the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood. Some of you may have read it when you were little, but I would be willing to bet if your mothers were born and raised in this country they read the series when they were little. B is For Betsy was first published in 1939.

I devoured the series when I was little, and began to read it to my girls a couple of years ago. In the first book, Betsy started school. As my kids noticed right away, Betsy began her school career in First Grade.

Until then, Betsy and her friends were in playschool. My oldest asked me: “What on earth is PLAYSCHOOL? Sounds so fun!! They just played until first grade? They called it school?”

What could I answer? Yes, they did. And they grew into industrious, productive older students and eventually successful adults. If anything, they were happier, less stressed, and more independent than many students are today when they enter first grade. Back then, educators knew the true meaning of preschool: teach children to play and explore the world around them. When children understand how to be social beings, they can concentrate on the academic part of their schooling.

These days, we are so busy as adults that we tend to make sure our children are busy. We don’t want them to be “bored” or “under stimulated.”

All of these activities our children attend can have negative effects such as overstimulation and overtired children. We want to squeeze it all in, but is this lifestyle best for our children? Best for our family? Not necessarily…

My girls only have one extracurricular per week and I hold firm to that. I feel they need the time to play, relax, and have fun on their own. Luckily, my three kids are close enough in age to play with one another happily. I find that their peers are so busy that spontaneous playdates are near impossible–even on weekends.

I believe that we as parents can get “back to the basics” of parenting and give our children the childhood Betsy and her friends had in the 40’s, or that we had in the 70’s and 80’s. We can create children who are confident learners, happy, relaxed, well-rested, and well-prepared for the social world in which they live.

I believe there are 5 steps we need to take with our preschoolers to set them on the path to being “kindergarten ready.”

  1. UN-Schedule your child
  2. Talk to your child
  3. Read with your child
  4.  Count with your child
  5.  Write notes to your child

You may be surprised at what I will send your way, or rather what I won’t be sending you way. Throw away the math workbooks and phonics sheets they sell and display at Barnes and Nobles every August. Put away your wallet. Cancel the tutor.

All you need is a little time, a sense of fun, and maybe a trip to the public library. I will explore these steps in depth in future blogs, give you ideas and resources you can use as a parent or share with your child’s caregivers. If you walk away with one new idea, I have done my job.

Race to Kindergarten Readiness

2 Dec

Not too long ago, before I was a parent, I was a teacher in the California Public Schools in an affluent area. I opened an email from a parent in the neighborhood that shaped my perspective in life–as a teacher and as a parent.

This mother emailed every single kindergarten teacher in the district. She wanted to know:“How can I best prepare my son for Kindergarten? What skills can I teach him at home so he is well-prepared to advance in Kindergarten?” By the time I had finished reading her email, my mouth was open so wide that her “nearly three year old” son could have climbed right in to take a much-deserved nap.

We have all been there. We think we are the best parents in the world…until we sit down with other parents. We watch their kids, we listen to them discuss how wonderful their kids are, how smart, how advanced, how well-rounded, how precocious, how athletic… Sound familiar??

Now ask yourself: how many of those parents mentioned how HAPPY, social, and independent their children are? My guess: zero. Maybe one.

It is easy to realize how happiness is paramount when you look at your own child within the confines of your own family, your own day. But step out of that bubble and you are immersed in parents who want their kids to be the best, the busiest, smartest, most athletic, and most artistic.

We have ALL been there. I am the least competitive person I know—as a person, a mom, and a teacher. I play tennis or scrabble and I don’t care about the score. I have never played to win.  My uber competitive 6 year old can’t understand me, but it works to her advantage.

As a teacher, I never cared if my students scored the highest on their standardized tests. I taught them according to my own teaching style, got them involved and excited. They excelled because they learned passionately and at will.

The same—I imagined—would ALWAYS be true for me as a mom. But even I have been caught up in the competition that our generation of parents has inadvertently begun and is perpetuating.

This competition—and stress–is evident as we watch high schoolers prepare for college, pack on the extracurriculars, and AP classes. They have little time to sleep or have fun. What we as parents of young children need to realize is that, these days, we are treating our preschoolers like high school students.

Ask yourself this: do you think there is anyway YOU can prepare your preschooler for Kindergarten and beyond by stepping back and enjoying your child? Can you just let your kids be kids? Can you give your child the academic skills she needs with just moments of quality time a day?

I am here to tell you what I believe to be true: YES, YOU CAN. You don’t have to be a stay-at-home parent and you don’t have to pay a tutor. I will give you tips you can do with your child that will take less time than it takes you to read a blog entry. I promise: it is tried and true. Your child will be ready for kindergarten and the rest of her life.

…but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher.

1 Dec

Before I had my three girls (now 8,6 1/2, 3 1/2) I was an elementary school teacher. I taught kindergarten, first, and second grades. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that as an adult I would have two main roles: teacher and mother. I have come to find out that these two roles are inseparable. When I left my teaching position at the schools to raise my children, I was not by any means taking a leave from my career. The teacher in me has had an impact on each and every decision I make as a mother. I am certain that when I return to the classroom, my role as a mother will impact each and every decision I make as a teacher.

Though I may not have known it, the idea for this blog has been in my mind for almost 9 years. I received a letter from a parent of a 3 year old in my former school district which set my mind rolling. I will go into more detail in my next post.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a lot to say. I would love to be able to make parents think, really think, about how they fill their time with their kids. As we know, kids are not kids for long. They grow up so quickly. What role do we as parents have in shaping our kids for school before they begin? Do we have a role? These are questions you can consider as you read my opinions. There will be many of you who disagree, I am simply throwing my own two cents into the very fast-paced, opinionated world of parenting.

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