December PP

I have an article in Practical Parenting this month. Actually, I'm pleased to say I have articles coming out in the next 4 issues, so stay tuned.

This month's is a really simple idea for sand play. Most kids love playing in the sand pit and I've written about an idea for imaginative play for all those animal lovers out there. It's on page 82 of December's PP, so have a look if you get a chance.

The Water Boy

When I found my little boy in the bathroom sink the other day, up to his elbows in water, I knew it was time to save myself and the bathroom and set up some water play (again!). I have done this for him so many times now and he really does love it. The weather is perfect at the moment, so I got out my plastic tubs, set up two tables (because his sister was home) and collected up all of the water toys I could get my hands on.

Usually I would set up something with a specific goal in mind, but he has done it so many times now, I decided to get the toys out and let him decide what path the play would take. This helps him use some extra thinking skills as he remembers what he has done before and works out how to achieve what he has planned.

Getting out quite a few different play things also meant that Em could play what she liked at her level and wasn't stuck with what Ed wanted to do.

They both chose different toys and played different types of games. Sometimes they worked together and played different roles in the same story, other times they went solo and did their own things. They both had loads of fun though and played happily for quite a long time on the deck. It was a great way to have them both busy while still allowing them to play at their own developmental level.

A Booklet for Early Learning

I've been working with a friend of mine this term who is a paediatric speech pathologist. We've written a program that we've been running at the local community centre called "Early Learners". It's a play-based language and learning program based around open ended activities that are lots of fun and help children to experiment, explore and learn.

We've put 20 of our favourite activities into a booklet. Each activity uses simple items that you would find around the home or could buy cheaply and is written up in a recipe format that it is easy read and follow. We've also included some tips on things you can say as a parent to promote learning and development. But the best thing about these activities is that, for the most part, you can set up the play and go away, knowing that your child is engaging in play that promotes learning and development. The tips can be used when you check in to see how things are going.

The activities are really simple ideas like different ways to paint and dramatic play scenes to set up for your child to play in. But what makes them so valuable is that it's simple, basic open-ended play experiences that children stay involved in and get the most developmental benefits from.

The booklet costs $15 AU plus $2 p&h within Australia or $5 for overseas postage. If you're interested in purchasing a copy, you could leave a comment or contact me via my email -

*Apologies if you've emailed me about the booklet and I haven't replied, I've been having problems with my email address and haven't received them or any comments. If you'd still like a copy of the booklet, we have a limited number left, please email me at

A Change is as Good as a New Toy

As I've mentioned earlier, we have a few dolls' houses around the place and one of them (a plastic fisher-price number) is usually a permanent fixture in our lounge room. Ed would pull it out every so often as a house for his cars, but Em (who it belongs to) hadn't visited the house for quite a while.

This changed this week, when the dolls' house took a little trip to playgroup and then ended up in our sitting room rather than in it's usual spot in the lounge room. This has breathed new life into it for Em who has played with it everyday since its shift.

She sets up the most elaborate play scenes and has left me wondering - what is the appeal? It's funny how moving it's location helps her to see it again after ignoring it in the lounge room for a good few months. It makes me consider what other toys we could move around and whether buying new toys is always necessary?.....

Toys for Baby

I am lucky enough to be god-mother to a gorgeous ten month old little girl and looking after her always gets me thinking about how important play is for babies. Just the simplest toy or item from around the home provides an opportunity for learning, skill development, exploration and experimentation.

I have a bunch of baby toys still in Ed's cupboard. I have got rid of quite a few, but there are some that both the kids enjoyed so much (and still do on occasion) that I haven't been able to part with them. And it's a good thing too given that I still regularly have a baby in the house.

The wonderful thing about babies is that they'll play with just about anything you give them. Everything is new and wonderful, so chances are they'll pick it up, have a shake and a good look, put it in their mouth and move it around a bit. If they like it or are interested, they'll hold on to it for a while and have a bit of a think about what else they can do with it, if they don't, they'll put it down and move onto the next thing.

I've learnt a few tricks over the years about engaging babies in play and I thought I'd share some of the things I bear in mind when I'm getting toys together for my god-daughter. Here is a photo of the group of toys I gave her last time she was here.

Tip 1. Don't give a baby too many toys.
They get overwhelmed really easily and I always found that giving my babies a lot of toys would mean they spent less time exploring each toy individually and would randomly move from one toy onto the next. A few specially chosen toys at a time is a much better option.

Tip 2. Include toys that they can explore and experiment with.
The stacking cups and ball you can see in the picture are loved by every baby who comes into contact with them. The ball is easy to hold and chew, can be thrown or rolled and babies are intrigued by the multitude of holes and ways it can be held. The stacking cups can be used lots of different ways too and it's great to include a dummy or smaller (baby safe) toy that can be put inside the cups.

Tip 3. Always include a book and a furry friend.
Books for babies are wonderful. They learn very quickly how to turn pages and hold the book the right way up so that the pictures can be seen properly. I have taught a few children in my time who can't handle a book correctly at aged 4, it's something that comes with exposure and practice and I personally don't think kids are ever too young to start.

Soft toys are fantastic for developing motor skills and eye hand co-ordination. Babies also love to sit and babble to their furry friends which is great for early language development. Soft toys can also be very reassuring for a baby who is getting used to sitting by themselves to play with mummy just out of view.

Tip 4. Put everything into a baby-safe container.
This creates an activity in itself as baby takes each item out and then puts some back in. Some babies will really enjoy including a lid that can be taken off and put back on. You can see in the picture I've used a small plastic storage container, but empty shoe boxes and large metal mixing bowls work just as well.

Tip 5. Include some items from around the home.
Babies are drawn to everyday items. I think it's natures' way of getting them to learn about the environment they live in. They have an intrinsic desire to seek out items, explore them and find out how they work. It's a beautiful thing. You can see I've made some shakers using grains and soft drink bottles, put some crinkled up catalogue paper into a knee hi stocking and thrown in some empty plastic fruit and yoghurt container. It's not surprising that these were my girl's favourite toys!

It's REALLY REALLY important to note however, that everyday items have not undergone the stringent safety testing that baby toys have (obviously, I know, but it needs to be said!) Babies should always be supervised when they're being given something for the first time and the item should be continually checked for wear and tear and possible safety hazards. Never give a baby anything that is small enough to fit into a film canister and always listen to you inner voice - if you have the slightest doubt about something, take it away.

Not Listening!

Ed has been going through a very challenging phase over the last month or so. In my humble opinion, whoever coined the phrase "terrible twos" was yet to parent a three year old.

What I personally find difficult with head-strong, independent, opinionated yet emotionally immature and irrational three year olds is the fact that it is so hard to get them to listen and co-operate.

My teacher training and years of early-childhood experience have been heavily drawn upon in the last few weeks as I've reflected on our daily lives and routines, re-visited my knowledge about what is developmentally appropriate for this age and gone over what I know about managing behaviour.

I've used a bunch of different strategies to get me through and I finally feel like we're over the worst of it and heading into a new phase.

There's no denying that as children change and grow, they go through difficult stages where, as they re-negotiate their position in the world, they challenge boundaries and test their limits. It's perfectly natural and is to be expected, but I really believe there are things we can do as a parent to make these times a little easier for everyone involved.

Here are some of the strategies I've adopted to encourage Ed to listen and co-operate a little better:

1. Trying to get to the root of his misbehaviour - I read a great book while I was studying called "Understanding Children" by Jeanette Harrison. I've taken a lot from it, but the biggest thing that I've found helpful with both my kids is understanding that children have a motivation for their misbehaviour. It's almost always happening for a reason. When I reflected on Ed not listening and co-operating when I wanted him to, I came to the conclusion that a big reason for him being difficult is the fact that he probably feels a little powerless in his day-to-day life and so he excerpts his power and tries to regain control by defying what he is being asked to do.

So, my first step was to:

2. Give him some choices and decisions that make him feel a little more in control - simple things like letting him choose his clothes, get himself dressed, set the table, choose what flavour juice we buy, where we go in our spare time, choose a meal we have for dinner. All the choices and decisions that are really quite irrelevant when it all boils down, but can mean a lot to a three year old.

Then I:

3. Looked at our weekly schedule - the poor little thing gets dragged to two different playgroups that I run, plus school pick up and drop off every day, plus grocery shopping and errand running. He gets shipped off in the car way more than his sister ever did and it's a lot to cope with when all you want to do is stay home and play with your cars and trains.

So I:

4. Re-organised things so he wouldn't be pulled around so much - my mum came over from Adelaide for a week and stayed with him so he could have a little rest and then I've organised some play dates for him to go on when I work so he's not being dragged along there when he's tired. The school pick up he just has to wear, but I've also tried to organise a few more days at home, just while he's going through this phase.

That means we can:

5. Have a little fun together - by setting up play experiences for him and having times when we laugh together, it's not all nag, nag, nag. He feels valued and important and that way when I ask him to do things, he's in a better mood and more likely to be receptive.

It also means he can:

6. Sleep, sleep , sleep - sleep breeds sleep and he just wasn't getting enough which meant he was getting less rest than he needed and he was tired and cranky. We all know how hard it is to be open and receptive to what people want when we are sleep deprived.

All these things help to limit the behaviour, but I also have a few little tricks up my sleeve for when it still presents itself.

7. Consequences - I use these all the time. It's great if the consequences occur naturally, but if they don't, a logical consequence can be really effective eg. "If you use that as a weapon, I'll have to take it away from you so your sister doesn't get hurt", or "If you are going to run away from me, I'll have to hold your hand, because it's not safe" or "Stand up so I can wash you or I'll have to just get you out of the bath". The consequences should always relate directly to what is going on and I think it's good to ask for what you want a few times before you offer a consequence, that way the child has the opportunity to do what you want without the consequence looming.

8. The timer - for some reason both my kids listen to the timer way more than they listen to me. I guess you just can't argue with an electronic timing device connected to the oven. So, I use it mostly when I want them to change what they're doing and move onto a new part of the routine eg. "When the timer goes, it's time for a bath" or "I'm going to put the timer on for ten minutes, then it's bed time". It works a treat.

9. Breaking tasks down - Ed has trouble coping with more than one to two instructions at a time - as do most children his age. This also means that it's hard for him to break down and attempt tasks on his own. He's finally mastered getting dressed, but I still sometimes need to break it down for him when he's having a bad day. So, instead of saying "It's time to get dressed", I'll say "It's time to get your pants on", then move through each item of clothing until he's done. Similarly instead of asking him to tidy up his room, I'll ask him to put his cars away, then his trains, etc.

10. Some things I don't ask ... - I learnt very early in my teaching career, there are some things you don't ask. It leaves too much opportunity for the answer to be 'no'. So if I really want something done, I don't ask, I assume it will happen eg instead of "Shall we go now?", I'll say "It's time to go" and take his hand.

A very long post I know, but it actually feels good to get this off my chest. It's been a long month, but there's finally some light at the end of the tunnel. Who knew this parenting caper would be such hard work....??

Finishing Off My Week With Ed

My week of setting up activities for Ed ended with some racetracks and some art work.

On Thursday we got out one of my husband's old Hot Wheels racetracks for Ed to play with. I took a few minutes to put it all together and he played with it for a couple of hours. The great thing about where he is at at the moment is he loves to add to things I set up. He is constantly thinking about what he can add to what he's doing. This is why it's great to have a whole range of toys accessible to children from about 2 years and up, particularly toys and accessories that are open-ended and stimulate imagination, curiosity and exploration.

On Friday we were watercolour painting. This is one of my favourite types of painting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it involves a lot of thinking. To get a good result, the brush needs to be washed in water before it's put into another colour. The brush also needs to move around on the colour chosen for a little while in order for the water to mix with the paint. This means it can take a little bit of time and thought, instead of instant result being achieved like when arcrylic paints are used. It's also great for younger children like Ed too, though, because it almost always leads to a sponatneous exploration of colour mixing, which is something Ed really enjoyed on Friday.

Lastly, it is super easy to clean up and doesn't stain anything it gets on, which is a huge plus in my book. You can see in the photo, I use a really old sheet to protect the table and recycled yoghurt and fruit containers to hold the water in. Only one brush is used and this is really easy to wash out and the paints can be rinsed under water if the colours get too mixed up. Because it's so easy to clean up, I even let my kids do it indoors, although I wouldn't recommend this for first timers!

Drawing on Wednesday

Ed and I were out all day yesterday, catching up with friends, and so play needed to wait untl well after school. But, determined to follow through on my quest to set up a play experience for Ed everyday this week, I got a few things out just as I was about to prepare dinner.

Our dining room adjoins our kitchen, so the kids love to set up something for themselves to do at the dining room table while I cook. They can be busy and I can be busy, but we can still talk to each other and be together.

Last night I got some paper and crayons out for Ed and some transport stencils I bought from the supermarket. He has used these stencils before and really enjoys them, but he usually uses textas.I thought I would make the experience slightly different this time by adding crayons instead. Changing drawing implements like this allows your child to use difefrent skills. They need to hold the implement differently, apply different amounts of pressure and renegoiate a task that they are familiar with. These things work fine motor skills and cognitive skills.

While I was getting things organised last night, I discovered an extra bonus of my quest to set things up for Ed this week. It's something that I hadn't really reflected on, but is probably the most developmentally beneficial learning point of all. As I said to Ed, "I'm going to set something up for you to do, come and sit up here", his face lit up with excitement and his sister moaned "Oh, can you set something up for me too?"

As I got them both set up and made my way to the kitchen to start preparing dinner, I replayed what had just happened over in my head and realised how affirming it is for the kids when I take the time to set something up for them. It sends such a powerful message of "I value you, you are important to me and I want you to grow and develop and pursue your interests and creativity". What a wonderful boost to their self-esteem.

What we did on Tuesday

I'm committed to setting up a play experience for Ed everyday this week and I have to admit, yesterday was a real challenge. I work on Monday and Tuesday morning at the local community centre where I run a couple of play-based kid's activity groups. Ed comes along to both of these groups and so by Tuesday afternoon, we are both exhausted.

He put himself to bed as soon as we got home and slept for 2 hours before we had to rush off to get Em from school. After school, we headed off to the library to get some more car and truck books (I can't believe he's not sick of them yet - we keep getting the same ones!!) and then home to make dinner and have a bath.

I decided to squeeze his activity into bath time. There are so many lovely activities you can set up in the bath and most children just love playing with water - it is one of Ed's favourite things to.

I collected up a bunch of plastic containers big and small as well as some disposable plastic plates I had left over from birthday parties. I then got together some plastic animals of varying shapes and sizes. I just put them on the edge of the bath and left the kids to work out what they wanted to do.

Of course, Ed complained that there weren't any cars, but he was happy to just play with the animals for a change. I sat for a while and we talked about sinking and floating and how many animals could fit in the container. We explored concepts of heavy and light, sinking and floating, in and out and large and small, by just letting the kids experiment while we talked about what they were doing. When the experimentation was over, Em and Ed created their own imaginative play game where the animals would travel in their boats to get to an island. The big animals were the 'Mummies" and the small animals were the 'Babies'. Here, they were working on their social skills and developing their self-esteem and sense of self. There is so much learning and developing to be had in imaginative play games and the wonderful thing about siblings is that they learn so much from each other (with a little help from mum of course!).

The Second Time Around

I've been feeling a little guilty lately that I don't seem to take the time to set up the activities for Ed that I did for Em when she was his age. I'm a lot busier these days with work, writing, school and a lot more play dates than when I was a lonely mother of one, yet to enter the wonderful social world of Kinder and school. But I'm being a bit tough on myself because play is important and it really matters, so this week, I'm committed to setting up something for Ed to do everyday.

He does play everyday now, but a lot of the time it's initiated by him. With Em, I would set up things that would stimulate her interest, imagination and curiosity. Sometimes I feel like my boy doesn't get the same opportunities. So, I've said 'no' to lots of things this week, and we have some home time planned.

I work on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I will have to have pretty basic activities for the first two days of the week, but sometimes it doesn't take much to set up something exciting.

Today, I went with water play. It's a lovely sunny day here in Melbourne, so I got a plastic basin full of water and put it onto a child-sized table on the deck. We added some plastic cars, toothbrushes, facewashers,a water wheel and a cup - and hey presto! we had an instant car wash. Lots of learning and fun for very little time.

Birthday Traditions

I've read many articles over the years about the importance of establishing family traditions. They have huge developmental benefits by giving children a sense of belonging and adding to self esteem. They also help to create a sense of family unity and culture. My husband and I have created a few traditions over the years as well as carrying on some from our own families.

My little girl celebrated her sixth birthday on Saturday and it really brought home to me just how important traditions can be and for the first time, I could see how kids benefit form them with my own eyes. Em is old enough now to remember birthdays that have been and gone, and given the fact that Ed had his birthday back in June, Em was able to remember a lot of the things we did for him and she was really excited that it was her turn this time.

I was quite surprised actually at what these little traditions meant to her and she was so keen and eager to be a part of them. It added to her excitement and she had a strong sense of feeling special and being a part of something bigger. It was a really lovely weekend for our family.

We don't do anything major, but these were the things Em was really looking forward to and couldn't wait to be a part of.

Some of our "Butler Family Birthday Traditions":
- Choosing a birthday cake - Growing up, whenever a birthday would roll around, mum would always let us look through her "Women's Weekly" birthday cake book and choose the cake we wanted. It didn't matter how difficult it was, mum would always have a go. I remember loving this as a child. It really did make me feel special and I loved knowing that mum would happily make whatever cake we wanted, just to make our day as special as she could. I've tried to do the same for my kids and my sister does it for her kids too.

- Presents on the coffee table - I didn't really mean for this to become a tradition, but it has taken on a bit of a life of it's own. The night before each child's birthday, I'll wrap the presents and collect up any that have come from family interstate. They all go onto the coffee table for excited little ones to find first thing in the morning. It comes with a very strict "look but don't touch" rule, which has worked well for us so far.

- "The last day I'm 5" - the night before the birthday, I take a photo of the children on the last day before they turn a year older. I always have a little chat to them about what has happened through the year just gone and encourage them to reflect on what they've enjoyed. I record this in a little notebook I've had since they were young.

- The Birthday interview - folowing on from that, since Em's fourth birthday, I've asked her some interview questions and written down her answers. I think she will enjoy looking back on them as she gets older and she can see how she is growing and changing. They're pretty simple questions like - Your favourite food, colour, friends, toys, but I may make them a little more involved as she gets bigger. I think self-reflection is such a lovely thing to nurture.

- Family time - whether we have a party or not, we always spend some time together as a family on the weekend before or after the birthday and try to have a special outing. In the past few years, we've taken Em to the Melbourne show but this year we went bowling.

- Birthday dinner - Again, regardless of what else has gone on, we always have a family dinner on Birthday night and the person who is celebrating gets to choose exactly what we have. This is always followed up by a cake, which means I am often stuck making two cakes for one birthday, but looking at that little smile as she blows out the candles, surrounded by the people who love her makes it all worth it!!

What birthday traditions do you have in your family? I would love to hear about them.

A House Not Just For Dolls

We have 4 dolls' houses at our house. One holds all our board books, the kid's have one in each of their rooms and the other is a lovely small wooden one that is in the playroom for everyone to use.

A dolls' house is great for development. It provides a lovely back drop for imaginative play games that work on fine motor and language development, cognitive skills and of course those very important social and emotional skills. It's such a lovely place for children to play out the social rules and norms they see going on in their everyday lives.

I found during my teaching years and with my own two kids, that not all children enjoy playing with dolls. But that doesn't mean they have to miss out on the great developmental opportunities the dolls' house provides.

Take my boy for example. The other day I went into Ed's room to find him playing with the dolls' house he had pulled out from under his bed. There was not a doll in sight mind you, his cars had taken over! I quickly gathered up some furniture for him to keep his game going, but snuck back in to take these pictures when he was having a toilet break. He played at this game for a really long time and the cars took on the roles that the dolls usually take.

I've substituted dolls many times for my daughter too, and added props to extend her play. Here are some great things to add to the dolls' house:
- an animal family - cats, dogs, elephants, lions etc
- fairies
- cars
- trucks
- buttons
- rocks
- glass stones
- small squares of felt and/or material
- small grocery boxes with one side cut out of them to act as extra furniture
- paddle pop sticks
- matchsticks
- bottle tops
- small patty pans

A Truckload of Fun

Ed seems to have a particular interest in construction vehicles at the moment. He is obsessed with the "Digger" book we got from the library a couple of weeks ago and loves to play with the 2 dump trucks from his Thomas the Tank Engine collection - Max & Monty.

We've been enjoying some much needed time at home this morning so I decided that instead of just leaving him to his own devices, I would take 5 or so minutes to collect up some materials that would help his imaginative play along a little. Here's what I came up with.

I've noticed he likes to be quite active in his play, everything needs to have something to do, so I thought I would collect up all of his dump trucks and construction vehicles form his various suitcases. I put all of these together in the wooden box. I then got some buttons, rocks and stones to act as "loads" for the trucks to carry and move around. I added the meat trays and container lids to act as places for the trucks to unload and the blocks and road signs to be included as buildings, bridges and well, signs. I didn't add the small squares of material for any particular reason, but I like to just throw things like this into their play and see what they do with it.

Ed had an absolute ball with this set up. I started him off by showing him what I had put out and talking him through what I thought he could maybe use the materials for. I then showed him how the dump truck could unload into one of the trays and left him to it while he got himself going. I find with Ed that if I get too involved, it stifles his creativity a bit, so I went into another room to leave him to it.

The activity provided lots of learning opportunities. He talked the whole time he was playing - to himself about what he was doing, creating voices for the trucks and bossing the vehicles around. He used lots of the technical, descriptive language to talk about the play - loaders, trays, ditches, flat beds, road trains. It gave him the chance to put into play the language he has learned from the books we have read and the shows he has watched about vehicles. This is a really important tool for strengthening what he is learning. He also talked about and explored lots of concepts like big/small, full/empty, loading/unloading, fits/doesn't fit. He also needed to work his fine motor skills when trying to get the small items in and out of the trucks. His brain got a bit of a workout too as he tried to determine which loads would fit in which truck and what cars were small enough and thin enough to fit under his bridge.

The wonderful thing about this sort of play is he could do it on his own. I only needed to set it up for him and then it's totally up to him what happens next and what direction his learning and exploring takes. In the meantime, I had a chance to tidy up, get the washing on and some dishes done. Of course I got lots of updates about what was going on as well as the occasional "this is so exciting". I also had to look at the ditch being built and the cars fitting under the bridge as I walked through the lounge room to put some things away but my involvement and feedback, however brief, sends a really powerful message of "I'm interested in and value what you are doing" which is also valuable for his learning and self-esteem. Can you believe we achieved so much in an hour of free-play with buttons, rocks and a couple of trucks?!

More Articles

I have a couple of articles out this month. In the August/September issue, I have "Boxing Day" on page 86 and in the Practical Parenting Annual "Your Toddler", I have re-prints of "Busy Boxes" and "Cooking Up a Garden Stew".

I've just been commissioned for a couple more to appear int PP in the next few months so I will keep you posted .....

Eye Dropper Paintings

At playgroup on Monday, I set up some eye dropper painting for the kids. I call it painting quite reluctantly because in actual fact it's more of a science activity than an art activity, but it does involve experimentation with colour and it's a great way to get children involved in an "art -type" activity who are usually a little reluctant to do so.

The other thing I love about this activity is the way it works on building fine muscle control, eye-hand co-ordination and cognitive abilities. It is also a great language developing activity because chidlren are usually so intrigued by what's going on, they want to talk about it. As I said earlier, it's a great way to get children to learn about colours and for children who are slightly older, it's an opportunity to experiement a little with colour mixing.

To do this activity at home, you'll need:

- Some eye-droppers. I bought the ones in the photo from an educational toy store for around 30 cents. They're really easy to use because they're long and the tops are really easy to squeeze, but any eye dropper would do

- Food colouring mixed into water. Less is more with food colouring, but you do need a reasonably high food dye/water ratio to get good colour. It's best to start with a few good drops and see how you go.

- Paper towel. The cheap stuff works quite well, but the more absorbent the paper towel, the more fun the activity is.

Some tips:
- encourage your child to do just a few drops and see what happens. If they're anything like my boy, they'll squirt the entire contents of the dropper onto the paper and end up with nothing but a soggy mess. It's all part of the learning though. Encourage them to go more slowly and see what happens.
- food colouring is messy and doesn't wash well, so a plastic cover for the surface you'll be using is highly recommended, as is a water-proof smock
- use only a small amount of liquid so that if it does spill, it doesn't go EVERYWHERE. Glass jars are a really great, sturdy container to use, but if you have some of those non-spill paint pots, even better

Finding Facts at the Library

I love going to the library and yesterday we returned for the first time in about three months after I found the courage to face my $22.50 fine incurred by an (almost) lost book (doesn't it feel good to deal with these things, and the librarian wasn't even cross with me??!!). Anyway, we came home with a great big bundle of treasures.

After getting a couple of story books for bed time from the children's section, we headed over to the non-fiction section to look for some information books. We always find the best treasures here.

Ed chose a couple of digger books, something about Boeing 777s, a book about the history of Holden's and one about Porsches (I don't know how we ended up with such a rev head!). He actually wanted to take home about 6 car books, but I had to narrow it down to 2. He just loves to soak up the facts in these non-fiction books.

I chose a bunch of general animal and insect information books for my playgroup

and then for Em, I got some early reader books, a book about drawing and a kid's cookbook which is her absolute favourite thing to do at the moment.

In the past, we've had gardening books, truck books, art books, photography books, car manuals, bird field guides, insect books, whatever takes the children's interest. It's amazing how long they'll spend pawing through the glossy pictures, taking in what they can, asking about the facts and figures that cover the pages, and it always seems to lead to other activites - car shows, nature walks, art and craft. It's one of our favourite ways to pass the time and a wondeful way to learn about the world we live in.

Ed's Creative Space

I ventured into Ed's room the other night to do a bit of a tidy up and found the usual suspects - random train tracks, cars and trains strewn all over the floor. As I looked more closely, however, I found a little haven of calm, organisation and in the end intrigue as I stumbled across a game he had set up with his Thomas trains.

In the middle of Ed's room I have a large white, wooden toy box, that his garage and train sheds are kept on. I set up this space as a place for him to organise his own play and carry out his games without them being a great big mess all over the floor. He has access to it all the time and his trains and cars are kept in small suitcases at the bottom of the toy box. He can take himself there and start playing with out any intervention from me. Stumbling upon his Thomas game the other night made me remember why I had provided this space in the first place and just why these areas are so important to children.

Looking closely, you could see how intricate and involved his play had been. Each train had specific, matching carriages. Some trains were in sheds, others were lined up, some were facing each other, clearly involved in conversation. You could almost hear the busy station at work, things looked so animated.

I decided not to pack this scene away for the time being. There is nothing worse than having your creativity and momentum stifled by packing away something you're in the middle of and there is so much learning and development going on in this sort of involved play - memory and recall, language, fine motor, problem solving, organisation, empathy, social interactions, just to name a few.

I'll keep my eye on the play and when it gets messy and seemingly disorganised, I know he will be done with it and it will be time to pack it away, but for the time being, the Island of Sodor is alive and breathing in Ed's bedroom!

Travelling with Kids

So, about my road trip. I drove the 800 or so kms back to my sunny home town of Adelaide, on my own with my 2 kids. Once we got there, we did lots of hour or so trips visiting family and/or sight-seeing and then drove home with mum via the Great Ocean Road. It was fantastic, we had a great time, but we did spend A LOT of time in the car.

The kids weren't too bad, given that all up we did nearly 2000 kms. I put a lot of thought and planning into what i would pack to keep them busy and entertained and i have to say, they never complained about being bored in the car (although there were a few "Are we driving again?! comments from my 5 year old)

So, what did I take?, I hear you ask, well my attack (or maybe my defence??) was multi-layered.

The first was that they absolutely love art and craft and drawing, so I set up 2 separate plastic containers with a blank note-book each, several small blank drawing pads, gluesticks, stickers, post it notes and a pencil case full of brand new textas. They each had their own containers and each container held pretty much the same items except Eds had a car/farm theme and Em's had a fairy/animal theme.

Putting the same items in both containers was absolutely deliberate and the fact that i packed 2 of everything was also deliberate. I think the key to eliminate (or at least reduce) fighting when you're in a confined space like this is to minimise the need to share. Sharing is good and children should certainly learn how to do it but not when mum is alone in a car and travelling at 110kms per hour! In this case, sharing is bad, very bad if it leads to fighting and so I tried to make it so they never had to do it.

The next thing I packed for them was a bag of toys. I just used a basic back pack, but i stuffed it as much as i could with building/thinking and imaginative play toys. Ed of course had his cars. I put them in a separate zip up bag so they were easy to find and keep together. I made some easily-transportable roads by getting some A3-sized pieces of foam and cutting them into long strips that were wide enough for 2 cars to drive down. I also added a new bag of plastic farm animals from the 2 dollar shop, some rocks, jar lids and buttons, as well as some small pieces of plastic building equipment.

Em had some tiny plastic babies i grabbed from an educational toy store and some little matchboxes from Riot Art and Craft to act as their beds. I also included some small squares of material. She also had the plastic animals and bits and pieces as well as a small puzzle.

To make sure they had a sturdy place to play and draw on I took a couple of lap trays we got from Target a few years back. They have the beanie stuff on the bottom kind of like an old "Stable Table" (which you can still buy in Big W)

I also got them each 4 work/colouring books. Ed loves stickers so he had a couple of sticker books while Em had more activity/puzzle books. I put the books and trays in the pocket behind the front seats. I made very sure that they could reach and have access to everything before we left. The containers went in the middle on top of each other, the bags went at their feet. For Ed I put them on top of a small case we wouldn't need until we arrived at our destination.

The next part of my plan was food. Little bits of it in small containers and plastic bags, hidden in the containers and toy bags. I used food that it would be difficult to choke on (for obvious reasons) and also things that are not eaten quickly - small crackers, sultanas etc. As a treat, they had a lollipop and a packet of mini M&Ms (or nemmy-nemmy's as Ed likes to call them). But i have to say the lollipop ended up in the pocket of Ed's car seat, which was a little yucky, because apparently he was too busy to eat it (good for me, bad for the seat!).

My in-case-of-emergency items were the portable DVD players my Mother-in-law bought for the kids. I was not a huge fan of these when the kids first got them, but they have won me over with their ability to soothe the kids just as i think their heads are about to explode. They really only used them on the extra long trips we took and only ever in the last hour or so when they really had done well to amuse themselves with what was going on around them.

Em even used hers as a CD player which is where my last, and perhaps most important as it turns out, purchase came in very handy. Some Fisher Price headphones. They cost me $29.95 and of course I got 2 - no sharing remember. They saved mum and I the experience of listening to John Farnham's "You're the Voice", over and over and over again as we drove the Great Ocean Road. After the fifth rotation of that song, those little headphones became worth their weight in gold.

My last line of defence was to stop drivng and we did that every 2 hours while I was driving alone and every 3 or so when mum was with me. I stopped in Horsham over night during the trip over on my own, because I thought expecting the children to be in the car more than four to five hours was asking a little too much of them - especially given I had no-one with me to help them if they needed anything while I was concentrating on the road. When we stopped, I made sure we had fun, we had a treat and ran around and it gave them something to look forward to. Now that they're a bit older, even the promise that we would stop soon, bought me a little time.

It was a great trip and I would absolutely do it again but not without raiding two dollar shops and packing those headphones first!!

Magazine Articles in July and Missing in Action!

I have another article in "Practical Parenting" this month. It's all about "Busy Boxes" and how putting together a selection of open-ended materials for your child to explore can trigger creativity and development. It's a subject very dear to my heart.

My "Mother & Baby" article is still out too!

My posts have been very few and far between for the last month. I've just taken the kids on a road trip all on my lonesome and while we survived (and had a really great time), my time has been spent preparing for our trip, enjoying our time together and then, for the last week, recovering (and washing!). I have much to report on what I planned to keep the kids busy, so will reveal more details in the next few days.

Magazine Articles in June

I have two magazine articles out in June. My Mother & Baby article is all about introducing young children to art experiences for the first time (Heart 'n' Craft pg 100), while my Practical Parenting article is a specific messy, outdoor activity aimed at building on sensory development, motor skills, cognitive skills and language skills (Cooking Up a Garden Stew pg 74). I have another out in next month's PP too, so stay tuned!

Containers and Lids

I know this looks like a basket of recycling, ready to go out to the bin, but it's actually what my little boy has been playing with for the last couple of days.

I've been noticing how much Ed enjoys the challenge of opening and closing containers lately. Whether he wants a biscuit or a drink or a cracker, I always get "I'll do it, I'll do it" when it comes to opening the container. So, for the last week or so, I've collected up every bottle and plastic container that's passed through my kitchen sink to pass onto Ed so that he can practice the skill of opening and closing.

It's a skill we take for granted as adults, but you actually need quite a large amount of muscle control in your wrists and fingers, not to mention eye-hand co-ordination, to get lids on and off properly.

I saved up cream containers, yoghurt containers, butter containers, milk bottles and soft drink/water bottles. By putting them all together into one basket, Ed is also working on his cognitive skills, matching and sorting.

Of course, no activity is complete for my boy without the addition of some matchbox cars and butter containers are the perfect place for them to hide away!

Foamy Fun

If you've never squirted Shaving Cream onto a table and let your kids go wild with it, it's something you have to try at least once in your pre-school parenting (or caring) life. The fun and absolute delight on the faces of the children involved is priceless.

We did it at playgroup last week and the children loved it so much, I think we may do it again this week. They were rubbing their hands through it, rubbing it all over their arms and bodies (which were thankfully covered in water-proof smocks), clapping their hands together to make the foam explode sideways ad generally having a good old time.

The great thing is, even though this activity seems like a bunch of harmless messy fun, it is actually a great developmental activity. When doing this activity children
- feel really good about themselves and life in general because they are having fun
-are developing their sensory awareness which has proven benefits for brain development
- are using their motor skills to move the foam around
- are constantly thinking and experimenting with what they can do the with the foam next
- are talking to the people around them about the fun they are having which is developing language skills
- can work and have fun together, thereby enhancing their social skills.

There are a few precautions you can take to minimise the mess
- do it outside!!
- use a table that can be wiped down or hosed down easily
- have a warm soapy bucket of water nearby to clean off as well as a clean, dry towel
- have spare clothes outside to change into
- always use a waterproof smock that can be put straight into a bucket
- roll sleeves up!

Leaf Stew, Anyone?

I have just started running a structured playgroup at the local neighbourhood centre (we have spare places, so if you're in Melbourne and interested in coming along, drop me an email and I can send you the details). One of the activities we did yesterday, that was a hit with most of the children, was cooking with leaves.

Autumn leaves are everywhere at the moment in this part of the world and I love to include them in play whenever I can. I really believe that play is far more beneficial and relevant to children when it brings in their everyday environment.

Here are the materials we used. I got a plastic basin and filled it with leaves. then added some tongs for the children to use to move the leaves into the yellow plastic saucepan and stew pot you can see in the picture. The tongs need a lot of muscle strength and eye hand co-ordination to manipulate, so it's a great way to build on motor skills. I also added some wooden spoons, which strengthen the muscles in the wrists when used for mixing. I got all of these materials from my kitchen and the local $2 shop (my favourite place!)

I also added a pretend wooden oven so that the children could move the leaves from the table onto the oven and talk about cooking and baking while they were doing it.

It's a really simple activity, but very effective. The children who enjoyed it played there independently for long periods of time (which is a great benefit for parents!) and the activity is really effective in building language skills, life skills and motor skills. It's also a great way for the children to act out situations they see in real life which helps them to process social rules and make sense of their world, which, of course, is of great benefit for them.

Learning about Cars

Like many almost 3 year old boys (and many almost 43 year old boys!) my little Ed is obsessed with cars. He has been since he could first sit up, but his interest has seemed to hit an all-time high recently.

About six months ago, we purchased a very cheap car calendar from the $2 shop. The calendar had a lot of vintage cars in it and on each page it described the make and model of each car. One of his favourite bed-time 'stories' is to go through this calendar and listen to the names of each of the cars. He started to memorise them for himself and has learnt to identify each of them just by looking at them.

One of his favourite vintage cars was an old Mercedes (he has good taste - he gets that from his mum!). We were out shopping with my mum and she bought him a model Mercedes which he named Bertie - bless him! Since then he has loved all Mercedes and can spot them at a hundred paces. He started pointing them out everywhere, recognising them from their badges.

This interest in badges has spread to all cars and if you see a car crawling through car parks, with a crazy woman pointing at the back end of each car in the row and a small boy with a look of absolute glee on his little face, then it's probably us.

It is his favourite thing to do at the moment, and so to help him develop this interest and build on his memory, recall and language skills, I have put together a little sheet for him of all his favourites.

It was a really easy thing to do, I just copied and pasted a heap of pictures from a MSN images search onto a Word document and typed in the name of each of the badges.

It's a really simple thing but he absolutely loves it and it's something that you can do to promote any interest area your child has.

A Lot of Play for Very Little

I found these small plastic shot glasses in the supermarket a few months ago and just knew they would be a hit with the kids. They're quite small and have an unlimited amount of uses which means they get incorporated into lots of different games and activities. Amongst our favourites are sand play, water play, playdough and imaginative play games (they are just the right size for a teddy bear tea party!), but by far, my kids' favourite use for them is at bathtime.

We have a heap of them in the container of bath toys and it seems their uses are endless. I think that's the beauty of giving children open-ended resources like these - the children are able to constantly reinvent what the cups can be used for. They have been used as under-water helmets for Barbie, drinking cups for cars, hats for rubber duckies (see below!) shakers, pourers, containers, goggles and boats, just to name a few.

Not long ago, my nephew was here to stay with us and he even found some new uses for the cups that my kids hadn't thought of before. My nephew is seven and a half and these small little cups that I grabbed for under $3 entertained all three children for half an hour. Just goes to show you that when play items are open ended and children are able to direct their own play, lots of fun and learning can occur at their own developmental level and their own pace

Why we love Drawing!

Our school holidays were not the relaxed, long, easy days, full of wonderful play opportunities, that I had planned. But one thing my kids always seem to have time for, no matter what we're doing, is drawing. They both absolutely love it and it is something that they do every single day.

I have put together an art cupboard so that whenever the mood takes my two, they are able to open up a cupboard we have in the dining room and set themselves up to do some drawing. The way I've organised things, they don't need my help at all which means they are able to amuse themselves and get themselves busy no matter what I am doing and whether or not I'm able to help them.

This is what one shelf of our art cupboard looks like. I've used different things to hold pencils, textas and crayons. I've tried to choose containers that are bright, colourful and appealing but also containers that allow easy access to materials. The kids can choose colours easily because they're all visible and I have sorted each container so that all the pencils are together, all the textas are together, etc.

I've used some document trays to hold the paper. I always try to provide clean, white paper to use because I think drawings look better on nice paper and it encourages the children to take pride in what they are doing. I encourage the recycling of paper by re-using pieces that have already been drawn on for times when the kids are just trying out ideas, scribbling or cutting. You can see there are two trays - the first is for clean paper, the one alongside is for work when it is finished. I try to clean out this tray every couple of weeks. I find my emotional attachment isn't as strong as time goes by, so I wait to sort things through. Then I'll throw away junky pieces of work (or drawings that I have seen over and over again!) and just keep the good ones. The really special pieces I will give away to grandparents or stick into some scrapbooks I keep for each of the children. It's great to look back and see how the kids' drawing has progressed over the years. Mind you, my scrapbooks are nothing fancy, just the cheap paper kind you buy from the supermarket and I stick the pictures in with a trusty old glue stick. I do try to write the date and the year the drawing has been done though.

Ed has just started to draw recognisable faces. He has drawn alongside his sister for around 18 months and up until now he has just scribbled, but he has loved every minute of it. It's amazing how much drawing can entertain a young child even when they are not producing recognisable work. But scribbling is a really important stage that all children go through and I really think it's important to respect this stage and allow lots of opportunity for it. Ed's practice has paid off and here is an example of his fine work!

He is so excited by the fact he can draw faces that I even found him at the table the other day trying to draw his favourite tractor.

The finished product didn't resemble the tractor much at all, but he did manage to draw the three wheels he could see. Seeing him set something like this up for himself really made me appreciate just how complex and involved children's thinking can be sometimes and also how important it is that as parents we give our children the materials and opportunities that allow them to explore their creativity and play out their ideas. If I had his textas and paper locked away where he couldn't access them, there is no way Ed would have been able to do this for himself.

Em has been drawing since she was around 12 months old and her drawings now are really detailed and involved.

She uses the drawing materials in all kinds of ways. She will sit down and do detailed, involved drawings like this, or she will write letters, make invitations for make believe parties she has dreamed up, put together books of her favourite things or use the sticky tape, staplers, glue and stickers we also have in the art cupboard to create whatever her heart desires.

Of course, drawing every day means she constantly works on her fine motor skills, she is always writing, which means she is building her literacy skills and practicing her hand writing, not to mention the imagination and creativity she is developing when putting together her stories and pictures, but I think the biggest impact for Em is the effect her drawing has on her social and emotional abilities. She is always making pictures and letters for her friends and family, drawing with and for friends who are visiting and she also uses drawing to help her make sense of things she is seeing around her. She will draw places she has visited or recreate a scene she has experienced with her loved ones. It's a constant means for her to process what she is experiencing in the world and I think this is probably one of the most important ways drawing helps children develop.

Car Washes and Barbie Baths

It was such a beautiful sunny day in Melbourne today and Em had a friend over to play. We headed outdoors and the girls were itching to get their hands a little messy so I set up some Barbie washing for them to do.

I used
- a plastic basin I picked up from a $2 shop
- water
- a couple of facewashers and handtowels
- some hotel soaps my husband collected from one of his many overseas trips
(I knew they would come in handy one day!)
- travel toothbrushes collected on one of the above mentioned trips
- a few cotton tips
- some plastic shot glasses bought from the supermarket
- a variety of Barbies
- our plastic outdoor tables purchased from a discount store for around $10

I basically set the whole thing up and then just left them to it. Em and her friend played for over an hour while I got into some much needed gardening.

Ed wanted in on the act too so I gave him the same materials (minus the Barbies!) and he collected up some of his favourite cars to clean.

We had a lovely morning playing, talking, washing, imagining and gardening

Teddy Bear Dress Ups

Hamley Bear is my little girl's favourite friend in the world and one of her favourite ways to keep busy is to dress him up and create things for him to do (as you can see in the title bar above!)

On the weekend we made a trip to Spotlight to collect up some goodies for the school holidays and we discovered a small range of teddy bear accessories. I couldn't resist a pair of round spectacles for our furry friend. When i first spotted them, I was in hysterics at the thought of him wearing them. "Hamley could be a professor!" Em exclaimed - she was excited too! At $1.75, we could not go past them.

Then we spotted a cowboy hat - Hamley size! I thought it would be another great dress-up prop for Hams and I thought Em would have fun decorating it too.

So we headed home with our treasures (and a few other bits and pieces). The glasses and hat went on to Hamley as soon as we got home and the glasses looked fantastic - he hasn't taken them off since - it reminds me of the time we found a pair of handmade doll's knickers for 50c at a market and Hamley wore them for a good month before they were taken off! - anyway, I digress. He really looked great in his glasses.

The hat on the other hand looked more Mardi Gras than Wild West, but Em turned it sideways so it looked like a sun hat and Hamley looked like a Grandpa ready to whittle some wood. Em then made him a walking stick out of a straw, and Hamley was set. We haven't even got around to decorating the hat properly yet. I guess that might come this week some time.

By the way, we still haven't got around to dyeing the eggs I mentioned a few entries ago. I have been on the hunt for white eggs. Does anyone know why they are so hard to find?

Painting Circles with Light Colours

Ed enjoyed sponge painting the Easter Eggs last weekend so much, that I thought I would set up a painting activity for him this week.

He chose the colours he wanted - 'light' blue and 'light' orange. I thought that he was remembering the pastel colours we used to paint the egg shapes, so I asked him, "How do we make light colours?" Sure enough, he remembered - "We need to add some white paint". So, we made our light colours in some plastic yoghurt containers, added some brushes and headed out to the deck.

I decided to make things a little more interesting for him by putting some paint onto the lid of a plastic container and putting a cork into the paint. I also added some cotton tips. The cork was a great hit. He looked at the bottom of it and said "I can make some circles!" The cork was the first thing to go onto the paper.

He found it a little tricky at first. He dragged the cork onto the paper and then lifted it up. He looked a little confused when he didn't have the shape he was expecting. I felt the urge to intervene, but decided to leave him to it and get those problem-solving skills working. It didn't take long. With the next go he pressed the cork onto the page and lifted it off - presto - a circle. He was delighted with himself and let out one of his trademark giggles. He then set about experimenting and creating his work.

I headed inside but I could hear him talking to himself almost non-stop. he was talking about the shapes, the colours, the 'car' he was painting. It was great to hear him talking so much and working things out for himself without the 'help' of his big sister!

Easter Craft Pt 1

I'm not normally a huge fan of structured art and craft activities. I find they're quite frustrating for everyone involved and I think they can often stifle a child's creativity and imagination. Over the years, I have been able to see that they do have some value though. It's a great way for children to learn how to follow instruction, concentrate, memorise, work at their eye-hand co-ordination and develop their spatial awareness. It also helps them to master techniques that they may not have discovered being left to experiment on their own.

So, a few times a year a like to do some more structured craft activities with the kids and Easter is usually one of those times.

On the weekend we made some Easter cards to send to the family next week. I tried to plan an activity that allowed the kids to still use a lot of their own ideas and also one that they could both get involved with (bearing in mind that Em is 5 1/2 and Ed is 2 1/2). Here is what I came up with.

First I cut some egg shapes out of some white card. To get the egg shape i simply drew around an egg from the fridge.

Next I cut a triangle of sponge from some household sponges i had in the cupboard. I cut them so that the tallest part of the triangle could act as a kind of handle.

Then I got the kids to choose which colours they wanted to use. Em chose yellow and Ed chose blue (as most 2 year old boys would!!). I'm big on pastels this Easter, so I added some white paint to the brighter colours. I put the paint into some plastic picnic bowls from the supermarket - easy to access for the kids and easy to clean up for me!! The kids mixed the colours with some paint brushes.

Next they set about sponge painting their egg shapes. Em was really good at it and could do it unaided, but the boy needed a little help.

He thoroughly enjoyed the sponge painting though. After the egg shapes were finished with, he asked me to get some paper out. He painted with that sponge triangle and a bowl of plain old blue paint for over half an hour!! After this, he was all art and crafted out (and covered in blue paint!), so he didn't want to do anymore, I didn't force the issue, it is all for fun after all.

Em was happy to cover for her brother. While the paint dried, I got out some pastel coloured papers I had left over from my pre-baby card making days. Em got out her box of patterned scissors and she set about cutting narrow lines of paper, edged in patterns by the scissors, to glue onto the egg shapes.

I used a hole punch to cut out some dot shapes (Ed made a brief re-appearance to "help" me). Em did some punching too when she finished the cutting.

Once the paint was dry, Em set about designing her eggs. I encouraged her plan how she wanted it to look before she put any glue on. She took a lot of time and consideration in choosing the patterns and the way the eggs would look and she did a great job. When she was happy with her design, she glued each piece on one by one using a small glue stick. I trimmed the edges that hung over the sides of the egg.

We then chose a piece of background paper, I cut it into a square and then glued the card together for her. She tried to do it herself but wasn't entirely happy with her ability to get it in the right spot, so she asked for me to do it. She was quite tired by this stage and had done such a great job on her own, I didn't mind.

Here are the finished products, a job very well done!

Next weekend we're going to attempt to decorate and dye some eggs, something I've never done at home before. Stay tuned!!