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!

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!

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?

 

Climbing everything

A has been climbing stairs since she was 9 months old. We bought the IKEA Patrull gate soon after, only to have the product recalled. Although she’s capable of climbing up and down, we prefer she does not do so unsupervised. We try out best to block the entrance to the stairs, only to have her figure out a way to circumvent that.

Lately, she’s been climbing everything she can possibly climb. Sofas, beds, baskets, tables, chairs, you name it, she’s on it. I’m a tired mom!

Goodnight!

Lego & all the learning benefits: Part 1

As expected, A’s first set of Lego Duplo has opened up a world of learning opportunities for her. Obviously, we have all read numerous articles on how Lego promotes STEM education. However, what I would like to analyze is the specific skillset attained by blocks. To do this, I’m going to revisit an old friend, the competency.

Let’s start off with the formal definition. A competency is defined as an effective ability, including attributes, skills and knowledge, to successfully carry out some activity which is totally identified. While the term competency is typically applied in formal learning environments, I firmly believe that competencies are achieved at every stage of life. Since the first pediatrician appointments, we have been asked about A’s milestones such as feeding, laying down for tummy time, rolling over, etc. In my mind, these milestones are competencies achieved by the child. Taking the concept further, each competency has a number of sub-competencies as well. My mind was blown when my nurse at the hospital explained why it was so difficult for the newborn baby to learn to feed – the child must learn to a. suck; b. swallow; and c. all while breathing. The competency of “feeding” had so many sub-competencies!

Coming back to blocks. The obvious first competency to be achieved by the child is to put two blocks together. But wait! That isn’t the first one! While A was fascinated by the first sight of the Lego blocks, and even though it seems elementary, she couldn’t start off with putting two blocks together! So we started with what seems like the second competency: Taking two blocks apart.

So, why is this the easier competency? Let us look at the sub-competencies for the two competencies of putting together and taking apart Lego blocks:

C1: Taking blocks apart given a set of blocks that are joined together
C1.1: Identify where the two blocks meet
C1.2: Grip the blocks in the right way that they come apart
C1.3: Pull in the right direction until they come apart

C2: Putting blocks together
C2.1: Identify two blocks that will fit together
C2.2: Identify the right location to join them
C2.3: Grip them appropriately to push them together
C2.4: Join the two blocks together

We shall now identify the easier competency. Is difficulty a subjective factor? To some extent, definitely, but we can break it down into as many objective factors as we can as well, and allow learner subjectivity to be a factor too. Factors are also task-specific – while some factors are common ones, many factors are specific to the competencies we are analyzing. For recap, here is an overview of the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains. Let us identify a set of factors for difficulty in this case:

  1. Number of sub-competencies
  2. Cognitive processes required for each sub-competency
  3. Psychomotor skills (fine and gross) required for each sub-competency
  4. Affective stimuli induced by each sub-competency
  5. Subjective difficulty of each sub-competency

Here’s an analysis of each sub-competency with respect to the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains:

Sub-competency Cognitive Affective Psychomotor
C1.1 Analyze Characterization Perceptual abilities
C1.2 Evaluate Characterization Skilled movements, Perceptual abilities
C1.3 Apply Organization Fundamental movements, skilled movements, perceptual abilities
C2.1 Analyze Characterization Perceptual abilities
C2.2 Evaluate Characterization Perceptual abilities
C2.3 Apply Organization Skilled movements, Perceptual abilities
C2.4 Apply Organization Fundamental movements, skilled movements, perceptual abilities

So, C1 has 3 sub-competencies to master, while C2 has 4. While this does not automatically make C1 the easier competency, it is certainly a factor. The sub-competencies of C2 require more cognitive, affective and psychomotor processes as well. Another factor is how difficult each of the sub-competencies are. With A, she certainly found it easier to accomplish C1 before C2.

While this is not conclusive evidence to prove that C1 is easier than C2, the logic has certainly worked in the case of A. One of the reasons the logic may not work is the assumption of higher cognitive levels being more difficult than the lower ones. Another reason it may not work could be differences in psychomotor skills. Every learner is different especially in the case of little ones. It is important to identify these differences and guide learners in the way that suits them best!

Disclaimer: As with any course design process, this is iterative and I may have left out some obvious sub-competencies. Please let me know if I have!

 

First blocks!

We got blocks for kiddo today! She got Lego Duplo, nice and big blocks so she can’t put it in her mouth. She was fascinated from the first moment she laid eyes on the box! First she was excited by the rattling in the box. Then she opened her eyes wide at the bright colors! Her dad showed her how to join two blocks together, and she was amazed! She was thrilled to make a small plane and watch him fly it.

All in all, a great buy! She’s only played with it for ten minutes so far and we’re already very excited. Bring on the Lego, bring on the creative learning!

Favorite songs!

When all else fails, music usually doesn’t. Of course, as with anything else, A is very particular about the songs she listens to / watches. She has “her music” and we have “our music” and we can’t mix those. She loves nursery rhymes and the typical kiddie songs. Personally, I love the songs that teach her little things, like movements, direction and so on. I love how these songs develop her cognitive and psychomotor skills in a really fun way! They keep us occupied in the best way possible – through learning! These are our favorites:

  1. One little finger
  2. If you’re happy
  3. Wheels on the bus
  4. Old McDonald
  5. Skidamarink
  6. Grandparents are special

#5 and #6 are really my favorites more than hers – I just think they’re the sweetest songs and animations ever! In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re rather partial to the YouTube channel Super Simple Songs. A also likes Little Baby Bum, but her dad and I prefer Super Simple Songs for the simpler animations and because A seems to learn more from it.

What are your kids favorite songs? What are your favorite songs for them?

STEM and kiddos

Through my PhD, I dealt with higher education, with late teenagers and undergraduate education in STEM-related courses. So when I was pregnant and discovered that Amazon and Flipkart had a separate category of toys called “STEM toys”, I was astonished! Why would my little baby want to play with toys that taught her engineering at a year old, I wondered.

Since then, I’ve been experimenting and playing with a lot of toys, courtesy A. She goes through phases of toys. As a 6 month old, when she first started playing with toys, it was all about the color and sound and not much else. Rattles were a favorite, as were anything grab-able and hold-able. As she approached a year, she moved on to stacking rings, her eyes focused as she maneuvered the rings over the rod and formed a stack. After her birthday, she started working on puzzles and shape sorters. I was amazed at her sponge-like mind, learning to use new toys everyday!

So this brings me back to my original question – what are STEM toys? STEM toys are toys that promote learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. They claim to help children work towards careers in these areas (a claim which I question for the time being). They promote cognitive and psychomotor development in children, which I definitely do see.

So what are some of the popular STEM toys? A browse through Amazon and others brings up robots, building blocks, physics and electromagnetic kits and the like. There are also numerous articles detailing that “STEM toys so far have been geared to boys” and “it’s time to make them for girls too”, which is certainly baffling to me. I recently attended a mind-blowing talk by Leah Buechley, a keynote speech at FABLearn 2016, where she speaks of this issue. She is the mind behind Lilypad Arduino, and a champion of feminine making traditions. During her keynote speech, she broadened the audience’s view on STEM toys and activities, leading me to believe that STEM is everywhere, and that it is the world’s view of STEM toys which is pigeonholed into a subset of toys. Here are some of my favorite toys which I believe promote learning

  • Shape sorters: These seemingly elementary toys teach shapes, and then matching a shape to its appropriate slot. Its not just about matching the shape, but also turning the shape to fit into the slot appropriately. Some shape sorters double up to teach colors as well. Of course,  shape sorters can double up as stackers, blocks, even grab-ables for the little ones.
  • Puzzles: And of course, I mean much simpler puzzles to start with, such as this one. Apart from the obvious skill of matching the right piece to the right location (like the shape sorter), playing with these also provides numerous teachable moments about the objects in the puzzle like animals or food. Pulling the pieces out of the puzzle individually also helps develop fine motor skills.
  • Stackers: In addition to the fine motor skills of grabbing, holding and placing, these also teach sizing and order. For example, largest on the bottom and smallest on the top? Stackers include the old favorite – stacking rings, but also stacking cups, stacking blocks that even have books embedded in them, and more. You could stack these one on top of the other and it’d be a fun game to make a tower than doesn’t collapse, teaching balance in the process.
  • Boxes and lids: not a toy! But this is my kiddos personal favorite. She started off trying to close her snack box. She then moved on trying to close any box with the lid I gave her. One day, she found a sippy cup top and a random cup, and just trying to match the two just because they were the same size! Which they didn’t belong to the same set, I was amazed at how her young mind worked! These days, she is easily kept occupied with a bunch of random boxes and lids, working her way through matching them, and then closing them until they seal!

These are just some of our current favorites. I’m sure there are many more out there! The thing is, STEM is way more than what we know, it’s everywhere! What are some of your favorite toys (for your kids or yourself!)