Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Have Yourself An Open-Ended Christmas

by Anne Castle-Deckert. Crossposted on Exploring With Teacher Annie

Let me be honest: if you offer me a choice between a nice gooey Snickers Bar or a crisp, healthy carrot, most of the time I’m pretty likely to take you up on the candy, and defer the carrot to “later.” And I’m an adult who knows better. But if sugary stuff isn’t one of the choices, I am quite happy with healthy rabbit food. Carrots are yummy, when you’re in the habit of eating them, and when you’re not comparing them to junk food. Besides, I’ve learned by now that I feel better on a diet of good veggies and other healthy things, and I feel worse when I over-indulge in sweets. But still…… if you give me the choice, I don’t always make the decision based on what’s best for me.

Similarly, many of the toys that are currently popular for young children just make me sad. That’s because they are the toy-equivalent of the above-mentioned Snickers Bar: they’re appealing and irresistible, but not nourishing. Many toys have features that immediately catch the eye and appeal to children, and therefore to parents. The challenging thing is to figure out which toys will “feed the brains” and stir the imagination of our kids, and which ones are intellectual junk food.

Here are a few of my “rules of thumb” when thinking about which toys are worth your children’s time. For simplicity, I’ll talk about only two categories: “Good Toys” and “Bad Toys.”

-If it needs batteries, it may be a Bad Toy, unless it’s a tool of some sort like a music player or a flashlight. Batteries mean that it will be producing some sort of action on its own, and therefore is likely to do most of the playing FOR the child, instead of allowing the child to play.

-Does it beep, flash, or make noises? Does it contain a computer chip? Bad Toys often do, because toy designers and sellers obviously think kids are stupid and can’t have fun on their own, without the toy “entertaining” them. Besides, think about how very tired YOU will get of those beeps and noises over time. Do you really need another irritation? Save yourself the anguish: skip the beeping, blinking toy aisle entirely.

-Is it something brand new that you’ve never seen before? Sometimes Bad Toys are exciting because they are new and novel. But think about it: many Good Toys are things that have been part of childhood forever, and will never be trendy, but will also never go out of style. Think about balls, blocks, basic dolls, simple toy cars and animals, etc. Not to mention the very basic playthings like rocks, sand, water, magnets, crayons and paper, and the Good Old Basic Stick or Deluxe Cardboard Box.

-Is it based on a tv show, movie, or video game? Is there a ride somewhere in a faraway theme park based on it? If so, be wary that Bad Toy-ness can be lurking beneath a seemingly innocent fa├žade. When a toy originates with a media character, 90% of the imagining has already been done, by the “professionals.” They even call themselves Imagineers! What 3 year old can compete with that? Most of the time, kids love media-based toys, but it’s clear that their imaginations do not soar to new heights with this type of plaything. They stick to the “script” when playing with this type of toy, and most of the benefits of pretend play are lost. We preschool teachers know that children are the “professionals” when it comes to play, and we look for toys that will be useful tools for their creative minds.

-Can it be used for just one thing, or can it be played with in many ways? Good toys are usually what we in the kid-business call “open-ended.” This means that the child can play with the toy in many different ways, and almost any way the toy is used will benefit the child’s development.

-Would you see this toy at preschool? (Meaning, a GOOD, developmentally appropriate preschool.) If not, maybe we don’t have it at school for a reason. Just like we try to discourage the serving of donuts and M&M’s at the preschool snack table. (Except occasionally to the grownups, when the kids are not looking.)

-Will your child be able to enjoy this toy for at least 3 or 4 years, or will the child become tired of it within weeks? Open ended toys (Good Toys) have a very long kid-life. They never go stale.

-Will it enrich your child’s life, or the toy company’s profits? Good Toys don’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to have lots of them to have fun. Just as junk food is expensive even though it has little nutritional value, Bad Toys are a waste of money.

-Who are you buying the toy for: your child, or YOU? If your grown-up heart secretly desires the latest electronic beeping, jumping, singing, dancing, hot rod space captain nuclear star wars race car bunny rabbit, go ahead and buy it for yourself. But be sure to stock up on lots of batteries. You’re a grownup, and your brain is already supposedly finished growing. A Bad Toy probably won’t harm your development.

With a little bit of extra thought and strength of character on your part, your child can have a calm, happy, satisfying, growing time this holiday season, and this year’s new toys will follow him or her into many new stages of development in the future. But somebody probably needs to forward this message to Santa and Grandma, because they may not understand your child’s brain as well as you now do.

Ok, time to go raid the Halloween-candy-stash. I’m a grownup, so I can eat what I want, even though I’ll pay for it later. But while I nibble on chocolate, I think I’ll go immerse myself in a good book. Even though it’s really easy and appealing to flip on another episode of my favorite mindless TV show, I know I’ll get more benefits and feel happier in the long run if I give my brain the nourishment that it really needs.

Which reminds me: Good books are the BEST gift for children! But that deserves its own blog post, so we’ll talk about books another time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Gym: a fun place to go on a non-school day!

by Lisa, TTH

My 3 1/2 year old son has been enrolled in My Gym's Mighty Mites (3 1/4 - 4 1/2 years) for about four months and we love it. It's a safe indoor playground where children can develop gross motor skills. My son loves the variety of activities…the entire configuration of the gym changes weekly. The flow of the one hour class is consistent, but the activities are always new. The class starts by everyone being prompted to introduce themselves and answering an age appropriate question, this week it was "what is your favorite vegetable?" They warm up and jump into some sort of group activity like a relay or other game. Then the class is broken in half for two gymnastics tricks where children learn basic skills like "airplane arms" for balance or "tuck your chin" for forward roll safety.

The teacher takes time with each child, skill level doesn't matter. Free play follows and simple rules are given and the kids repeat each time, "one friend on the trampoline at a time", for example. The class wraps up with a Simon Says sort of game and maybe a puppet show. Kids don't linger after class because there is a race to put shoes and socks to get "stamparoos". My son has really learned how to do a somersault, how to balance with airplane arms and generally try new things that seem tricky or scary.

We haven't done many enrichment programs, but I highly recommend My Gym on Bascom.I continue to be impressed with the quality of teachers, the positive discipline approach used in class and range of activities they do ever week. They offer "mommy and me classes" from 6 months to 3 years and independent classes from 3 years to 13 years. Enrollment in any class entitles you to come any time for free play sessions. The added benefit that keeps me coming back is that classes roll over if you miss - it isn't "use it or loose it" (unless you pay by the month).