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Music Belongs in School

We’ve planned our birthday celebrations for Dr. Seuss and chosen the books we’ll read at Read Across America events. What’s next? Music in Our Schools Month, a time to celebrate the benefits of music. Sadly not all schools offer music. Those that do are providing valuable learning opportunities. What better time to advocate for music throughout your school district than during Music in Our Schools Month?

I remember weekly music instruction in fourth and fifth grades. We listened to classical music and learned about composers, the orchestra, its instruments, musicians, and conductor. Simultaneously Leonard Bernstein, the first American-born conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic, was combining his passion for music and flair for teaching to create a series of Young People’s Concerts. Those televised concerts provided an introduction to classical music for children far from the storied walls of any concert hall. His passion for music and joy in sharing his enthusiasm were riveting. I’ve never forgotten the experience. And likely none of us would have experienced Young People’s Concerts without the urging of our music teacher. Music in Our Schools opens doors.

Every child in our music class also learned to play a Fitchhorn Song Flute, which the box hails as “a real musical instrument.” I found mine stored among other childhood treasures while sorting through boxes of memorabilia at my parents’ home. That flute set off a flood of memories that insured its way into the keepsakes box. Someday I may play that flute “for old times sake.”

But I digress. The question is, what did those flutes teach us? We learned to listen and to follow non-verbal cues from our teacher/conductor. We developed spatial awareness and fine motor skills, learned to breathe properly, concentrate, focus, and memorize. We learned to be patient while waiting our turn and to stay vigilant lest we miss our cue to play. We learned to remain calm when someone missed a note and to pick up quickly and move on, when we did. Add social skills and composure to the skill-building. In summary, let’s say playing even a simple musical instrument develops cognitive, motor, and social skills and can be fun.

We respond emotionally to music. Playwright William Congreve, writing in the eighteenth century, declared “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.” Music can indeed soothe. Invigorate. Even drive us to distraction. Just ask any parent.

Most of us would agree that music not only enriches our lives but also helps us develop skills needed for success in school and beyond. Music deserves a place in our schools. During Music in Our Schools Month, let’s celebrate the schools with music and work with those without to add this powerful learning tool.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Read Across America


Looking forward to Dr. Seuss’s birthday on March 2? Then grab your favorite Seuss book and Read Across America. This annual project of NEA, National Education Association, inspires reading by celebrating America’s most popular children’s book author and illustrator, Dr. Seuss.  NEA advocates for quality public schools for all children and stresses reading as essential to success in school and beyond.

NEA encourages reading aloud. On Read Across America Day, participating schools invite members of their community to read to a class. I am looking forward to my first experience. I get to choose the book I’ll read. Since Read Across America ties in with Dr. Seuss’s birthday, any one of his books would be an obvious choice. What Pet Should I Get?, published in 2015, more than 50 years after it was written, would likely add a new Dr. Seuss book to the children’s  favorite titles.

But then my list of beloved children’s books spans four decades. When our 40 year old son out grew children’s books, I couldn’t resist all the new ones and bought my favorites. Choosing one book will be challenging. Luckily Read Across America Day is an annual event.

Local organizations encourage members to volunteer to read at a school of their choosing. This year for the first time realtors organized Realtors Read Across Pasadena and are participating in Read Across America Day at elementary schools throughout the district.

We all know the importance of reading aloud to our children from birth. Once the child begins reading, keep the tradition alive. Taking turns preserves the tradition of reading aloud together and celebrates the accomplishments of the new reader without being overwhelming. With experience, the child will become more proficient and want to read more. 

Some families enjoy reading aloud. Something to keep in mind for Screen-Free Week. Not everyone will be thrilled, but inviting each family member to recommend a book, discussing recommendations non-judgmentally, and reaching consensus is in itself a valuable exercise. Everyone benefits from opportunities to articulate ideas, listen – really listen without interrupting, and find common ground.

Special occasions are ideal for reading aloud. We conclude Christmas dinner with a favorite children’s book. Whoever reads gets to choose the book. Most often that’s our son who delights in bringing just the right voice to Cajun Night Before Christmas.

While researching Read Across America, I learned about therapy dogs specially trained to listen while children read aloud. These nonjudgmental canines, known as Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), help children improve their literacy skills and their self-esteem. 

In the absence of R.E.A.D, a pet or even a stuffed animal provides a nonjudgmental listener that makes reading aloud safe. We learn best when relaxed and free of criticism. The cause and effect is reading aloud improves literacy, and that boosts self-esteem.

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Celebrating Dr. Seuss


Let’s plan a celebration in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday on 2 March. What better way to honor this best-selling author and illustrator of children’s books than by re-reading our favorites? That’s a gift to ourselves. Although classified as children’s books, his topics speak to all ages through playful language and whimsical characters. Rare is the child or adult who doesn’t have a favorite Dr. Seuss book. What’s yours?

Dr. Seuss also wrote and illustrated books for adults. You’re Only Old Once! A Book for Obsolete Children, published in 1986, was the number one non-fiction hardcover book among The New York Times Best-Sellers for over a year. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, the last book published during his lifetime, followed in 1990, and reached number one among fiction hardcover books. This is my all-time favorite gift for graduates. And anyone else embarking on a new adventure, whether life after divorce or a new career. Dr. Seuss reminds us, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Dr. Seuss has the rare distinction of having been number one on The New York Times Best-Sellers List for both nonfiction and fiction. Not bad for someone whose first children’s book was rejected by 27 publishers before being picked up by Vanguard Press. And that was happenstance. According to Christopher Klein, author of “Nine Things You May Not Know About Dr. Seuss”, he was so dejected by the string of rejections that he’d decided to burn the manuscript. Happily, however, he had a chance encounter with a friend from Dartmouth College, Mike McClintock, who had that morning begun working as an editor in the children’s division at Vanguard Press. A contract was signed that same day. And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street was published in 1937. Of that turn of events, Dr. Seuss said afterward, “If I had been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.” What a loss that would have been for generations of us who delight in the rhymes, whimsy, and wisdom of his books.

How shall we celebrate this occasion? Reading our favorite Dr. Seuss books of course! But that’s just for starters. We could add pureed broccoli as we scramble eggs and eat green eggs and ham. Or cut fish shapes from bread and make ourselves a snack of one fish two fish. Hmm, how could we make red fish blue fish? 

Searching the internet turns up more ideas than there are whos in Whoville, and Dr. Seuss Official Site,  is an ideal place to start. Parents and other educators will find a wealth of information and ideas. From there Hats Off to Dr. Seuss’s Birthday leads to birthday activities, crafts, and recipes. With all the choices, the festivities could last a week. You could follow Hats Off to Hats with a Dr. Seuss Photo Booth, sip Pink Ink Yink and snack on The Cat’s Hat Kabobs and One Fish Two Fish Treats. Play Clover, Clover, Who’s Got the Clover?, a Seussational party game. You’ll also find instructions for making The Lorax Planter, an activity ideal for Earth Day, and a recipe for Gooey Oobleck, a sensory play staple. The possibilities are plentiful, fun, and adaptable. Now’s the time to start organizing your best ever Dr. Seuss birthday celebration. Enjoy!

Dr. Seuss bannwer

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Play and Learn Dough

Nesting, stacking, and shape sorting contribute to a child’s understanding of attributes, those characteristics that define objects, from color, size, and shape to auditory, tactile, and visual. These play experiences develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor, cognitive, and language skills. So does play dough. And the play is open-ended and creative.

little boy and play dough

Working with play dough strengthens hand muscles and develops fine motor skills. Consider all the ways a child can manipulate dough using only her hands: forming a ball or a brick, rolling into a rope, smooshing, squeezing, squishing and squooshing, flattening, patting, poking, pounding, and tearing.

Tools introduce more ways to play and further develop fine motor skills. Consider rolling pins, both smooth and patterned, plastic knives, pizza cutters, and scissors, garlic presses, cookie cutters and presses. Each tool works differently, engaging and strengthening different hand muscles. Incorporating new ways to play enhances cognitive and language development.

Adding popsicle sticks, plastic straws, golf tees and pegs, found objects from a nature walk, from acorn tops and small pine cones to leaves and twigs, encourages creative explorations. Seashells, pebbles, both natural and glass ones, and bottle caps press easily into dough and invite arranging into patterns or outlines of familiar objects. Provide the provocation, step back and watch. You’ll be amazed.

One of the joys of play dough is its centering effect. Simply manipulating a ball of dough relieves stress, calming the mind and soothing the body. Play dough is beneficial to all ages. Keeping a supply on hand means being able to quickly respond to meltdowns. Kneading dough aids self regulation and focus.

Making your own play dough is easy and allows for variations in color, scent, and texture. “Variety is the spice of life,” as the saying goes, and children benefit from similar but different experiences.

You’ll find a world of choices, including gluten free, by searching recipes for making play dough, but here’s the one I learned as a parent at Pacific Oaks Children’s School decades ago. The cream of tartar is the secret to its longevity. Enjoy!

Cooked Play Dough

1     cup flour

1/2  cup salt

1     cup water

Add food coloring to water.

For more vivid colors and scent, add Kool Aid.

1     Tablespoon vegetable oil

2     teaspoons cream of tartar

Mix ingredients and heat in saucepan until ball forms.

Stored in an airtight container this dough lasts months.

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Tips for Selecting Shape Sorters

Remember the expression “a square peg in a round hole”? Immediately we understand what’s being said; someone is a misfit, an individual who does not fit within a specific group. The observation creates a visual impression. We see in our mind’s eye the misfit between a square peg and a round hole. Perhaps because as toddlers we played with one or more shape sorters and learned to “post” shapes into their corresponding spaces.

Shape sorters take many forms, and what works well for one child might not be the best choice for another. When considering shape sorters, remember that toddlers are just beginning to distinguish shapes. Limit shapes to basic ones: circle, square, triangle. The goal is to balance challenge with the likelihood of success. Acquiring skills is an ongoing process that moves forward with experience, repetition, and incremental success.

Shape sorters develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor, cognitive, and language skills. Rewarding matching with a distinctive sound also develops auditory awareness and discrimination. Value-added features expand play possibilities.

Children need to feel competent and confident of their skills before moving on to the next level. If a toy is too complex, the child will avoid it, and we will need to “walk backwards in our minds” to identify the missing link between where she is now and the activity we’ve offered.

With discriminating shapes, stepping back means assessing multiple skills. Does she easily grasp and release? Does she relish every opportunity to” fill and spill”? Are her eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills well developed enough for her to fit a peg in a hole? These activities come before posting shapes. The Classic Pop Up Toy is an engaging, traditional wooden toy featuring four peg figures that pop up and down on concealed springs as the child presses one after another. The removable figures can be color matched to stripes on the front of the box but that’s optional. The focus is on developing eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills required for successful posting. Matching colors and shapes are a next step.

Ambi Lock A Block is my favorite shape sorter. Features that make Lock A Block most successful to Raised rims make sorting shapes easierbeginning sorters also make it a must for inclusive play. Unique attributes that support success in identifying and matching primary colors and basic shapes include high contrast between white top and color matched, raised rim openings and three dimensional shapes that drop into place more readily than shaped dowel pieces. Retrieving shapes by unlocking a door on the front of the block adds another dimension to play. The permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. The lock clicks as the key turns, adding auditory input.


3-shapes sound emitting shape sorterA perennial favorite among the blind and visually impaired is Hooty-Hoo Shape Sound Sorter. Each shape makes a unique sound as it slides down its clear tube. The basic shapes – circle, square, and triangle – require more precise fitting than the three dimensional ones in Lock A Block, but the auditory response rewards the persistent. For children needing tactile re-enforcement, the openings for the shapes can be outlined with a Wikki Stix. When no longer needed, Wikki Stix peels off easily. Retrieve the shapes by turning Hooty-Hoo Shape Sound Sorter upside down.

When choosing a shape sorter, consider the child who will be playing with the toy. Once you’ve figured out the appropriate skill level, you’ll be able to choose confidently.

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Stack and Learn

Toddlers are scientists. They’re constantly researching “what happens if” and observing the outcome of their experiments. Thus the insistence upon repetition. Consistent results confirm their understanding of cause and effect. Through repetition the children develop a basic understanding of the relationship between actions and effects. The more open-ended and varied the play experiences, the better. Similar but different play experiences allow children to apply what they’ve learned and adapt it to new challenges.

Building beakers nest one inside the other or stack one atop another. The design of classic wooden stackers, on the other hand, limits play to stacking alone. The process of stacking also changes when the object becomes piling rings one atop another on a dowel.  A stacker with a uniform dowel allows placing rings in any order without regard to their relative size, as would be required by a cone shaped post. The child is free to focus on attaining competence at one task before tackling another. This reduces frustration and invites experimenting with different arrangements of the rings. As the child becomes aware of differences in size, she’ll likely stack from largest to smallest as well as experiment with turning the column upside down by arranging rings from smallest to largest, a feat more easily accomplished when stacking on a post than when piling larger building beakers atop smaller ones.

Holgate, an American toymaker, introduced Rocky Color Cone, a classic wooden stacker with a twist, in 1938. The trademarked feature, a rounded bottom, invites children to give Rocky a push and watch as it rocks, spins, and topples over, spilling the rings and setting the stage for another round of stacking and toppling. 

Once a single dowel stacker becomes “old hat,” consider double or triple versions with variations in the shapes and colors of the rings. A triple stacker with uniform dowels invites mixing and matching of rings in three distinctive shapes and color combinations. No longer focusing exclusively on developing motor skills, the preschooler is ready to turn her attention to new challenges.

Stacking develops eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, fine motor control, and spatial awareness. Identifying colors and shapes, recognizing relative sizes, and developing patterns that mix and match these attributes represents cognitive and language skills that come from interacting freely with similar but different toys along a developmental continuum. 

Learning is an incremental process. Understanding patterns is a prerequisite for learning to read. Words are letters arranged in specific patterns. P-L-A-Y is essential. We learn because we play.

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Learning Colors, Shapes, and Sizes Experientially

Learning to identify colors, shapes, and sizes begins at birth as adults introduce these concepts in casual, albeit one-way, conversation. Initially we comment on the color of objects in the environment, perhaps saying, as we dress our child to go outdoors, “Let’s put on your blue jacket.” Later when allowing the child a choice, we’re likely to use color in describing the choices available – blue jacket or red hoodie. Through spontaneous comments, we’re continually imparting information that our child takes in and processes.

Play also provides opportunities for us to give words to objects. If a toddler is engaged in a fill and spill activity with nesting and stacking cups, dropping the smallest into the largest, then dumping it out, we might comment on color or size as we observe the child at play. If the child is stacking one atop another, we can supply words to describe spatial relationships as well. “I see the little red one is on top of the bigger blue one.” Or conversely, the big yellow one is under the smaller white one.” This is an experiential approach to learning concepts and acquiring language. Learning from experience, through open-ended play and thoughtful commentary, is the most natural way of learning.

PlayopolisToys offers an array of engaging toddler toys that invite open-ended play that fosters learning and builds skills. We offer similar but different ways for toddlers to experience the benefits of playing with nesting and stacking toys. Each choice offers unique features that enhance the play experience.

Consider Stack & Fit, a set of five graduated, open-topfive graduated square stacking cups, square boxes with rounded-corners and raised rims on the bottoms. Stack & Fit is ideal for beginners. The limited number of cups makes play more accessible and manageable. Toddlers fill and spill, nest, stack, and knock down, over and over again, learning cause and effect and developing motor, cognitive, and language skills. Nested the cups resemble flower petals. Stacked a skyscraper. Raised rims facilitate successful stacking and keep cups from sliding. Graduated cups measure 3 1/2″, 3″,2 1/2″, 2″, and 1 1/2″ square. Adding sand and water enhances play as the child observes differences in volume and weight.


10 textured bottom, graduated stacking cups


Another choice, Ambi Building Beakers, expands play with 10 graduated, round cups, ranging in diameter from 1 1/2” to 4 1/4” and in height from 1 1/8” to 2 3/8”. With its primary + white beakers, the colors are familiar to toddlers. What makes Ambi Building Beakers most distinctive are the unique-to-each-beaker raised designs on the bottoms. Press the beakers in sand or into modeling dough or clay to create imprints. These patterns develop tactile discrimination and enhance the play of tactile learners and the blind and visually impaired. Two pinholes in the bottom of each beaker invite water play.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play





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Quiet Fidget Toys

Many children simply cannot sit still. Their very being demands movement. Unable to concentrate, these easily distracted children become disruptive, distracting classmates, interrupting instruction, and frustrating the teacher. When a child does his best to meet expectations and repeatedly falls short, his self esteem suffers. He may start wondering if he can ever do anything right, setting the stage for emotional and mental distress.

One way to help an easily distracted, ants-in-the-pants child is with fidget toys; small, hold-in-the-hand objects that a child can manipulate quietly and unobtrusively, without disturbing others. This activity satisfies a need for sensory input that relaxes the child who then can pay closer attention.

Adults use fidgets for stress relief. Manipulating fidgets exercises fingers and hands, reducing stiffness, improving flexibility, and building hand strength, a benefit beginning signers appreciate.

For situations requiring quiet, unobtrusive fidgets, consider these kid-approved ones. We all have preferences that influence our choices. Tactile responses range from avoiding to seeking out tactile input. When choosing fidget toys, these preferences dictate what’s likely to work best. Variety, we’ve all heard, is the spice of life. Having a variety of appealing fidget toys provides choices and increases the likelihood of their proving useful.

Bead Ball
Grab a Bead Ball and knead away stress. Bead-filled, ultra soft, flexible, thermoplastic, elastomer ball invites kneading and squeezing. Two and one-half inch diameter, easy to grip ball builds finger and hand strength, calms, and relieves stress. Assorted colors. Not for “biters.”BeadBall

Aku Ring
These soft, super flexible, seven-inch diameter rings feature a unique nipple studded surface that makes grasping easy and provides much needed tactile input to soothe and center a sensory seeker.


flexible,spiky rings for hand maninpulation



Sea Life Water Snake
Three fish and a sea turtle float around inside this five inch bubble-decorated water snake. Iridescent glitter adds sparkle to their turquoise “sea.” Slippery, squeezable, and squishy, water snakes easily slip from one hand to the other. Transferring from hand to hand without dropping takes practice. Not for “biters.”


sea life-themed water wiggly

XaXa, pronounced Ksa-Ksa, re-defines what a ball can be while inviting exploration, encouraging creativity, and challenging adults and children to explore what’s possible. Made with a polycarbonate core and a removable TPR phthalate and latex-free skin, this lightweight 2 3/4″ ball weighs only 2 2/3 ounces empty. The core is an inner ball that pulls apart to reveal a hollow center.  XaXa comes in primary color combinations: yellow/cyan, cyan/magenta, and magenta/yellow. Explore, mix and match colors. The smooth, super elastic skin, called Xa, features raised rim circular cut-outs and offers textural contrast to the bumpy, hard, rigid core. Both core and skin encourage play together and separately. Together they roll, separately the core rolls, the skin stretches, and that’s only for starters.

2 3/4" rigid ball with silicone cover

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Learning Requires Physical Activity

Children face health challenges from sitting too long. Increasingly children, at ever younger ages, are being expected to sit still and pay attention in the pursuit of academic achievement without adequate time for physical activity. Art, music, and open-ended play are being eliminated, to the detriment of their health and well-being.

Gone are the days when children spent hours outdoors exploring, hiking, climbing trees, swinging from branches or in swings, jumping rope, throwing and catching, playing games, and running with the wind because they could. Even so, growing bodies need regular and vigorous exercise to fully develop balance, coordination, strength, and endurance. Through physical activities children gain body awareness, learning where they are in space. They need not look down at their feet to know how they are standing. They can feel their position.

Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, writing in her blog The right-and surprisingly wrong-ways to get kids to sit still in class, points out that “Children NEED to experience…’rapid vestibular (balance) input’ on a daily basis. In other words, they need to go upside down, spin in circles, and roll down hills. They need authentic play experiences that get them moving in all different directions in order to stimulate the little hair cells found in the vestibular complex (located in the inner ear.)”

She asserts that children need significant time everyday for unstructured play to “effectively develop the balance system.” Only then, she points out, will children be ready to pay attention. In a rush to reform education, those setting the agenda have lost sight of the whole child. Open-ended, unstructured, child-directed play supports physical, mental, and emotional development and leads to healthier, happier kiddos. And children learn when playing. Critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and social skills blossom during open-ended play.

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When Snow, Rain, or Cold Keep Kids Indoors

Snow, sleet, rain, wind, and severe cold, together or separately, can force even the hardiest among us indoors. Kiddos easily become bored or screen obsessed. That’s the time to introduce engaging, creative alternatives. By keeping a cache of supplies on hand, you’ll ready.

At PlayopolisToys we’ve been busy creating Pinterest boards to share creative ideas and useful information. Here’s a sampling of what’s available on the board Creative Activities.

Challenge everyone to turn themselves into works of art, and no, we’re not advocating body piercing and tats for kids;-). We’re suggesting mask making with kraft paper shopping bags. The picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s good because the pin, “shape masks-turn yourself into an artwork,”does not include instructions. Actually none are needed.

Stickers in bright colors and multiple shapes are but one way to decorate a mask. With scissors, paper, in a variety of colors and textures, and glue everyone can draw, cut out and glue on whatever comes to mind. Think how bits of fabric, lace, ribbon, or yarn, feathers or buttons, would look. Use crayons, color pencils, and markers. The only limit is what’s available and your imagination.

Celebrate by taking pictures. Then email copies to favorite family members and friends. Bet they’ll smile. For multiple mask makers, take a group pic and invite guesses of who’s hiding behind which mask. Made more than one mask? Show off each one. And ask people to vote for their favorite. That makes the day more fun for everyone.


 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play