5 Ways Your Kids Are Learning While Playing Video Games

I married a gamer.  Since gaming is ‘Love’s hobby, it’s something the kids have always been interested in, and it’s been a natural activity for them to bond over.  Unfortunately, I feel as if I’m constantly apologizing for the fact that my kids spend an hour most days taking turns playing computer or console games with Daddy.

I’ve decided that the time for apologizing is over.  While there’s always a chance that they’re picking up negative habits or beliefs from slaying pixelated zombies or conglomerate monster-things (and we are pretty careful about the types of games we expose our kids to–though interestingly enough no one seems to think we should abandon Bible reading when the kids role play David killing Goliath or Solomon threatening to cut the head off the baby to determine its true mother), the more I’ve watched and listened to them gaming with Daddy, the more I’m convinced that gaming, like most other hobbies, has many benefits.

Continue reading

DIY Vision Therapy: 12 Exercises You Can Do At Home

If you read my last blog post, you know that we found out that our youngest needed vision therapy, but the price tag was beyond what we could afford.  Immediately after that revelation, I took my kids to gymnastics, where a former-OT friend informed me that she had been given a whole binder full of vision therapy exercises during her time working in a low-income school in South Africa.

We’ve now been doing vision exercises about 3-4 times a week for 9 weeks, and little Pookie has gone from only sounding out single, large words written in magnets or on the white board to eagerly reading Biscuit books for bedtime.  (In case you missed the last post, he’s been able to sound out single words in this manner for more than a year, but he just wasn’t making any progress.)  While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, I figured it can’t hurt to share some of what we’ve done with other parents who might find themselves in a similar situation. Continue reading

The Bedtime Boon

‘Love despises bedtime.  For him, it’s an ordeal that must be accomplished in order to achieve the goal of parental freedom.  And I’ve got to admit, until recently I felt the same way.  At bedtime everyone is either whiny, oversensitive, and combative (due to the fact that they are sorely in need of sleep); completely hyper and crazy (in an if-I-don’t-keep-moving-I’ll-fall-asleep-on-my-feet kind of way); or unimaginably slow and full of excuses.  It’s enough to make any sane parent pull out their hair.

Somehow this year, that’s changed.  No, not the kids.  They’re still running like maniacs or bursting into tears while dragging their feet at every possible occasion.  But I’ve realized that nearly all the craziness comes to an abrupt halt the moment we’re alone in their bedroom.

As every parent with more than one child knows, there’s simply never enough of you to go around.  It seems that the kids are almost constantly vying for my attention, talking over one another, asking me to play a game or do a craft or watch a trick or….  Mommy is a hot commodity. Continue reading

perspective

Kids’ emotional development, like their growth, is generally so gradual that you don’t notice it happening.  It takes a comment from friends you haven’t seen for a while–“Whoa!  Peatie sure has shot up, hasn’t he!”–to surprise you into realizing that the change has, indeed, been occurring under your very nose.

This month’s vacation created that needed perspective.  We took a 20-hour drive back to ‘Love’s family cottage, which we’ve visited every summer Pookie has been alive.  Every summer, the story has been the same: he’s perfectly okay if we’re at the cottage and he might have a few moments of happiness when we’re enjoying the beach out front, but he’s an utter beast on any day-trips, completely stressed and cranky and clingy and begging to leave.  It doesn’t matter if we’re visiting the petting farm or the ice cream stand or the lighthouse, he’s equally miserable for all of them.  It’s hard for the rest of us to enjoy excursions with his anxiety level so high.

CottageAnd then there was this year.  When we arrived at the cottage, it was nearly bedtime, and he flipped out over a stain on the ceiling.  I thought, “Here we go again…”  But that was pretty much the end of his freak-outs.  He relished each day at the beach.  He ASKED to climb the lighthouse again this year and bravely strolled around once we reached the top, even smiling for a picture, this child of mine who HATES being photographed.  He had a blast at the petting farm, admiring the animals and bouncing like crazy on the jumping pillow and even going down an enormous tube slide all on his own.  He placed an ice cream order–and then ate the ice cream.

Looking back at the pictures, I think, “Who IS this kid?”  And then I hear him falling apart over the way the peanut butter looks on his toast and I am recalled to reality–but with a flavor of hope.

Sometimes when you have your nose to the grindstone and you’re around your kids day in and day out, it’s hard to see their progress.  You begin to wonder if they’ll ever outgrow their quirks or difficult phases, if they’ll ever gain self-control and turn into mature, empathetic human beings.  It’s so nice to have reassuring moments like these when the progress is apparent and you can convince yourself that this, too, shall pass.

road trip tips: a survival guide for parents

Four years ago (!) I posted some of my road-trip tips for traveling with young kids. While some of those tips and tricks are ones I still use, I thought it was about time for an updated version including suggestions for older kids, especially since we’re anticipating a 20-hour drive back “home” to see ‘Love’s family again in a few weeks.

Goober has NEVER been a good car rider.  As an infant, she couldn’t even make it the five minutes to Grandma’s without screaming.  Last year we made it 30 minutes into our first day of driving when she announced, “I’m done sitting in the car.  How much longer until we get to the hotel?”  Knowing her personality, I always make extensive preparations for car entertainment.

Let me say right from the start that I have the world’s only children who do not sleep in the car.  Since that’s the #1 road-trip tip I hear, I figured I’d best include that one up front. If your kids are car sleepers, consider yourself lucky and take full advantage. For anyone whose children are odd like mine, here are some alternative suggestions.

There are some items no child-carrying car should be without on long trips.

  • Baby wipes.  No baby, you say?  No matter–take them anyway.  They come in handy if the gas station restroom is out of soap, if someone has greasy or sticky hands after a snack, if someone pukes in their lap…
  • Gallon Ziploc bags.  An odd one, perhaps, but handy.  Kid feeling queasy after eight hours in the car?  Hand him a bag.  If he uses it, you can conveniently seal the bag and contain the smell.  Toss his shorts in a second bag if his aim was off.  The bags are also handy for transporting wet swimsuits, containing opened snack packages, keeping the twelve hair-ties your daughter HAD to have in when you left and can no longer stand an hour later, and more!
  • Sunglasses for all!  You’d hate to get to a rest stop only to have the blinding sun prevent anyone from running off some energy.  Toss these in a Ziploc and keep them at-hand just in case.  Toss in sunscreen and hats if your skin is sensitive enough to burn in 15 minutes.  No one wants sunburn!
  • BandAids.  Hopefully you’ve got a stash of these in your car already, but if not, toss them in.  A reckless kid at a rest stop will often find a way to make them necessary.  Pull out the baby wipes to clean off the dirt, and slap a BandAid on top.
  • Your favorite pain reliever–for yourself and the kids.  What could be worse than driving through rush-hour traffic in the blinding sun at the end of a long day while your kids argue in the back seat?  Doing the above with an aching back or a searing headache.  And you know how cranky your kids get when they’re feverish or headachey?  Better throw in something for them, too.
  • Food, water, and entertainment–but you knew that.  See below for more tips on this particular category.
Road Trip

A good road-tripper is well-prepared.

Use rest stops to play, NOT to eat.  I start feeding my kids about 45 min-1 hour before we plan to stop.  (I bring sandwich fixings or crackers, fruit, veggies, cheese sticks, or even Lunchables for meals.  Snacks consist of non-crumbly granola bars, Teddy Grahams, mini pretzel twists, Nilla Wafers, Goldfish–anything that can’t melt and either doesn’t crumble or can be eaten in one bite.)  A small cooler crowded by my feet in the front comes in handy, or I’ve used the cooler as a footrest for someone sitting in the center of the row behind me.)  Usually this is the point at which the kids are getting restless and food helps stretch their “sit” by a little.  By the time we stop, liquids have made their way through the kids’ systems (or will before the stop is over).

We try to find rest stations with lots of open space or a playground or a fast food joint with a play area (and the adults have a snack).  I even research rest stops along the route to find out which ones are closed for renovations, which have a reputation for cleanliness, which have space for kids to roam.  I often list several top choices so we can shorten or lengthen our time between stops as needed.  We spend 15-20 minutes playing hard (with adults chasing kids if necessary to make sure kids use maximum energy) and using the bathroom.

On a related note…non-melting candies (especially things that go slowly, like DumDums) are good distractions between snack and meal times.  I’m not usually one to load my kids up on junk food and candy, but road trips are my once-a-year exception.

Stop as few times as possible. We fill up on gas each time we stop–whether we need it or not–so we don’t have to make an extra stop for gas later.  Even a quick gas stop or potty break will likely add at least 15 minutes to your trip, and on a long trip, no one wants extra time in the car.  Remind those with suspiciously wimpy bladders that every stop will take away from evening pool time (see below) or at the very least add to the length of the drive time.  If nothing else, maybe the groans of their siblings will help to delay their demands to stop RIGHT NOW.  If you do stop, require everyone to try using the bathroom lest you get back on the road and have someone else claim a bathroom emergency twenty minutes later.

Make sure each day ends with a pool.  I reserve a hotel with an indoor pool because I remember as a kid being heartbroken when we drove all day and then it was too cold or stormy to swim.  Swimming even for an hour uses tons of energy and helps everyone sleep better, as well as giving everyone something to look forward to all day long.  On the plus side, most hotels with indoor pools also include a hot breakfast, so while you may be paying more for the night, considering that extra $25 bought everyone some pool time and as much breakfast food as they can fit (not to mention something to look forward to all day and enough exercise to sleep well), it’s not a bad deal.

Long car trips are a time to make exceptions about tech use.  We have a tablet that we let everyone have a 20-minute turn on–sometimes once in the morning and once in the afternoon.  Last year I also played a DVD on my laptop toward the end of each afternoon when everyone was getting really restless. (Sadly, my DVD-ROM drive seems to have died.)  Those prolonged distractions were lifesavers!

Contain your paper clutter while providing ample activity options.  I make each kid a binder (built-in hard writing surface) with coloring pages (cool geometric designs for older kids), mazes, blank paper, logic puzzles, sudoku, crosswords, dot-to-dots (everything from simple to extreme)–anything I can find that they might like–and include colored pencils plus a little sharpener (with a securely-attached case to catch shavings) in a zipper pencil pouch at the front.  (Why colored pencils?  Crayons melt in a hot car and markers tend to accidentally bleed or have their caps left off or get dropped and leave marks or “accidentally” form designs on children’s skin.)  Though I looked at various books available for purchase, I ultimately searched online for free sample pages and was able to print off and put together a book with more variety than I could have purchased.  I put together a list of activities and where I found them, if you want me to save you some legwork.

Magnetic trays work well for lots of activities.  We have jelly roll pans (cookie sheets with a lip around) that are magnetic (not all are–test before buying!).

  • When my kids were little, I printed a picture of one of those rugs with the roads on it (sized to fit my tray) and laminated it for the kids to use while playing with cars. I even hot-glued magnets to the bottom of the cars so they would stay where they were driven. My 4-year-old still loves this, and even the older two will play around with it for a while.
  • I take a baggie of magnetic letters for the little guy and a baggie of magnetic poetry for the older two.  They enjoy trying to outdo each other by making ridiculous, nonsensical stories or sentences.
  • Have some tangrams or magnetic puzzles?  The tray is handy for spreading out pieces and keeping spare parts from getting lost between the seats.
  • I pack each kid a small container of Lego pieces (with a base piece hot-glued to the lid).  The tray offers plenty of space to place the small tote on one side and use the remaining space to build.

Ponder favorite game options that would work well for travel.  Many games offer specific travel versions, but games like Guess Who?, Rush Hour, Rory’s Story Cubes, Mad Libs, and others can easily be enjoyed on the go.  And don’t forget the classic Road-Trip Bingo cards!  I picked up a few in Target’s dollar section recently.

Use your ever-changing location to spark interest!

  • As soon as my kids started reading, I always printed a map of where we were going and highlighted our route.  Now my kids have their own atlases, and Peatie spends most of the trip simply looking for each town as we go and telling us how far away things are and what we’re passing.
  • Having the kids look for needed signs (exits, interchanges) is great even for littles who just know a few letters (“We’re looking for a sign with a word that starts with S!”)–except if they get too competitive.
  • If you’re driving past or stopping at any points of interest, part of each day could be spent talking or reading aloud about what you’re going to see and why it’s important/exciting.  My kids always enjoy destinations more when they’re primed.
  • Classic activities like the alphabet game (you know–where you find your ABCs in order as you drive) are always good bets.
  • When I was a kid, my siblings and I would keep statistics on various things.  We’d note which state license plates we’d seen and how many of each, or we’d track vehicle types or colors throughout the day.  I suspect my kids may be old enough to start enjoying this now.

Use your stereo system to the fullest. 

  • Audiobooks can entertain many a child for hours at a time, whether they’re following along in a book or simply enjoying the story.
  • My kids don’t like audiobooks, but they do like to sing along to favorite songs.  If I can get them doing motions, they work off some energy at the same time.
  • I’m hoping to snag some good educational songs on CD or MP3.  If we can memorize the state capitols, books of the Bible, elements of the Periodic Table, multiplication tables, or some other glorious facts whilst we pass the miles, all the better.
  • Classical music can work magic.  When everyone is angsty from too long in the car, someone is always unhappy about the CD we’re listening to.  For some reason, no one complains when I pop in classical music.  The kids talk about the instruments they hear, what the music makes them think of, which songs are their favorites, or simply sit and mellow out while looking out the window.  Daddy sighs with relief that he doesn’t have to listen to kid-safe, peppy music.  I love it!

Books hold a multitude of possibilities.

  • While my kids balk at audiobooks, they love to listen to me read aloud for long stretches of time.  (Go figure!)
  • A few new books can be special treats.  Especially engaging are books with detailed pictures (anyone’s littles LOVE Richard Scarry?) or new books from a favorite series.
  • Search-and-find books are good for whiling away the hours.  ‘Love still had his old Where’s Waldo? books and we’ve picked up a few I Spy books, as well.  Even if they’re not searching for the items, the kids enjoy looking at all the details in the pictures.

Sometimes they just need to fidget.

  • Our pin art toy is a perpetual favorite for car trips–though my sister-in-law tells me that her plastic version is quieter and thus less irritating to fellow passengers.
  • I keep a couple squishy balls or animals from the dollar store on hand for trips.  Even if you can’t really DO anything with them, they’re fun to squish through your fingers while looking out the window.
  • My cousin said for road trips she always buys each of her kids a roll of masking tape.  Apparently it keeps everyone busy for quite a long time, from the preschooler sticking it all over himself to the older kids attempting to create clothing, jewelry, or other items by sticking pieces together.  I may try this!

baby steps to success for a (very!) picky eater

Dinnertime was torture for me as a kid. While my family termed me “picky”, I considered myself merely to be a keen observer of flavors and textures–with a distinct idea of which ones I liked and didn’t like. I can remember many meals at which my mother griped, “I hope you have a little girl just like you some day!”

20160606_230024Well, she didn’t get her wish. While I do have a little girl, she eats far better than I did. Instead I have a little boy who is a pickier eater than I could ever claim to be.

He didn’t start out that way. He started out loving every big-people food he could get his mouth around. But something started causing him to writhe all night long (and none of the very-expensive specialists could figure out why), and slowly my happy baby turned into a perpetually cranky little guy who began refusing more and more foods. By the time he was three, he ate almost nothing besides peanut butter toast and Life cereal–and he was very particular about how he consumed those.

My pediatrician proposed eliminating peanut butter and Life from our home in order to force him to eat something else, but since my child absolutely flipped his lid if I even placed another food too close to his seat at the table, I knew that this extreme would cause a huge emotional upheaval, and that was not the way I wanted to go. Instead, I’ve blazed a far more gradual route–but it’s brought progress in a far less stressful manner.

In case you might find it helpful, here’s what we’ve done.

I started by assessing where he was at and determining my goal for him. When we began, he ate a very limited number of foods and would not tolerate even the proximity of any non-approved food items. My goal for him was not to be a bold, adventurous eater, but merely to be capable of tasting new foods without a complete meltdown and (ideally) to broaden his palette. Rather than jumping straight to tasting new foods, I worked in baby steps, always telling him what I planned to do before doing it–and giving him at least a one-day warning. Our steps were as follows:

1. Tolerate the proximity of new foods. I determined a “D Day” and began talking it up. (“On Sunday night, I’m going to do something different. At dinnertime I am going to put a tiny bit of one or two dinner foods on your plate along with your toast. You won’t have to eat these foods or even touch or sniff them, and I’ll make sure they’re not touching your toast in any way. You’re getting to be a big boy, though, and I want you to get used to at least looking at new foods so that you don’t get upset when a food you don’t like is near you. If you never get used to new foods, it will be very hard for you to visit other people’s houses and share meals with them, and I think that will be important to you as you grow older.”) After spending two days providing this very specific warning of what I was going to do, when, and why, I began by putting teeny dollops of one or two foods on one side of a plate, far from his toast. Before I brought his food to the table, I gave him a final warning about what he would see. He wasn’t thrilled, but I reminded him that he knew it was coming and it would not effect his eating, so he survived. After a few days, he stopped fussing about the new foods on his plate.

2. Smelling new foods. When looking at new foods became easy, I began talking about our next step. Now, rather than just looking at the foods, he would smell them. Again, I talked about this change before I implemented it, and I gave a specific time when it would begin. At the first meal, I required him to smell one food. I reminded him that he needn’t touch it or taste it, only smell it. Again, I provided the reason I felt this to be important for him to learn. He resisted with some tears, but I calmly insisted and withheld his toast until he allowed me to pass the food within six inches of his nose. Allowing him to choose which food to smell alleviated some of his distress and gave him some control over the situation. This step took longer than the last one, and it was several weeks before he would consistently smell our dinner without falling apart.

3. Touching new foods. Again, after the previous step grew to be easy, I began talking about touching the new foods. I emphasized that I would not require him to taste the food, but that I wanted him to begin getting used to the feel of different foods. Again I set a particular date and time at which this step would begin, and I explained that I would touch a bit of food to his closed mouth. I assured him that he could hold a rag and immediately wipe his mouth. This, again, was a challenging step, and I think the only thing that made it survivable for him was that I allowed him to choose which food to touch to his lips. Frankly, I don’t care what food he gets used to, so long as he is broadening his horizons.

4. Tasting new foods. With the same warnings as before, we moved on to tasting once touching proved tolerable. Initial tastes were a quick tongue poking at a spoon of food and barely getting an atom of flavor, but it was a start. I let him have a drink ready to wash away the flavor and a rag to wipe his tongue if necessary, and again he was allowed to select the food to taste.

4b. This is a bit of an in-between step. After he was comfortable touching his tongue to new foods, I began to require him to take a teeny bit of the food in his mouth. At this stage, he was allowed to spit the food out onto his plate if he wanted to. I felt we needed some bridge between tasting and feeling the food outside of his mouth and tasting and feeling it inside his mouth BEFORE I started requiring him to swallow the food.

5. Eating new foods. Once he could handle tastes, swallowing was next. Initial swallows were minuscule–and I would listen to complaints about size and make the taste smaller if possible. Gradually–oh, so very gradually–I increased the size of his tastes.

Success? Three months after beginning this path, my child’s meals still consist mostly of peanut butter toast and Life cereal. He chooses one food to taste at each family meal, though he generally heads for the vegetables or grain products. Compared to what he was willing and able to tolerate a few months ago, however, I consider our progress a victory.

And there’s more. The other day when I was deciding what to make for dinner, little Pookie piped up with, “I think you should make beans, Mommy. I kind of like those.” And when I triumphantly placed a bowl of beans on the table that night, he pointed to one and said, “I’m going to eat this one–it’s nice and big!” And then, much to my shock, he added, “And maybe I could eat another one, too.” I now have a two-bean Pookie.  Better yet, this very night he declared that the next time we have beans, he’s going to choose three to eat.

turning back time (in a way)

Somehow, I find that I’m often restless.  Perhaps I can blame it on my mom–she was constantly rearranging the furniture of one room or another as I was growing up, so life seemed full of excitement and change.  At any rate, I feel like I have reinvented our homeschooling life in one way or another countless times in the last two school years.

I’ve gone the furniture angle.  We started with one small work table and switched to using individual desks.  I rearranged our work space in the front room two or three times to increase efficiency.  This past winter I even switched our work space to the family room at the back of the house by the kitchen, combining play space with work space and moving our living room furniture to the front room where (ideally) it makes for a more formal, cleaner-looking entry (except when the kids colonize it as their fort-building space).

I’ve gone the curriculum angle.  We’ve switched writing curricula, math curricula, history plans, spelling materials, Spanish tactics…  Frankly, I’ve discovered that I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to curriculum, and I can’t seem to use anything as-is; I find myself always adjusting techniques or cobbling a few resources together into something that better suits us.  Perhaps I should bill it myself as “confident and adaptive” rather than “unwilling or unable to follow established plans.”

I’ve gone the scheduling angle.  We used to start promptly at 9:30 with a snack and read-aloud.  That time has gradually moved later (and later), since I hate to interrupt productive, happy playtime.  I’ve also adjusted the content of our days, spending a full week on science followed by a full week on social studies, testing out alternating subjects on various days, lengthening or shortening our lessons and work time.

FreePlay

The older they get, the more I find myself prioritizing moments like this, thankful that we have the time to enjoy a gentle rain and to let imaginations run wild.  Perhaps it’s because the older they get, the more I realize that simple things like this won’t always bring them such raw joy, and we’d best make the most of the present moments and the joys they offer.

Last fall I felt like I was simply trying to crowd too much content into our lives.  I was burnt out from trying to plan math and history and writing and grammar and science and Spanish and art and…  You get the idea.  Even with many of those subjects being only once or twice a week, it was a lot of juggling–particularly since for most of it I’m either creating my own curriculum or heavily modifying existing materials (and, like a perpetual first-year teacher, I’m always preparing new material).  I felt like I wasn’t really doing any subject especially well, and worse yet, the kids had lost some of their joy for learning.  There was no way I wanted to quench that spark so early in their educational careers!

After pondering what had made learning together so magical when the kids were younger, I decided that it was mostly because it was instigated by their interest and thus had their complete buy-in.  I realized a few other things as well: first, I tended to get restless and need change every month or two; secondly, if I changed our subjects of study every couple months, we could cover fewer subjects at a time and still rotate through a full complement over the course of a year.

Thus, my six-week block scheduling began in January.  In a way, this is like turning back time, reverting to the priorities I had when they were preschoolers: following their lead and being willing to shift focus as their personal goals shifted.  (It sounds odd to think of preschoolers as having personal goals, but if you watch carefully, they’re always working on some skill–even if they themselves don’t realize it.)

I started by soliciting ideas from the kids of things they’d like to study; near the end of each block, this process is repeated.  If they run stuck on ideas, I make suggestions–which they often tweak.  Sometimes the kids choose separate topics–Liddy wanted to draw and learn about animals while Asher was interested in math and the geography of South America and Australia–but in general, I try to limit us to about four topics and combine as many as we can.

It’s working.  Both the kids and I are still facing each day with excitement over what we’re going to do, even though we’re nearing the end of a semester (or trimester, since I tend to think of summer as its own academic time), when we’d usually be rather blah.  In fact, each evening the kids are eagerly asking what our work will be for the next day!

While I do keep a review rotation going so we don’t completely forget our parts of speech or basic math, most of what we do is kid-driven.  And as soon as we so much as start tiring of what we’re studying, we discover that it’s already time to think about what we want to learn next.  Hooray for excitement and motivation and learning and joy!