Baking / Cooking: A well-rounded learning activity!

Food has always been a big issue with my toddler. For as long as I can remember, mealtime has been a lottery, not knowing whether she would eat or not. I tried a variety of flavors, offered them in colorful utensils, even made her rotis in fun shapes and colors – nothing worked. One day, instead of giving her toy utensils and water to play with, I decided to give her idly* batter and an idly mold and asked her to pour the batter into the mold. While we had a small mess on our hands, we achieved two things with this exercise: we had a great activity to develop fine motor skills, and of course, the child was so proud that she had helped to make the food that she couldn’t resist eating it!

Since then, I’ve loved having her stand on a ladder and assist while I cook. The rule I have set is that she isn’t allowed near heat (stove, oven) or knives but other than that, she’s good to go! She loves adding ingredients like salt/sugar/flour, stirring, mixing, pouring things and more. We often spend the afternoons baking cookies together, which is a great activity for a toddler as she can do everything except get the baking tray in and out of the oven. I usually measure out ingredients into small bowls and give her the ingredients and a large mixing bowl, and she loves it! In keeping up with the “I did it!” goal, she is very proud to share her creations with her family and friends!

I decided to take the activity one step further. Instead of measuring out ingredients and leaving them out for her, I decided to take a simple recipe and convert it to a form that she could read. While A can read simple words and count, obviously she  can’t do fractions like “1 1/2 cup” or understand the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. Instead of using a standard one cup measure, I used a quarter cup measure which would be easy for her small hands to handle. Instead of using the words teaspoon and tablespoon, I used a set of colorful measuring spoons I had and the recipe called for “1 green spoon” and so on. This way, she had only one variable to deal with – the number of spoons /cups to add, and identifying a spoon / cup by their color was definitely a simpler task than identifying them by their measure!

This sounds really confusing, but it was actually very simple. Here’s a sample recipe that I converted. We decided to try cheese muffins today, as it seemed to be a fairly simple recipe with minimal ingredients and not to mention, A’s favorite ingredients. Here’s the original recipe. I have halved the recipe and converted it to a language that A could understand. Here you go:

Cheese Muffins Recipe**:
3 cups flour
1 green spoon sugar
1 green spoon baking powder
1 red spoon salt
6 cups shredded cheese
2 cup milk
1 egg
1 cup melted butter

Method:
1. Ask Mom to preheat your oven to 375F.
2. Put muffin liners in your muffin tray.
3. Mix all ingredients to make a batter.
4. Add 2 blue spoons of the batter to each muffin liner.
5. Ask Mom to put the muffin tray in the oven.
6. Wait for 30 minutes. When you wait, you can play, sing or imagine anything!
7. Ask Mom to take the tray out of the oven.
8. Eat your muffins!

A’s measurements vs. Actual measurements:
1 cup = 1/4 cup
1 blue spoon = 1 tbsp
1 green spoon = 1/2 tbsp
1 red spoon = 1/4 tsp

I’ll also suggest that you personalize your recipe. For example, my daughter calls me “Mimi” and my recipe had Mimi instead of Mom, or of course replace with the name of the caregiver at the time – Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Big Sister etc.  Customize the recipe to the measuring cups and spoons you have at hand. I also had the recipe written out on a sheet of paper, which was affixed to the refrigerator at A’s eye level, making it easy for her to refer to whenever she wanted.

This activity teaches skills on so many levels! Oh, where do I even begin! At the very least, your child is working hard to read the recipe and the fact that they are excited to get to baking / eating means that they are further enthused to read! If your child doesn’t read yet, supplement the text with an image of a green/red/blue spoon, and then read the recipe out loud with your child. Math skills also improve as they measure ingredients. Not to mention that the chemical reactions causing the muffins to rise is a wonderful chemistry experiment. Above all, they are developing an invaluable life skill!

So no matter what your reason – whether you have a picky eater, a bored child on summer vacation, or just a craving for a homemade snack – do give this activity a try with your kids. Let me know what recipes you try out, and do share your customizations to make your recipe kid-friendly!

 

*Idly is a dish from Southern India wherein a fermented batter made of rice and black lentils is steamed in a special mold. It’s an extremely healthy dish loved by children and adults alike.

**Disclaimer: This post is a guideline to a method, and not a recipe post. The objective of this post was not to share the recipe for muffins with you, but to share with you my way of implementing a learning activity with my daughter. Apply this method to any recipe you’d like to try out with your kids!

Hands on the Arts Festival 2018, Sunnyvale CA

I’m really loving attending the plethora of child-centric events available these days with my daughter. We’ve attended Touch-a-truck events, aviation events, holiday-centric events, and today we made it to the “Hands on the Arts Festival 2018” at Sunnyvale, CA. While the target audience of the event were children, I’d say anyone would have a blast here! Participants could register online or at the event, and receive a wristband (among other goodies) that enable them to get their hands dirty with a whole bunch of fun art forms!

Each activity had a recommended minimum age.  I chose (as I always do) all the age appropriate activities. I prefer to respect the age recommendations as they are set with a reason. In keeping up with the “I did it!” culture, it’s important to expose your children to age appropriate activities that enable them to complete the task at hand independently, rather than activities for older kids that might prove to be too challenging for little ones. That being said, I took my 2 year 10 month daughter to activities labelled 3+ as she was able to do most of the activity (except, for example, using scissors). Basically, age recommendations are a guideline – follow them with discretion!

Out of the 33 booths set up at the festival, I’m going to run through some of our favorites. Hands down (and hands on!) A’s favorite was painting a real car! Silicon Valley Auto Body & Tow had donated two cars for the “paint a car” workshop. Both cars were white to start with, and kids grabbed cups of paint and brushes and painted these big cars! A loved this! I loved watching her find her way among the group and find her place in the crowd, and contribute to the designs on the car appropriately.

I also loved the concept behind the “Action painting” workshop. Here, a sheet of white paper was placed inside a box. Small items such as golf balls, marbles, little cars were placed in paint. Kids “rolled” these objects around the box, creating beautiful patterns with the paint. I’m definitely going to be trying activity out at home!

I was overjoyed to find a rangoli workshop. While traditional rangoli requires a fair bit of fine motor skill, the method taught at this workshop was a wonderful stepping stone to learning the art of rangoli. A clear plastic plate was placed on a colorful image (my daughter chose a duck). Kids applied glue over the image using a paintbrush, and sprinkled colorful rangoli powder on the glue to make a rangoli! I was so happy for the opportunity to introduce the beautiful art of rangoli to A.

Speaking of tracing patterns over transparent plastic, another favorite of ours was the “Incredible Shrinking Bauble”, where once again, she placed a transparent plastic sheet over an image (this time, she chose a teddy bear) and colored using permanent markers. These sheets were then placed in a hot oven and “shrunk”, into a size small enough that they could be attached to a keychain or a button. Kiddo was super proud to give her grandpa a keychain that she made herself!

These were just a few highlights of the dozen or so booths that we checked out. We also liked the button picture frames a lot – where A revisited her knowledge of shapes and colors by gluing bright buttons in different shapes to the border of a picture frame. The Art of Gardening workshop was a big hit and appropriate for the season as well, where we planted some pretty flowers in a biodegradable pot, decorated the pot and brought it home. I love introducing gardening to A as it teaches her to care for her plants and patience in waiting for them to grow. Other fun stuff included painting with water colors, cookie cutter painting, making collages of different kinds, Lego block printing (definitely going to try that out with Duplos at home – this booth was tagged for ages 5+ probably because of the size of Legos).

All in all, it was a morning well spent and I’m sure this will be a regular event on our calendar in the coming years. I loved watching A choose her activities, the images and colors she wanted to work with. I watched her exert her decision making skills and navigate the crowds, developing her social skills as she shared resources and participated in group activities. As a parent and an educator, I appreciate the thought and hard work put into each and every booth by the organizers and volunteers. Such events are not just about the crafts produced in the duration of the event, but the knowledge that we bring home with us. I can’t wait to try out everything we learnt, and go back for more next year!

The importance of “I did it!”

“I did it!” These three simple words are possibly the most important ones that your child will ever utter. For, not only has your child achieved a task, but they have also identified that they have accomplished said task, and feel proud about it! It is a crucial milestone that a child recognizes achievement, for this is an important factor in motivation. And without motivation, where would more achievements come from?

In order to help a child achieve something, one has got allow the child to make mistakes. I mean, if you get something right the first time you try it, chances are you probably haven’t gotten a chance to learn it well. This is something we forget often when we are working with little ones. In their process of learning, children need to be allowed to make mistakes. You don’t need a child who’s a mini-Picasso, the next Shakespeare, or a Ramanujam Junior. All you want is a child who enjoys learning!

One of the most important things to keep in mind to help a child achieve a goal and feel proud about it is to set attainable yet challenging goals. For example, for a child who knows his alphabet and reads sight words and other simple words, this goal could be to read a picture book with up to one sentence per page. A book with several sentences per page may prove to be too challenging, yet a book with mere word identification may not interest the child enough to pursue the task. This is something that schools should keep in mind as well as they design instructional activities for their students. If the child requires a parent to do a task assigned, then the instructional activity has not been properly set. After all, we want the child to say (proudly) “I did it!” not (disinterestedly) “My mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/someone else did it!” Especially at a young, tender age, such assignments set a precedence that a child can get someone else to do their assignments!

In this regard, it is also important to increment goals gradually to keep them challenging. One of my favorite tools in this regard is the competency map. Simply put, a competency map is a tool used to determine the order in which goals are set. For example, a child should learn to identify the alphabet before being asked to read a word. Increment goals sequentially and ensure the child has accomplished pre-requisite goals before pushing them further. Forcing a child to work towards a goal that they aren’t ready for may have the dangerous effect of making them averse to learning – we definitely do not want this!

It’s also crucial to keep goals interesting. No matter how good a child feels to accomplish a goal, he/she needs motivation. Interest is a huge factor in motivation. Offer a child a bright colorful picture book with images interspersed with text and a book with just text, and the child will show more interest in reading the picture book. It’s also important to align goals with the child’s interest. It’s okay for the child to pick arts and crafts over music, or sports over dance. It’s important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to align goals with the child’s interests.

Of course, another great way to motivate is to incentivize. Children (anyone really) do great when they are rewarded for their efforts! One great way to incentivize is to maintain a “reward chart” that recognizes efforts. For example, you could give your child a star for a job well done, and a reward for every 5 stars. While this method seems like you’re making your child work harder, it is a great way to positively reinforce and boost your child’s confidence, and encourage accomplishment.

Most importantly, have fun! We always want our children to enjoy learning and have fun in whatever they accomplish. Play games to learn, allow for wiggles and giggles and simple joys, and you will find your child picking up the joy and pride of accomplishment in no time! I wish you and your child the best of luck and joy, and a life filled with “I did it!”

 

 

 

 

Lifelong learning: Yay or Nay? (Yay!)

Educating our children is something we plan for pretty much from the get go. Be at it at home, the playground, daycare or school, our children are constantly learning, and it’s our job as parents to ensure they get the best education possible. However, that means different things to each of us. Before we proceed, let’s talk about a term that often gets glossed over – that is lifelong learning. What is lifelong learning? Lifelong learning is defined as the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons”. This translates to our children, or even us, for that matter, being students for life. In order to ensure lifelong learning, we need to keep learning fun and exciting. Does that not seem elementary? We do, indeed, learn throughout our life, and children are definitely learning everyday and everywhere, even when they are trying to learn to hold a spoon at home or play on a new slide in the park. At this point, learning is still exciting. So at what point does learning get associated with pressure, and  hinder with the spirit of lifelong learning?

For example, let’s take the milestone of learning to read. Why do we want our child to learn to read? Is it because it is a requirement, to learn to read by a certain age? (If so, what was that age, and how did you arrive at that age?) Is it in order to succeed in their careers later in life? Is it because reading is a key to the wonderful world of books and knowledge? A mother of toddlers may feel that children should learn to read by age 5, while a mother of an older child would disagree saying that her voracious reader started reading by age 6. Ideally, a child should have to read only when they’re really ready. In fact, contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that early reading does not have a direct correlation to lifelong learning. By forcing a child to read just because he/she is supposed to, we would be associating reading with pressure rather than fun. Instead, we can easily associate reading with fun, by exposing children to a wide range of age-appropriate books. For example, a colorful picture book with clear, large printed words is very attractive to a young child. By offering fun books, with different topics, to our kids, we provide our kids with great exposure, allow them to express their interests, and ultimately, making reading books fun. This practice will ensure that the child will WANT to read, as opposed to reading because they HAVE to.

So let’s start with a discussion on the curriculum offered in different schools. In some places like the US, private schools claim to be a year or two ahead of their corresponding public schools in curriculum, while other countries like India, parents have a choice between CBSE, ICSE, and other Boards of Education, all of which are equally competitive. The reasoning behind exposure to a high curriculum to keep students engaged and to ensure academic success throughout life. But does exposing a child to a higher level of curriculum than they are ready for invoke a spirit of lifelong learning?

And then there is the system of written examination, which is followed in most schools. Nowadays, children start taking exams very young. Preschools have interviews, and there are elementary schools that have entrance tests. Frequent evaluations are performed throughout the school year to assess how well students are learning. Tests and examinations are needed to evaluate how well a child is learning, but the way in which they are executed also matters. Do these examinations, which encourage students to score higher marks, teach children that we learn for the sake of examinations? Do examinations foster a sense of achievement (or on the other hand – fear!) in kids? And by ensuring that students cram for the exam, are we saying that students need to learn for the examination and not for themselves? If continuous examination encourages the students to learn for the sake of examination, then this system directly goes against the spirit of lifelong learning.

So why do we parents fall into the rigor of milestones and examinations with our kids? One reason is that we want our children to be successful in life, and typically this success is associated with career and prosperity, which is tied in with attaining more marks. But to what end? Do we really need our six-year-olds headed to coaching classes after a long day at school, instead of playing in the park? Do we need our elementary school-aged children participating advanced classes which they don’t really enjoy learning, or should we expose them to a variety of arts, sciences and hobbies which may or may not lead to a fruitful career? (And when did career become the focus for children who are so young?!) Another reason is that vicious circle called “peer pressure”. Of course, when we raise our kids in a society where high curricula and milestone-based learning are the norm, both parents and children are bound to face peer pressure to confirm to society. While a certain amount of peer pressure is good and needed, it’s getting to a point where everyone is under pressure to perform and the goal of lifelong learning gets neglected in the process.

With this in mind, let’s talk about a few ways we can foster a sense of lifelong learning in our children:

  1. Read! Read anything and everything that seems to interest your child. While there is no perfect age by which a child learns to read, it is never too early to start! Colorful picture books on a wide range of topics like animals, space, food, culture can open a child’s eyes to a wonderful world, and teach children that reading books is exciting for life.
  2. Fun with toys! Toys are one of the most engaging sources of learning for little ones! If you want to know how some of the most common toys promote learning, click here.
  3. Go out and explore! Learning doesn’t have to happen from a book or a classroom. Go for a hike or explore a museum. The playground is also a great source of learning. Even a grocery store is a source of learning, where the littlest ones learn colors, fruits, vegetables and the older ones can learn how to pay for their favorite treats (for example, “Do I have enough money for one treat or two treats?”) Who says math can’t be fun?

Personally, I am not in favor of forcing children to learn to read, or add and subtract, or memorize facts by a certain age just because I believe forced learning invokes fear and does not promote lifelong learning. In order to promote lifelong learning, we need to show our children that learning is fun and exciting. While academic success is definitely valuable, I think we’re going at it wrong. In order to achieve true academic success, it’s gotta stick – and to make it stick, we must encourage our children to love learning for life. By giving them a strong foundation of lifelong learning, we are paving them a path for true success in life.

A’s thoughts on Eclipses

We spent a lot of time indoors last week as A was unwell. We read books, colored and when we watched videos, they were generally on her favorite topics – space and the solar system. One morning, we were watching a video about eclipses and I explained to A “see, sun and moon are playing peek-a-boo”, an explanation which apparently tickled her fantasy.

That afternoon, when I was taking her to the doctor’s place at 4 PM, the moon had already risen but the sun was also still out. She pointed at moon and said “moon!”. Then, puzzled, she said “Uh oh!” I asked her, “Why uh oh? What happened?”

She pointed back and forth “sun! moon! sun! moon!”. After thinking for a few moments, she asked me “sun, moon, peek a boo?”

I was amazed that she’d grasped the concept of an eclipse, not to mention applied it to that instance where she saw that both the sun and moon were out. Since then, every time we’ve seen them together, she’s been asking them to play peek a boo!

Time change!

It’s time for the dreaded time change! Honestly, losing an hour of evening daylight drives me nuts during the fall (although the late sunrise isn’t a picnic either). I really miss hanging out at the park or even just outside with A as the sun sets early and the days grow shorter.

That apart, the fact that A is a stickler for time makes these time changes hard to deal with. The “Spring forward” and “Fall back” usually bring with them a minor jetlag, with the child wanting to eat/sleep an hour earlier/later.

Tonight, we put her to bed later than her usual bed-time (something which A was actually excited about!) with the hope that she’d sleep in tomorrow, as opposed to waking up an hour early. Well, here’s hoping!

Turning No into Yes (a theory)

Like any typical toddler, my little one’s current favorite word is No.

Me: “Do you want milk?”
A: “No!”
Me: “Do you want to sleep?”
A: “No!”
Me: “Do you…”
A: “No!”

I have been trying out a little hypothesis of mine, where instead of asking her if she wants something, I offer her a choice between two viable options. For example,

Me: “Do you want milk OR crackers?”
A: (thinking) “crackers!”

I’ve been trying out this little experiment all day, and so far it seems to be working. However, toddlers are smart and evolve very quickly 😉 We will see how long this lasts!

Couch-star-gazing!

Kids learn at an amazing rate. It’s hard to keep up with them! It’s important to nurture that thirst for knowledge and encourage a spirit of life-long learning. It’s also amazing how early they establish interests. Some kids like cars and other modes of transport, others like everything about dinosaurs. My daughter established very early on that she liked anything and everything to do with “stars”, and all things space. It all started when she indicated that “Twinkle, Twinkle…” was her favorite nursery rhyme. She then moved on to a fascination with “sun-moon-stars” (in her words). Over a period of time, she amazed us by learning the planets, and constantly asking us to read her books on planets and space!

We have been working out ways to encourage her curiosity. As I’ve said before, I strongly believe in learning through play, so that learning stays fun. I’ve often heard that we should not pressurize children into learning, and I fully agree. However, I believe that we can encourage learning without putting pressure on kids, and that a child who wants to learn must be nurtured and encouraged. It’s also wonderful when children can choose their subjects of interest. In that vein, I’ve been working on ways to feed her curiosity about planets and space as long as she is interested.

Here’s a really easy one. We all have an excess of empty paper towel rolls. These double up great as telescopes! A has been playing with these empty rolls for months now as her pretend “telescope”. The next logical step was to bring the solar system to our home. Print colorful images of the planets, stars, the moon, anything really. (We downloaded ours from here, and I love the posters! Bright, attractive and detailed!) Stick these up all over your home, hand your kid the “telescope” and let them “star-gaze” from the comfort of your home.

There are a number of ways you can play around with this activity. You can start off with whatever your kid likes, of course. Play around and switch locations every now and then, add/remove elements, making it a fun new game each time!

Further, I’ll bet this activity would work to convert your home into any new realm for your kid to explore. Wildlife would be a fun one, for example. I imagine another popular choice could be dinosaurs. I’m sure everyone has their own great ways of implementing this, and I can’t wait to hear all about it!

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!