Monthly Archives: March 2015

Three Great Toddler Toys That You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

These toys aren’t easy to find on the shelves at the big box stores or even in the chain toy stores.  But they will entertain and educate at the same time.  Take a look and go have some fun!

1.   Automoblox.  Terrific little cars and trucks with small parts (not the series for the toddler that puts things in his mouth) but so much fun with great designs and styles that big brothers and daddies will want in on the action.  Not your grandpa’s toy cars.  A low-slung transparent roof, spoilers, and those sleek sport tires.  Your older toddler will not have any awareness that he is developing the two-handed coordination and hand/finger control he is going to need for handwriting.

2.  Slice-A-Riffic Velcro Foods.  Wooden velcro foods have gotten a lot of shelf space, but I often prefer this easier-to-clean plastic series.  They are lighter for children with special needs who struggle with the wooden ones, and if they are thrown in anger they won’t break windows, flat-screens, or foreheads.  Even though younger toddlers are just going to pull them apart, this toy will be fun for a long time.  Eventually they learn to cut with the plastic knife, match and pretend to cook.  Develops terrific hand strength and two-handed control all the way along those years.  Make up wild and weird food combos as well as matching both sides of a food.  A serving of eggplant-watermelon, anyone?

3.  Fisher Price Loving Family Dollhouse.  This series used to be common in big box stores, but they seem to be phasing it out.  A dollhouse, dolls and furniture that can be really played with but allows  rough toddler action.  Detailed but not delicate designs.  Solid construction, so sturdy that even a toddler won’t tear off limbs or cabinet doors easily.  The baby dolls are small enough to be a choking hazard, so think twice if your toddler would try putting one in her mouth.   Buy just the parents and the larger kids if that is your issue.  Many of the tiny accessories are attached permanently to allow fun play but prevent choking or pieces being lost the moment the box is open.  This series is loved by children well into early elementary years.  You get a lot of longevity out of this house.  Suggestion:  buy this second-hand on e-bay or Craigslist for good value.  The dolls can all be sanitized and the pieces with fabric can be disassembled to wash them well.

The Newborn Exercise Your Baby Really Needs…And Why He Isn’t Getting It

Last year I wrote a post on the Bumbo chair, but this time I feel it is time to write a post about the early days of baby positioning, before anyone would put a baby in a bouncing saucer.  I recently published an article locally on why tummy time is now fussy time.  This is news to most great-grandmothers, because their babies weren’t known for throwing fits when placed stomach-down.  Human development takes a very long time to change biologically, so what would cause babies to wail so frantically now?

Today’s babies are sleeping on their backs, which is the safe choice to prevent SIDS.  Pediatricians hardly ever mention that doing so means that parents and nannies will have to make early and intentional efforts to use “tummy time” to get their newborn to 3 month-old familiar with this position for head control and crawling.  I have even met parents that thought the prohibition on this position for sleep meant that it shouldn’t be used for newborns when awake.  Oops!

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a short instruction piece at the end of their very good “Back To Sleep” publication, and it even mentions the [eventually reversible] delays in motor development noted with babies that do not get tummy time.  They do not explain why car seat carriers and other passive positioning devices aren’t recommended for long periods.  And they do not mention the developmental benefits of well-fitting and well-monitored baby wearing for those first months.

Many American babies under 3 months will spend large parts of their day in a car seat/sling seat/vertical carrier.  They are designed to be so comfortable and so entertaining that babies and parents both like them.  Taking a peaceful baby out of a seat/carrier seems cruel.  But so is depriving them of the opportunity to develop neck, shoulder and eye muscle control.  Spending the short periods of time they are awake in a seat prevents the opportunity to move, look and balance.  A baby cannot turn his head freely or sometimes at all in a sling seat.  He can’t use his emerging vision fully when lying on his back at an angle.  Most of the action is not near the ceiling.  He cannot build a sense of balance because he is in one position until an adult moves him.   When these babies get the chance to try tummy time, they fuss a bit.  Or a lot.  A parent who is wondering if tummy time while awake is safe, or who cannot distinguish between complaining while developing a skill and being in pain, might scoop up a baby before he really got the hang of it.  Imagine if you lifted a weight at the gym and groaned, and someone took it away from you?  It would take you a very long time to get stronger.

Just like at the gym, having good company, something fun to watch, and taking breaks can really make a difference.  And cross-training by being carried on someone’s shoulder, playing tummy down on an adult’s chest or lap, etc. is great.  Safely done baby-wearing can be very stimulating and handy for a parent on the go.  The biggest issue is getting to “the gym”.   A baby can’t drive there.  We have to bring the gym to them.

NPR’s Interview With the Author of “Raising Kids Who Want to Read” Raises Questions As Well

NPR posted an interview with Daniel T. Willingham, the author of “Raising Kids Who Love to Read”, and I will read his book with excitement for more details and suggestions.  I am wondering if anyone developing education policy is thinking about this issue in the same way as the author.  My takeaway message from the interview was that parents who display a love of reading, and actively express the belief that reading is an enjoyable way to spend time and gain knowledge, will raise children who love to read.  It may be more effective than increasing the the amount of books in a home, and maybe more important than the overall quality of the books.  I personally know families of modest means that manage to send the first message, and wealthy families that do not.

Sending this message to children is subtle and takes time to impart, but I think the author has a great point.  Children watch and learn from actions as well as statements, and their family values will stay with them for a very long time whether they are spoken or unspoken.  A family that values reading and lives that value actively could support even a child with learning differences to persist and thrive in the world of books.  On the other hand, a family that sees reading as only necessary to get good grades or gain status, but is not done for enjoyment, is going to send a very different message.  And families that are scrambling to just survive might have books in their home but struggle to model how they fit into daily life.

I intend to write a full review once I have read this book, and I am interested to see if the author has some practical suggestions to support literacy in the most vulnerable families.

Preschool Finger Play Songs for Hand Strengthening and Sensory Awareness

Children with sensory processing issues and low muscle tone can really struggle with the finger play games that are used in circle time at school.   Following the sequence of the movements using the right finger patterns can be confusing. Achieving the right finger and wrist angles takes strength and stability all the way from the trunk out to the tiny finger joints.  But think about it:  Don’t you also need that kind of hand awareness and control in order to use a pencil?

I am starting to incorporate finger play games into my therapy sessions with children that are struggling with both limited coordination as well as sensory processing issues that make it difficult for them to perceive where there fingers are on a toy, or even where their entire arm is placed.  Some kids need a very stable sitting position instead of sitting on the floor, and some need some more general therapeutic movement or other sensory input to get organized before trying these moves.  The rhythmic songs and the chance to move to a beat helps sequence the movements.They get everyone breathing deeply and give kids a chance to make some [fun] noise.

So far, the classics have worked well for me.  “Where is Thumbkin?” names each finger and focuses on each one.  The child gets to move their arms in different places (in front, in back) and sing about these prepositional concepts.  “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is such a favorite song, and the finger movements are pretty complex.  Having a good song motivates kids to try the harder sequence of finger and wrist movements.  It also has some easier and fun arm movements thrown in.  My new song, “Tommy Thumb” is more of a chant, and names body parts as well as individual fingers.

By the time a child has sung two or more songs, there is so much more focus on hands and hand movements that I see more skilled attempts at all the tricky therapy activities, including pencil grasp. And the child thinks we took a break from working on our usual exercises.  Not even close!

These games can be so much fun that your child might even ask to sing and perform them with you!

Swaddle at Night, but Get Moving During the Day

A correctly swaddled baby that is also using white noise and all the other Happiest Baby strategies can sleep amazingly long periods at night.  But as your baby goes from a 2 week-old to a 2-month-old, they are up and awake for longer periods of the the day.  Nobody wants to swaddle them all day, and nobody should. Parents now have to think about “positioning” a baby who is not yet rolling over by herself, and not sitting independently.  A baby’s daily exposure to sensory input during the day can have a huge effect on their development.  The American Academy of Pediatrics warns of skull flattening if a baby is left in a carrier or on her back most of the day.  Here are some thoughts from a HBOTB educator who is also a pediatric occupational therapist.

*  Babies that get lots of opportunities to look and move at the same time are developing their balance even though they are not even old enough to roll.  And vision is one component of balance. One secret to great visual development is having the opportunity to develop close and distance vision as early as possible, as well as looking at things from different angles and speeds as she is moved around.  Carrying and holding her in your arms or using a wrap/carrier can provide that input.

*  If you use an infant seat or car carrier, use it for brief periods and not for sleep.  if your baby seems to love the enclosure of a carrier, then you might have someone who would be a good swaddle candidate.  Swaddling with a blanket is a skill you can learn, or you can try the swaddle garments.

*  Wearing your baby in a front-facing carrier or a wrap/sling is terrific as long as your baby’s head is supported to keep that airway open, and you move carefully to avoid falls, bumps or burns.  Wrapping babies who cannot hold their head steady or even turn their head to get more air is trickier than carrying a 6 month old.  I have heard stories of people who stand at the stove while wearing their baby.  Take as few chances as you can.   Always bend at the knees when reaching down, and check your baby’s head and neck position as they can slide a bit due to gravity.  Every time you turn and bend your baby will get valuable balance stimulation, as long as she is secure and safe.

*  Young infants can learn to love tummy time, but start early and make it fun.  Temperamentally cautious babies and babies who resist novelty by complaining may need a gradual introduction and some creative approaches.  The reward is that play on her stomach can help the development of head, arm and trunk control for sitting and crawling.  Plus less time with the back of her head pressing into a carrier or mattress.

*  THBOTB uses side lying as a calming position, but when supervised it is a great play position.  Never leave a young baby unsupervised in a position in which the could roll on their stomach and be unable to breathe.  Use rolled towels to support your baby’s back and the leg that is on top, and maybe a folded receiving blanket under her head so that it isn’t tipped downward.  Placing their backside against the firm back couch cushions can work too.  Then put a few toys in front of her to reach for and look at.  Best part:  both hands can work together easily.

Toddler Cooperation Blossoms When You Give Things Away for Free

Toddlers are tough negotiators.  They also remember the feeling they got during their last negotiation with you.  Here is one way to improve a toddler’s attitude: make easy trades that they will fondly remember.

Most toddlers balk at simple requests.  Sometimes they resist the specific request, sometimes it is just that their default setting is “no!”.  Achieving agreement isn’t always easy, but the child that can understand “if-then” situations is going to be able to move off of a negative response much more quickly. Not all situations are “if-then” possibilities either.  But these are a great place to start.

In the “if-then” deal, they want something from you, and you state that there is an action that they need to take in order to get what they want.

It looks like this:  “If you want to go outside, you need to pick up these toys and put them in the bins. Then we all get our coats on and go play.”

Here’s the twist to get things started in your household: make a negotiation that they can accomplish almost without any effort. It reaps immediate rewards as soon as your child develops an understanding of the deal, and a positive memory of the dealmaking process.

It now looks like this: ” If you want to go outside, please give me the [toy you were clearly going to throw on the floor] and I will put it away.  Wow, great listening.  Now we can get coats on and go outside”.

I know, there was nothing of substance there.  Well, that would be true if you weren’t two years old.  A two year-old sees that as active participation and cooperation, with simple praise and a good outcome for him.  Do this over and over, and you have someone who should start to comprehend the negotiation of “if-then”.  After understanding has been achieved, then you can raise the stakes to something meaningful to you.

Don’t be surprised if your toddler decides to turn the tables and start an “if-then” negotiation with you!  After all, he has seen the power of this method in his own life.  A word of advice when the negotiations seem unfair ( you get 10%, her gets 90%):  that is not a “loss” for you and your views.  I know, you wouldn’t tolerate it with an adult, but toddlers aren’t adults.  Giving in even 1% is a big deal to someone who has heretofore thought that it is “my way or the highway”.  If you get a 10% concession from someone like that, it is a win for you!  And the next negotiation can be 15/85, right? Always keep in mind that this is a process and you are teaching a skill, not getting a mortgage.

Next: the amazing power of children taking ownership for their actions……

NPR’s Article on Blocks as Tools for Math and Social Skills Should Inspire Teachers and Parents

Today NPR is running a story on the way block play in preschool can teach children much more about math and getting along in life than you might have thought .

No one loves blocks more than occupational therapists, but it is increasingly harder to find them in family rooms and playrooms.  I often ask parents to buy blocks for their children, and I see cardboard blocks and plastic squeaky blocks well into the 3’s and 4’s.  It is not possible to build a good skyscraper with blocks designed for babies.  And the cardboard blocks are terrific but not very inspiring unless your aim is to plough into a stack with your body or your Cozy Coupe.  Magna-tiles are huge around here, but walls that stay up so easily and the limitation of square, rectangle and triangle pieces make me long for solid three-dimensional choices.  Solid wood blocks will stay stacked until gravity takes over, and have a wider variety of shapes for all the geometry and physics lessons that block play can inspire.  If you have run out of rectangles for your “block garage wall” and you have 2 squares that will take up the same space, you have just learned something really valuable.  Visible fractions, anyone?

I am hoping that this article will inspire parents to pick up some blocks and teach safe block play along with the math and the social skills of building together.

Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing


nandhu-kumar-8fnQoR-2xv4-unsplashThe most challenging aspect of using The Happiest Toddler on the Block might be the need to use just enough emotion and emphasis when stating their issues back to them (the Fast Food Rule), but then modeling a cool, calm and rational state in your reply when you are tired and frustrated by a full day of toddler drama.  This is a very Zen concept, the “cloak” of calmness that you wrap around your interaction with a whiny or defiant child.  It is absolutely essential to the success of this approach.

This is not easy.  Toddlers have staying power.  Here is what it looks like:

Adult:  “It’s lunch time.  Come on over and sit in your seat.”

Child:  Want cookies!!!!! [whiny shout, banging on cabinet storing said cookies]

Adult:  “You want cookies now, no lunch, just cookies!!” Remember the 1/3 level of mirroring their delivery.  Rinse and repeat until you see him take a breath, shoulders drop, etc.  This is the start of the “Fast Food Rule” of Happiest Toddler on the Block.

Child:  “Yeah” [ quieter whine, lots of eye contact, head nodding]

Adult:  “Oh, wow.[insert pause with disappointed look]  But it is lunch time. [another pause and sympathetic look] You have a yummy ______all ready, and then it will be time for ( # ) cookies after you finish your _______.”  [insert optimistic smile, as if you get the cookies too!]  Rinse and repeat if needed, but many if not most kids will be able to come to the table.  They may not be cheerful, but they know that you have limits, and they know you will deliver the cookies.  If they are eating and interacting with you, reward them with your pleasant conversation and plans of fun to come.

Why would anyone go to so much effort to stay calm, instead of just saying “Cut that out right now!”?  Because we are in this for the long haul.  Because the job of adults is not just to keep kids alive and safe all day, but to teach them how to manage their emotions and their behavior.  Because we are supposed to be the adults, capable of managing our emotions and planning our responses, not just lashing out.  And because we are investing in the relationship, knowing that a child that has seen you set consistent limits but also knows you do not shame, threaten, insult, or beg them to behave is more likely to listen to what you have to say.  When the conflict comes, as it always will, calmly stating the limits and acknowledging their viewpoint is like withdrawing money from a bank account.

The Fast Food Rule is just step one.