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 3...you 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.