Sunday, March 19, 2017

Disequilibrium: The Roller Coaster Ride of Development

"HELP! An alien has invaded my child's body.  She has always been happy and "easy,"  but overnight she has become someone I don't recognize!  She has several tantrums every day, she throws fits over things that are completely unreasonable, she seems unhappy most of the time, she's not sleeping or eating, and every day is a struggle. I feel like the worlds worst parent! What am I doing wrong? How can I get my real child back and get rid of this hostile alien being????"

I can't even count how many times I hear this from parents every year.  And I empathize. I remember what it was like to experience this as a new parent. 

The good news is that it's probably just a very typical phase of development, known as "disequilibrium." Children go in and out of disequilibrium periods on a regular basis throughout childhood. It's normal, and even necessary to their development. 

The bad news is that there is no "cure." 

But when parents are armed with knowledge, they find it MUCH easier to cope and to avoid becoming overwhelmed. They can even help their child cope with this difficult time as well, if they understand a little bit about disequilibrium:

-In typical development, periods of equilibrium are interwoven with periods of disequilibrium.

-Children usually alternate between these two states on a fairly regular basis all through childhood, and into the teen years.

-The timing of these cycles are very individual, but research has shown that it’s common for children to experience equilibrium around their birthdays and disequilibrium around their half-birthdays. So, for example, you may find your two- year-old to be easy and happy, but when he/she reaches two and a half, it may be a very stormy time in the child’s development.

-Equilibrium describes the periods when the child is relatively easy to live with, happy, and steady. Parenting feels rewarding during these times.

-Disequilibrium describes the periods when the opposite is true. The child is oppositional, difficult, frequently upset, and negative. Parenting feels difficult.

-Equilibrium is described as the periods when the individual is consolidating and practicing known skills. Think of these periods as the plateaus.

-Disequilibrium is described as the periods when the individual is ready to learn NEW skills, and is often feeling the frustration and restlessness that accompanies this learning. Think of these periods as the “uphill climb” of development.

-For some children, the movement from equilibrium to disequilibrium can seem to happen overnight, leaving both child and parent shocked and confused at the sudden changes in feelings and behavior.

-Disequilibrium often precedes a physical, cognitive, or emotional growth spurt.

-Physical symptoms sometimes accompany disequilibrium. Children can have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep. They may have a larger or smaller appetite, or have different tastes in food. They may have more or less energy than before, and may be a bit more accident-prone.

-When parents understand that disequilibrium is a natural part of development, they are better prepared to cope with the difficulties.

-Disequilibrium is not an ideal time for big changes in the family’s lifestyle, or for parents to “lay down the law.” Research shows that flexibility and understanding, combined with appropriate firmness and consistency, seem to help children through these rough times.

-While I recognize that this isn’t easy, I recommend that parents do their best to “embrace the disequlibrium” as much as possible, and try to realize that these rough periods are necessary for healthy development.

-This is an excellent article about disequilibrium, as well as many other useful articles: of-equilibrium-and-disequilibrium/

The book series published by the Gesell Institute of Human Development begins with Your One Year Old, and provides a very helpful and read-able book for each year of childhood up to the early teens. These books are based on decades of thorough longitudinal research, and describe the disequilibrium periods that can be expected, as well as other characteristics of the age. I recommend that parents read these books each year a few months in advance of their children’s birthdays. You will be armed with very helpful knowledge, and you will find the ups and downs of your child’s development to be much easier to understand. Available in libraries, bookstores, and online. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013


As we begin school, all parents are hoping for the ideal co-op preschool experience for themselves and their child.  We parents envision ourselves cheerfully and competently assisting all the children in our area of the classroom, while our own child happily and busily explores all the class activities, makes new friends, and comes to check in with us and give a quick hug in between adventures. 

Well.  Most Explorer kids and parents will have a number of these idyllic preschool days this year, but it’s not terribly realistic to think that all children will start out their school experience with this level of confidence and enthusiasm.  Many children, due to their own unique and inborn temperament, may take awhile to warm up to school.

During the first few weeks, your child may be sticking very close to you when you are at school.  This is normal for many kids, and they use this adjustment period to observe things from a distance, make sense of what they are seeing and hearing, and re-calibrating their expectations of the world based on these new experiences. 

So, this “clingy phase” of the new school year can be an important adjustment period for some children.  But our goals for all children is that they participate and fully engage in school activities once they’re ready.  What can parents do to help make sure their kids don’t get stuck in clingy-mode?

Here are a few simple things you can do to empower your child to move forward in their enjoyment of school, whatever their temperament:

-Show empathy but not sympathy.  “I can see you’re sad” is more empowering than “My poor baby.”

-Try not to push them away or nag at them.  When we’re too eager for our kids to Just. Go. Play, this tends to make them want to cling tighter.

-Accept their need for staying close to you, but don’t promote it.  Don’t be excessively cuddly, don’t give backrubs, don’t over-help, don’t give non-stop eye contact with your clingy child.  This type of parent behavior reinforces clinginess and fear of new experiences. Give a quick hug, and get back to your job of interacting with ALL the children.

-Focus on the other kids and on your job in the classroom, not on your child. Try to spend the majority of your classroom time talking with and assisting other children, doing the tasks on your work card, and learning to know all the children in the class.  This can be difficult when a fussy or clingy child is demanding our attention, so it sometimes takes deliberate effort. Be available for quick check-ins, but not for extended cuddling. 

-Remember that sometimes the most helpful parenting technique is Selective Ignoring.  If you are too busy to give attention to some of the clingy behaviors, your child will have less incentive to engage in them.

-Talk to your teacher. We teachers don’t know any magic tricks, and we respect the children’s need to adjust to school in their own time. But there may be things we can do to help you NOT reinforce the clinging, and to help your child feel more ready to engage in school.

-And the most important  lesson of all is one which Konne taught me 20-some years ago when my own daughter was stuck like glue to me here at school:  Be persistent and keep on keeping on.  By doing this, you’re giving your child a very important message:  “You and your education are so important to me that I’m happy to be here at preschool, even when you’re acting like THIS.” 

Enjoy this wonderful new school year,  whatever comes along.  Your child is learning every minute, whether it feels like The Perfect Day or not.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013


School is starting soon,  and there’s excitement in the air!  After all, Explorer is the "Actual Happiest Place On Earth," right?  Parents, kids and teachers are all looking forward to starting another wonderful year.

But let’s be honest:  some parents may already be feeling the first twinges of anxiety about leaving their child at school. If you are feeling this way, don’t think you’re alone! 

Separation is a complex process for children and parents. Each child and each parent is unique, and will experience separation in a different way. Many of our families will have no separation issues at all. But it’s not at all uncommon for some children and some parents to feel anxious about saying goodbye at first. But remember, your teachers have lots of experience helping families through this.

We’ve learned that there are certain things parents can do to help their children and themselves through the process of learning to say goodbye. While there are no quick fixes for separation anxiety or most other developmental phases, adults can learn to do certain things to make things a bit easier.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

-Talk to your teacher if you are worried about this, or about anything else. It’s our job to help you and your child settle into school.

-Realize that most children, from toddlerhood on, benefit in many, many ways from attending a developmentally appropriate preschool program. Even if there is some anxiety and discomfort related to separation, this is often an important part of development.

-Often, the parent’s anxiety is much greater than the child’s.  It’s not uncommon for a child to pick up on the parent’s worry, and then become upset, even if they would have been just fine otherwise. So it’s important for parents to pay attention to their OWN feelings and acknowledge them. Working through our own emotions is one way to avoid passing on vague feelings of anxiety to your child. I think children are happiest when they are allowed to experience their own feelings, but are not entangled in the complicated feelings of adults.

-It’s unpredictable: we can’t accurately predict if a child will be upset by separation on any particular day.  Children surprise us all the time. Children who have been happy and confident at school sometimes suddenly begin feeling anxious about saying goodbye. This is usually just an offshoot of the child’s current brain development:  as children become more aware of their world and of themselves, they sometimes develop new and unexpected emotional responses that are unlike how they have responded previously. When a child develops a new and unexpected level of separation anxiety, it’s best for parents to be calm and supportive, and to realize it is probably temporary. And sometimes kids we think are going to have a problem turn out to be just fine when saying goodbye. It’s best to try to be open minded and let your child feel whatever they feel.

-The strong emotions of parenthood can sneak up adults as well.  Remember:  separation distress is often more related to parents’ feelings than to the child.  We parents can feel overwhelmed without warning sometimes, even if our child is doing just fine.  Be prepared to let the feelings flow, in yourself and in your child.

-Try not to be disappointed or upset if things are tough at times:  I’ve learned over the years that when children (or grownups) struggle a little, it’s a sure sign that they are learning and growing. Instead of fighting the difficult times, it’s best to embrace them and work through them together, and always look for signs of growth that result.

-We can't know how long it will take a child to work through separation difficulties. This can vary widely, and we need to give our children the time they need.

-Think about the messages that you ultimately want to give your child. Of course we want them to feel loved and supported, so we want to be responsive when they are upset. But we also want to avoid giving them messages such as: 
“It’s the end of the world when I’m upset!” or
“I can only trust Mom to take care of me!” or
“The world is a scary and overwhelming place!” or
“I can’t handle my big feelings!”
So we have to be careful to convey to our children that we have confidence in them, and that we trust the teachers and other parents at school. It’s also important to avoid “rescuing” them. Our children are always noticing subtle changes in our tone of voice, facial expression, or body language, as well as our choice of words.  Ask yourself if you are communicating confidence or insecurity to your child by your nonverbal and verbal communication. Even if you’re feeling a little unsure yourself, your child will feel more confident when you make a conscious effort to behave confidently.

-Practice saying something like, "I know you will have a good time at school when you're ready. Your teacher and your friends can help you if you feel sad, and remember, I always come back for you!" 

-Focus on the positive aspects of school.  Help your child think about the toys, the friends, and the activities that he or she looks forward to.  

-It’s ok to cry. Kids AND Parents have permission to cry whenever they need to. It is an important way to express ourselves, to relieve tension, and to work through emotions.  Adults are programmed to react strongly to children crying, but sometimes we need to suppress our urges to “try to get them to stop.” I often hold a child’s hand and tell them it’s ok to cry until they’re all done, and I let them know I’m there to help them. This is often the best way to show support and to help the child through a difficult moment.

-It’s usually best to say a simple goodbye.  Make sure the teacher or another parent is available to help your child, then remind the child that you’ll be back, say goodbye with a smile,  and JUST GO.  Dragging out goodbyes is usually the worst thing to do. It's never a good idea to change your mind and come back for one more hug. This is torture for your child.  With some of the youngest toddlers, parents and I may decide to try working on separation in a gradual progression. With other young toddlers, it seems that the most helpful way is to make a “clean break” and just have the parent say a brief and confident goodbye and leave them on my lap. I’ve found that with one year olds and young two year olds, the best approach may vary, based on the individual child’s temperament and level of development. But with the older children, a simple goodbye is usually best, no matter how the child is feeling at the moment. The most important thing is to have trust in the teacher and confidence in your child. 

-Remember: your choice to enroll in a good preschool will offer many rewards for your child and for yourself.  Don’t let the normal process of separation anxiety cause you to doubt your parenting choices. And remember, we’re all in this together. Sometimes the best remedy for separation anxiety is going out for coffee with another preschool parent! 

See you at school!

Sunday, September 30, 2012


"What do you do when a child hits someone?"  

This is a question that we discuss a lot at preschool, especially at the beginning of the year when everyone is still learning their way. "I thought you didn't allow hitting at school!" "Shouldn't you DO something about it?"

We definitely do not allow hitting (or pushing, grabbing, or biting) at preschool. And most parents don’t allow it at home. But yes, hitting does happen.  Sometimes it can be confusing to reconcile these two statements when parents are first learning to grasp the basic concepts of positive discipline. But the reality is that most children experiment with aggressive behaviors at times, even in the context of a very positive and well-supervised environment. It’s a natural and normal part of social and emotional development.  It is expected.  But it’s not condoned, it’s not “allowed.”

So how should we handle hitting when it does happen? We know that punishment, such as punitive time-outs do not help children learn self-regulation and pro-social behavior that will guide them throughout their lives. Our goal is for long-term learning, not a quick-fix.

It’s usually best to ignore certain negative behaviors, such as whining.  This is often the most effective positive discipline technique in many situations.  But we should not ignore aggression or conflict. When hitting happens, teachers and parents need to work with everyone involved to make sure that it’s a learning experience. Once things have calmed down and everyone is safe and feeling better, we then can look for a “teachable moment”  and figure out how to make the best use of this opportunity for learning.

Every situation is different, and all children have different needs and are at a different level or readiness to learn.  But some examples of appropriate responses to hitting might be:

-Discuss the situation with the child who did the hitting, and make sure she knows she is cared for and will always be listened to. Children who feel that they do not have a voice often resort to hitting.

-See if the child is ready to learn better ways to express his feelings, and then help him practice. “When you’re using a toy and someone wants it, what can you do or say instead of hitting? Let’s practice saying  ‘I’m using that toy!’”
-Encourage the child to find a way to make amends to the child they hit. It makes no sense to try to force a child to say “I’m sorry,” so I definitely do not recommend this. But often, a child really is sorry, and would like help telling and showing their friend their remorse.

-Remain calm and nonjudgemental.  Quite often, I’ve noticed that a hitting incident shocked and surprised the child who hit just as much as the child who was hit. When adults overreact, it makes it hard for children to be calm enough to be ready to learn anything from the situation.

-Encourage the child who was hit to speak up and say, “No! I don’t like that.”  We want to make sure that every situation that happens between children is a positive learning experience for EVERYONE.

-Examine the environment and see if there is anything that we can change to make hitting less likely in the future. Need more toys?  Or fewer toys?  More space? More time for quiet play or more outdoor time? There are lots and lots of reasons why adults unknowingly create environments for children that make it very hard for kids to remain calm. Putting ourselves in the sneakers of the kids for a minute and asking ourselves how we would feel in this situation, classroom, or environment if we were 2, or 5, or 8, can help us identify things that we can easily change to help children be more successful in their social interactions. 

-Think about the age and developmental stage of the children.  A two year old thinks and learns very differently from an eight year old.  Different ages and stages require different approaches.

In any situation, we might do any one of a thousand things that could help lay the foundation for the children to gradually learn self-discipline. Every child is unique, and every situation is different, so a one-size-fits-all “rule” wouldn’t work to achieve the teaching of true self-discipline. But when any form of aggression is involved, we don’t want to simply ignore the behavior.

Parents and teachers who are committed to positive discipline want to make sure that everything that happens is a valuable learning experience.  We know that no one learns anything important “once and for all.” Real learning takes time and often requires repeated experience and practice. Role modeling, direct instruction, trial and error, and many other methods can support the process of learning. Children learn by doing.  They don’t learn just from being told what to do.  This is true for learning the alphabet, learning to tie your shoe, or learning to play with friends without hitting. 

The most important thing is that adults respect the process of social learning that children are going through every time they play together.  It’s our job to help make sure that any situation of conflict is a positive learning experience for everyone.

And no, that does NOT mean that we “don’t do anything” about hitting, or that we “allow” it.  It just means that we think deeply about our goals and intentions and about the needs of the children, and try our best to respond appropriately.

For more great help and ideas, look at  

Saturday, August 25, 2012


I love it when I run across something that helps me understand my own experiences. Like this article, for instance:

Awe Enhances Well-Being
A paper published by researchers at the Stanford University and the University of Minnesota, "Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being," concludes...

"When do people feel as if they are rich in time?  Not often, research and daily experience suggest.  However, three experiments showed that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available and were less impatient.
"Participants who experienced awe were also more willing to volunteer their time to help others, more strongly preferred experiences over material products , and experienced a greater boost in life satisfaction....  These changes in decision making and well being were due to awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time.  Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise."
  (From Child Care Exchange)

Wow- this explains a lot. Yes, it was an “A-ha moment” for me.   This concept explains why my husband and I feel it’s worth the trouble to spend ten days camping in the redwoods up north every summer.  Of course we experience a deep sense of awe as we stroll through groves of 2,000 year old trees that are so huge it boggles the mind. Who wouldn’t be awestruck? The awe sticks with us for months, and makes our yearly camping getaways a necessary part of our mental and physical health.  We call our little tent and our regular campsite our Budget Vacation Home, and look forward to our camping trips all year. 

This article also gives insight into why my years as a teacher of toddlers and toddlers’ parents have gone by in a flash: I feel a sense of awe many times every day at preschool. I’m amazed and awestruck at the wisdom of the children, and at the toddler curiosity that leads them to be so wise.  I’m in awe of the development and growth that I get to observe up close in the children and parents. It’s truly awesome (yes, it’s an overused word) to be surrounded by parents who are so dedicated to doing right by their child, and who are also demonstrating how important it is that all adults care for the well-being of ALL children. And I could go on and on………

The word “awe” is a perfect way to describe how I feel at school on a daily basis. I quickly forget the inevitable minor frustrations and challenges, but the sense of awe goes home with me every day and stays with me. It makes me eager to get to school the next day and do it all over again.

And of course, there’s the element of  “awwwwwww…”Factor as well:  even though “cute” isn’t part of the early childhood educator’s professional lexicon, there’s no denying that the words and actions of these tiny little new people are incredibly adorable and heartwarming.  But cuteness alone would not have kept me going in this demanding work for all these years.  “Cute” wears thin over time, but “awe-inspiring” never does.

My new understanding about the effect of “awe” on the human brain and emotions also helps me understand how and why the extremely dedicated parents in our school somehow manage to make it all work.  Juggling the demands of a parent participation preschool, young children, jobs, and other responsibilities is not easy. I often wonder if some of these moms and dads have some sort of super powers to manage everything as well as they do.  I think that each one of our parents must be experiencing that exhilarating sense of awe and wonder as they get to know a group of children, and observe them at play for an entire year.  Awe is motivating. Awe gives energy. Awe produces super-parent-powers when they’re needed.  Our parents are in awe of the developmental leaps and bounds for which they have a front-row seat. This causes the brain’s perception of time to shift a little, helping them to feel less rushed, and helping them realize that all the time and effort they put in to our school  is well worth it.  This is what I experience as a teacher, and also what I experienced 20 years ago when I was an Explorer Preschool mom.

Look for awe-inspiring moments with your children every day. It will help you to focus less on the not-so-awesome parts of parenting, and will help you to fully experience this special time as your children are growing. It will help you make better parenting decisions and be a happier person in general. Happy parents raise happy kids.

Explorer parents, please take note, however: It takes a fully staffed classroom to offer the children an awe-inspiring day at school.
 On your classroom work days,  please wait until you’re on the way to school (and on time) to be awestruck by your amazing children.  We’re still depending on you to be at school ready to work with all the other awesome kids by 8:45 sharp!

I’m looking forward to experiencing the awe of toddlerhood together with all my new families as we begin another awesome year at preschool!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Take Control Of Your Messages

Our children look to us to figure out "how to feel" and "how to be."  This developmental process is called social referencing. It happens all the time!  Adults play a huge role in teaching children how to feel, what to feel, and how to cope with their feelings.   

For example, we've all seen toddlers glance at Mom's face while deciding whether or not their bruised knee is worth crying about after a fall. If the physical and emotional hurt is minor, and if other business is more pressing (such as continuing their play,)  the child will jump up and recover quickly. If adults show signs of being upset, worried, or emotional about the fall, the child quickly judges that this boo-boo is a Big Deal, and responds accordingly.  This type of thing happens all day, every day, in the lives of children, parents, and teachers.  It's part of the child's development, and an integral part of the relationship between parents and their children. 

Children are astute observers and sharp-eyed parent-watchers. They receive many verbal and nonverbal messages every day from us, and integrate their perception of these messages into their worldview. It becomes a part of them. These messages can be positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful, healthy or unhealthy.  A great deal of the time, adults don't even know that they are sending any messages at all. We're so focused on the child, and so busy with the details of life that we often don't have the self-awareness to realize what we're telling our kids through our actions, behaviors, facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language.  And this is the problem: when we're unaware, we can often send messages that are negative, alarming, or inaccurate.  For instance, if a mom, out of habit, sighs loudly every time her child makes a small mess (even when the setting/situation makes messy play appropriate and fairly easy to deal with) that gives the child the message that messy play isn't ok, and that their desire to explore messily must be a bad thing. This mom might not have even been thinking anything at all about the messiness of the child's play, but her non-verbal communication conveyed the message to the child without her being aware of it.  

Whew- we parents have so many opportunities to "get it wrong!"  But don't worry:  we have ENDLESS opportunities to get it right!  We can't be completely aware of what messages we are sending our kids 100% of the time.  And we can't be sure exactly how they are perceiving our communication.  But when it comes to some of the truly important things, it's a good idea to work on self-awareness, and strive to be in control of what we are teaching our children. It might be a good idea to simply pay attention for the next couple of days, and observe yourself and the effect you have on your child through your small moment-by-moment responses. 

A good example of this is related to trust.  We want our children to learn to trust.  A sense of trust is a basic cornerstone of a happy life and of healthy relationships. Of course, we also want our kids to become able to judge who is and who is not trustworthy.  This comes with time, experience, and guidance. But when adults show nonverbal signs of fear and insecurity to their children, the kids quickly begin to believe that the world is not a safe place, and that people are not to be trusted. This kind of message can have lasting effects, and sometimes parents aren't even aware that they are communicating fear to their children.  Ask yourself:  what nonverbal cues and behaviors might convey to my child a sense of trust and confidence in the people around us? And conversely, what kinds of behaviors convey the opposite? What can I do to make sure I'm giving my child an empowering message instead of a fearful one?

What examples of Social Referencing have you noticed in your family or with other people?  What kinds of messages do you want to give you child, and how can you adjust your verbal and nonverbal messages to accomplish this?  Look for examples around you today, and share some of them in a comment!

Bottom line: Perfection in parenting isn't necessary or possible, but striving for self-awareness is very important. This can help you be in control of what you are teaching your children about themselves and their feelings.

Thursday, April 26, 2012



Screen-Free Week:  What a concept!  When my kids were little, I sort of knew that tv-watching wasn’t the best way for my children to spend their time.  But what I didn’t understand is that kids who watch less tv (or better yet, no tv) become better and better at the thing they need most:  play.

Twenty years ago, while agreeing in principle with the idea of spending a screen-free week with my preschoolers, I’m sure I would have been slightly horrified at the thought of a week without even a minute to myself. Like many other parents, I used the tv as a babysitter.  A couple of kids’ shows every day gave me time to catch up on something, take a shower, or just hear myself think. I didn’t realize then that an hour of tv every day was making my kids more needy and demanding. I was a tired, struggling mom with busy, active kids, like most preschool moms I know.  And still,  I’m challenging YOU to try committing to Screen-Free Week.

One nugget of wisdom I’ve acquired: tv and other screen-related activities reduce children’s ability to think and create.  This results in kids who are more whiny, more bored, and more unhappy than nature intended.  A child who isn’t used to being entertained doesn’t miss it, because they are expert at entertaining themselves.  A child who has a steady diet of tv, movies, and video games has less faith in their own imagination, and find it more difficult to play. Honestly: if I had it to do over again, I’d get rid of the tv when my kids were young.

Diane Levin is an expert on the effect that media has on children, and has authored several well-known books about it, including "So Sexy So Soon" and "Remote Control Childhood." Here is what she has to say about Screen-Free Week:

Screen-Free Week is a fun and innovative way to improve children's well-being by reducing dependence on entertainment screen media, including television, video games, computers, and hand-held devices.  It's a time for children to unplug and play outside, read, daydream, create, explore, and spend more time with family and friends.  And, of course, Screen-Free Week isn't just about snubbing screens for seven days; it's a springboard for important lifestyle changes that will improve well-being and quality of life all year round. 

I would encourage parents to give their kids a break from electronic media, even if the first few days may be a bit frustrating.  Kids often fuss at first about the things that are best for them.  But parents who are willing to persist through the whining will eventually be rewarded with the joy of watching their kids play, create, converse, learn, and explore. Even movies, video games, and tv shows that are supposedly designed for children offer very few opportunities for any of these high-quality, brain-enriching experiences.  Screen-time is always inferior to real life, in terms of satisfying learning experiences.


Here are just a few little ideas to get you started. You and your kids already have a million ideas for fun things to do, so please share some of these ideas with everyone by making comments below.

-Tents and Forts  Indoors and out, made with blankets, cardboard boxes, or whatever is handy)

-Flashlights:  Get a cheap one and a few extra batteries, and see what your child comes up with! 

-Clipboards:  give your child a clipboard and a pen, and ask him to walk around taking notes.  You’ll be surprised:  even toddlers often love “note-taking.”  There’s something magical about a clipboard.

-Paint with water.  Give your kids paintbrushes and buckets of water, and send them outside.  Inside, give them paintbrushes and buckets of PRETEND water.

-Obstacle courses:  you create one for your kids, then they’ll spend the rest of the day creating them for you. 

-Snails, Worms, and Other Wildlife:  collect, care for, observe, discuss, and eventually release. I’ve never met a child who didn’t love small squirmy creatures.  Kids will spend HOURS on this.

-Nature art:  collect flowers, leaves, etc. and glue onto paper or cardboard. Or use nature-stuff as paintbrushes.

-Playdoh or Fingerpaint: make your own.  It’s very easy, and the making is as much fun as the finished product.

-Tape.  Give your child a roll of dollar-store tape.  Just don’t fall asleep…….

-Make books or journals. They can be as simple as stapling papers together.  Children love to dictate or write stories and illustrate them. Even toddlers love drawing in their journals.

-Write a note to someone, then walk to the post office to mail it.  Or sit outside waiting for the mailman to come so you can hand it to him.

-Sidewalk chalk:  draw shapes, pictures, scribbles, people, floorplans, games.  Try it wet or dry.  Try it on decks, porches, or other surfaces that can be easily hosed off.

-Play School:  the child is the teacher, and you can be the kid!

-Invent games, such as new forms of TAG
-Soccer-ball challenges:  how far can you kick it or throw it?

-Hanging from bars:  how long can you hang? 

-Learn dance steps, or make up new ones

-Karaoke:  use a fake microphone, and decorate the “stage” with sparkly decorations and hand-made stars

-Reading, reading, reading. Kids who are used to a lot of tv and video games find it harder to concentrate on books.  But once they get out of the media-habit, all young children love to be read to.

-Make blocks out of boxes and cartons.

And then of course, there are always the old tried-and true standards:



-Park Days with friends

-Water Play. Keep it simple:  provide a small tub of water in the backyard with a collection of containers for pouring, or offer long leisurely bath times with sponges, cups, and boats..  Almost any preschooler would gladly trade tv for water play if they were given the choice.

-Mud Pies or Sand Cooking

-“The Hose”   If you’re in my class at preschool, you know how awesome this tool can be! Turn it on a tiny trickle, let your child water plants or build a river.

-Collecting:  rocks, leaves, shells, sticks, etc.

-Ancient History.  Stories about what you liked to play when you were their age.

-Make costumes out of newpaper and tape

-Water the garden.  Give your child a tiny cup, and tell him the plants are thirsty. 

The most important thing is that all these activities are fun. But they’re also good learning opportunities for a wide range of ages. Many of them can be a springboard for even better child-created activities.  Some of these ideas need adults to help, at least at first, but others are kid-driven, and adults only need to check in occasionally. None of it is “rocket science.” 

So why is it that we sit our kids down in front of a screen as often as we do, when there is a whole world full of kid-friendly adventures waiting for us? 

Give it a try, and add your ideas to the list! 

Happy Screen-Free Week!

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I’ll be honest:   I don’t like finding out that I’ve been wrong about something. I don’t like to admit this, but I feel a little squirmy and uncomfortable when I’m confronted with the vastness of all the things I don’t know.  Like anyone else, I do try to avoid discomfort whenever possible, which is why at home I often escape into the simplicity of dog-walks, novel-reading, and old-movie-watching. It’s just easier to not think too hard.  But thank goodness, my curiosity and desire to learn new things overrides those unfortunate insecurities most of the time. Being a teacher of young children and their parents (and sometimes of other teachers)  is such an important responsibility that I know I have to look my insecurities square in the eye sometimes and push myself to deeper levels of understanding. If you’re a teacher, you have to keep learning.

While attending the Co-op Preschool Convention last weekend, I felt the familiar exhilaration of learning many new and useful ideas or understanding old ideas in a deeper way.   But at the same time I felt the equally familiar discomfort of wondering if maybe I have been off-base for a long time on certain long-help beliefs. Fortunately, I’m finally old enough to understand that this is what learning is all about:  being confronted with incongruencies in your thinking, and forcing yourself to examine alternative ideas.

Throughout the weekend at the convention, I  also had many confidence-building moments as I heard speakers presenting some of my most basic and long-held ideas as if they were brand new.  It’s always great to have the validity of your teaching practices re-affirmed by “experts.”

Here are a few of the things I learned or re-learned this weekend at this excellent conference.  I’ll share some of the challenging ideas that made me wonder about my own wisdom or lack thereof, as well as some of the stuff I heard that made me feel like a “great teacher.”

I’ll start off with the “easy stuff.” From a workshop on outdoor play and learning:

-Outdoor learning is better.
This is an easy concept for me to accept, and I always try to set up my curriculum to reflect this basic premise.  There are more sensory experiences outside, and children thrive on having a connection with nature.  Children’s brains develop through body movement, which outdoor play encourages.

-The Why-Not Rule. 
I know that children are driven to learn through exploration and play.  So when a child wants to do something that you may not have had on your “lesson plan,” ask yourself, “ Why not?”  If it doesn’t harm themselves or others, or mess up the environment or someone’s stuff, it’s probably ok even if it wasn’t what you had in mind.  These kid-generated activities (such as painting the grass as well as the paper on the easel, or pouring sand into the water table) are often where the best learning begins. Of course, limits related to how much time it might take to clean up, or other adult concerns are perfectly valid at times.  Real-life dictates that sometimes we simply don’t have the time, energy, or patience to allow kids to make a big mess, even if it’s a “productive” mess. And honestly, kids do learn about “being civilized” when we put the brakes on their big ideas of painting on the walls, dumping every toy out of every shelf, etc.  But if you don’t have the Why-Not Rule in the back of your mind, you’re very likely to reflexively say no to some valuable play and learning that are really not much trouble at all.   I’ve been a Why-Not Teacher for a long time, but now I have some new vocabulary to explain it.

-Anything that can be done inside can be done outside.  Again, this is already part of my teacher-belief system and practices.  I try to set up a variety of learning activities outside every day, in addition to the basic daily sand-and-water play. But hearing this again made me challenge myself to think of more things we could do outside, with just a little extra set-up:  such as an outdoor reading area, maybe even more outdoor art or sensory activities, or possibly outdoor block play.

-Water, water, water. 
As the presenter showed photos of infants and toddlers in various outdoor play scenarios, many of the activities looked very familiar, because they are things we already do in my classes.  I was gratified to hear the presenter talking about how important it is to let children work and play with the hose while a trickle of water runs into the sand.  When she mentioned the idea of allowing the water-source to trickle down from above, I remembered how much fun my toddlers have when I climb up and attach the hose into the tree branches above the sandbox, and let the water trickle, drip, or spray. The presenter confirmed my solid belief that the vast learning that springs from endless forms of water play is well worth the trouble. Darn- I sure wish some of the parents I’ve had in my classes who are allergic to messes could have heard this expert talk about this! I try my best, but sometimes it’s hard to convince parents that although their children are very sweet, they won’t melt like sugar if they get a little wet.

-Stuff I hadn’t thought of, or had forgotten. 
By the end of this workshop, I had jotted down a long list of things I wanted to try at school in the near future.  This list included things such as  wrapping a large tree in big paper, and having kids painting it all the way around (I did that first thing Monday morning!),  an awesome paint-ball-throwing activity which I’d never heard of, bringing in more largish rocks and stones that can be moved around to enhance play and construction in my sand area, and helping children build things with long branches from tree-trimming (Dang- I wish I had thought of saving the trimmings a few months ago when our playground trees were trimmed!)

-The Outdoor Classroom.
 Using the outdoors as a major part of your classroom is very basic to my teaching, and to the philosophy behind Explorer’s curriculum.  For more information about why this is important to us, check out the information at this site:  

From the two major keynote speakers, I learned or re-learned lots of important concepts related to brain development, emotional development, and how the two are linked.  Some of these ideas were a bit challenging to me, as I’ll explain:

-Surviving Tantrums. 
Dr. Tina Bryson discussed how most tantrums are the result of emotional overload.  When children’s emotional needs build up, the logical reasoning part of the brain becomes overwhelmed by the more basic, emotional brain regions.  The amygdala, responsible for basic emotions, takes over.  Children cannot be reasoned with in the middle of a big blow-up, but they do need comfort.  Adults can help by staying nearby to give the nonverbal message that the child, along with the child’s big feelings, are loved and accepted.  As soon as the tantrum begins to wane, the child is usually ready to be hugged and comforted. This reassurance and support helps create an atmosphere in which the child will gradually feel less of a need for big explosive tantrums.  Over the years, my own approach to dealing with tantrums has changed and evolved.  I agree with Dr. Bryson’s ideas about this, but I haven’t always thought about it this way.  At a previous point in my understanding, I’m sure that I advised parents to ignore tantrums, or to let the child cry in their own room.  I remember doing this with my own kids, too.  Sorry, girls.  I now see how this is much less on-target in terms of how the brain works and how children develop.  So yes, I have to admit that hearing Dr. Bryson discuss this was a squirmingly uncomfortable moment for me.  However, I still hold to one aspect of my old, less-evolved point of view:  sometimes parents CAN’T stay physically or emotionally present.  Real life has taught me that there are moments when even the best parents can be pushed to a breaking point. If a parent can’t handle one more moment of the screaming without becoming a tantruming toddler themselves (don’t tell me you’ve never felt this way!) then I think it’s best to remove yourself from the tantrum if you can.  When it comes to parenting advice, there’s always the “best case” scenario and the “worst case” scenario. Sometimes we simply can’t do what the experts advise us to do, so we have to muddle through the best we can. Certainly:  it makes perfect sense to make every effort to be the strong, dependable adult who can stay nearby, giving an upset child the important message that their feelings are accepted, and they are loved no matter what. But when you can’t, don’t immerse yourself in guilt.  Apologize and try again next time.  Parenting gives us LOTS of chances to try again.

Most other aspects of Dr. Bryson’s talk were pretty much in line with what I teach to parents and students, which of course feels great.  (Honestly, no one likes a smug preschool teacher!  But I can’t help feeling good about being right sometimes.) However, it’s true confession time once again:  I’ll admit that I was jealous of Dr. Bryson’s ability to explain things in ways that are MUCH better than the tongue-tied ways I often talk or write about these same topics.  I just wish I were as articulate and smart as she is!  I think I’ll buy her book and see if I can steal some of her ideas, and incorporate more of them into my teaching.

For more excellent information about the brain and emotional development in childhood, look at Dr. Bryson’s website or buy her book, The Whole Brain Child.

-Connect Before You Direct. 
Dr. Larry Cohen was a fabulous keynote speaker.  He has some excellent ideas and a wonderful way of explaining them.  I completely agree with his idea that guidance and discipline has to be based on a strong and loving relationship between the adult and the child.  I also agree that at most of the moments in life when it’s necessary for some reason to “direct” or “correct” a child, it’s best to take a few seconds to connect emotionally with them first.  This makes everything work better for everyone concerned, and helps the child to be more ready to learn.

-Beyond “Use Your Words”.
One of my “discomfort” moments came when Dr. Cohen discussed the old preschool-teacher phrase, “Use Your Words.” “C’mon, give me a break!” he said.  “If they COULD have used words, they WOULD have.  And if they didn’t, then simply telling them to do it isn’t going to help.”  I’m sure that I’ve used that term more times than I would want to admit, although I like to think that I understand the need for a wide range of teaching strategies when it comes to helping children learn socially appropriate behavior.

-Not Puppies Or Pigeons.
Fortunately, Dr. Cohen confirmed my belief in my own wisdom when he said that adults can’t stand the idea of doing anything that looks like it’s rewarding bad behavior, so we often refrain from giving children the attention they need when they need it the most.  “Kids aren’t trained pigeons,” he said . I think I have used the word “puppies” in this context, but he and I are definitely on the same page when it comes to the idea that human development is MUCH more complex than cause/effect, or reward/punishment. When training puppies or pigeons, you do have to think at a somewhat simplistic level to understand the motivations of the animal. But with children, individuals vary so widely from one another, and we have to take into account so many other things such as temperament, ages and stages, prior experiences, and family culture, that simplistic thinking doesn’t get us very far. Dr. Cohen clarified this further by saying that giving the right kind of attention to an upset child isn’t rewarding bad behavior, it’s solving the problem at its source. I think this is brilliant, and will be quoting it often in conversations with parents from now on.

-“Parents don’t have to be on the same page, but they need to be in the same book.”  Well said, Dr. Cohen!  Since I heard him say this last weekend, I’ve already stolen this astute phrase as a way of talking about the differences of opinion or style that exist within families. I’ve always knows that no two adults can be in complete agreement about everything, and moms and dads need to be reassured that this is ok.  But experience has taught me that there are a few areas that require some sort of consensus in order for co-parenting to be successful.  Dr. Cohen’s simple sentence has given me a way to think about and talk about this important topic with parents.

Dr. Cohen has a lot more great ideas to share and some books that I’ll probably want to read.  Here’s his website:

Ok—that’s all the True Confessions for now.  Now you know that “insecurity” and “need to be right” are two of my most basic character flaws…… and if you know me at all, you’re probably aware of a few more. I came home with many pages of notes from the conference last week, and I appreciate the opportunity to share just a few of my insights with you.

Learning is awesome, whether it’s easy or uncomfortable.  Writing this has reminded me that some of the most important learning happens when we challenge our own thinking and step out of our cozy cocoon of familiar knowledge.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


She jumps up on my lap, her ears flopping as she lays her head down in the exact spot I wanted to rest my book. She gazes into my eyes with love, and shows complete contentment. She’s stuck like glue. Gazing down at those brown eyes I have completely forgotten the "I-got-into-the-trash" incident and the "I forgot to potty outside" issue. I'm held prisoner by her sense of trust in me.  No wonder I don’t get anything done!  Who wants to get up and do laundry when you have a warm happy, trusting dog-friend on your lap! No wonder so many people love dogs:  they teach us by example the joys of trust. 

I feel certain that trust is the cornerstone of a productive, happy life.  We learn to trust (or not) during the first year of life, and then spend the rest of our lives either reinforcing or reversing that first learning. But in spite of the importance of those early experiences, developing trust is an ongoing process, and continues throughout our entire lives. 

People who are able to trust others can build supportive friendships, take reasonable risks to learn new things, and ask for help when they need it. In general, they are able to weather the storms of life and live their lives with optimism.

It seems to me that when early experiences make it harder for some people to trust others, those people may find life a little harder to navigate.  It can be harder to make and keep friends, and it can even be hard to trust yourself if you’ve developed habits of being distrustful of others.

Here are some things parents can do to help their children develop a healthy sense of trust:

-Be trustworthy.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  Tell them when you’re leaving rather than sneaking away, and try hard to be back when you say you will be.

-Teach by example how to trust other people.  Choose carefully the family members, friends, teachers, and others that you feel you can trust, and then demonstrate your trust in ways that your child can see it. You may trust a friend to house-sit for you, and your child can see you handing the key to them and thanking them for their help.  Don’t leave your child with ANYONE that you don’t trust, and when you do leave, tell your child, “I know Teacher Annie (or Grandma or Aunt Sally or Grandpa Joe) will take very good care of you until I get back.”

-Trust yourself.  Kids pick up on it when parents are constantly second-guessing themselves. Work on your own self-confidence, so that you can show your child what a self-confident adult looks like. 

-Trust your child.  When she is struggling to learn something new, you can say, “I know it’s hard right now, but I trust that you can keep trying, and you will be able to figure it out” When your toddler chooses to spend every day at preschool in the sandbox playing with the same truck, remind yourself to trust that the child and his developmental process is choosing the right activities at the right time to support healthy brain growth.

-Don’t place inappropriate trust in your child.  Don’t expect that your five year old will always remember to stay away from the busy street or leave the sharp knives alone.  Instead of putting this responsibility on the child, make sure you always hold his hand in the parking lot, and keep the knives locked up in a safe place. Having realistic expectations for your child helps them learn to trust themselves and gives them a sense of confidence and security.

-When someone betrays your trust, remind yourself that an overwhelming number of people in your life have proven to be worthy of your trust. Avoid over-generalizing, and don’t base your view of the world on a few undependable people.

I think it’s very important to live with a sense of gratitude.  We should let our kids hear us talking every day about the things and people that we’re thankful for. One thing near the top of my Gratitude List is my dogs, because they are my best teachers when it comes to the important life lessons of trust, living in the moment, and expressing gratitude.  When I die, I think it would be great to come back as a dog.  Well, not just any dog.  I would want to be a dog with an owner like me:  a person who always has a lap ready, and who always trusts me to be a Good Dog in spite of all evidence to the contrary!

Thursday, September 29, 2011


This thing called “positive discipline” really does work. Most parents realize that a positive, respectful approach has great long-term benefits for their child because it builds self discipline and self esteem.

But putting positive discipline into practice in-the-moment isn’t easy. Many, many parents tell me they just forget what to say and do when they are tired, frustrated, or busy.  For most of us, it takes deliberate practice.  Having a sort of “script” to think about at first can help.

Certainly, you don’t want to use anyone else’s words all the time, because that won’t be YOU, and the most important thing you can give your children is yourself. But following positive examples is a good way to start.  Perhaps the following examples will give you some ideas and starting points:


“You can throw the ball outside.”

“Here.  I’ll share this toy with you.”

“I will not let you hurt other people.”

“Try asking your brother for a turn.”

“Want to read a book with me while you’re waiting for a turn?”

“I can tell that you are very upset right now.”

“Pets are animals that need a gentle touch.”

“I will be right here to help you play with your friends.”

“Would you like to brush your teeth before your bath, or after?”

“I’ll help put some toys away so there’s more room to play.”

“I can see that both of you love doing puzzles!”

“When you look at his face, can you tell what he’s feeling?”

“Would you like to draw a picture or build a sand sculpture about how sad you feel?”

“It looks like you might be feeling frustrated.”

“Let’s run to the playground!”

“I need some help with these heavy water bottles!”

“You can sit here with me for awhile if you want.”

“Mom and I are still eating but you’re finished. Would you like to be excused to play with your toys now?”

“Thank you for sharing your snack with me.”

“It looks like working with the clay helped you feel better.”

“I can tell that you are working hard to wait politely for a turn.”

“How could we make that work?”

“What do you think we can do about this?”

“We’ll go shopping another day when you’re not tired.”

Add your own examples (and success stories) as comments below!  I’d love to read them, and so would everyone else.  We all learn from each other.