Saturday, June 27, 2009

Preschool Graduation?

Hmm, it's been about two years since I last posted. My twins are long past preschool age, and indeed moving past what would be considered pre-K. I never got around to creating a DIY Pre-K blog ... but we're still doing it ourselves. Check out my new blog: DIY Kindergarten.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Harvest Smash

There are good reasons why people have not traditionally gardened on the tops of mountains. I'm rather amazed that we managed to grow any edible food at all in our 3000-foot-elevation Catskill garden this summer; I was not surprised that a bunch of what we grew was simply inedible.

So what do you do with a big surplus of hard, flavorless tomatoes and mealy-tasting melons? Get some friends together and let the kids experiment with the marvelous force of gravity, of course!

This week's harvest smash was so much fun, I can hardly wait until our jack-o-lanterns start to rot ....

Thursday, October 11, 2007


My kids, like most exuberant children of their age, love to disarrange the universe. They stack blocks with the principal goal of knocking them down; they pour paint with the hope of maximally mixing and sliming it; they delight in scattering, smashing, and taking things apart.

I, however, like to build things. And only recently have I found it possible to include them -- really include them -- in my projects.

Last weekend was something of a breakthrough, as they assisted, off and on, in the latter stages of constructing a bean house for next summer's garden at our cabin upstate. This year, we had a bean tunnel -- metal fencing in a big arch, with thick vines of pole beans climbing up it. They found it initially delightful but ultimately too small, so I decided to repurpose some old bookshelves into a grander frame for next year's bean crop.

I started the project, I will admit, in their absence. But I realized that, so long as I had already worked the design out in my head and was feeling sufficiently patient, there were lots of things they could do to assist.

They steadied boards while I sawed, studied my miter box with utter fascination, even did a bit of sawing themselves. Then I got out the drill, and they were in heaven, helping me screw the boards together.

When they became restless, I gave them a couple of levels to play with, which occupied them for a good long time. When even that failed, I got out a big jumbled tray of different-sized screws and set them to work sorting them out.

What were they learning? Some physics and math, to be sure. Maybe even some rudimentary carpentry. But more than that, I hope, they were learning something more basic about the satisfaction of creating something yourself, the magic of transforming raw materials into something new and wondrous.

I think they felt some of this magic, for they were so excited as the house was taking shape that they insisted we eat dinner in it that very night, with boards perched in the corners for seats. We sat sharing a scruffy meal of chicken sausages as darkness fell, and watched together as first the planets and then the countless stars appeared in the clear sky overhead.

The next day, we moved the half-finished structure into our garden, dug a level base for it, and added the frame for the roof. The kids helped plant grass seed for the floor; in the spring, we'll attach some sort of mesh to the sides to function as a trellis, then plant bean seeds and bright marigolds in the built-in boxes all around it. I'm not sure who is anticipating this more eagerly, me or them.

Friday, October 5, 2007


The first hundred or so times we read our kids Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type -- Doreen Cronin's wonderful tale of barnyard subversion -- we slightly edited it into a tale of cows who find an old computer in the barn, because we knew Nini and Desmond had never seen or heard of a typewriter.

Happily, that has changed, big time, and I've become a typewriter evangelist: If you've got a child old enough to peck at a keyboard, do your kid a favor and hunt down an old typewriter at your very earliest opportunity.

We started with a portable Underwood manual typewriter I found at the Oneonta Salvation Army, and I cannot imagine a more ideal plaything for a young child. It's sublime in all the ways a kid wants a machine to be: sleek, virtually indestructible, with all sorts of fascinating buttons and moving parts whose operations are directly visible to the eye. A three-year-old can pound on it to her heart's content, and the worst thing that happens is the keys clump up into an easily separated jumble.

What's more, a typewriter has a quality that's precious to children, and too often beyond their reach: realness. Kids are much more captivated by actual devices than by simplified kiddie versions. Past a certain wee age, they'd readily, for example, choose a battered actual screwdriver over a shiny painted wooden one, a real vacuum cleaner over a buzzy toy one; they would clearly prefer your real cellphone over some bright plastic beeping thing that spouts the same irritating three lines over and over.

And without a doubt, once your child is interested in the alphabet and the very beginnings of reading and writing, a typewriter is a delightful tool. My kids will spend a solid hour or more asking us how to spell various words and patiently hunting down the letters on the keyboard. They can't write letters on paper yet, but they can now spell out their names whenever they want, and see the results. And unlike when they want to do this with the computer, we don't have to be right next to them, terrified that some crucial part of the hard drive will be destroyed through youthful exuberance: You pretty much don't have to say "no" to a kid who is playing with a typewriter.

Eventually, since my kids are also fascinated by everything having to do with electricity, we got them an electric typewriter, too -- one of those early word processing types where the words show up on a screen before they're typed onto the paper. Alas, the ribbon that was in it quickly ran out, so for the moment, it's out of service. If you're like us, you'll probably end up spending more money on new ribbons for your ancient machine than you paid for it in the first place. Never fear, though, they can be found: For our Underwood, we even got our hands on one of those ribbons that types in black and red.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dominoes and Dice

My kids haven't quite gotten the hang of board games yet: They find them enticing, but the cherries from "Hi Ho Cherry-O" were quickly scattered throughout our apartment; the "Candyland" board got ripped in half.

The lesson, for me? Simplify.

So we've been playing little games with dominoes and dice. My kids are both growing more interested in counting and pattern recognition, and these are simple, fun ways to nurture these interests. Our games are non-competitive, because my kids remain happily ignorant of the concepts of "winning" and "losing." (They'll have far too many opportunities in life to learn these things.)

The domino game, for us, is a simple matching game; with dice, they roll and count out small objects, like mini poker chips. My daughter tends to modify the activities: She quickly decided that the dominoes were "butter," and got engrossed in building butter stacks; having recently attended the Little Red Lighthouse Festival, she stopped rolling the dice after a few minutes and started building little red lighthouses with the poker chips instead.

My son, on the other hand, is very intent on the ordering and counting and organizing. Both of them are increasing their facility with numbers and counting and patterns, in a low-key, low-budget, non-pressured way.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Differentiating the Days

I'm not very big on schedules or routines. So when I first left my job to home/un preschool my twins full-time, the days just tumbled one after the other in chaotic succession. We did a ton of traveling, went on a ton of outings, did lots of activities. But there was no particular rhythm to any of it ... and I felt pretty overwhelmed and exhausted most of the time.

Worse, I'd find I couldn't begin to remember what I done the week or month before; the days all seemed the same, and I could sense I would soon be feeling lost.

My first step in getting a better handle on my time was setting up a big dry-erase calendar, partly to keep track of upcoming events, from playdates to nights out, but just as importantly to keep track of what we had done. I jot down a few things about each day -- "playdough, car painting, Camel Playground, pizza with Amy and Efrem" -- just enough to fix each day in memory. It helped immensely: I no longer seemed to be drifting from one undifferentiated day to another, and I could look back over what we had done with much more clarity.

This fall I'm going two steps farther. I'm building a few regular weekly activities into our schedule, and I'm sketching out more ideas in advance of what else to do each week. We're still very loose by anyone's standards, but suddenly both I and my kids have much more of a mental road map to go by: Tuesdays are when a whole passel of kids and parents come over to play; Wednesdays we go to music class in the morning; Thursdays we generally take a day trip somewhere. Perhaps the key to the whole set-up is the regular event I've scheduled for Mondays: a babysitter, to give me a chance to get organized, catch my breath, and have some precious chunks of time to myself.

Spending the preschool years with your kid(s) full-time can be delightful and transformative for everyone involved; it's also grueling. Giving a bit more form to the days and weeks, I've found, makes it all a crucial bit easier.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


One of the new favorite activities around here is dismantling old, broken machines. Armed with screwdrivers and pliers, the kids have taken apart a tape deck, a turntable, and a fan, all scavenged curbside in Brooklyn, and are eagerly clamoring for more.

My kids were already in a phase of being extra fascinated with electricity, thanks to a book on the topic my husband saved from the rubbish heap at the town dump near our upstate cabin. So taking apart actual machines could hardly be more satisfying to them. It's at once a treasure hunt ("I found the motor!") and an outlet for kids' more destructive impulses; it allows them to use grown-up tools, which is always exciting; it helps impart an intuitive sense of how things actually work.

For me, this pursuit has had a considerable fringe benefit, in that it has gotten my kids enthused about garage sales and thrift stores. We happily roamed the Catskills over Labor Day weekend, finding old Walkmans for 25 cents, blenders for 50 cents, and toasters for a buck. We assembled quite a stockpile of cool junk, which we can look forward to disassembling during the fast-approaching housebound days of winter.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Alphabet Walk

A fun meander, if your child is excited about the alphabet:

Prepare a clipboard with the ABCs in large, clear type; give your kid a pen or pencil, and set out for a stroll, someplace where signs are abundant. Encourage your child to cross out any letter she sees.

My kids loved going out with the clipboards -- I think it felt very important and official. They enthusiastically roamed Dekalb Avenue, the main drag of my Brooklyn neighborhood, planting themselves down on the sidewalk each time they encountered an interesting sign. The neighborhood shopkeepers were charmed, and the kids made an especially strong impression at the local pizzeria ("Z!").

Desmond was very thorough and precise in his search for letters; Nini was more freeform, eventually just crossing out letters because she liked the feeling of scribbling with her red pencil.

I suppose you could do this as a car activity, but I found the pokiness to be sweet, an almost meditative way to experience our neighborhood. The walk held their interest for far longer than I would have imagined, and ever since, they've been noticing the signage of the city in a new way.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Icy Summer Fun

On a beastly hot late summer day, there's nothing better for kids than ice and snow.

We've had a whole Arctic in August theme going the last two days, full of great frosty activities that appeal to the little artist, scientist, and construction engineer in every preschooler. Some advance prep was required, but nothing too time-consuming.

The sensory joys of these activities are their own reward. I've been feeling fairly homeschooly lately, so I prefaced some of these activities with a little lesson about the North Pole: where it is, why it's called a "pole," what conditions there are like, what animals live there. I'm sure there are good books out there that cover this material, but I just sat with my kids by my side and used Google Image Search to find some relevant photographs: a spinning globe, some icy Arctic landscapes, and sundry Arctic creatures.

My children suggested that if we were going to the North Pole, we needed to take the Polar Express, so before we even made it to the back yard, we got to assemble a long train with kitchen chairs and undergo an exciting and perilous journey.

First on our agenda was ice painting, an ideal hot-weather preschool pursuit. Freeze slightly watered-down tempera paints in an ice cube tray, balancing craft sticks in each space to serve as handles once frozen. (Don't worry, the handles don't need to stick straight up.) Give your kids some big sheets of paper to paint on, and turn them loose. The paints spread quite nicely once the melting really begins.

As another ice experiment, I froze diecast cars and plastic bugs inside big blocks of ice. (I used empty milk cartons: fill with about an inch of water, freeze, add toy plus more water, freeze, and repeat.) To get the toys back out, you can just let the summer sun do the work, or better yet, help your kids experiment with different ways of melting the ice. Mine especially enjoyed playing with warm water, a garden hose, and a big shaker of salt, and were excited about the different effects each method had on the ice block.

Later, once the children's hands were dry, I dumped five pounds of white flour into a big bin and let them play snow mountain with it, using little loaders and dump trucks to move the snow about. They clearly loved the soft, cool feeling of the flour and had a grand, messy time. A garden hose took care of the considerable spillage.

By the time all these activities were over, we had talked about everything from geography to chemistry to color theory. And we topped it all off, of course, with an icy treat: homemade juice popsicles.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Nature Collages

Even the smallest child can make something of great beauty with this collage technique.

Cut a picture frame out of cardboard, sizing it so your child can comfortably carry it.

Turn it plain side down, and measure out enough clear contact paper to stick all around the frame. (Some people call it shelf paper instead -- you can find it in the housewares section of a big store.)

Peel off the backing, stick down the contact paper, turn it over, and voila! You have a sticky canvas for your child to decorate.

You could use this technique for any sort of collage, of course -- it needn't have a nature theme. But I love the experience of accompanying my kids as their take their little picture frames along on meadow walks or strolls the the woods. I find it helps them slow down and really look at the natural world around them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Going to the Cemetery

This is a cemetery, according to my three year olds, who have spent a good part of each day talking about death ever since my dad died suddenly three weeks ago.

I had a babysitter for several hours today -- thank god -- and she set them up to do car painting, their favorite art activity of the moment. Diecast cars take the place of brushes, and the little wheels make lovely tracks after being pushed through a puddle of paint, ideally with the accompaniment of vrooming noises. It's a great form of painting for small people who enjoy making big gestures.

I wasn't paying much attention, until I realized what they were saying about what they were doing. "We're going to the cemetery!" Nini was exclaiming. "This is the cemetery!"

It was just yesterday that I had finally explained to her what had happened to her grandfather's body after he died. Some instinct made me hold off from telling the kids about bodies or burial right away; right or wrong, it seemed like too much information for them to absorb, when they were just grappling with the initial shock of his unexpected death.

But Nini has been pondering it all a great deal, and two days ago, she asked me, "How come when a bug dies, you see it lying there, but when Grandpa Butch died, he was just gone?" I started to answer, but she gave me a worried look and ran off to do something else before I could.

So yesterday, during a moment of closeness, I told her about what happened to Grandpa Butch's body after death, how it was placed in a beautiful wooden box with soft cushions and buried beneath a tall oak tree. A little later, I told Desmond.

They had seen the spot; on our way leaving town to head back home, I wanted to visit the grave. The kids drove around the cemetery with my husband while I had some time alone. They asked lots of questions, he said, but at that point they still hadn't asked anything about what happened to their grandpa after death. So he talked about the cemetery as a special place where people go to remember those who have died, and wasn't any more specific than that.

Obviously, what I said made a big impression. It was pretty disconcerting to hear Nini today, calling out as Desmond painted, "This is the cemetery! Grandpa Butch is going to the cemetery!"

But I know this is part of their way of making peace with disturbing news.

And the painting, fittingly enough, turned out to be quite beautiful, full of color and feeling and grace.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Teaching Kids About Death

My father died suddenly two weeks ago. To my twins, he was Grandpa Butch, a beloved fixture in their lives. They shared a birthday with him, snuggled eagerly on his lap, learned the alphabet with him, and squealed with delight when he pushed them on a swing or pulled them in their little red wagon.

And so now, even as I am dealing with the shock and sorrow of unexpectedly losing my dad, I'm having to help my three-year-old kids understand something I can barely comprehend.

I'll be honest: Right now, I mainly want to be away from my kids. I pretty much want to curl up in a corner and cry; I'd love to be able to take long walks and long naps, sort through old photos, sniffle at will. Friends and family have helped give me some modest stretches of time to myself since my dad died, and I'm working on lining up a new babysitter. But they're clearly feeling needier than usual, and the job falls substantially on me to help them work through their own bafflement and grief.

My husband and I decided, from the start, to be direct. I sat the two of them down the morning after that awful middle-of-the-night news and told them that something very sad had happened, Grandpa Butch had died and we wouldn't ever be able to see him again.

They asked why, of course. They're too young to understand something like "massive heart attack," and I didn't really want to tell them that he died because had been sick, out of concern that they'd be afraid that every ordinary little illness would lead to death. So I said that he was old, and that when people were very old, they sometimes died. This has been my only evasive half-truth of the whole affair, and I don't feel great about it --but I was, after all, in shock.

The kids didn't talk about it much that awful first day, when we spent about 12 hours on the road, scrambling to get to my mother's house as quickly as we could. But with each passing day, they've wanted to talk about it more and more. My daughter asks questions, many times throughout the day: "Did Grandpa Butch die?" "Why did he die?" "Mommy, are you crying because Grandpa Butch died?" "Why won't we see him again?" I try to answer as plainly and honestly as I can, and talk a lot about how our sorrow grows out of love, and how Grandpa Butch lives on in our hearts and memories.

My son is a little more laconic; he'll interject, say, when my daughter is rattling off the names of all the people we ate a meal with, "But not Grandpa Butch -- he died." He's clearly been listening carefully, though, both to Nini's questions and my answers.

They both have been doing a lot of play-acting, like making imaginary phone calls to my father, which my instinct tells me is a healthy thing for them to be doing. They've long since liked to pretend that they're Grandpa Butch and Grandma Jean; it was uniquely wrenching to watch them do so last week in front of my grieving mother. At one point, they were sitting side-by-side in a chair, and Desmond declared, "Grandpa Butch is going to kiss Grandma Jean," and then leaned over and kissed his sister. My mom and I, of course, burst into tears.

When the health of their other grandfather took a turn for the worse this week, a wise friend suggested that I encourage them to make a drawing and dictate a get-well message for him. They did, and no sooner had we sealed the envelope to send to Grandpa Mel than Desmond announced he wanted to do another drawing and mail it to Grandpa Butch.

I waited until they'd finished their creation, and asked them if they had any message they wanted me to write down for Grandpa Butch. "I love you, Grandpa Butch," said Desmond. I sealed the envelope, and then I got down to their eye level, and explained that we couldn't really put it in the mail. They looked confused and sad. Thinking quickly, I suggested that we make a special box for any messages they might want to send to Grandpa Butch. They loved the idea, and eagerly decorated an empty shoebox I found in the closet, carefully putting their letter inside.

Today, Nini looked at the box quizzically and asked me, "But how are we going to get the box to Grandpa Butch?" I can tell we're going to be talking about it all for a very long time.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Crafts for Preschoolers

Two words: They suck.

Forgive the harsh language, but I really find most crafts for preschool-age children not just gag-inducing, but developmentally questionable.

Whether it's making little bugs out of pipe cleaners and egg cartons, gluing cotton balls on Santa's beard, or adding decorations to a cut-out animal, preschool crafts always seem to be about nudging children to mimic or embellish something an adult has made.

Even in the most non-judgmental, non-pressured settings, such projects are more about competency -- the ability to place those cotton balls in just the right place -- than they are about creativity. They're often either so easy and unimaginative that they amount to dreary busy work for wee ones, or else require children to do things that are well above their skill level (meaning lots of "help" from adults).

Oh, and the projects are usually really lame.

Don't get me wrong: I love doing crafts. I made all kinds of wacky jewelry in my 20s, created elaborate scrapbooks in my 30s, and now enjoy unwinding in the evening by making altered clothes for my kids.

I just don't think there are many crafts that are appropriate for two-, three-, and four-year-old kids. (Readers, feel free to weigh in -- and, by all means, share any ideas you have for non-sucky, genuinely creative little-kid crafts.)

Kids in this age group are better off doing art instead of crafts: open-ended creation, in which there is no model to copy or modify, no right or wrong. They need lots of time and space to explore different materials and media, scribble and smear, combine and remix, generally mess around -- and use their own imagination to describe what they are creating.

There will be plenty of time, later, for cute creations, if your child is interested in such things. In early childhood, it strikes me as more important to nurture the sense of open-ended exploration that art provides.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bathtub Paints

Bathtub painting ranks high on my list of all-time best activities for toddlers and preschoolers. The idea is simple and brilliant: Soap-based paint enables your kid to be messy and get clean all at the same time.

There are companies that sell such paints, but don't bother buying them. You can make your own for pennies, using my foolproof and wonderfully imprecise recipe:

1. Combine liquid soap with a roughly equivalent amount of cornstarch; mix until smooth.
2. Pour into muffin tins or other small containers, then use a couple of drops of food coloring to create the paint colors you want.

This stuff is going on the skin of your precious little darling, so use something mild and reasonably free of carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and sundry other scary toxins (you'd be surprised what's in seemingly innocuous products like Johnson & Johnson's Baby Bath).

The mixture is great for fingerpainting, if that's something your child enjoys. My kids are mysteriously fastidious about having paint on their hands, which I understand is fairly common among toddlers, so I usually give them brushes or sponges to use.

Your child will likely paint the bathtub walls and every accessible inch of his or her body (no, honey, you really shouldn't put paint in there). And most miraculously, from the parent's point of view, when you rinse everything off at the end, you will not only have given your child a great artistic and sensory experience: you will have cleaned the bathtub.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mind the Gaps?

We got a nice new stack of books today from the awesome Brooklyn Public Library, and while we were looking at one this evening -- I Spy Shapes in Art by Lucy Micklethwait -- I had a humiliating realization: My kids, who turned three this past weekend, don't know their shapes.

Let me not overdramatize: Both children know what a circle is, and can identify triangles and rectangles. But Nini was disturbingly vague on the question of squares, and neither she nor Desmond could identify a diamond or an oval.

I was quite mortified, and realized that we haven't really looked at shape books since they were too young to actually grasp what they were being shown. (You know, the stage where "digesting" a book means literally gumming it.) We used to play with some felt-board shape creatures I made more than a year ago, but they've languished in the closet for months. And somehow shapes haven't made it into our everyday conversation when we're out and about in the world.

I do think this amounts to some pretty lame home preschooling on my part, but upon reflection, I'm not as distressed by this learning gap as I was initially. I intend to draw their attention to shapes in the coming days, re-read the Shapes in Art book with them, maybe find some other shape books to read together (suggestions, anyone, for something not too babyish?). I have great confidence they will learn the ones they don't know quickly.

I also think that, once you get past grasping the basic concept of shapes, learning additional ones is essentially just learning information (at least until you reach the point of bringing mathematics in). They'll have a lifetime to accumulate facts, and the Internet to search when they want to know more, or have forgotten what they once knew.

At this age, I think it's most crucial to support their innate love of learning, to encourage a questioning spirit and nurture the skill of asking good questions, to give them time and space to explore and experiment. Some stressed-out, flashcard-wielding parents might be horrified by my laxity, but learning information strikes me as one of the least important things for young children to do.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Little Green Thumbs

Or perhaps I should say "little muddy thumbs"....

My twins and I have spent a lot of the last week or so working and playing in the garden: planting seeds and annuals, adding compost to the soil, mulching, making glorious mudheaps with the garden hose.

What better toddler activity could there be than gardening? Fresh air, freedom, beauty, dirt; the chance to make things grow and begin to divine something about the mystery of life. Given the chance, children respond powerfully and viscerally to the first signs of spring, to the magic of sprouting seeds and blossoming flowers.

You don't need a garden to share this magic with your child. Until recently, we lived in a seventh-story one-bedroom apartment in the frenzied midst of Midtown Manhattan; I'm sorry to say I didn't grow a thing with my kids last year.

Now I know that even if you have no natural light whatsoever, you can get a packet of watercress seeds and sprout them on some damp cotton balls in a dark, cool cupboard. If you have one window that gets decent light, you can try sprouting sunflower seeds or growing radishes or herbs. So what if your plant doesn't grow to maturity: The main delight for kids comes in that first unfurling of the initial shoot, the spreading of the first seed leaves.

If you're lucky enough to have some outdoor space, you can plant things in containers, or if you're really lucky, plant right in the ground. If you want the experience to be rich and satisfying for your child, let go of any Martha Stewart aspirations: Your basic three-year-old, however good-intentioned, will end up mangling the tender sunflower seedlings, drowning the crocuses with the hose, trampling the pansies, and squishing the hostas.

That's OK. (OK, it's not, but try to grit your teeth and accept a measure of gleeful kiddie destruction.) The most important thing for your child to get out of preschool-age gardening is a sense of joyful connection to the natural world, and an incipient sense of how human activity affects nature. If you actually grow some pretty flowers or some tasty vegetables, consider it a major bonus.

I haven't yet found any really great fiction books for small kids that center on plants, gardening, and the like (readers, please share any suggestions). But there are a lot of great nonfiction books out there, which help give kids the vocabulary and concepts to make sense of what they're doing when they dig in the garden dirt:

Plant (EYE KNOW) by DK Publishing. This series of preschool books is filled with flaps, cut-outs, and similar gimmicks -- but all in the service of clear, concise, interesting information about the natural world. We've been reading this one out in the backyard in between bouts of gardening; we also got our instructions for growing watercress from here.
The Moonflower by Peter and Jean Loewer. I don't think I've ever actually seen a moonflower, but thanks to this beautiful, lyrical book, we've got moonflower seeds sprouting on our windowsill and hawkmoths have become regular characters in my three-year-olds' play monologues.
From Seed to Sunflower by Dr. Gerald Legg. Less poetic and more pedestrian than the wonder-filled moonflower tome, but this book offers detailed images and descriptions of germination, pollination, and other key concepts.
From Seed to Pumpkin by Wendy Pfeffer. Another solid introduction to how plants grow.

And for ideas about what to grow with your kids, and how, check out these two books:
What Shall I Grow? by Ray Gibson. This Usborne Activities book offers lots of ideas of gardening projects you can do even if you don't have a garden.
Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy. If you have a yard where you can garden, consider trying one of the amazing projects in this wonderful book, like growing a playhouse made of sunflowers or planting a flowery maze.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Most small children go through a phase where they ask "why?" about every last thing, but I really wasn't prepared for the hurricane force of two incessant, insistent little questioners.

The "why?" thing hit us suddenly, and hard, while we were travelling over the past three weeks.

Desmond has taken the lead. He'll generally start with solid, interesting questions -- say, "Why is that truck carrying pipes?" But, especially when he's tired, the questions will often become, um, a little less penetrating: "Why is that car green?" "Why does that car have wheels?" "Why is there a man in the car?" The queries come in long staccato bursts, one after the next -- mainly from Desmond, but with Nini chiming in frequently.

Sometimes, when Desmond gets excited, the questions come so fast he can hardly articulate them. When we were riding a cable car in San Francisco last week, he got so worked up that his inquiries about the brakeman and the grip and the bell and the tracks and the hills eventually degenerated into nothing more than the repeated word "why? why? why? why? why?!"

Of course, I'm delighted to have such inquisitive little children. But oh, can it get irritating. Even the most saintly, patient parent -- which I am decidedly not -- must tire of so many questions.

I've come to realize, though, that not all the questions are the same. Desmond doesn't actually expect a response every time he asks "why?" -- even he seems to know, at some level, that some of his queries are just idle chatter.

And at a certain point I figured out what was going on with the most irritating thing of all, his habit of asking the same question over and over again, well after I had given two or three increasingly detailed answers. In a slight fit of pique, I turned the question around and asked him: Des, why do you think the man is putting gas in his car?

He was delighted to be asked -- so much so, it was as if he was asking to be asked.

I've avoided, for the most part, the practice of quizzing my kids to test their knowledge -- I'm persuaded by John Holt's argument that such quizzing is often pointless or even harmful. But I'm realizing that my kids are also eager for ways to show what they know and to describe things in their own words.

So now when the "whys" come in big, long bursts, I'm learning to turn it from an interrogation into a conversation -- and finding that we all get more out of the exchange that way.
How Children Fail by John Holt
This unschooling classic details the many ways that traditional educational techniques can unintentionally drain away children's self-confidence and joy in learning. Remember being bored and peeved by stupid worksheets and quizzes when you were in school? Read this book for great insights into how not to subject your own kids to the same mind-numbing stupidities.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

On the Road

We're in the San Francisco Bay Area now, after having first spent a week in Austin, TX. I brought my computer along thinking that I'd write at night in the hotel room after the kids went to sleep ... but somehow, each night, I've collapsed into bed instead. Though we've traveled a great deal with Desmond and Nini ever since they were wee wigglers, I tend to forget how much more energy an adventurous day of travel requires than an ordinary day at home.

And we've had many adventures, mainly outdoor ones. The wildflowers were beginning to bloom in Texas, including the bluebonnets, and we spent a lot of time enjoying their beauty and fragrance and talking about how they get their names. The flowers are blooming here in California, too. Desmond has been the most excited about them, asking lots of questions about the difference between wildflowers and cultivated flowers and making wonderful observations, like when he remarked that the inside of a California poppy looked just like a sea anemone.

We've seen lots of animals, too: Red-eared slider turtles and even one big snapping turtle in Texas; Austin's raucous flocks of grackles, which the kids chased while quoting from A.A. Milne: "Shoo, silly old dragons!"; pink starfish and porcelain crabs in the tidepools near California's Half Moon Bay; the famous sea lions of San Francisco's Pier 39.

We've basked in warm sunshine, marveled at a dramatic Texas thunderstorm, talked a lot about San Francisco's fog. We've ridden a miniature train, an airport monorail, a cable car, and an electric bus, which for some reason was an extra big hit with Desmond, who called it a "tremble bus" and was fascinated by the overhead wires that powered it.

I can't imagine anything my kids could be learning in a school setting at this age that would compare with these experiences. We're exceedingly fortunate in the amount we're able to travel, but one doesn't have to travel far to stimulate a three-year-old and expose him to something new and engaging. A trip to the farmer's market, the hardware store, a freight yard, a botanical garden, an art gallery, or even something as quotidian as a drainage ditch can be as thrilling to a small child as a trip far from home.

And in the middle of all these adventures, when you're not even paying attention to whether you're teaching the shapes or the numbers or the alphabet, your kids will unexpectedly reveal that they've been learning more than you realized. Though we're usually huge readers, we've been too busy out in the world during this trip to spend much time with books -- yet the other day, Desmond picked one up and, when he thought no one was watching, read out to himself, for the very first time: "C - A - T. That spells cat!"

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Trying Too Hard

This photo of my daughter, taken almost exactly a year ago, rotates regularly through my computer's screensaver. It's a cute enough picture, but mainly it's a reminder to me that my kids learn best when I don't push it too hard.

The night before the photo was taken, I had stayed up late and made a special alphabet set-up on the kids' play table. Streamers divided the play space into four long rectangles, each devoted to a letter. I filled the spaces with everyday items that started with the letter in question: a block, a ball, and a bus for the letter B; carrots and cars for the letter C; and so on.

Nini went straight for the letter-A apple and bit right into it; I don't believe she even noticed the letters, and I'm certain she attached no particular significance to them. Desmond, when he bestirred himself from bed, merrily rolled the little cars along the streamer dividers, squawking with joy at the cool racetrack Mommy had made.

My kids were not quite two years old, and not nearly ready to grasp the concept I was trying so hard to illustrate.

Certainly it wasn't a bad thing that I set up this little table -- the kids had fun with it, in their own way. But it wasn't necessary. I was trying too hard.

It's only now, a year later, that they're starting to ask me what letter various words begin with.

In between, I learned a lot of things: that quizzing them about their knowledge of the alphabet only made them tense up; that when they were ready and felt unpressured, they eagerly started pointing out letters on their own, and asking about the ones they didn't know; and that the best way to introduce them to new and challenging things is to pay careful attention to their interests, desire, and pace.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Play Tables

To the extent that I've been conceiving of this time with my kids as "school" at all, I've considered it Preschool-in-the-World as much or more than Preschool-at-Home. But during the cold weather of recent weeks, we've been cooped up in the apartment for days at a time, and I've gained a renewed sense of how much a great play surface means to a small child.

We've had a train table for more than a year, since my twins were about 2 1/2, and it's been their favorite play spot. They're getting a little tall for it, though, and we're fortunate to have a big open space in our living room, so I recently ordered an actual preschool table from a school supply company to supplement what we have.

It's fabulous. It has folding legs, so I can store it away when I want. The height adjusts, so the table will grow as the kids do. And it's super sturdy, so they can climb all over it, bang on it, smear it, and slime it.

From the minute I opened the box, the kids gravitated to it -- for everything from painting to building block towers to putting together jigsaw puzzles, they'd much rather stand at a table than sit on the floor. In less than two weeks in our apartment, it's been a fort, a bed for stuffed animals, a reading spot, and an art space.

It wasn't cheap -- with shipping, it was more than $150 -- but where I live, that sum wouldn't even cover half a week of preschool tuition for my twins, so I consider it a very worthwhile investment.

Now I'm just waiting for the weather to warm up so we can drag it out to the back yard and use it as a water table ....

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Owl Spotting

Yesterday, late in the day, we went tromping out in the woods next to my parent's house. We were studying some fungus on a fallen log when our exuberant noises startled a very large bird. "Must be a hawk," my dad said.

Something about the bird's flight didn't seem very hawklike to me, so I started looking up at the bare-limbed trees to see if I could spot where it had landed. To my amazement, I saw an enormous Great Horned Owl, gazing placidly down at us from its high perch with what seemed like a mix of irritation and bemusement.

I couldn't believe our good fortune. I've only ever spotted owls in the forest twice before in my lifetime. But as I excitedly held up each of my twins and helped them locate the majestic creature in the treetops, they seemed interested and pleased, but not really all that impressed.

Indeed, the more I tried to explain to them how extraordinary it was to see an owl in the wild, the more my kids seemed to tune me out, in a two-going-on-twelve kind of way.

I was a little disappointed by their reaction, but I realized later why they would take an owl sighting seemingly for granted.

They are, after all, at an age where their mental universe is to a significant degree a world of storybooks. They reference real people and their own lived experience in their play, of course, but not to nearly the same extent as the characters and events they've learned about from books.

The world they know teems with wild animals. Owls? You can readily encounter one squeezing into a snow-white mitten with a host of other creatures, or playing games with a firefly, or offering sage advice from his perch in the Hundred Acre Wood. When I exclaimed to them about the impressive size of the owl we saw yesterday, they countered by saying it was in fact Bill, the smallest and most babylike of Martin Waddell's Owl Babies.

Here I was trying to point out a bit of magic in the everyday to them, and they -- without quite realizing they were doing it -- ended up reminding me how wondrous the world of their imagination is.

Fair enough. Let them be blase, protected as they are for now from the sobering realities of a world whose wildlife has been decimated: It was still very cool to see that owl.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Toys That Teach?

My mother took the kids on an outing to a local toy store today, where we got them some great new playthings: a bag of marbles, a wooden sailboat, and two toy horses.

The store is proudly called "Toys That Teach." It's a lovely place, with a great selection of well-made, quality toys.

But I found myself thinking, why couldn't it be called Toys That Delight?

I know the owners are trying to distinguish themselves from the sort of toy store that sells loads of plastic crap and mesmerizing-narcotizing gizmos, but the trend toward insisting upon the educational merit of toys is way over the top.

Infant toys now come with little usage guides for parents, usually embellished with a lot of pedagogical hoo-hah designed to make mom or dad think that a $10 rattle will set their kid on an early path to Harvard. With toddler and preschool toys, you always find some pious little text on the box about all the skills the product will help develop (cognitive! communications! social!).

Don't get me wrong: I think there are a lot of really crappy toys on the market today, and that it's worthwhile to seek out toys that encourage certain kinds of play -- and avoid whole categories of playthings that colonize rather than inspire children's imaginations. (I'll write a whole post on this one day soon.)

But there's some dour Protestant work ethos at work in the notion that toys shouldn't be merely fun. Somewhere behind all the educational claims about toys is a defensiveness about pleasure for pleasure's sake, coupled with the high-stakes/low-creativity standardized-testing model of schooling brought to us by No Child Left Behind.

Bah on all that. Of course children learn through play. But if there's one lesson I want to be sure my kids take away from playtime, it's that fun and joy and delight are precious in their own right.

Monday, February 26, 2007

13 Great Nature Activities for the Very Young

We're paying a week's visit to Virginia, where spring is already beginning. My daughter and I found a clump of daffodils that were starting to bloom, and spent a long and lovely time just looking at them and touching them. Nini was especially interested in running her fingers over the buds and talking about how they soon would bloom.

In my opinion, the best nature experiences for toddlers and preschoolers are the simplest. Small children intuitively grasp the magic of the natural world, if given a real, unhurried chance to explore it; you need only gently steer them toward its wonders.

Some ideas:
  1. Find some ants. Watch them crawl.
  2. Find dandelions. Rub your fingers on the flowers until your finger turn bright yellow.
  3. Find dandelions that have gone to seed. Blow the seeds into the wind.
  4. Same as above, but wave them around like magic wands.
  5. Go to a stream. Pick up some small rocks and throw them in the water ("Plunk!").
  6. Go to a stream. Throw a stick or piece of grass in the water and watch it float away.
  7. Find some pine cones. Rub them together like percussion instruments.
  8. Find some moss. Feel the texture, observe the color.
  9. Lift up a big rock and see who scuttles away from underneath.
  10. Pick up some dry leaves and crumple them in your hands.
  11. Find a pine tree and feel the needles. Break a needle in half and smell it.
  12. Find some sticks. Poke and scratch the ground.
  13. Lie on your back. Look up at the trees, and the sky, and the clouds.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Utterly on-target, this lyrical (though somewhat disorganized) book details the increasing alienation of many children from the natural world and outlines the many benefits -- psychological, ecological, medical, and more -- from nurturing kids' relationships to the outdoors.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Buttons, Beans, and Similar Delights

For some time, one of our favorite activities around here has been what we variously call "the button game," "the bean game," "the jingle bell game," or "the rhinestone game," depending on what assortment of small objects we're using.

It's not really a game, in any literal sense of the word: It's a simple, and deeply satisfying, fill-and-dump extravaganza for toddlers. (For common-sense reasons, your kid has to be past the point of putting everything in her mouth.)

Get a big plastic bin, and add an array of dried beans or craft buttons or little bells or anything of that sort. Supply a selection of spoons, cups, funnels, cardboard tubes, pie pans -- anything a small child can use to scoop, measure, transfer, or pour.

The pleasures here are tactile, but also aural: I like to provide metal scoops, cups, and pans to heighten the delightful plinking sounds. When you've got a colorful array of objects to play with, it's visually exciting, too.

My kids can be engrossed for as long as two solid hours with this game. They love the feeling of mastery it gives them over a little manipulatable world. It's alternately contemplative (pick up little beans one by one) and rowdy (dump a whole pile of them on the floor ... whoops).

Once I made the mistake of trying to be all directive and teachy with this game: I brought out different colored cups and coaxed the kids into sorting buttons out by color. They grimly complied for a short while, then wisely ignored my directions altogether in favor of something far more interesting. By the end of that play session, they had created little button families, sent some of the buttons on long trucking expeditions, and made a really awesome button slide out of their vintage Fisher-Price parking garage.

Be prepared for mess: Even when they're truly trying not to spill beans or rhinestones or buttons all over the floor, it happens. If you're in a Montessori mood, you can bring out a whisk broom and dustpan and turn clean-up into its own game.

Holding Back: Toys, Drawing, and Other Adult Temptations

It's taken me some time, but I've been learning more and more that there are times when the best thing I can do for my kids is to leave them alone.

I got my first lesson in holding back when I re-read the educational classic Summerhill. My grandmother had given me the book when I was 12, and its account of a long-lived and succcessful experiment in free schooling made a deep impression on me. Revisiting the book nearly three decades later, when I was beginning to think about how I wanted to educate my own children, one passage in particular jumped out at me, in which the irascible A.S. Neill offered some excellent advice: Never show a child how to play with a toy.

Never show a child how to play with a toy: It made immediate, perfect sense to me. "Teaching" a child how to use a toy robs the child of the joy, excitement, and challenge of discovery.

But we grown-ups seem powerfully drawn to show children how things work -- or rather, how we think they should work (children, left to their own devices, tend to see far more possibilities in things than we ever could). Is it vanity ... as if we have to prove to a two-year-old that we're more competent than they? Perhaps it's mistrust in the child's abilities, for that's certainly part of the message it sends.

I've had to train myself not to demonstrate things to my children -- to let them try out new playthings in their own way, at their own pace, and to hold off on offering assistance until asked.

The same principle, I've come to see, applies powerfully to young children's art, especially drawing. I had read advice similar to Neill's in Susan Striker's Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression, Problem-Solving Skills, and an Appreciation for Art. It, too, made sense to me: Don't draw on your kids' paper or "demonstrate" drawing for them -- it makes them focus on your creations rather than their own, and make them feel that what they are doing is somehow inferior.

Yet one day, when my twins were about two, I nonetheless began absent-mindedly drawing little stars on the corner of the paper where my kids were scribbling with markers. They were suddenly transfixed. They put down their markers and asked me to draw more. I reluctantly agreed but then gently tried to nudge them to resume their drawing. Forget it: They could focus on nothing but the little stars I had made. That drawing session was completely overtaken by my stupid doodles; so were the next two or three. I didn't draw any more stars, but they kept begging me to do so and couldn't focus on their own lines and swirls.

More recently, a series of well-meaning babysitters I was auditioning began doing little drawings for my kids: stick figures, clouds, little cars, that sort of thing. I wasn't happy about it, but I didn't want to come off as some whacked-out, overcontrolling mother, so I didn't say anything to them.

My daughter had been in a phase of drawing and painting quite imaginatively: creating loops and swirls on the paper and happily calling them snails or fish or seahorses. Then one day I got out the paper and markers, and she asked me to draw a mouse for her. I demurred, saying I would like to see her do it instead. She shocked me by bursting into tears: "It's too hard," she said. "I can't do it. You do it for me."

I nearly cried myself. My sweet, eager, world-conquering two-and-a-half-year-old, suddenly filled with self-doubt and self-deprecation?

Needless to say, I talked to the babysitters. It took a few weeks, but Nini stopped asking me to draw for her, and regained her sense of confidence in her own drawing. Her squiggles, scribbles, and marks have meaning for her again, and I'm delighted to sit on the sidelines, watching her create.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


The first couple of times I tried letting my kids paint, it was something of a disaster. On the least successful occasion, when they were 1 1/2, I convinced myself that setting them up with a bunch of tempera paints in the bathtub would be a good idea; somehow I also thought it was prudent not to put the bathmat in. Slimy creatures were soon slipping and falling all over the place, paint-covered and weeping to get out.

Nowadays, my nearly three-year-olds love to paint, and can usually be trusted not to slime the universe when they do. I've been finding that the more frequently they paint, the more they seem to enjoy and get out of it, with each day's session somehow building into the next.

With kids' activities, I've learned, there's a good reason why the classics are the classics: Simple pursuits like painting don't just stimulate the imagination; they provide satisfying tactile pleasures and an outlet for complex emotions that toddlers can't yet articulate. More narrowly channeled activities, like toys that can be played with in only one way, don't address the range of toddler needs and desires the way open-ended ones do.

Are the kids also learning about color and form and gesture when they paint? Sure -- but that's not the point of it, at least not in my book. When you try to load too much "learning" into an activity for small children, you risk robbing it of its magic. Far better, I think, to leave it freeform and let your kids make of it what they will. They will almost certainly surprise you.
Doing it yourself? You can buy a mountain of high-quality supplies for a fraction of the cost of preschool tuition (unless, of course, you live in some extraordinary place far, far from Brooklyn where preschool is actually affordable). This is not a place to skimp, in my book: It's a drag to feel like you're rationing paint when your kids are reveling in the sloppy satisfactions of excess. Try buying washable tempera (or washable glitter paint!) from an economical source like Discount School Supply. You might also want to invest in a big roll of butcher paper or a ream of 18" x 24" paper.

First Art: Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos by MaryAnn F. Kohl
A must-have guide to art activities for the very young, with a great overview of why "it's the process, not the product" when doing art with small children.
The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown
Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) is at her dreamiest and most psychedelic in this sweet, beautiful tale of two kittens and their quest to create the color green.
Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh
Another color-mixing tale, featuring a trio of mice who explore color as they outsmart a cat.
The Crocodile's True Colors by Eva Montanari
Truth be told, I find this book to be irritatingly didactic, but I'm including it here because my twins love it. A group of African animals learn about various styles of art as each paints its own fearful portrait of a crocodile. Cool illustrations, and before you know it your two-year-old will (sigh) be talking about "futurism" and "expressionism."

Puddle Stomping

With temperatures climbing up into the mid-40s, I went with the kids and our friends R. and R. to Fort Greene Park today, to seek out some good slush, puddles, and mud.

The kids, of course, had a marvelous time. The day was warm, the puddles were big, there were lots of sticks around to drag through the mud.

Most of us have happy childhood memories of doing just this sort of thing: delighting in the mucky pleasures of early springtime, splashing joyfully in backed-up gutters after a heavy summer rain, floating homemade boats down some random drainage ditch.

Maybe it's just because I live in New York City, but in all the time I've spent out splashing with my kids in the nearly two years since they learned to walk, I have never -- never -- seen another parent doing the same. Adults unaccompanied by small children are always stopping to share stories of their own childhood puddle stomping; parents accompanied by small children, however, nearly always hurry past, giving me a dirty look while they fend off requests from their kids to join in my muddy little monsters' fun.

What gives? Playing in puddles and mud and muck is one of the inalienable rights of childhood. It clearly satisfies some deep need to connect with the watery world; it's an activity in which small children invariably lose themselves, finding a kind of peace and joy that we should foster. It should be on every parent's spring to-do list.
Two words: Wool socks! Wool keeps you warmer when wet than any other substance. (Wet cotton sucks heat away from the body, a fine trait in summertime but really bad in cool-to-cold weather.) Unfortunately, it's not that easy to find wool socks in wee sizes, and they can be pricey, but I think it's well worth the expense. Try a Google or Froogle search for "toddler wool socks."

Mud by Mary Lynn Ray
A kid-pleasing ode to the "gooey, gloppy, mucky, magnificent mud" of early springtime.