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Show Respect. Judge Not.

I’ve been thinking about my friend and her heartfelt desire not to be defined by physical limitations caused by a chronic and incurable disease. I bristle at the thought that anyone would make assumptions or label her based solely on limitations. I suspect anyone doing so would be a stranger. Those who know her know she’s so much more than any limitation.

Defining someone by disability isn’t the only way we short change ourselves or others. Consider all the assumptions we make based on casual observation, something we’ve heard, or attitudes instilled in us. These “settled ways of thinking” can become so ingrained that we rarely question their validity. Experiences and observations that challenge our beliefs raise doubts. Being willing to face our doubts takes an open mind and heart. Once we start questioning one attitude, we likely become more willing to re-consider another. This can put us at odds with family and friends. Battles to change popular opinion can be fierce and long. And some people never change their view.   

Attitudes towards women, race, sexual orientation, religious tolerance have changed dramatically in my lifetime, yet battles rage on, passionately and stridently. I’d welcome a paradigm shift to self-reflection and compassion. To ratcheting down the volume in an effort to learn how to sit with those whose beliefs differ from ours, engage in dialogue, find common ground where we can, show respect and be respected.

Not so long ago, tattoos were a fringe practice. Something men might choose to get, and those who did were primarily soldiers, sailors, marines, …and bikers. “Nice people” didn’t “go there.” Then attitudes began to shift, beginning, of course, with rebellious youth, both males and females. Initially being taken seriously professionally required folks to keep their tats under wraps, either by personal  decision or employer dictates. Gradually the practice became mainstream, and fewer and fewer restrictions apply in the workplace. Tattoos have become more elaborate, more an art form than a carnival side show. Such shifts in attitude are seismic. Now anyone can embrace body art, and anyone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t. 

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Asking for Help

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Recently I received an email from a friend. She was writing to family and friends, with encouragement from her internist of many years, to address an elephant in the living room. She experienced progressive symptoms affecting her ability to walk months before being diagnosed with the rare, chronic, progressive, auto-immune disease CIDP,  for which there is no cure. If the only USDA-approved treatment continues to manage her symptoms, she can hope to be among the 90% who can walk without aid, except during periods of regression.

A resilient woman who weathered Guillian Barre Syndrome as an adolescent, she has remained physically active, despite knee and ankle surgeries. Many who know her likely assigned her increasingly halting gait and occasional use of a cane, to the ravages of injury and age and would ask how her ankle was. You see, except for those she trusted most, she’d kept the new diagnosis under wraps. That’s her prerogative of course.

The internist, however, encouraged disclosure believing she will benefit from help and support from family and friends as she navigates the challenges and obstacles before her. None of us can make those disappear. We would, if we could. Like her, we have to accept the chronicity of CIDP. What we can do is rally around her, become her teammates. Encourage her to remain optimistic and to continue adjunct practices that improve her quality of life. Such a commitment of time and energy would be a challenge for all of us. Think about people who resolve to exercise regularly, then falter. Having someone hold us accountable improves the likelihood that we’ll stay the course.

We can, as now she’s given her permission, insist she use a cane or walker when safety or comfort dictate. I’m thinking we can also add artistic and creative flourishes to that cane and walker. Take “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” to a new realm. Shall we knit bomb or decoupage a cane? Maybe both. Having a choice of canes has its advantages.

Writing that email was hard for my friend. Independent, not one to ask for help, yet quick to respond to the needs of others, she has never wanted to be defined by her physical limitations. She fears that CIDP with its chronicity and incurability could alter the way people think of her. 

That’s what prompted me to write this blog. Would anyone of us like being defined by a single attribute? I think not. We’re all so much more than any single trait could suggest. Yet, like gender, race, and ethnicity, some limitations are so obvious that we’re apt to register the limitation as a primary attribute. That’s a disservice. When we define a person by disability, we’re being disrespectful.

In response to her fear, I emailed a list of all the qualities she possesses that make her who she is and assured her that those distinctions are more important than physical limitations. I also urged her to take names of any who appear only to see her limitations, promising to get up a posse and kick butt for her.

Honestly I cannot imagine anyone who knows this woman being anything but supportive, but you never know. I better get back to Tai Chi. Just in case my “services” are needed. I made a promise after all;-).

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Standish Foundation: Hope, Healing, Happiness

We’ve all heard the adage “one thing leads to another.” That happened when I was putting together the posts on certified child life specialists pursuing their passion in nontraditional ways. One guest, Morgan Livingstone, urged me to contact Andrea Standish and invite her to write about Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare. Following her advice, I emailed Andy who graciously agreed to share her story, including a field report showing how implementing simple, effective, and sustainable practices creates positive change not only for children and their parents but also for healthcare professionals.

“There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul.”   -Samuel Golter

These words inspire the work of Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare where we aim to dramatically change the hospital experience for kids and their families.

 In 2010, I started the Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare. The organization was named after my husband Michael Standish in recognition of his long-time support of my passion to help ill children and their families. As a certified child life specialist and educator, I’ve worked extensively to support the rights and needs of ill children and their families. My work has taken me to fourteen countries, and I hope to spend the rest of my life working to introduce sustainable child and family friendly healthcare practices globally.

 It’s simple really. We love kids and believe kids shouldn’t suffer. At Standish Foundation, we work to minimize the pain and suffering of hospitalized children.

Hospitals can be intimidating and medical procedures can be scary – especially for children. A hospital stay can be filled with stress, fear, anxiety and pain. But it doesn’t have to be filled with suffering.

Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare empowers medical professionals with training, mentoring, and resources to effectively deliver child and family-centered care. We help hospitals provide hope and healing to children and families.

 Our team is made up of volunteers who live and work in 12 countries and range from eight to 68 years old. We are patients and parents, nurses, psychologists, pediatricians, child life specialists, music and art therapists, play therapists, and professors.

 We believe that health care free of suffering is a right for all, not a privilege for a few. We honor and help implement healthcare standards in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

You can learn more about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, by reading FACT SHEET: A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Among hospitals partnering with the Standish Foundation is Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. This field report shows the positive impact of using Comfort Positions and distraction techniques during procedures and play before and after.

Our goal for this trip is to work with the nurses, nurse managers, and doctors to help develop their practices and policies on the use of “Comfort Positions.” These positions incorporate the parent into the procedure and include other best practices for reducing stress for the child.

 Comfort Positions were developed by Mary Barkey, CCLS and Barbara Stephens, CRRN and involve the use of sitting and hugging positions rather than restraint. Parents are invited to hug/hold the child or at least be very close by while the procedure is being performed.

 The staff at AVH are known for their kindness and compassion. Adding Comfort Positions to their practice is a logical next step. We’ve spent the week working with staff.  A new play area is set up, a social worker is here, and we’re ready for the clinic to open.

 Many of the children we are seeing are having a blood sample taken or IV/Cannula inserted. This may seem simple to an adult, but for a child, it is terrifying. Most of these children have been undergoing treatment for a while – they know what’s coming. For many, it was scary last time, so why would it be different today?

 Today, patients are playing before and after their procedure. Comfort Positions are used and the child is sitting in the parent’s lap or sitting up in a chair. They are soothed and distracted, and then praised and validated after the procedure for doing a good job.

 There were very few tears, a lot of laughing, smiling, and playing. In fact, a curious physician came into the clinic because he hadn’t heard any crying. He was delighted and said he hadn’t imagined that the few changes would make such a great impact for children, parents, and staff.  Everyone was happier!

 This is a great testament to the importance of PLAY! The sweet children here in Jerusalem inspire us with their warmth and playfulness. We are to happy to be a part of this team effort with the patients and parents, nurses and social worker. 

Wishing you hope and joy,

Andy

Learn more about the work of Standish Foundation and ways you can support their efforts to bring child and family-centered healthcare to hospitals worldwide. Donate online or contribute items from their wish list. I like their Ways to Help Us list. How often are we offered non-traditional ways to offer our support?  While not everyone has frequent flier miles or hotel points to share, we can review the website, share their story on social media, and add our prayers.

There’s even a way to get the kids involved. Standish Foundation welcomes new and gently used Beanie Babies. Organize a Beanie Baby Drive. You’ll not only be collecting Beanie Babies. You’ll be sharing the story of the Standish Foundation and its goal of minimizing pain and suffering among hospitalized children worldwide. And, on a personal level, you’ll be modeling the generosity of spirit you want to blossom within your children.

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Supporting the Grieving

KLeigh.HeadshotRobert Frost wrote in his lyric poem, The Road Not Taken,“I took the road less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Our guest, Korie Leigh, a certified child life specialist and certified thanatologist, knows that choice well. She began working in a traditional setting. Then, responding to inner callings, she chose to focus on end of life and grief, in nontraditional settings. Currently in private practice, Korie also teaches at the graduate level, conducts research, and writes.

Let’s be honest, dying and death are hard topics to discuss and even harder to face. We become uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say or how to act. Yet, as my mother, a nurse by profession and a pragmatist by nature, would point out, “we’re born knowing we’ll die.” She knew how to be with the dying and the grieving, how to bear witness to their grief without being undone by it.

Korie Leigh does too. She grew so passionate about supporting the grieving that she earned a MA in thanatology, the study of death and dying. Currently a doctoral candidate in integral and transpersonal psychology, her dissertation focuses on “legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings.” Her professional journey is a series of passionate responses to her deeply felt sense of the purposefulness in her life.

She begins with a quote,

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put into every heart” –Rumi

From the time I was a young child I knew I wanted to work in the helping profession. At the age of seven, I recall sharing with my second grade teacher my desire to be a counselor with “sick kids”. Little did I know that this inner calling, this deep knowing, would lead me on a career path that would define my life’s purpose. The path would be filled with obstacles unknown, immense joy that filled my soul, and such sadness and pain that struck deep within the core of my existence. 

Along this path, I completed my BA in child life at Wheelock College in Boston, MA. With a passion for music and the expressive arts, I was constantly trying to push the limits of the traditional role of a child life specialist. Every practicum, internship, or placement I sought to challenge existing norms, asked hard questions, and fought to broaden the scope of child life. Though I had a handful of mentors, I generally encountered great resistance and was told over and over again that the role of a child life specialist was to “first and foremost be a play lady”.

Is play important? Yes. Is it how children learn, grow, and express? Yes. Is it an integral tool for children coping with stress, illness, and tragedy? Yes. Is it the core of child life?  In my opinion, No. And I would soon find out that this core, which at first I only intuitively understood, is so much more than play alone.

Soon after I began working my first position as a CCLS in intensive care settings, I was faced with an unusually high level of death and loss. And yet, during my internship, I was the only student from my class that never experienced the death of a patient. Frankly, I was not interested in death and end of life. However, I ended up working with the most medically fragile children in the hospital, an experience that makes me recall the saying, “sometimes our soul knows what we want before our hearts and heads do”.  During this short time on the intensive care unit, I experienced upwards of four to seven deaths a week within the first few months. During this emotional time, I came to realize that not only was I interested in working with death and grief, I was deeply passionate about doing so. Yet I was ill equipped at the time to deal with the magnitude of loss and suffering I encountered – not just with parents and siblings, but also with my own relationship to death and loss.

I left my ICU position and enrolled in a Thanatology Masters degree program at City University of New York, Brooklyn. Thanatology is the study of death and dying and thus, I spent three years immersed in these highly sensitive and culturally taboo topics. Concurrent with this program, I held a variety of traditional child life positions, working in a one-person program at a hospital in Queens, NY, then in hematology/oncology at a hospital in Manhattan. After completing my degree and successfully passing the CT (certified thanatolgoist) exam, I left the traditional field of child life and embarked on a new path – hospice and palliative care.

Working as a bereavement counselor in a city-wide hospice agency, I was profoundly impacted by the nature of my profession. During my time tending to the end of life needs of patients’ families, I began to understand the ‘core of child life’ that I had struggled to articulate in positions past. The core was uncovering itself and leading me to realize that child life is not limited to hospital walls, pediatric patients, or even medical experiences. Rather, this core is rooted in empathy, unconditional positive regard, the ability to bear witness to suffering, and the self awareness to hold space while placing my own agenda, beliefs, and values aside for the sake of true emotional expression.

Shortly after I began working in adult hospice, I moved to California to pursue my dream career of working at a pediatric palliative care facility. There I held a dual position as a child life specialist and bereavement coordinator. However, as life had shown me in the past, our souls know far deeper and sooner what we desire than do our heads and hearts. While pursuing this deeply meaningful and passionate work, I began to experience a longing to contribute to the larger field of child life and find ways to legitimize our profession beyond the walls of medical facilities through research and scholarship. Thus, I enrolled in a PhD program in Transpersonal Psychology.

Transpersonal psychology is a holistic field dedicated to acknowledging the full scope of human experience. This scope, for me, includes examining experiences of suffering, trauma, grief, and the subsequent processes of post traumatic growth, meaning making, and spiritual growth that result from such experiences. During this time I experienced a flood of personal, professional, and spiritual growth. It challenged my comfort zone, shifted deeply held assumptions and beliefs, and led me to embark on a new journey in private practice.

Working in private practice did not come easy. In fact it took me nearly four years to develop my practice enough to have a steady client population. While focusing on childhood grief and loss, I also work with children, adults, and families experiencing a host of stressful life transitions. I also began lecturing at the graduate level to child life, early childhood, infant mental health, and special education students at Mills College, in Oakland, CA.

I currently work as an assistant adjunct professor, internship supervisor, and academic advisor to the graduate child life students at Mills College. Some of the courses I teach include The Hospitalized Child, Childhood Grief & Loss, and History & Theories of Play. I still see clients in my practice and am always finding new ways to reach out to the community to provide child life and grief counseling. I am now in the final stages of my dissertation process on the topic of legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings, and will defend my research in the early fall of 2016.

Throughout my 10+ years of child life and grief work, I feel blessed to be constantly learning from and growing with the children and families I work with. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the countless opportunities I have been offered to walk along side and companion parents and siblings through their grief. I have much to say about grief, loss, compassion, and the human capacity to share pain and grief with others. For now, I will leave you with these thoughts.

1. Grief is a journey, not a destination. What we, as a western culture, understand about grief is often wrong. And through its wrongness, we continue to disenfranchise and silence millions of grievers, children especially. The notion that grief comes in stages, phases, or tasks for that matter is helpful for our desire to make sense of and compartmentalize an experience which by its very nature is unpredictable and intense. But these stages, phases, or tasks can also limit our understanding of the grief experience.

2. The death of a loved one fundamentally changes you. The notion that you can ‘go back to normal’ or simply ‘move on’ after a death is not accurate. There are of course ways by which we can integrate and make sense of death and loss, but simply going back to what was is not a realistic goal for this process.

3. Childhood grief looks different and lasts longer than adult grief. Due to the unique aspects that development plays in a child’s ability to understand the finality of death, the grief process of children is constantly evolving. As children reach new cognitive and personal understandings of death, they must revisit their loss and their grief in new and unfolding ways. This happens over the course of a lifetime. As children reach and meet new milestones, so too they must integrate and make sense of their loss.

4. Be a companion-not an advice giver. For those of us who support and love others in our lives who are experiencing death and loss, one of the best things we can do is walk along side our friends and peers in their grief. Grief and the process of grieving needs to be witnessed, held, and honored with respect. Provide a safe space for peers and loved ones to feel what they need to feel, without judgment or the advice to “move on”. Some of the most hurtful experiences bereaved parents tell me are the little comments that friends or family say, such as “God needed another angel”, “he/she’s in a better place”, or even “you can always have another child”. If you don’t know what to say, simply say “I can see you are really hurting now. I don’t know what to say. Can I sit here with you and hold your hand?”

5. There is no right way to grieve, only your way. We are constantly flooded with information about how to grieve. Whether it be through cultural or religion norms, we have programmed ourselves to limit our grief expression. If someone is not crying, there must be something wrong. If someone is crying too much, there must be something wrong. If someone is struggling, there must be something wrong. If someone is not struggling enough, there must be something wrong. We, in this western culture, have made a habit out of shaming others into believing they are not grieving the right way, when in fact there is no right way. There is only your way, with your heart, your culture, your expression, and your coping tools. We need greater permission to allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel, and provide one another with the space and tools to do so.

Korie Leigh offers services for professionals, from trainings and presentations to self-care workshops and retreats and both child life and bereavement and grief services to individuals and families. Her passion for expressive arts and knowledge of holistic practices, allow Korie to incorporate the arts, mindfulness, guided imagery, and Reiki into her practice. And she makes home visits! She understands the challenges families face in getting to appointments and recognizes they feel safest and most comfortable in their own home. That’s proof of her compassion and commitment to service. www.expressive-coping.com.

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Child Life Mommy Shani Thornton

In honor of Child Life Month, PlayopolisToys invited four child life specialists pursuing their passion in nontraditional ways to share their stories. We’re beginning with Shani Thornton, MS, CCLS, who relates how she came to her profession and has adapted her practice to balance two passions: child life and mommyhood.

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When you find your passion in life, you will do anything to nourish it.

I stumbled across the child life profession when I was working as a recreation therapist assistant at a children’s convalescent hospital in San Diego. I loved my job, but had an overwhelming feeling that there was something more that I was suppose to do. I began my research, took on additional tasks at work and interviewed my colleagues about their medical positions. Nothing was standing out to me, until I heard about child life. That was it! It resonated deeply within me, and I was on a mission to become a Certified Child Life Specialist.

Fast-forward a few years later and I had reached my goal by providing child life services within a hospital setting. I loved my job, but I also fell in love with something else, my newborn son.

So, how can I balance these two passions of mine?

Thinking outside the box I developed a child life and parenting website/blog called ChildLifeMommy.com. It provided me an outlet to share resources on a large platform.

Just as you advance yourself in a work place, I began to do the same in my setting. I set new career goals and strengthened my skills by filling gaps in service.

child life mommy logoMy first project was creating a children’s preparation book about a wellness visit, including vaccinations and a blood test. There was nothing available in the market that used social story photographs and had the language of a child life specialist. It’s Time For Your Checkup: What to Expect When Going to a Doctor Visit was developed and made available on Amazon in paperback and digital format. It was quickly an added resource to many websites, including Autism Speaks and the Child Life Council.

I also took on an adjunct teaching position for the Graduate Child Life Program at Bank Street College of Education. My co-teacher and I changed the face-to-face therapeutic play course to the program’s new online format. Using creativity and our knowledge of social media and blogging, we are able to connect and scaffold our students across the country.

As I have found the rhythm in balancing parenting full-time and child life, I was able to take on my largest professional goal thus far, private practice. Providing in-home child life services to families struggling with life’s challenges has rooted me back to the hospital experience of patient work. Engaging with children, supporting parents, and providing therapeutic interventions is what really fills my child life cup.

There is a large gap in service with supporting programs and families in the community, and child life specialists are beginning to step outside hospital walls and apply our skills in various areas. I believe the future of the child life profession lies in expanding both community-based settings and globally.

Grab a favorite beverage and settle in at ChildLifeMommy.com. The resources for both child life professionals and parents are plentiful. The posts present information, insights, and personal experiences in a conversational tone. When she writes about her life, she writes from her heart, sharing her feelings openly and honestly, showing us that feelings require acceptance. Bookmark Child Life Mommy.com. Get to know Shani by reading My Life. And follow her blog. Connect through social media at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I promise you’ll find your time well spent.

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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.

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Read Across America

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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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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.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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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.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play