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!)

Sensory Play & Development, Part 3: Hidden treasures 

Here’s a simple indoor activity that’ll take you 5 minutes to setup and will keep an 8-10 month old occupied for awhile! You’ll need a laundry basket (or any kind of basket with a mesh-like structure), a bunch of ribbons / sashes / cords / etc, and some fun sensory toys for your baby to search for. Things with bright colors, some sound, anything grab-able would be idea for a kid of this age. As you can see, I added a round ball with low grip in there and it was really hard for my baby to take it out.

All you have to do is place the toys inside and tie all your ribbons etc in a hap-hazard manner. You can go crazy and decorate it as well as you can – make it attractive! Then, allow your child to dig and search for the toys. Once she’s done searching, she’ll have more fun playing with them knowing that she did the task of finding them! I remember the look of pride on A’s face every time she found a toy.

Try this out, and let me know what variations you did!

A sick day

And by sick, I mean sick in the traditional sense, not oh this was such an awesome day!

We had an unpleasant surprise last night – out of nowhere, A had a fever 🙁 It was due to an immunization she’d had over a week ago. It felt so long ago since the shots, what with Diwali and Halloween and stuff happening since, that I didn’t even make the connection at first! But my husband reminded me, and the doctor confirmed it, and A had a fever a week after her MMR shot.

Which brings us to today, a day allocated for A to rest and feel better. Of course, toddlers (and everyone, really) have a mind of their own, and she did not like the idea of staying home and “resting” one bit. Unless she has enough activities in a day, she ends up cranky in the evening, and unable to sleep at night. Today’s post is a quick one, a short list of activities which work for us on sick days. Since it’s been a long day, and since I do have a lot of ideas to elaborate but not a lot of energy, this is a short one!

  1. Books
  2. Interactive songs- If you’re happy & you know it, BINGO, Old mcdonald’s farm, patty cake, so many more
  3. If she’s up for it, indoor activity is fine like climbing up stairs and so on.
  4. Again, if she’s up for it, a short walk outside of the house. This saved our day today and made her so much happier than staying home. We just let her walk up and down our driveway, which for tiny toddler feet just taking baby steps is like a marathon.

Sick days are the worst! I’m always looking for new ways to keep her occupied indoors. You’d think that sick days mean rest days, but that is not entirely the case with an energetic toddler! I feel so sorry for her when she’s sick. Anyway, what are your tried and tested ways to help your energetic toddler burn some energy so that they get some rest (if you understand what I meant by that!)?