2-in-1: A recipe for home-made clay, and a simple learning aid!

As a parent of a toddler, one must always have their repertoire stocked with several activities of every category: indoor, outdoor, toys, books, crafts, active day, sick day, you name it. Toddlers are a sponge when it comes to learning, and it’s great if you can incorporate learning activities in their daily play. I’m a big believer in learning through play, and find that with how eager children are to learn, it isn’t hard to incorporate learning through play in our everyday life.

As eager as we may be to pick the most fun activities for our kids, one must understand that kids operate on agendas of their own! I have had several days where I propose a really fun day, or some yummy food, only to have A dispose all my ideas! Just like anyone else, children have preferences when it comes to different kinds of activities, and go through phases. I’ve seen A go through phases of playing with different things – both outdoors (at the playground, with her ball), and indoors (specific toys, games, and her lifelong favorite – books). Recently, she has been very into drawing and coloring, as well as reading the alphabet and numbers. I figured it was a good time as ever to enter the world of arts and crafts!

I wanted to introduce her to clay, a great sensory play and a way  Like any toddler, tasting is a way in which she explores. Therefore, I wasn’t comfortable offering store-bought clay just yet. I chose to make salt dough because I figured that even though it contained only edible ingredients, it would taste so terrible that A would learn not to eat it! Making the clay is easy. There are several recipes online, be it the no-cook kind like this one, or the cooked clay like this. The first link also offers a comparison between the two. I chose to go with the no-cook kind, since I had plans to use up the clay quickly enough anyway. All you have to do is mix 2 cups of all purpose flour, 1 cup of  water with 1 tsp turmeric mixed in, 1 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp cream of tartar and 1/2 cup of salt and knead until smooth and pliable.

Score! I now had home-made, non-toxic, toddler-safe clay. But wait! The story doesn’t end here. Before we move on, let’s talk about learning aids. Simply put, a learning aid is anything that enhances learning. I believe that several unexpected items can be turned into learning aids. So here’s how the home-made clay can be turned into a learning aid of a different kind. For the last several weeks, A has been fascinated with the alphabet. So I decided to make her the alphabet! Just roll out the clay, cut out the shapes of the alphabet and bake it at 200F for about 30 minutes. Alternatively, you could also let it air-dry but I am too impatient for that. This method can be used to make shapes, numbers and pretty much anything else your toddler is currently fascinated with!

So that’s how we spent our Sunday. I am eagerly waiting to try out a bunch of projects with the clay: rolling, kneading, more shapes with cookie cutters, numbers, and a few more surprises. Do try this out, and let me know what you come up with!

The wonderful world of books

It’s been awhile since my last post! Between travel and spring-time activities, life with A sure got busy! After our trip to Hawaii, we spent two months in India, followed by a quick trip to New Jersey where I presented my work on LEGO and other STEM toys at ISEC 2017. What a wonderful experience! I learnt so many new things, and met some wonderful people. The rush that accompanies attending a great conference is one that cannot be matched!

Attending conferences is one of the many reminders that, in life, knowledge is one’s greatest asset. For a little one, there isn’t a more welcoming door to the world of knowledge than books. The question of how “little” your little one can start reading often arises. Surprise, surprise – you can start reading to your little one(s) while they’re still in the womb! Stories with a lilting tune, such as Dr. Seuss’ books are a wonderful way to read out to your yet-to-be-born child and help him/her recognize your voice. In our case, this actually worked – a newborn A could recognize both her parents voices as soon as she was born.

By about 3 months, the eyesight of an infant should be developed sufficiently to focus on objects, sometimes reaching out for them too. This is a great age to keep handy books which have simple images, with a good contrast and not too much clutter on the page. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is a classic, with the colorful images, the sharp contrast and the beautiful patchwork-style illustration of the sun, apples, the caterpillar and more. Another personal favorite of ours are pretty much all the books by Leslie Patricelli, with her simple storylines and adorable illustrations. A started off with “Baby Happy, Baby Sad” at around 6 months of age and has been working her way through her books since.

Since then, she’s moved on to other kinds of books! We love our open-the-flap books, or peek-a-boo books, such as the series by Karen Katz. “Where is baby’s belly button” was her first book, ever! “Brown bear, brown bear” is another interpretation of a peek-a-boo book that is a favorite of most kids. Touch-and-feel books are another great way of sensory play, encouraging babies and toddlers to understand smooth, rough, soft, slippery and more. We also love books that teach routines and discipline. “The Going to Bed Book” is a bed-time favorite, while “Hands are not for Hitting” teaches essential habits. Of course, timeless classics such as “Giraffes can’t dance” and “Goodnight Moon” never get old! Of course, while books with stories are wonderful, books with simple concepts of the alphabet, numbers and words are also important for babies and toddlers. “First 100 words” is a great book of this category, which sorts out common words into categories like eating, bathtime, bedtime, animals, etc.

Turning the pages of a book is an important milestone that indicates several things, including the development of the fine motor skill required to do so, the understanding of the process of going through a book, and most importantly, the curiosity of what lies ahead on the next page. It is important to understand that if the pages of the book get torn in the early days, that’s just a step in the process. Offering board books in the early years are a good way to help them learn to handle the process of turning pages before moving on to the more delicate paperbacks.

Reading is an important part of our daily schedule, and we incorporate it at several different times – during car rides, during quiet time / independent play time, and A’s favorite – at bed-time. On days when we stay at home, we always make sure we have a stack of books! It is never too soon to inculcate the wonderful habit of reading. What are some of your little ones’ favorite books?

 

Fun at Weebee’s, Chennai

I’ve been in India for a few weeks now, and my search for a fun and safe play area for A has been on since I got here. We checked out a couple of playgrounds in Bangalore. While these were fun, I sorely missed A being able to play independently, as they weren’t as child safe as I would have liked, nor did I find enough infant / toddler – friendly activities. 

When we decided to visit Madras, a quick search led me to Weebee’s in RA Puram which among other activities, had a play space and cafe where I could take A. Intrigued, we checked it out on our first day here and I’m so happy we did!

Weebee’s has several different play areas, both indoor and outdoor. Today, on her first day, we allowed A to explore indoors first, where she first explored a section made mostly with foam blocks. There were steps, a slide, a few rocking horses and more. My favorite part was that the space was entirely lined with foam mats, so even when the kids topple, as they are prone to, they are safe!

You see the steps leading up on the right? This led to A’s favorite space of all – a toddler safe ball pit!   She has a small ball pit at home given by her aunt, and she loves them! However most ball pits outside of home aren’t safe for her- too deep, hard flooring etc. Here, there were enough balls to keep her engaged, but not so much that she’d fall. Of course, this space was also lined with foam mats. I loved how the teachers at Weebee’s were so kind with A, encouraging her to throw, teaching her to catch and cheering her on when she got it right!

Playing in a ball pit teaches several skills. At the tip of the iceberg are throwing and catching. Further, you can teach your child colors and numbers, and show them how to sort. The ball pit is great sensory play, and it can be made even more so by adding balls of different sizes, kinds and textures. 

Moving on, there was a room full of fun and educational toys! I saw several favorites like variations of stackers, shape sorters and musical instruments. There were also blocks of various kinds. Needless to say, this was a room full of learning and budding creativity. 

They also had a number of pretend play areas, including a kitchen, a hardware set, and a number of fruits and vegetables plus utensils to pretend cook. Pretend play is a glorious way to stimulate the young one’s imagination, and I love taking her to places that have a dedicated space for pretend play. 


In addition, there was also a reading room, an outdoor play area with multiple play structures, and best of all – a petting zoo, with ducks, rabbits and even a rooster! I can’t wait to take A again to play in the outdoor section!


The rates for the play space are INR 250 for two hours, which I personally think is worth every paisa for stimulating and child proof environment that’ll make learning fun. We met some of the teachers and assistants, and were touched by how thoughtfully they treated the children, guiding and encouraging all the way. A quick chat with the owner proved to us that weebee’s was designed and structured with a lot of care and consideration for the little ones. Also, they have a cafe with some snacks and drinks in case you need some refreshments after burning all that energy. 

I’ve been looking around and felt that a lot of places in India don’t provide the safety and stimulation that the youngest children need, and Weebee’s filled in that gap perfectly for me. Parents / grandparents / aunts / uncles / anyone with a little one in your life, make weebee’s a destination for the child and I’m sure it’ll be a happy day for all! Until then, I plan to visit again as much as I can while I’m Chennai… maybe I’ll see you  there!

Meta-cognition in infants and toddlers

A recent discussion with a good friend and colleague brought up the topic of meta-cognition. Meta-cognition is, simply put, knowledge of ones’ own self. There have been arguments about the measurement of meta-cognition. How can we measure awareness of ones’ own self? Can we set guidelines or rules to decide how much one knows about oneself?

I have been fiddling with this aspect of knowledge for years now with no real outcomes. Truth be told, I’d all but given up on ever coming to any real understanding of meta-cognition, for it seemed to abstract to me! However, I recently chanced upon an understanding of meta-cognition in my toddler, A, which then lead to an avalanche of thoughts on different instances where A has demonstrated that she does have meta-cognitive knowledge, or awareness of her own self. In addition, I could also identify future instances where her meta-cognition would prove to be a milestone. Here were some of my thoughts:

  1. Awareness of one’s own hands and feet: At what point does a baby become aware of one’s own body parts? Sure, they look at their hands and feet, but they are not born with the awareness that these are parts of their body. The first time I saw A demonstrate any awareness was closer to 5 months, when she would move her hands and watch the movement (and of course, proceed to eat her hands!) This was one of the earliest demonstrations of meta-cognition I’d seen in her.
  2. Awareness of the child in the mirror: As we had a full length mirror right next to A’s changing station, A has been aware of mirrors since her birth. She was always fond of her friend in the mirror, “they paapa” meaning “that baby”. Of course, she didn’t realize that child was her own self for awhile! A simple test to see when your kid is aware of his/her own reflection is to put a hat on them while in front of the mirror. At some point, they try to take the hat off AFTER seeing their reflection in the mirror. This indicates that the child is aware that the child in the mirror is his/her own reflection.
  3. Toilet training: I would say this is a huge demonstration of meta-cognition. If you haven’t already, do check out the potty training checklist on babycenter or anywhere else. When you read it, you will find several checks that all require self-awareness – such as “Knowing how to pull pants up and down” or “Understands the physical signals that mean he has to go and can tell you before it happens or even hold it until he has time to get to the potty.” By understanding the importance of meta-cognition in this aspect, I have begun rethinking the entire process of potty-training!

As I said, there were way more thoughts in my mind once I saw some clear demonstrations of meta-cognition. I am sure these are aspects you have seen in your child too. I’d love to hear back from you – what are some of the ways you observed meta-cognition or self-awareness in your child? What are some of the methods you would use to measure this? Can you observe in yourself, and other adults around you as well? Do share!

Childen’s Discovery Museum: An oasis of indoor fun

When the weather forecast for this weekend included both a frost warning and a freeze warning, I knew it was time to search for some indoor fun for A. There’s been one place on my list for months now, and that is Children’s Discovery Museum. Today we decided to tick CDM off our list, especially when A woke up after a night of semi-sleep with a bundle of energy. And what a day it was!

CDM is a glorious celebration of young curiosity. With two floors full of exhibits that promote learning in an environment of play, there’s something for children of all ages. And when I say all ages, I’m not kidding! My 16-month-old daughter, who until now has been too young for most museums and the like, was overjoyed! In fact, I saw tiny tots even younger than her! There is even a CrawlSpace, an area safe for the little ones who aren’t walking yet.


We started off with A clinging to me, curious yet cautious, not knowing where to start. After wandering around the first floor briefly, we landed in the Rainbow Market, an area where children learn about fruits, vegetables and are allowed to pretend-play all aspects of food – choosing vegetables, cooking, and eating. After tentatively venturing out of my arms, one of the volunteers handed A a pretend-slide of apple and then something clicked in her, and she was off! The vegetables and fruits were arranged by color, allowing kids to learn both colors as well as the names of fruits and veggies. The area has a pretend kitchen, with a stove, microwave, refrigerator, sink and table.

pretend-cooking


There are also separate sections celebrating foods from all over the world, including China, India, Mexico, Phillipines and more. The display from the Phillipines included a particularly nice coconut grater with a pretend-coconut that could actually be grated by way of cotton  straps attached by velcro!


Of course, this section would be incomplete without a mention of the display from India!


After a lunch of real food, we went up the musical staircase (a different note on each step!) moved on to the Wonder Cabinet, an area on the second floor exclusively for kids aged 0-4. This area was packed to the brim with at least ten different displays, including an Enchanted Forest with a wonderful story time, a super-cool craft area and numerous displays to pique the young mind. Kiddo started off at the very first display, where she gathered a bunch of blue balls and sent them down a chute.

There was also a maze of pipes with an upward blower that would send balls upwards and into the pipes, something that A loved  once she figured out how to use. The balls were to be inserted in the red circle where they would be sent upwards and then back down through the maze.


She also discovered a lovely area celebrating light  and shadow. An ingenious arrangement of horse cutouts, mirrors and red,green and blue lights on a turntable causing a melange of color and light. This had her gazing in wonder for several minutes, trying to identify the source of the beauty.

Speaking of sound and light,the Enchanted Forest housed one of my personal favorites, a grid of lighted rods that children could use to create their own displays. Once again, I found that it was easier for A to pull OUT the rid than put it IN. Pushing it back in required A to push the rod in a specific angle, which had her briefly puzzled. But the beauty of the pushed right lighting up encouraged her!


There were also displays where we could smell and guess aromas such as chocolate, strawberry and other foods. This made me realize that we haven’t done a whole lot of sensory play involving smells yet! There was also an area of huge but safe foam blocks, and the aforementioned crawl space too. 

When we were done here, we headed back to the first floor where she now discovered the Street display of traffic lights, vehicles and even a model plane. She even got to drive a car!


There was also a mammoth display and a display of fossils, a play area made entirely of cellophane tape, a display of bubbles bigger than A, and much more. 

Located in the heart of downtown San Jose, CDM is closeby enough to reach quickly on a lazy Saturday morning, making it a total win in my book. Public parking is available right behind, and with A toddling around, we could comfortably leave the stroller behind for a change. Healthy lunches and snacks are available at the FoodShed. There are sufficient changing stations (in both men’s and women’s rooms!) and a nursing area as well. Head on over for a wonderful day of indoor fun, and you won’t regret it! I believe I can safely say this was A’s happiest day ever! 

 

Project Toddler Travel Food

Well, we finally did it – our first family vacation! We spend 2 weeks on the Big Island, Hawaii. We had a truly memorable time, what with A learning to walk and talk! We also visited a bunch of cool places, including a black sand beach, a garden that was modeled after the Milky Way galaxy, an astronomy center from where we could view the Milky Way, and a live volcano! All very unique experiences that need a separate photo essay to do any justice in sharing.

Of course, this kind of travel requires a LOT of planning with a toddler. In fact, it took me nearly a month to put together everything food-related A needed for the trip! Of course, one must keep in mind that my working hours are restricted to A’s sleep time, if I’m lucky, especially during the cold months when her outdoor activities are restricted. Not to mention, Hawaii didn’t have the same availability of groceries and food that we are lucky access in Sunnyvale, and we found out that even Amazon Prime took 3-7 days and hefty shipping fee to deliver. So of course, I had to be very, very organized with this project. I chose to break down the Project Toddler Travel Food into phases, and the instructional designer in me went back to good ol’ ADDIE. While the ADDIE Model is traditionally used in Instructional System Design, it can also be applied to generic processes to have a more systematic approach. Anyway, this is my belief.

So here goes, the 5 Phases of Project Toddler Travel Food:

Analysis:
A quick analysis of my toddler’s needs and our constraints led me to the following conclusions:
1. A’s basic diet consists of rasam/dal/rice + steamed veg for her lunches/dinners and idlies and dosas for her breakfasts.
2. I would have access to a full kitchen during the first week of our trip (we had booked an AirBnB), while during the second week we would be staying at a resort where I would possibly get a microwave depending on availability.
3. I couldn’t carry a ton of food and utensils due to luggage constraints.

Design:
Based on the constraints, I divided up the packing list for this project into three, the food to pack, the utensils, and the food to buy there. Here goes:

Food to take:

  1. Mung dal: Cooks way faster in an electric rice cooker than toor dal, healthy as well.
  2. Rice: Just enough for the travel day, we bought rice there too.
  3. Methkoot: a Marathi preparation, a powder consisting of roasted lentils and fenugreek. To be mixed with rice with salt and oil, or butter in this case since that is what we bought. Known as Menthya Hittu in Kannada.
  4. Vangibath powder: A preparation of roasted and powdered spices, lentils and dry coconut which is mixed with rice and vegetables to create a yummy rice dish. I carried this to mix with rice, butter and frozen vegetables bought there.
    Instant Rasam Powder: A must for me as rasam rice is my daughter’s staple food. Here is a recipe that I developed, tested and got A’s approval on weeks before our trip.
  5. Chutney podi: To be had with idlies or dosas
  6. Instant Dosa Powder: I used a recipe from the trusty Hebbar’s Kitchen for this with success. The AirBnB we were staying at provided a non-stick frying pan and spatulas which I used to make dosas.
  7. Instant Oats Idly Mix: Again, I’ve got a recipe on my blog right here.
  8. Instant Rava Idly/upma Mix: I can get a full recipe up on this site soon but for now, all you gotta do is make the exact same recipe as the oats idly mix, but replace all the oat flour with semolina and rava. This can be used to make quick upma too!
  9. Dhaniya jeera powder: Roasted cumin and coriander seed powder. This is A’s favorite seasoning for steamed vegetables.
  10. Eno fruit salt: I needed this to make the instant idlies and dosas, but can be substituted with baking soda in a pinch
  11. Lime juice concentrate: I used this to give my idlies and dosas the tang that typically comes from fermentation.

Utensils to take:

  1. Electric rice cooker: I have this one, small and handy.
  2. Microwave idly plates: I have something similar to this.
  3. A’s bowls with lids: I have this, convenient for travel and especially when there are no high chairs.
  4. A’s spoons, bibs and sippy cups
  5. Disposable boxes: These were useful to transport food from the AirBnB to the resort. As I wasn’t sure about the availability of a microwave at the resort, I prepared rasam and steamed veggies for A at the AirBnB and transported them to the resort. I chose to use disposable boxes so that I could leave them behind and free up luggage space on the way back.

Shopping list:

  1. Essentials: Salt / butter / milk / yoghurt / seasoning items (pepper/chilli flakes)
  2. Foods which are easy to make: Pasta + pasta sauce, Bread + eggs
  3. Frozen: Frozen meals / Frozen vegetables
  4. Perishables: Vegetables and fruits

Development:

Next came making time to prepare the foods that I couldn’t buy, with links where applicable. These were:

  1. Instant rasam powder
  2. Instant oats idly mix
  3. Instant rava idly mix
  4. Instant dosa mix
  5. Mollaga podi (gun powder) or Chutney podi

Implementation:

  1. In order to cook comfortably while on a holiday, I strongly recommend booking an AirBnB with a full kitchen if that is an option at your destination. Our AirBnB had a full kitchen including a stove range, oven, microwave, toaster, coffee maker and dishwasher. In addition, we were provided with utensils such as pots and pans, plates and cutlery, coffee powder and sugar. If a full kitchen isn’t an option, a microwave would be a minimum requirement for me.
  2. It would also help to look up availability of groceries at your destination. We were fortunate enough to have a Safeway a few miles away, which allowed me to plan on buying pantry staples and some prepared foods as well.
  3. I also established a cooking schedule on Day 1, similar to the cooking schedule I follow at home. While this is certainly hard to do while on holiday, my baby was very happy to have her familiar foods away from home and anything that makes her happy is priceless! I must add that I could count the number of times A ate outside during our 2 week holiday on 1 hand, so everyday cooking proved to be essential.

Evaluation:

As with any project, evaluation is key if we want to travel with our picky toddler again. Food was the biggest challenge for A and she enjoyed everything else about traveling, so I really wanted to put together a travel kit for A’s food which could also serve as a template for future trips. Here are some things I felt I could improve:

  1. Utensils: While the AirBnB provided utensils, of course the resort didn’t provide any (duh!) which was something I had forgotten in my planning! We ended up using the disposable boxes, old take-out boxes, and a couple of plastic spoons and forks we’d gathered along the way. I still didn’t have any plates to eat from. Challenges which can be fixed next time by taking along a couple of plates, spoons and a microwave-able bowl.
  2. Seasoning items: I’d probably take along a couple of sachets of salt/pepper and some dried herbs and spices, since I didn’t have anything on the day we traveled and found it impossible to cook. It also seemed expensive to buy a full box of herbs/spices when all I needed was enough for a couple of weeks.

Well, that was Project Toddler Travel Food. I would say it turned out to be largely successful, especially because we also ate home-made food far more often than we have during our previous holidays. Food is such an important part of life, and a two week holiday would have been very difficult unless we planned this aspect well.

I hope this post was useful to you. Please modify as per your family’s needs and your travel destination. I can’t wait to hear your tips and tricks to help me improve this kit for next time!

Honored to be featured on Women’s Web!

I’ve been following Women’s Web for years now. They are a contemporary women’s magazine with articles on career, parenting, family and more. They’re one of my favorite online publications. I always felt that it was about time women had a good resource just like this!

Today I was honored to find my post published by them, on STEM toys and kiddos, which readers of this blog my find familiar. If you haven’t read it already, head on over here and catch up on the post.

Thank you, Women’s Web!

Instant dosa mix

A quick shout-out to Hebbar’s Kitchen for their recipe for Masala Dosa Mix! If you have a stove and a tava or a frying pan, and a few simple ingredients, you’re all set! Our AirBnB provides a stove and a non-stick frying pan, so that’s what I used. I also carried with me, from home, the prepared dosa mix (made with the exact recipe in the link), lime juice concentrate and Eno fruit salt. I bought a few staple groceries once we reached here, which included yoghurt (plain!) and salt. Honestly, the batter took less time to come together than the pan took to heat! I whisked 4 tbsp of mix with 1 tbsp of yoghurt, and then around 1/2 cup of water. I added a tsp of lime juice and 1/2 tsp of Eno fruit salt. Made the dosas, and they came out perfectly! Happy toddler, happy mommy!

Thank you, Hebbar’s Kitchen!