Wednesday, December 2

Buying Toys for Grandma

Last week, a woman came into the store shopping for toys for Grandma. That's right. The kids were shopping for Grandma in a toy store. The woman said to me a bit shyly, "I bet you'll think I'm crazy, but could you help me pick some good games for my elderly mother who is showing signs of dementia?"

I didn't think she sounded crazy at all. Much research suggests that the brain works like a muscle: The more you exercise it, the stronger it stays. According to an article published by Dr. Ifay Chang, who has been studying the effects of play and brain development for over 20 years, playing thinking games and memory games may cut an elderly person's chance of developing dementia by half. "There...[is] ample evidence pointing to the fact that game playing is just [as] important to elderly people as to young kids. Personally, I am in favor of creating games for young kids and elderly people to play together, each derive benefits from the game playing" explains Chang in his follow-up. In short, playing thinking games is good medicine for us all.

Keeping this in mind, I showed this thoughtful customer a few games that would engage her mother both when she was alone and when the grandchildren came for a visit.
  1. 36 Cube: Think of this like a 3-D sudoku puzzle. The different colored cubes fit on different lengths of rods. The key is to get one of every color in each row and column with no repeats. This extremely difficult solitaire puzzle would be a great choice for the person who likes to be pushed and challenged.
  2. Hoppers: Remember the peg hopping game where the object is to leave only one peg on the board? This single-player game gives that a new twist. There are 40 challenge cards that tell you how to arrange the frogs and the object is to leave only the red frog standing. This game is nice because it gradually builds in difficulty. So a reluctant or struggling individual will gain some confidence in the early, easier challenges and be encouraged to keep going.
  3. Shut the Box: This simple dice game requires players to recall basic math facts and make decisions about what tiles to flip when to get the best score. This one can be played alone or with others, making it a nice one to play with the grandkids who need to practice memorizing their math facts. This pick is the least challenging of the ones mentioned here, but definitely aids in decision-making skills.
  4. Qwirkle: The object of this game it to complete rows that are comprised of either all the same shape or all the same color. Similar to sudoku, no row can have a repeat. So if the row is comprised of all the same shape, it can only have one shape of each color. Likewise, if a row is comprised of tiles all of the same color, it cannot have two of the same shape. The more tiles you can place on a single turn and the more directions you connect together, the bigger you score. Again, this game is great for kids to play along with the elderly. Both will be challenged and delighted by it.
Whatever thinking game you pick, one thing is for sure: It will see more use than another ceramic dog on Grandma's shelf!

For more ideas about caring for and interacting with a loved one with dementia, has a lot of great information.

Friday, November 20

Making Thanksgiving Fun for Little Ones and Making Memories

I think Thanksgiving is a tough holiday for kids. There are no presents to open, no little plastic eggs to find. Instead, they have to dress in stiff, fancy clothes, wait all day for food that is weird to them, and keep from getting in the way of the television where adults are gathered for football. They probably are shuffled to a house or two filled with unfamiliar relatives who want to fawn over them and pinch their cheeks to boot.

As a mom of three little ones, I'm creating a plan to help them enjoy the day more. My answer? I'm coming to Grandma's house stocked with some crafts. But not just any crafts: I'm coming with crafts that will capture and create memories.

Here's my first plan of attack. I'm getting one of these scrapbooking bags. I've called my relatives to ask them to have one family photo out that we can have. I'm sure many will forget, though. But no fear! I will send my kids around with my digital camera to catch the sights and fun of the day. I figure this will give them something to focus on besides waiting for the turkey and pies. We'll start making the picture collages to fill the pockets with the ones we have that day. We'll use the spare time throughout the weekend to have the pictures the kids took printed out to finish filling the remainder of the picture pockets. When it's all said and finished, we will have a practical, usable tote bag filled with holiday memories. I could see us changing out the pictures each year! Or I could see this making a great Christmas gift when it's all done for Grandma. Yes, that's what we'll do! She'll love it!

I'm also bringing one of these Christmas banner kits as Plan B. Just in case we don't have enough photos to work on the scrap bag any amount of time, I think the kids will love working on this project. Each child (and the adults not intereseted in football) can make a different felt shape in the banner. Once all the shapes are put together on the satin ribbon, we'll have a one-of-a-kind Christmas banner to start the decorating! I know my kids will delight in seeing the banner year after year and remembering who decorated the gingerbread man and who did the santa hat.

Yep, I think the kids will start to look forward to Thanksgiving with these little projects to work on. They will be fun and capture the memories we all are hoping the holidays inspire in the first place.

Tuesday, October 20

Christmas List Woes: What Do You Do?

I'm depressed. My daughter is asking for the dreaded Zhou Zhou pets for Christmas. Ugh.

I've tried to do all the "right" things. We limit tv time and stick to PBS almost exclusively. We have creative, open-ended toys like blocks and dress-up clothes in our home. We have even talked about how commercials can make items look better than they really are. Still, somehow, she caught wind of Zhou Zhou pets, and she wants them.

As a parent, I'm a little at a loss as what to do. On the one hand, you're only six during Christmas once in your life. A part of me wants to say, "What's the harm? Get her the glorified, battery-operated rat so she will be excited on Christmas morning ." But a bigger part of me knows how my daughter really plays. She will be bored and disappointed with a toy that just runs around on plastic paths within a couple of hours. The novelty will quickly be gone, and I'll be out some serious cash.

On the other hand, I know that if I get her some Playmobil pieces to add to her set, she and her siblings will have new play scenarios sparked. They play with those little pieces just about daily. Likewise, I could add the ice cream set for their kitchen and store play. I have no doubt that toy will see many hours of pretend play. But neither of those options will provide the squealy, excited just-what-I-asked-for moment for her that the rats--okay, they're really hamsters--will. Sigh.

I can't be the only parent out there thinking about such problems this time of year, right? I'd love to hear what others do when their children ask for a gift they just don't feel great about. Or is too expensive. Or just isn't going to happen for whatever reason.

So tell me what you do.

Thursday, October 15

Boys and Dolls: What's the Problem?

When my daughters are seen at the park pushing big trucks through the sand while they make loud vrooming noises, the other parents smile and nod. But when some catch a glance of my little boy zipping down the slide with Baby Sarah, his doll, proudly postured in his lap, some parents can look downright uncomfortable. This difference is why I feel a tad sorry for little boys.

My girls are allowed to play anything they want; dolls, trucks, blocks, trains, kitchen, family-- all are acceptable forms of play for my girls. But my son, who has loved Baby Sarah since he was barely two, has heard many times at the tender age of four that dolls are for girls. He has watched parents at the park pick Baby Sarah up off of the ground and assume that he (yes, a boy named Sarah!) must belong to his twin sister standing by. My husband and I have re-assured him more times than we can count that there is nothing wrong with him loving Sarah.

But I think our culture at large must disagree with us. Just a quick glance of the doll aisle in most stores fills one's eyes with a sea of pink and ruffles. I hate to admit this, but even at our store, the doll section is filled with "girl" dolls. We do have a soft boy peapod doll in the infant section. And we have a set of twin dolls, one boy and one girl, but no separate boys at this point in these more traditional dolls. We have tried boy dolls. They just don't sell. In fact, Baby Sarah, a doll created by Corolle to look like a boy, has been discontinued. It must not have been a big seller for anyone.

But I just don't understand why. Dolls teach children so much! Experts in this great article about the benefits of doll play explain, "Pretend play, of which dolls are a part, benefits all areas of development. By dressing and feeding dolls, children enhance fine-motor skills. By assuming roles and interacting with other children, they practice language and social skills, including sharing, cooperation, helping, and problem solving. They learn the different roles people play and begin to see their own place in the world. " How are these skills only important to girls? Of course, they are not. So what's the problem?

I'm guessing we're stuck thinking of doll play as just rocking them to sleep and feeding them. My son does indeed treat Sarah this tenderly at times. I think it's a good sign that he'll grow to be a caring, loving father like his daddy. But he definitely puts his own twist on doll play, too. Sarah slides down fire poles that are too scary for him to try first. He also gets put in handcuffs as the bad guy and knocks over block towers as a mean bully. And one of my son's favorite summer games is throwing Sarah in the pool and swimming frantically to save him. In other words, my son finds "girl" ways and "boy" ways to play with his doll. Like any other good toy, it sparks his imagination and creativity.

I'm sure the time is coming that my son will start feeling too self-conscious to bring Sarah out and about with us as he does now. But until then, this is one family who is fine--make that more than fine-- with their boy playing with dolls.

Thursday, October 8

Adventures of a Little Schleich Panda

They are cute. They are beautifully detailed. They are pretty inexpensive. But what exactly do you do with them?

I hear these sentiments quite a bit from parents when their children start asking for a Schleich animal. Kids always seem to gravitate to these little gems. Who can blame them? The animals are sized just right for little hands. But the first time my daughter asked for one, even though it was only $2.50, I was hesitant to say yes. I just didn't have the same vision she had. When I looked at the tiny little panda clutched in her chubby toddler hand, all I saw was a figurine to sit on a shelf. Boy, was I wrong!

My daughter saw endless uses. This panda has explored play dough caves and mountains, has helped clear the way for roads made in the sand box, and has saved more little animals from drowning in a sudsy tub than it could ever count. This panda knows how to drive our garbage truck and loves riding on top of a train car as it circles its wooden tracks. It also has traveled to many zoos and museums as a trusted friend who rides along in her pocket. Long waits in lines and car rides have become fun with panda along to play with. This little panda also stands guard on the bedside table each night. Truly, over the past three years, this panda has done everything except sit like a figurine on the shelf.

As you probably have guessed, this panda has been joined by many other Schleich animals over the years. At first, it was just to get baby panda a mom and a dad. But once my eyes were opened by my daughter's creativity, I was more than willing to let my children add to this collection. Some came in Christmas stockings, others in Easter eggs, some even found their way under pillows after a lost tooth. Others have come tied to the top of birthday packages or slipped quietly into a pocket as a little surprise for some job well done. No matter how they got here, they all have been living adventurous lives ever since.

This type of thinking is exactly the difference between adults and children: adults see a figurine, while children see endless possibilities!

Wednesday, September 30

Why I Dislike "Educational" Toys

Our website talks about how we sell "educational" toys. Indeed we do. But I still dislike that phrasing.

Why? I think talking about "educational toys" brings a very limited type of toy to mind. It brings to mind toys that teach letters or numbers or spelling or math facts. Don't get me wrong. Such toys can be great. We have ABC puzzles, Math dice, a game about U.S. facts, etc. All fun, all fine.

But we have many other toys that teach other skills, make other brain pathway connections that rarely get credit as being "educational." For example, one of my kids' favorite toys is this pizza set. At a first glance, it looks just like a toy, not an "educational" toy. But it teaches so many different things!

First, the pieces of pizza and toppings connect using velcro. So from an early age, kids are getting tactile sensory input. To state it another way, their brains learn to sort the soft side of the velcro from the rougher side. From there they must figure out that it takes one rough piece and one soft piece to get them to stick together. Although this is an easy task for adults, it truly takes great problem solving and learning for a toddler to figure this out for the first time. It also improves their fine motor skills as they manipulate the toppings and practice cutting and assembling the pizza.

Then there's sorting. With three different topping choices, the sorting and patterning practice they engage in is endless. For instance, when putting the toy away, the child can be encouraged to put a different topping in a different compartment. Or while building a pizza, the child can build a pepperoni piece, then a mushroom piece, and then a pepper piece, then continue the pattern on the next piece. And later, counting while doing these activities takes learning a step farther. Mom simply just has to order a pizza with 5 pieces of pepperoni, or three slices with mushrooms.

And as they get older, they begin to learn fractions from this simple toy. Just by mom being the customer and ordering a half perpperoni, half mushroom pizza, the introduction to fractions begins. Moreover, the introduction to this mathematical concept is concrete and hands-on, making it easier for kids to understand and remember.

Do the kids realize how much they are learning while playing pizza shop? Probably not. But that doesn't mean they aren't learning. It simply means you've found a great brain-building toy that kids will want to play with again and again.

Friday, September 18

Thing-A-ma-Bots, Fun for the Whole Family

A few Thursdays ago, I found myself dreading our family game night. Just seeing my six year old bring out the Chutes and Ladders box made me go into cold sweats. I wanted to run, wash dishes, clean the cat's litterbox, do anything, I mean ANYTHING but play that game again. I don't mean to be so rough on Chutes and Ladders; we have had some fun with it as a family. But let's be honest: It's really pretty boring for adults. Candy Land? Not any better in my opinion. I'm forever stuck in the molasses.

It's a challenge to find a game that you can play with your kids that you both really enjoy. Typically, the games parents like are too complicated, while the ones the kids can play are not the least bit interesting or challenging to adults. Add in a mix of readers and non-readers in the household, and it becomes even harder to find a fun family game.

Well, I finally found a game that we love in our household. It fosters creativity, builds memory skills, and makes you laugh! We all can play, too, since it doesn't require any reading or number recognition. And it plays pretty quickly (unlike Chutes and Ladders that can drag on and on as you keep falling down those chutes!). It's a little card game called Thing-a-ma-Bots.

To play, you deal out the cards and leave them in a stack in front of you. At the beginning of a new round, each person flips one card face up in the middle of the table for all to see and names it. You can name it anyway you'd like: Charlie, Chunk-Chunk, Stella, Zazzapants, 05673 UK. Each player takes a turn flipping a card and naming the funny character. When you see a match, the first person to remember the name and shout it out claims all the cards. Then a new round begins!

As characters are matched and claimed, they become Thing-a-ma-Bots and can help you steal piles from your opponents if you shout it out first. But if you're wrong, you lose a card, so be careful!

Sounds simple, right? It is simple to learn and get started, but trust me, you'll be laughing so hard at some of the names your kids come up with that it will be hard to concentrate. Plus, as rounds go on, it gets more and more difficult to remember which name was from which round and which character is now a Thing-a-ma-Bot. Got all that? Good, now try it and have some laughs with your kids!

Thursday, September 10

Play: The Way to Good Grades

The pools are closed and the parks are empty for the most part in the middle of the afternoon. Yep, school is clearly back in session. Schedules are packed for the kids and parents alike. Budgets are strapped from all the new clothes, binders, and backpack purchases. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. I just want you to know that I "get" it. I used to teach at a public high school for seven years, and now I have three kids of my own. So I understand what this time of year means for families.

It means homework, and dinners gobbled down minutes before sports practice. The last thing on anyone's mind is buying a new toy. So I'm not going to highlight a toy or a game this week. Instead, I want to ask parents to find time for their kids to play, really play, for a little each day. No fancy toys with batteries needed. No team uniform to pay for. No purchase necessary.

Why am I asking parents to find time for one more thing in their schedules? Because I believe it's important. No, make that critical for kids' happiness and their academic success. This opinion isn't just my own: It's the opinion of many educators and researchers. And when we find a quiet time to think about it, it's just common sense.

In Alix Spiegel's report "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills," he comments how children's environments have changed drastically over the past 50 years. More time is spent indoors; more time is spent doing structured, adult-led activities and sports. Less time is given to allow kids to do imaginary, self-regulated play. So what? According to the experts, playing make-believe helps children develop a cognitive skill called "executive function." As the article explains, "Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ."

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with the importance of unstructured, imaginitive play for brain development. In fact, they are so concerned that children aren't getting enough of this type of play, that they wrote an entire report on its importance and tips for parents and pediatricians to help make sure kids are given opportunities for this type of play. Their report also points out how parent-child bonds can be strengthened during play together.

But I know that we as parents are already aware that playing is good for our kids. But I also know that there is a lot of pressure to push our kids hard and at a young age. Well, let's push them. But let's consider that one of the best ways to "push" them is to make sure they play each with something that doesn't have a screen or blinking lights.

Instead, encourage them to play with a set of blocks. Your old clothes and shoes for dress-up. Games that encourage them to talk to themselves or each other, like playing house or superheroes. Anything where they get to make up the rules and let their imaginations soar. Chances are their school scores will soar, too.

Friday, August 21

Great Two-Player Games (a.k.a. Games I Can Win Against My Husband)

My husband and I are competitive. No, make that VERY competitive. We play to win, and we talk "smack" (as the kids call it these days) all along the way.

But I usually lose, and I'm tired of it. We play tennis, he kills me. Golf, no contest. I get excited if I actually get to play a full hole out before I have to pick up my ball in humiliation because the next group is waiting to play through.

I don't fair much better at card and board games. I refuse to play chess with him any more. Really, it's just too painful. I even went so far as to check out a couple of strategy books from the library. Have you ever looked at one of those? My eyes glazed over in boredom before I learned even one combination. When I caught my husband perusing it, I promptly dumped it in the drop box at the library and declared I would never play him in chess again. Yep, I'm that mature.

So I've been on a quest to find games that I can actually have a chance of winning. See, I understand why my kids cry when they lose. I feel the exact same way after awhile. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but I do get frustrated. So I've been checking out different games for those evening hours after the kids are all tucked into bed and there's nothing on tv. Here are some games we found so far that lend themselves nicely to just two players (and that I can actually win once in awhile!):

1. Visual Eyes: I love this game! I think it is one of the most creative games on the market. You roll big picture dice. Then using the pictures, you try to create well known phrases and compound words. The pictures can mean different things to different people, making this game all the more interesting! For instance, a picture of a watch could mean time, watch, or clock. So a picture of a watch and a tall building could be used to form the idea "watch tower." It's hard to describe how cool this game is.

2. Goblet: This game is a twist on getting four in a row. Not only do you have to think about where to place your pieces to be the first to get four in a row, but you have to decide which size of piece to play. Some pieces can get "gobbled Up" when your opponent places a larger piece over yours! So you might be tempted to play your large pieces early on, but then you won't be able to gobble up your opponent later to block him or her.

3. Cosmic Cows: This game is the most unique dice game I've played by far! You line up cows in the middle of the board. Then you take turns rolling to see who can move the cows down their paths to the home zone first. It's harder than it sounds since you both keep moving the same cows back and forth on the board. And there is strategy to it, too. You have to decide when to advance a cow into your home zone or when to try to move one away from your opponent's home zone. Great fun, and the little cows are so darned fun to look at!

So I don't win every time, but these games at least give me a fighting chance. Try one and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, August 12

Are We There Yet?: Survival Tips for Traveling With Kids

"Are we there yet?" "How much longer?" After the excitement of loading up the car fades, and you're facing the reality of being stuck in the car for 8 hours on the highway, what do you do with the kids?

We thought we'd conquer this problem last year by borrowing our neighbor's portable dvd player system. It helped, I guess. But I didn't really like the extra noise of a movie playing, or trying to skip the movie back into place every time after a pit stop. And to be honest, the kids were tired of it pretty quickly, too.

So this year, we're taking a different approach. Yes, we're still borrowing the dvd player, but here are the three other things we're going to try to make the trip more fun for all of us.

1.) I made a map of a big mountain, and I cut out a car out of cardboard. The bottom on the left side of the hill is home, the bottom of the other side is our destination. The plan is to tape the car on a different spot each time we stop. This way, the kids will have a visual as to how much farther we have to go. When we're at the top of the mountain, we're halfway there!

2.) I'm making little goody bags for specific stops that I know we will make: crossing of a state line, getting to a major monument, etc. Each bag is marked with a child's name and the destination where we get to open it. Inside the bag are little fun things I know they like. I've put everything in there from Japanese puzzle erasers, to Smencils, to mini mandalas, to Calico Critters, to little sticker books, to a kaleidoscope--anything that I think will entertain them for a bit.

3.) I'm packing a box of toys that can be played with in the car. Here's what's in my toy arsenal so far:

- Magnetic dolls: boy and girl
- Find It!
- Moody Bear puzzles
- See and Spell
- Potholder Loom

I know that traveling with three kids will still be tiring and frustrating at times along the way, but I also know that I'll have fun ways to help us all cope. It also means we'll have easily portable activities to keep us busy inside the hotel room or grandma's on the inevitable rainy day. I hope it helps someone else out there, too.

Wednesday, August 5

Taming the Toy Beast: Getting Kids to Clean Up Their Toys (Win a Gift Certificate!)

I just survived the annual summer visit from my in-laws. I'm fortunate; I truly adore them. But it's stressful nonetheless. I stayed up late to scrub the house only to have the kids promptly destroy it within an hour once they started playing. The living room floor quickly became Playmobil land, and the kitchen table was covered in zoomorphs.

Which brings me to this week's topic: cleaning up the toys. It can be a daily battle in our house. I try to allow enough mess-making for the kids to be truly creative in their play, while keeping enough rules in place so the house doesn't become a giant toy pit. But it's a struggle. And as embarrassed as I am to admit this fact publicly, I have threatened to throw toys in the garbage after stepping on a castle figure in bare feet.

Such threats often just get me pleading sobs, rather than the cooperation that I'm really after, though. Also, let's face it. If I throw away their toys or give them away to charity, I'm just going to be out at some point buying replacements. Not a good plan. No, I just want to keep the toys under control so I can vacuum without first spending two hours putting everything away. I want the kids to happily put their toys away without a single request from me. Sigh. A mom can dream, right?

I've tried putting toys in boxes and rotating every few months which boxes are available for play. This failed for us because the kids would always want (or in their words, need) one specific item from a box that wasn't due back out for another month. I never knew what the right answer was in these situations. If I said no, often the play stopped and many tears were shed. If I said yes, then they wanted another box and another box until all boxes were down. Even when the rotation method "worked," it didn't work. As soon as the boxes that had been stored for a bit were put back in the play room, they were suddenly greeted as "new" toys that all had to be dumped at once like on Christmas morning. I really wanted to scream.

We have finally figured out some better storage options that work for us. For instance, I bought plastic see-through containers with snapping lids. The kids can see what goes in each bin. So when I ask them to pick up their toys, they know where they go. The bins also stack neatly inside their closets and on the playroom shelves, so space is conserved.

But that is only part of the solution in taming the toy beast, as any parent knows. We still face the difficulty of getting the kids to put toys in the buckets. I won't bore you with all the bad things I've tried to get my kids to pitch in; I'll just share one trick that has worked really well for us, and beg for others to chime in with techniques that work for them.

Okay, so here is mine. I decided I had to try to make cleaning up fun. So I got the kids these robot grabber hands. Somehow, it's more fun to pick up toys with these than with your bare hands. I lined up the bins for the toys that were left out, I handed each kid a hand, and we raced to see who filled up his or her bin first. It really worked, and it continues to work on the days that chores just seem too daunting to my little ones. I think it helps them to know one specific task at a time (e.g. pick up all the Groovy girls and put them in this bin), instead of just telling them to clean up their toys, as well. We use our grabber hands to pick up dirty laundry, clean sticks out of the yard, put stuffed animals in the top bunk, just about anything we can think of. It's been a great addition to chore time!

I know there are other fun, creative ways to help get kids to clean up around the house. I'd love to hear yours! In fact, I will give the 5 best tips submitted to me between now and next Sunday (Aug. 15, 2009) a $5.00 gift certificate to use at one of our stores! Not a coupon, no minimum purchase required, just a straight $5.00 gift certificate! You could use it to get your very own robot grabber hand if you wanted! Simply post it, and I'll announce next week the winners out of all the comments.

So let's hear your ideas!

Tuesday, July 28

Active Play That's Easy on Mom

I am tired of standing in the sun, pushing my kids on the swing. There. I admitted it. My kids, like all the others on this planet, love going to the park. Of course they do. Why wouldn't they? And I like to encourage it. I like keeping them physically active and breathing in fresh, summer air.

But there is the reality of what park time can mean for adults. It can mean feeling the sand stuck to your sweaty forehead while you pretend to eat the 100th sand ice cream cone your twins just made for you. It can mean yet another round of tag where you try to strike the balance between running fast enough to keep them on their toes, but no so fast that they can't get away. And the swings. Please tell me I'm not the only one who dreads when her kids want to swing. Pushing them on the swing is fun for about two minutes for me. Then I just start to feel miserable. I even find myself wishing to be back in the sandbox; sand in your underwear isn't that bad, right? But I do it, and I even try to smile.

Still, I need a break. But I still want my kids to be outside playing. So here is what I tried. I got them a stomp rocket set. What great fun! They played for hours, taking turns jumping on the pad to launch the foam-tipped rockets into the sky and then racing to retrieve them. They could work it all by themselves! No mom standing in the hot sun for a couple of hours required!

When they complained the other day that it was too hot to be running around, I simply turned on the sprinkler and let the rocket launching begin again. Their creativity soared like the rockets as they pretended launches were delayed or dangerous because of the rain. They stayed cool and active. I gained a couple more hours sitting in the shade on my porch swing, sipping iced tea. Now that's the kind of swinging a mom can enjoy!

Monday, July 20

Confessions of a Flashcard Failure: Making Math Fun

I remember the pressure of standing next to Mark Henderson in the first grade as the teacher held up a card that read "7 + 3." The pressure was on! The first one to blurt out "10" would win the round and get to keep traveling "around the world" as long as he or she kept yelling out the flashcard answers first.

I imagine that those kids who were good at this competition loved it. I imagine they felt full of pride and coolness whenever it was math time. I can only imagine. I always froze when in front of the class, and the answer "10" somehow got trapped behind my tonsils, never making it out to gain me glory. I was a flashcard failure.

This game, of course, was to help us master our math facts. All it accomplished for me, though, was associating math with fear, tension, and yes, failure.

I vowed at the beginning of summer that I was going to find a way to help my six year old daughter master her math facts that wasn't full of unpleasantries. She understands how to add, but she doesn't have that automatic, 5 + 3 = 8 mastery that I want her to have. She still has to count on her fingers or count the dots on the dice. I know she's young and has time, but I wanted some of that time to be this summer.

I think I found a great way! I've been letting her play Shut the Box. This game is so easy to learn. The basic rules practice addition facts. Roll the dice; add the numbers. This total is what you flip down in the box. For instance, if you roll a 4 and a 6, your total is ten. You can then flip down any combination of tiles that equals 10: 9 and 1, or 7 and get the idea. The object of the game is to flip down all the numbers, or shut the box! When a roll happens that no remaining numbers can be flipped, you add the numbers left in the box. This is your score for the round. The lowest score wins. You can play a set number of rounds to determine the overall winner, or play until a certain score is reached. My daughter even enjoys just playing by herself, trying to beat her score from her previous round.

If you want to make it a little more challenging math wise, allow players to perform other math functions. For instance, instead of just allowing addition, allow subtracting the numbers. Or even division or multiplication. With expanded rules, players won't only be practicing math facts, they will also be using logic to decide which math function on any given roll gives them the best score.

The best part? It's fun! My husband and I enjoy playing with her. We all get lost in the fun, forgetting that we got this game to help her learn math. And that, I believe, is how learning should take place.

Tuesday, July 14

Toy Guns

My son was only 2 when it happened: He spotted a couple of older boys chasing each other around with toy guns at the park. This quick glimpse of shiny silver toys that clicked and popped was all it took for him to be hooked. He didn't know what a gun was at this point, but he knew he wanted one.

I'll admit it. I was upset. I had always hoped that ours would be a home free from violent play. I'm one of those crazy moms who teaches her children not to smash bugs if they can help it, even when secretly I want that spider dead and floating in the toilet. And here my son was wanting a toy that would kill countless pretend people and animals. I wanted none of it.

But my husband was in the Army, an infantry man to be exact, so he "gets" the fascination with guns. He also grew up with a brother, and the two of them spent hours playing cops and robbers with toy guns. And I must confess that I racked up many hours of gun play myself as a kid, along with my four older brothers. None of us are violent adults. None of us grew up to be a criminal (one did actually grow up to be a cop, though.) So my husband thinks I should be okay with toy guns.

But I still had a hard time accepting that my son--my sweet blue-eyed boy, the one who used to twist my hair to fall asleep in my arms--wants to play with guns. At first, I put my foot down and just refused to consider it. I hear you all chuckling now. Of course, that didn't work. As anyone who has been around kids knows, a stick, piece toast bitten in all the right places, a Barbie with one leg up and the other down can all be makeshift guns for the determined child. It only took me a couple of weeks to see that I was fighting a losing battle. I started to look for other options. I was convinced there had to be a middle ground.

In my quest for a solution, I talked to other parents, and I started reading about the topic. Finally I stumbled upon a book that helped me put gun play into perspective: Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD.

I'll try my best to quickly sum up the points that I found the most relevant to this topic. Cohen points out that much play is about children coping with their feelings of powerlessness in an adult world. This made sense to me! Everything from playing doctor, to teacher, to gun-toting police officer is a way for children to put themselves in powerful, adult positions. Cohen touches on how this role reversal can help children work out stresses and fears. My attitudes about gun play started to shift as I began to consider the cathartic possibilities play can offer my children.

But Cohen understands how violent play can still make many parents uncomfortable. So he suggests parents get involved with the play and introduce new, fresh elements. For instance, instead of a gun just being used to kill something, what if you transform it into a love gun? We took this idea and ran with it in our home. Our guns shoot many things other than bullets: ice, fire, spider webs, sticky goo, hot lava, kisses. The list goes on and on. It's still gun play; but at least the focus isn't always on killing.

Am I completely comfortable with the toy guns in our home now? I'd by lying if I said I was. I still stress to my son that real guns are dangerous and can kill. I don't let him take his guns to the park or friend's houses out of respect for other parents' comfort levels. But all in all, I am more accepting of gun play. I don't cringe every time my little guy heads out in the backyard toting his cork gun. I know that he is trying out a role, pretending that this "weapon" can stop the scary noise in the bushes (usually the dog) with its freezing rays. And I remind myself that I also said I would never allow Barbies in my home...but that's a different post all together.

Sunday, July 12

The Dreaded Moment: Leaving the Toy Store

I love seeing happy families stroll in to browse. Everyone is smiling, little bare toes peek out from car seats. I listen as Dad tries to convince Mom that a potato gun or a marshmallow blaster wouldn't be that messy. I watch the kids push Thomas around the track and marvel at how well they make chugging and whooshing noises along the way. Mom always happily pretends to lick the magnetic ice cream cone her little one has served her. Everyone is having a fun, playful time.

Then it happens. Mom or Dad glances at the clock. A worried crinkle on the forehead replaces the light, bright smile that was there just moments ago. I can tell, it's getting time for them to go...and they are worried. How am I going to pull Johnny from that train table? Susie is never going to leave that doll and stroller without a fit. They look at me nervously as they start the countdown.

As a parent myself, my heart always goes out to them at this moment. I've been there. I have been the parent wishing she could hide under moving traffic to avoid the scene my child is creating in a store. In fact, before I worked for My Little Red Wagon, my daughter refused to go without a fight, grabbing onto a sand table and screaming, "No, no, no!" while I tried to convince her how fun it would be to go back home. For some odd reason, she wanted to stay and play instead of returning home to watch me vacuum.

So when I see parents worried that their child might decide she isn't ready to go yet, I want to run over and tell them that it's okay. None of the workers are judging them or their child. We get it. We see it every day. We understand that your little ones probably find a toy store more fun than vacuuming, too. Let us help if we can. Let us know if offering a sticker or a coloring page to take home will help distract Johnny from the horror of leaving. Let us know if Susie would leave happily if only she got to "beep" a product or put the money on the counter. We'll wait. Really. We don't mind. We like feeling like heroes when we can help your little ones leave with a smile.

Tuesday, May 5

The flying Turtle in Action

Here is the flying turtle in action. This is one of our all time favorites! No batteries, kid powered, super sturdy ride on toy.

Just turn the handles right and left and it goes.


Frogs in a toy store? Hey why not.

We recently have been selling frog habitats(and they are selling like crazy). The frogs (African Dwarf Frogs) live in a little ecosystem and are water frogs. There is also a snail (to clean the tank) and a bamboo shoot (for oxygen). The really cool thing about these is the super easy care. The frogs only need fed twice a week (and we sell you a years supply of food with the tank) and the tank only needs cleaned a couple times a year.

Pretty simple! As a Mom of three kids I prefer this to a dog. Okay... sorry dog lovers.... I have had a number of dogs too. I do like dogs! BUT... my kids and husband are begging for a new dog and I know that I will be the one to feed, walk, and essentially care for the dog. Right now I am not looking for extra work. So when my kids are truly ready to completely care for a dog themselves... then maybe. In the meantime Kermit the Frog it is!

Stop by and see our new frogs!