how to get kids to pick up before getting out new toys

how to get kids to clean up before getting out new toys This year was our first year at a Monstessori preschool, and I wanted to share one of our learnings that we have incorporated at home. While Monstessori holds to a child-led educational philosophy, it is definitely far from a free-for-all.  In fact, a Monstessori classroom tends to look like a very neat and structured environment.  Even though kids are empowered to learn at their own pace, there is also a good deal of structure put into place.  One of the most genious ways this type of classroom keeps kids on task is by using a mat (or “rug”, as they are called).  Honestly, when my kids had their first day at this school and the teacher required that they roll out a mat before starting to play, I was rolling my eyes and wondering what on earth I’d signed them up for.  But now? I TOTALLY GET IT. The rug serves several purposes,  First, it isolates a child’s attention to the task at hand. Because only one activity is allowed on the mat at a time, it helps a child focus and encourages them to spend more tine with one activity.  IMG_1094 IMG_0905It also identifies a child’s work or play space, and encourages kids to negotiate and seek permission when they both decide to play the same activity.  If a child puts an activity on the rug that means the child has claimed that activity. If another child wants it they have to wait their turn, or ask to join in. IMG_1077 IMG_2410But the beautiful part for a parent? It’s a reminder that they must put one toy away before getting out another.  This has been a game-changer in my house, in terms of keeping their play area neat and clean.  We’ve had an advantage in that they already know these rules at school, so once we implemented the rugs at home, it’s just taken me reminding them that the rules at home are the same as at school. IMG_1006 I ended up finding our rugs at IKEA for about $4 each, but any small rug would do. We keep ours rolled like yoga mats in the play area, and whenever they play I remind them to grab a rug.  While a Montessori classroom is not equibbed with “toys” per se, we use our rugs for both educational games and toys.  I’ve been able to find some great Montessori-type toys on Amazon, and surprisingly the kids are just enthusiastic about them as they are about Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony.   IMG_2459 While the kids still need reminders, I find the structure of a play mat really helps keep our play area tidy.  I love how this small fix has minimized some of the chaos of our small play area. IMG_2458IMG_2456 {Academic toys pictured: Ten Frame Tower and Smart Trays from Zulily, Magnetic Letters set,  Sight Word flashcards, and Sort & Learn Alphabet Center from Amazon.}

do you really play with your kids?

I’ve written about this before, but one of the more difficult aspects of motherhood for me has been reconciling the disparity between the mother I envisioned I would be, and the mother that I really am. My husband and I had a long and bumpy road to becoming parents, so I had a long time to imagine myself as a mother. And while I’ve lived up to some of the expectations that I’ve held for myself, I’ve also been surprised by some of the aspects of motherhood that have been most challenging for me.

I think one of the biggest areas that I have surprised (disappointed?) myself is that I am not instinctively motivated to engage in play with my kids.  It’s not that I don’t value play – in fact, my experience as a child therapist taught me that it’s incredibly important. But in my day-to-day life, I find that it requires discipline for me to stop what I’m doing and play with them. It’s not something I am naturally drawn to do.

I don’t like this about myself, and I’ve even sought therapy to try to change my personality in this regard, only to be told that I need to lighten up on myself, accept who I am, and just try to do the best I can. I’m sure that this is true – a type A temperament is generally not changed, so I try to compensate by being intentional. Even in that, I find it difficult. If I sit down with the kids to play dolls, about five minutes in, my mind wanders to the toy bin, or the closet, and I start thinking about what I could reorganize. If I’m in the living room playing a game, I’m likely to be wondering how long it will be until I can excuse myself and unload the dishwasher. Unfortunately, my personality does not always align with my values.  Cognitively, I value being present with my kids. But that inner drive to get things done, to be productive, to cross things off a list . . . it’s not easy to squelch.  This isn’t to say that my personality doesn’t have it’s strengths.  I’m a great facilitator of play. I’ve done a great job of creating an organized and stimulating play area at home.  I do well with finding fun things to do in our community.  I’m just not always the best at being an active participant instead of an organizer/observer.  With four kids, it’s also easy to step back, since they are rarely really in need of a playmate. But I know that when I am able to really engage with them, that it’s a really meaningful connection.

I’m going to make a concerted effort to play more with my kids this summer. I’m not going to set myself up with unrealistic expectations that I will suddenly turn into a free-spirited, PLAY ALL DAY kind of mom. But I am going to set aside a few hours each week where the housework can wait. For me, my best chance at success is getting out of the house and away from the list of tasks that need completion.


How about you? Do you find that playing with your kids comes naturally, or is it something you have to be disciplined about?  If you find it a challenge, have you figured out why?  And have you found any lifestyle changes that help you be more available for play? 




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boys and weapon play: what are the ground rules for toy guns and swords?

Yesterday I published a story at Huffington Post about how I’ve surrendered my convictions in regards to keeping our home free of toy guns. (You can go read it here.)  I wrote this article over a year ago, and since that time my boys’ enthusiasm for toy guns, light sabers, and swords has only grown in intensity, much to the annoyance of their sisters.  India and Karis are routinely finding themselves the target of whatever epic battle the boys have concocted.  In fact, this video pretty much captures the essence of my home: the girls dressed in tutus, putting on a dance show, only to be interrupted by a light saber and nerf gun attack. I’ve tried to keep some levity about the situation, but we’ve all been annoyed by their constant weapons play.  Sometimes the girls join in, but more often than not they are the innocent victims.  It’s almost daily that I hear one of the girls yelling, “Stop trying to shoot me!” at their brothers. It got so bad that last week, I outlawed weapons play, again, and confiscated all of the weapons into a storage bin in the garage.  It is likely only temporary, but I feel like we need a little break, and some time to figure out some ground rules so that they aren’t bugging their sisters (or me) with their impromptu battles. I’m thinking I need to start off with a rule about not doing battle with someone without asking for permission first – that they can only point a weapon at someone who has answered affirmative to the question, “Would you like to play guns/swords with me?”  It seems like they need to learn boundaries and respect, and I’m thinking that asking someone to join their battle (instead of forcing) is a good place to start.  But what else?  Experienced moms of young soldiers, what other rules should I put in place?

encouraging our kids when their dreams don’t match their abilities

Yesterday India woke us up by bursting into our room with an announcement about a dream she’d had.  “Mommy!  I had a dream that I could ride my bike without training wheels! This means I can do it now.  Let’s go take them off!”  I loved her enthusiasm, and the idea of her dreaming about shedding those training wheels was just too cute.  But at the same time, Mark and I were stealing glances at each other because both of us were skeptical that she was really ready for this step. India is a cerebral little girl. She taught herself to read at age 4, and spends most of her day buried in a book or working on a craft. Meanwhile, her brothers spend most of their day playing sports and riding their skateboards and bikes.  Lately, India has been trying to join in with her brothers’ activities more and more.  I love seeing her push past some of her insecurities. But even as she does, her brothers continue to have an easier time with physical tasks. Kembe took his training wheels off over a year ago, and now rides around the neighborhood looking for ways to propel himself into a wheelie.  I know that it bothers her that she is still trailing behind them on a bike with training wheels, still struggling with both speed and balance. I was so proud that India was willing to push past her fears and try to make a go without the training wheels, but I was also worried that she would be disappointed.  There was a part of me that wanted to tell her just to wait, that maybe we could try when she turned 6. Mark and I had a quick conference about what to do, and we both agreed that even though we doubted she would be able to ride on her own, that we should just support her and help her try. photo 2 Mark took off the training wheels, and all four of the kids were getting really excited. As India got on her bike, her brothers were giving her encouragements and advice.  She and Mark found a spot on the street, and at this point Jafta and Kembe started chanting her name.  Her anticipation was palpable, her smile a mile wide.  I was shouting my encouragement, but inside, I was cringing.   Mark helped her get started, and immediately she was frustrated that he was holding on. She yelled at him to let go, that she could do it by herself.  The boys were riding next to her.  Kembe was chanting. Karis was running alongside. I was shouting my encouragement. And Mark let go . . .     . . . and she couldn’t do it. There was about a nanosecond of glory, until it was obvious that she was going to fall unless Mark grabbed the bike again. She knew it, too. She went from elation to despair in a matter of seconds, declaring that she hated it almost as quickly as she’d said she felt like she could do it.  I stopped filming and she started crying . . . wailing, really. We tried to encourage her to keep trying, to try riding around with Mark holding the back of the seat, but she was totally defeated. She had been so sure that she would be able to take off like her brothers and ride freely into the wind. She had no interest in practicing . . . in wobbling, in righting herself, or in trying to ride with her dad holding on. photo 1 At this point, she broke down in racking sobs as I held her and tried to give words to her feelings.  Her emotional reaction was so strong, and I knew that this was hitting her on a deep level.  This kind of disappointment is so hard to watch, as a parent, and as much as I wanted to protect her from it, something told me that this was an important moment, and that I just needed to sit with her in it.  Her crying was so loud that a couple neighbors came out to see if she was hurt.  I repeated over and over how proud I was of her for trying, and how I understood how disappointed she must feel.  Her strong feelings reminded me of so many times when I’ve been similarly disappointed.  Not making a team, having a crush that wasn’t reciprocated, not getting a call-back after an audition, having a piece of writing rejected . . . this experience of trying and failing is one that is life-long, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last time India experienced it. I knew it was an important moment to try to help her through.  I sat and held her for a while, and continued to reassure her that we were proud, that it would take practice, and that we would help her along the way. We went about our day, and throughout the afternoon I kept telling her how proud I was that she had tried.  That evening, after she got her pajamas on, she told us that she wanted to try again.  This was a surprise, because that morning she’d asked Mark to put the training wheels back on and announced that she “quit” riding a bike without them.  We pulled her bike out front again, and this time, she rode with Mark holding on. photo 3 This is the part that made me the most proud.  I was thrilled that she tried that morning, but even more thrilled that she had tried, failed, and then was willing to go out and try again.  I certainly can’t raise my kids to be perfect at everything they try.  But my hope is that I can raise them to keep going for it. photo 4 This post was sponsored by P&G. P&G’s Thank You Mom campaign postulates that being a mom is the hardest and most important job in the world . . . and I’m prone to agree! P&G is the Proud Sponsor of Moms, not just the moms of athletes, but ALL moms around the world. Join P&G by visiting their new facebook app, where you can publicly thank and pay tribute to your own mom. PSOM_a

the parenting paradox

When I was in high school, I went to see the musical version of the movie Big (yes – they made that Tom Hanks movie into a musical).  It’s not an entirely memorable show, but one number stuck with me. It’s called “Stop, Time” and it’s a song that a mother sings about her sadness in regards to her child growing older. Even as a teenager, I was aware that this song was touching on a profound pain of the human experience, and I remember stifling loud sobs in the theater for the duration of the ballad.  Here’s the part that gets me every time:

Nobody warns you of this parent’s paradox
You want your kid to change and grow
But when he does, another child you’ve just begun to know
Leaves forever
Birthdays fly – 7, 8, 9, 10
Every kid he becomes you clutch and say "Stop, time"
Hold this one fast
But it’s not supposed to last
And that time has come and passed
For he’s growing
And he has to go

I’m really feeling this parenting paradox at this stage of our lives. It’s tough because it feels like we are on the precipice of a new stage that I’m very much looking forward to.  We are no longer dependent on sippy cups or bottles. Three of the four can sit in boosters instead of car seats.  Two of them can swim safely well enough that I’m not paranoid about them drowning at the pool. They can all pour their own cereal, dress themselves, brush their own teeth, strap themselves into the car.  And the biggest hurdle is so close I can almost taste it: Karis will soon be out of diapers.  Oh what a joyous day that will be.  I have had a child in diapers for the last seven years.  I CANNOT WAIT to graduate from that one.  She is also slowly dropping her afternoon nap, which is another big milestone. For the last seven years, my days have revolved around a nap schedule.  The thought of planning each day without regard for a two-hour stint at home in the middle of the afternoon?  How liberating. Mark and I frequently talk about the things we will be able to do more easily once the kids are just a bit bigger.  Go on longer road trips. Take family bike rides. Go kayaking. Travel more  SLEEP IN. There are many aspects of our pre-kids life that we are hoping to pick back up once these kids are just a bit bigger, so we are often looking forward to that time with some eagerness and anticipation. And yet . . . Getting to that stage means giving up so much.  I love that Karis is moving past the baby stage, but I hate that our long evening cuddles are gone – shunned in favor of laying in bed with her favorite picture books. I miss some of the aspects of having a baby, and many of the adorably cute aspects of her current stage will be replaced when she crosses over into the more autonomous stage that we’re looking forward to. There are so many ways I want to be less needed by the kids.  I want them to gain independence and I want to transition into a phase that is less caretaking and more fun. At the same time, there is such a bittersweet sadness to being less needed by my kids. I feel like Mark and I are living in this constant angsty tension – wanting so much for this hard phase to be over, simultaneously feeling so wistful and guilty that we are wishing it away, and then immediately grieving each stage as soon as it has past.  It seems like we are constantly sandwiched between a hope for an easier stage, and a regret that the harder stage has passed. IMG_1110 IMG_1155 I suppose the solution to this parent paradox is true for life in general. . . the trick is learning how to be content in each given moment, without dwelling on the future OR the past.  I’m doing my best to try to live in the moment and celebrate each phase of life my kids are in.  But oh, it’s hard not to look back. And it’s hard not to look ahead. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++ This post was sponsored by P&G. P&G is the Proud Sponsor of Moms, not just the moms of athletes, but ALL moms around the world. Join P&G by visiting their new facebook app, where you can publicly thank and pay tribute to your own mom. This is part of a $5MM global commitment P&G has made to support local youth sports in many countries. PSOM_a