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Why I Avoid Licensed Products

architectural building set fosters creativity

Babies As Billboards

Here we are 17 years into the 21st century. The only constant is change and that comes at an increasingly maddening speed. Since becoming a grandmother a year ago, I’ve discovered that almost every aspect of “bringing up baby” is different now. What distresses me most is the proliferation of branded products for young children. Customers pay a premium for these products, merchandise that promotes brand identity. The beneficiaries of branded products are companies, not those buying the products.

Leading brands of disposable diapers feature licensed characters. Babies become billboards, re-enforcing brand identity, advertising specific products. Do we really want babies commercialized in this way? I don’t. Fortunately non-licensed brands of equal quality and at lower prices exist for those of us who prefer diapers advertisement free.

Once Upon A Time Before Widespread Licensing of Toys

Toys have suffered a similar fate. Once upon a time, Lego designed products for unscripted, open-ended play with themes reflecting general interests of its audience. Never miss open house at the neighborhood fire station? Select from individual fire trucks to a fully equipped fire station. Although designed for building specific play props, bricks used to build a fire station could also be used to craft something altogether different. Build a cityscape complete with streets and vehicles, even an airport, design and build skyscrapers, housing, school, and parks. Add a neighborhood landmark. Children built whatever came to mind and created their own story lines as they played.

Sets included diagrams for building the item pictured on the box, and that was what children usually built first. Gradually the pieces from one set joined those from others to form a sea of multiple and varied building components which served as a catalyst for open-ended, creative play. The search for just the right piece sharpened visual discrimination.

Licensed Products Script Play

Now Lego holds numerous licenses, and play is more apt to reflect related story lines than to evolve from the imagination of children. The toy comes with a script. Yes, the child is free to adapt the toy to fit other narratives, yet by its nature a licensed product limits creativity. Using his imagination to spin his own yarns is more creative than following a script.

How Non-licensed Toys Benefit Children

Toys that invite children to “put on their thinking caps” and engage in a process of experimentation, discovery, and problem-solving allow children to follow their muse and reap the rewards. They gain competence and confidence as they acquire and refine skills in comprehension, language, and mathematics, eye-hand coordination, fine motor control, and spatial awareness. Creativity, executive planning, and problem-solving blossom as children design and construct ever more advanced structures.

Texo = Open-Ended Building

While numerous open-ended design and construction toys are available, a particularly versatile one is Texo, an award-winning 3-dimensional building system from architect, author, and designer Lester Walker. This building system allows children to progress gradually from basic color and shape sorting, matching, and identification to simple puzzles and stacking of interconnected shapes and finally to advanced architectural models. Plastic rods and solid wood planks coupled with the geometric precision of molded plastic connectors enhance the design and construction potential. Imagination dictates what gets built. And creativity blossoms.

In the forward to the activity guide accompanying Texo, Walker shares his vision. Form and function are the foundations of architecture and design. Children learn at an early age about these principles through playing with blocks and construction toys and through their natural curiosity which leads them to explore, replicate and shape their environment. Texo – which is Latin for weave, twine together, plait, construct, build – is a toy I’ve designed to help children gain a richer understanding of form and function through a scaleable toy, one that at its most basic level is about stacking, sorting and sequencing, and grows in its complexity as a child grows, becoming something they can use to explore principles of architecture, design and engineering. Enjoy!

Play is, by definition, an enjoyable experience. Freed from scripts, children create their own as they explore possibilities. Providing the children in our lives with ample opportunities for open-ended play and watching them flourish benefits and delights both sides of the equation.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Mathematics: Numeracy

wood sound number puzzle

From Reciting to Understanding

When reciting numbers in ascending order or saying the alphabet, young children are usually simply demonstrating memorization skills. Numeracy and literacy require understanding the meaning those symbols and being able to put that knowledge to work. A number represents a specific quantity and is used in counting and calculating. Letters combine to form words.

Patterns Emerge

The particular arrangement of numerals signifies a particular arithmetical value. A specific arrangement of letters creates a specific word. The same numerals and letters can be arranged in multiple ways with very different meanings. Take the numerals 1, 2, and 3. These three numbers can be arranged to become 123, 132, 213, 231, 312, and 321. The letters o, p, and t can be arranged to read opt, pot, or top. Making calculations  and reading demand our attention. Numbers and letters are symbols we learn to decipher while developing reading, writing, and arithmetic skills.

Activities of Daily Living

We’re planting seeds of understanding when we impart information during daily activities. Dressing provides numerous opportunities. Naming the garments and enlisting cooperation as we’re putting each one on is one way. Guiding an arm into a sleeve while saying “let’s put this arm in this sleeve, one arm, one sleeve, there we go” gives meaning to the number one and shows one-to-one correspondence. One is one, whether an arm or a sleeve. The body offers many opportunities for learning words and numbers. From head to toes-two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth, two hands, 10 fingers, two feet, 10 toes.

Mother Goose and Finger Play

Nursery rhymes provide early lessons in literacy and numeracy. Thank Mother Goose for “This Little Piggy.”  Jennifer Griffin writing in Humpty Who? provides accompanying finger play that delights infants and toddlers.

This little piggy went to market,

Wiggle baby’s big toe between your thumb and index finger

This little piggy stayed home,

Wiggle second toe.

This little piggy had roast beef,

Wiggle middle toe.

This little piggy had none.

Wiggle fourth toe.

This little piggy went

  Wee, wee, wee,

  all the way home.

Wiggle the little toe and then run your fingers up      

the baby’s foot and leg as far as you can get.

At the Supermarket

Young children learn numeracy from everyday activities too. While at the supermarket buying fresh fruit, we can point out the number of bananas in a bunch or count apples as we’re putting them in the produce bag. This shows a child that a number represents a specific, unchanging quantity, regardless of what is being counted, and reenforces the sequence of numbers.

Zero is A Cardinal Number

When we’re learning to count, typically we begin at one. We can see one-to-one correspondence and understand quantity. Yet our cardinal number system starts with zero, and understanding that concept is critical. While shopping for produce, show an empty bag and ask “how many apples are in the bag?” Answer, “zero.” Point out that the bag is empty. Then add an apple, and again ask “how many apples are in the bag now?” When buying number puzzles, choosing one that begins with zero re-enforces the concept of 0: naught, no quantity, no number. When children learn 0 through 9, they’re better able to understand how our number system progresses. Consider Sound Puzzle Numbers. Under every numeral is an illustration of the quantity the number represents.  The space below 0 is blank. This puzzle also shows how easily the numbers zero to nine become 10 to 19. Playing around with the individual numbers creates new ones. Different arrangements, different values.

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Mathematics: Geometry

Shapes and the arrangement of relative parts within a whole are the subject of geometry. Consider the construction of spider webs. The arrangement of petals forming a rose. Study the facade of a cathedral. The angles and the fitting together of its architectural elements. Or all the parts in myriad shapes that combine to make an automobile. Both the natural and the human-made environments are studies in shapes, angles, and intersections.

Best Shape Sorter Toys

Through observation and experience children learn about shapes and parts. First come basic shapes: round, square, triangular. Among early childhood play experiences are sorting and matching of shapes using a shape sorter. Simple ones are best for beginners, and Ambi Toys Lock A Block is best of class. High contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening facilitates “hitting the target.” Equally importantly, its three dimensional shapes drop easily into place.

As shape discrimination, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills improve, children are ready for the next shape learning toys. Fitting two-dimensional shapes into corresponding holes. Sound Puzzle Box is a popular choice that rewards proper placement with distinct auditory responses.

Basic Shapes Puzzles 

Puzzles are all about shape. Again starting simple is key. Chunky shapes facilitate placement. Shapes that fit only in their proper places make a truly self-correcting learning experience. Left to right orientation models the direction of reading and writing. Children are ready to identify and match more unusual shapes only after they easily recognize basic shapes.

Interlocking Pieces Puzzles

After learning individual shapes through puzzles, children move on to explore the arrangement of shapes as parts of a whole. Start simple. The more pieces and the smaller the pieces, the more challenging a puzzle is. Wooden puzzles with thick pieces are easier for small hands to manipulate than thin cardboard ones.

A single layer, wooden 8-piece fish shaped puzzle for toddlers, Rainbow Fish, invites exploration of color and shapes and the way parts fit together to make a whole. With only one way to complete the puzzle, the child has to sort out and make sense of the pieces. Then work out how the parts go together to create the whole, a sometimes frustrating experience that benefits from adult encouragement.

Layered Puzzles 

Layered puzzles introduce perspective and offer graduated challenges. As always, start simple and progress gradually. More layers offer more challenge; however, the number of pieces is a more accurate indicator of difficulty.

Mathematical Concepts Puzzles 

Although most puzzles go together in one and only one way, others offer options, and these literally open doors to understanding of mathematics.

The Binomial square wood puzzle introduces mathematical concepts through observation and experience. Children develop proportional reasoning, area concepts, and place value understanding when they discover four small squares cover the same area as the rectangle and four rectangles the same as one large square. And that’s only the beginning of the possibilities.

Power of Two Puzzle encourages experiential learning of important mathematical ideas from fraction equivalents, fraction multiplication with a common factor of 1:2, proportional reasoning, and area. The 10 puzzle is cut into one-half, one-fourth, one-eighth, one-sixteenth up to 1/128th. Clearly challenging, the beauty of Power of Two lies in the multiple ways the pieces can fit together and the arrangement of relative fractions.

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Mathematics: Measurement

red, white, blue, yellow nesting cups

Measurement is a basic math concept for time, quantity, size, weight, and volume. Children learn these properties naturally through play. Think about the concepts learned while filling and spilling, nesting and stacking. Fill the pail. The pail is full. Spill the contents of the pail. The pail is empty. Full or empty, the pail has weight and dimensions. The pail is its lightest when empty, heaviest when full. Between empty and full, t volume and  weight vary.

Variety of Materials

Children learn sizes, order, and spatial relations as they explore, stack, and nest boxes and cups in a variety of materials, each with its own properties. Consider graduated boxes. These may be constructed of cardboard, wood, or molded plastic. Both plastic and cardboard will be lighter than wooden. Experience with a variety of nesting and stacking toys broadens children’s understanding of the properties of different materials and the ways those materials predict how the toys can be used.

Size, Order, and Spatial Relations

 Nesting Cylinders and Nesting Boxes give children an opportunity to experience nesting and stacking different shapes. Exploring both invites an experiential understanding of similarities and differences. Similarities include three sizes of each shape. Measuring confirms the dimensions of each and shows their corresponding heights. Weighing each shows their corresponding weights. During play children discover differences as well. The small cylinder will fit inside the medium box while the small box stays on top of the medium cylinder.

Learning Words

Such play enhances emerging cognitive, language, and mathematics skills. Learning words to describe the relative positions of the boxes and cylinders develops spatial awareness. And sets the stage for geometry. Think of the concepts being explored: small, medium, and large. Smaller and larger, shorter and taller. Lighter and heavier. Inside and outside. On top of, in the middle, on the bottom.

Wooden toys are classic and durable, apt to withstand rigorous play and be handed down to the next generation. That said, sturdy plastic nesting and stacking toys invite sand and water play that would be ill advised with their wooden counterparts.

Volume

Children explore volume as they fill and spill the 10 round, graduated, plastic baby stacking beakers. Pouring sand or water from a smaller into a larger beaker demonstrates differences in volume. The child readily discovers that what fills one beaker is too little or too much for another. Experimentation may lead to discovering how many of the smallest beakers are needed to fill the largest.

Developmental Age Matters

How far a child goes with such experimentation varies with developmental age and personal interest. The play and learning development of a one-year-old obviously differs from that of a three-year-old. Dropping the smallest beaker into a larger one, then dumping the smaller one out, over and over again, is appropriate beginning play. Learning simple concepts-empty and full, in and out, small and large-lays the foundation for more complex learning. Nesting and stacking require differentiating sizes and ordering the beakers to fit one inside the other or one atop the other. Repetition further solidifies concept acquisition and readies the child for taking the next step in learning mathematics.

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Developing Math Awareness and So Much More

Children writing equation solution on chalkboard

April is Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. That got me to thinking about ways children learn mathematical concepts during play and through daily activities, observations, and conversations. Consider the infant gazing intently at the face of the person cuddling her. The human face is intriguing, each unique yet sharing similar features in a particular order. Thus begins an awareness of patterns, of similarities and differences, both precursors to language and mathematics.

Children are naturally curious. As adults we encourage their learning when we supply words that describe their daily experiences and set the stage for cognitive and language development. Washing up is a perfect time to point out and name features—ears, nose, fingers, toes. Think of nursery rhymes that reenforce this information. Remember Mother Goose? Now’s the time for playing with toes and saying,

This little piggy went to market, 

This little piggy stayed home, 

This little piggy ate roast beef, 

This little piggy had none. 

This little piggy went…Wee, wee, wee, all the way home!

 Of course, that naturally leads to a comment on how many feet and how many toes the child has. This rhyme becomes an introduction to the concept of one to one correspondence, key to understanding the meaning of numbers. One foot, five toes, two feet, 10 toes. For numbers to have meaning, initially the numbers need to correspond to concrete objects. Abstract thinking comes later.
Dressing invites talking about clothes and the process of putting on and taking off. The process involves sorting out what goes on first, then next. That’s sequential order, an important executive skill involved in everything from independent dressing to reading and math. Chatting about the sequence helps toddlers understand its rationale. Of course, there’s some leeway in how we get dressed, but why do we put socks on our feet before sticking our feet in our shoes? You know, but someone just learning might not.
This is also a good time to talk about color, a distinguishing feature of any garment. Knowing the names of colors makes communicating easier. So, if the weather requires a jacket and the child has two, one red, another blue, offer a choice. Identifying the jackets by color, ask her whether she wants to wear the red or the blue one. She may not identify the one she wants by color, but she’ll begin to associate the colors with the words that describe them. Through such experiences children learn the value of language.

Children learn from interacting with people and objects in their environment. Quality toys invite exploration and open-ended play that build skills. Moving forward, we’ll explore how, beginning with math awareness.

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How Do We Decide What’s Best for Our Child?

children playing with bubbles

We all strive to do what’s best for our children. Question is, what does ‘best” mean? Does one size fit all?  Should we consider each child and choose options that best fit what we know about that individual and how she learns? Or go with the flow?

Once we decide what’s best, how do we evaluate the “rightness” of our decision over time? After all, nurturing children isn’t a “set it and forget it “ proposition. It’s one that requires vigilance and willingness to re-evaluate. What we thought the best choice could turn out not to be or to be for less time than we thought.

Beyond that is a plethora of information and opinions. Consider currently prevailing pressure for more academic learning at ever earlier ages.  What’s to be gained? What’s being lost? What are the consequences, both short-term and long? These are issues we need to confront as we weigh what’s best for our children.

Someone who has, both as parent and professional, is Angela Hansom. As a pediatric occupational therapist she focuses on activities of daily living. For a child that includes play. But what happens when children as early as preschool find themselves trading play for a more structured, academic approach to learning?

As a guest blogger for Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post, Hansom shares her experiences. “The decline of play in preschoolers-and the rise in sensory issues” outlines what she sees as the consequences of society’s push towards structured enrichment activities and academic achievement as early as preschool over early childhood as a time for child directed, open-ended play.

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Children Learn While Playing

Girl with green hoodie and bubbles

Play is essential. Children learn while playing, and we adults do irreparable damage to children when we ignore this truth. By play, I mean self-directed, open-ended exploration and discovery. When playing, children use of what’s available, decide what they want to do, and put their energy into doing it. When a challenge arises, they assess the situation, re-think possibilities, and go from there. During play they develop creativity, problem solving, and executive planning skills. Playing with others, they learn vital social skills: how to articulate their ideas, to listen to others, cooperate, compromise, respect.

PlayopolisToys has pinned article after article to our Pinterest board Children Learn While Playing offering research demonstrating the value of play and lamenting its decline. Among these pins is a reprint of a speech by child development specialist Nancy Carlson-Paige, the author of Taking Back Childhood. An educator with 30 + years experience teaching teachers, she sums up her dismay over current practices that leave children little time to experience the benefits of unstructured, “free play”  by saying, “…never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play.” Yet we do.

In “How “twisted” early childhood education has become – from a child development expert,” Valerie Strauss, writing in The Washington Post, reprints the speech Carlson-Paige gave when accepting the prestigious Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award. Read what she had to say. If you’re a proponent, your passion for play will be validated.  If you’ve never given much thought to the issue, you’ll find plenty to think about.

Then settle in and find out what children learn from traditional open-ended play with blocks and bubbles, puzzles and play dough, and so much more.

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How to Choose The Best Toy

Looking for the Best Toy?
 Customers sometimes ask me to recommend the best toy for their child or grandchild, particularly if the child has a special need. Many begin the conversation by sharing a diagnosis. While valuable, this information only addresses one aspect of who the child is. To answer the question, we need to think beyond gender, age, development, or disability. That’s because we all have preferences, and those make all the difference.
We Buy What Appeals to Us
 Just think about ourselves. When we’re shopping, we bring our preferences with us. Think about a sweater. I might find one that seems perfect in every way, except one. The fiber, style, and fit are exquisite. The price, the lowest it’s ever been. The only drawback is the color. It’s a lovely color and the height of fashion, but it isn’t one that makes me look my best. Perhaps I could convince myself it’s not all that bad. In fact, it has much to offer, considering the price. Who doesn’t appreciate a bargain?  And it will keep me warm. That’s the main reason for buying a sweater, right? Yes, but… And here’s the reality in that three letter word. I’d end up not wearing that sweater, except if I was freezing and had absolutely nothing else to keep me warm. What we buy has to appeal to us if we’re to use and enjoy our purchase.
Kids Choose Toys That Appeal to Their Sense of Play
 Children are the same. A toy has to appeal to a kid before she’ll give it her attention. Something about the toy has to invite play, and once the child begins playing, the toy has to prove its worth. The child decides if it merits her time, if the toy offers enough value to hold her interest. Young children like repetition. That’s how they develop skills. Their toys need to be safe, well constructed, and durable, able to stand up to persistent play. Being easy to clean counts too.
Kids Learn Through Play        Array of flannel covered crinkle paper for babies
 Kids also like to explore and discover. Through play, infants begin to understand cause and effect and learn about their environment. Small enough for tiny fingers to grasp, Baby Paper is made of soft flannel with an inner layer of crinkle fabric that makes the sound of paper being crumpled when touched. Babies typically find that appealing and repeat the action that produced the original sound, learning through repetition about cause and effect, about their ability to make something happen.
Observe Kids at Play Before Shopping For Toys
 We make our best decisions when we’ve observed the recipient at play and know her preferences. When choosing toys, select from those you think will appeal most to the child and mesh best with her current abilities, emerging skills, and developmental goals. This is true for all children, with or without special needs. Toys are tools for play. When a child finds a toy intriguing and engages in play, learning occurs naturally and joyfully.

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Growing Vegetables with Children

Think about fitness and healthy eating and what children learn as they help prepare a meal. Then reflect on what children learn when growing food. That’s an ideal hands-on learning experience. The process involves physical activity, from loosening the soil and planting the seeds to watering, weeding, and harvesting.

By watching seeds sprout, plants grow, and vegetables develop and mature, children learn about the origins of their food and develop cognitive, math, and science skills. Farm children grow up knowing where their food comes from and how fresh-from-the-garden fruits and vegetables taste. Urban children benefit from a farm-to-table experience, even if their “farm” is a growing tub.

Gardening is a great multi-generational activity, one that strengthens intergenerational attachments and encourages everyone involved to eat more healthfully. Few families have room enough to grow all their food, but small spaces and container gardens work amazingly well. Many cities have community gardens so that even apartment dwellers can enjoy delicious, nutritious fresh-from-the-garden veggies.

Miniature vegetables are best for container growing. Harvesttotable.com lists varieties, dates to harvest, and descriptions in Dwarf and Miniature Vegetables for Containers. From beans and beets to tomatoes and watermelons, there’s something to please every palate.

When growing in containers, size matters. Radishes grow well in pots; beets, carrots and onions need tubs, and potatoes and sweet potatoes demand we “super size” their containers. Some container gardeners use 25-gallon felt growing pots or heavy duty garbage bags; others stack old tires and plant in those.

Delight in your gardening adventure. And consider collaborating on a home made journal of your shared experiences. Include drawings and pictures. Note what worked well and what didn’t. Such an intergenerational log adds another dimension to the many joys of gardening with kids and is certain to become a treasured keepsake.

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More Wikki Stix No-Tech Solutions to Special Needs

Whether dealing with fine motor challenges or impaired sight, staying “inside the lines” when writing or coloring is a challenge. Just as WikkiStix create guides for writing, these soft, pliable strands help children color inside the lines by transforming lines into tactile borders, a boon for visually impaired students in mainstream classrooms.

Consider this Chinese proverb. “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” WikkiStix support kinesthetic learning by providing engaging hands-on learning experiences.

Think about learning shapes. Kinesthetic learners can use WikkiStix to form shapes. By running their fingers over the shapes, the students literally “get a feel” for each one. Students can also form and finger trace the letters of the alphabet and numerals. The bright colors and large size of shapes, letters, and numerals formed with WikkiStix support learning among the visually impaired.

We’ve all heard that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and children who can’t seem to keep their hands to themselves often find themselves “in trouble with the teacher.” A simple no-tech fidget toy can help the child focus, pay attention and be ready to learn. WikkiStix enhance learning this way too.

At other times, these appealing pliable strands can promote social interaction and enhance social development. As children play, they often engage in verbal interaction which builds language skills.

What’s your favorite use for WikkiStix?

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play