Tag Archives: early childhood education

SmartMom - Why I Never Tell My Child "Good Job"

Why I Never Tell My Child “Good Job”: the Case of Praise versus Encouragement

Photo by Casey Leigh Wiegand

And no, I never tell my child “bad job!” either. Save your gasps for Jerry Springer, SmartMoms. It’s simply a matter of praise versus encouragement.

The first time I ever considered this idea of encouraging instead of praising a child was when I took a job at a preschool. In fact, in the interview, they told me, we don’t say, “good job!” I was shocked. I had learned about the benefits of providing a positive learning environment, and that comment didn’t strike me as something the school should advertise to young, ambitious, happy, new teachers.

However, I grew to appreciate their ideas, which were based off of the Reggio Emilia approach to childcare (ages 3 months-6 years). This approach was born out of Northern Italy in the 1960’s, when the municipality was increasingly concerned with their children’s education. They designed schools that focused on providing a self-directed environment for students with holistic learning that encouraged all sorts of expression. All that to say, the city wasn’t satisfied with their preschoolers coloring in the lines or singing their ABC’s. They wanted their children to thrive as they grew in curiosity, creativity, and expression.

For this bunch of preschool teachers, they saw, “good job!” as the end of an opportunity for learning. The Reggio Emilia approach prefers to offer encouragement as a way of extending the child’s learning experience and challenging them to wonder all along the way.

Here’s how you, too, can implement this approach in your home as a means of providing rich encouragement to your child:

  1. Extend, Don’t End: When your child creates a painted masterpiece, or designs a brilliant train track, you’ve got two options. You can extend their learning experience, or you can end it. By saying “good job” you are acknowledging their work, but not extending or challenging them further. Try thinking of positive way of encouraging them to continue their work Try: “Wow, I like the way you used your paintbrush to add details to your tree. Do you think you could add that kind of detail to other parts of your painting?” Now, you’ve let your child know you like their work, while also challenging him/her to continue!
  2. Challenge, Don’t Coddle: My favorite example of this happened at a nature center. I was watching a dad and his 4-year old daughter interact.  The girl was playing by a small creek and couldn’t figure out how to get across. She whimpered, “Daddy, come get me!”  He was on the other side of the creek and easily could have slipped her over his shoulder and across the creek. But he didn’t. He said, “I know you can do this.  I’m right here.  How can you get across?” This dad knew he could come in and fix his four year old’s problem. He also knew he had an opportunity to challenge her, and he seized that opportunity. She made it across the creek by walking across a log, she also gained the confidence that she is capable of developing solutions and fixing problems.
  3. Wonder, Don’t Wander: Sometimes the best way to encourage your child is to wonder with them. As your child is putting together a train track, ask: “I wonder how far you could make that train track go?” or at the zoo: “I wonder how much food they have to prepare for all these animals?”  Perhaps there’s a sibling conflict in your home.  Once things have cooled, try asking, “I wonder how we can get along better?” These questions facilitate problem solving skills and cognition. Encourage your child to think of ‘wonder’ questions as well. It’s tempting to wander off to reply to an email, clean the kitchen, or attend to any number of pressing household issues.  Try challenging yourself to connect with your child several times a day and wonder with them. By wondering with your child, you are sending them the message that you are engaged in their world and that their play is important.

Encouragement makes an impact. When you use your words to encourage your child, think of words that accurately reflect the way you want to encourage them. We were all brought to tears during the movie The Help when Aibileen Clark says, “You is kind, you is smart, and you is important”. When encouraging your child, be specific. Telling your child “good job!” for the thirtieth time after they color in their coloring book is a little different than, “you are a truly talented artist and I love watching you enjoy your painting!”

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What I've Learned - Julie Schumacher, Writer

What I’ve Learned: Julie Schumacher, Writer

Julie Schumacher is the founder of Well Turned Words, copywriting and editing studio. She’s also the co-founder of Forth Chicago which seeks to celebrate and connect creative, entrepreneurial women in Chicago. 

Tell us about your family!

We have one daughter, Loie Jane, who is 3. She’s a copper top and is very into ’80s music and feta cheese. 

What I've Learned - Julie Schumacher As a first time mom, I thought that I was going to knock it out of the park. I wasn’t super nervous and felt that, if our daughter was born healthy, I was going to be one of those “at ease” awesome moms.

I didn’t. I wasn’t. I got knocked on my ass. I didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and worried incessantly those first few weeks. I’m wired anxious and assumed I’d rally…because I always rally. At about 8 weeks postpartum, I was hospitalized with postpartum depression. It was just the worst.  My mom moved in from Philadelphia, we brought in an incredible post partum doula, my husband protected and provided like a beast, and we got me in to see an incredible therapist in conjunction with a smart medication plan through a psychiatrist.

It is so, so, so humbling to have gone through that. I’ve never failed at something so spectacularly before, or so publicly. Now, I’m not saying I failed at motherhood. My kid’s great and we’re super bonded and all that and I think I’m a pretty great mom. But in the moment and the months after there was a significant amount of self-confidence and identity rebuilding that had to happen. I had to relearn to love myself, accept way more help than I’d ever been willing to take in a lifetime, and was forced to figure out what it would take to claw my way toWhat I've Learned - Julie Schumacher happiness. And on top of that, I had this wee little beastie I wanted to love and get to know and take care of and felt like it was happening with a hand tied behind my back (and blindfolded and while balancing on a very small, wiggly beam). We fought back hard and I was very quickly back on my feet (which is not to discount any woman whose fight is longer. Go mama, go!).

That’s a pretty big shadow, though, to walk out of. Even now I have to explain that PPD doesn’t mean I ever tried to harm myself, or our daughter, and I am not convinced everyone believes me. Sounds awful, right? It’s one of the reasons I’m vocal and open about my experience. More women need help and more people need to know how to help them.

The collaterals, though, are remarkably all positive. I saw how strong my marriage was. I saw how rad my mom and husband are. Seriously. My mom was indefatigable and my husband’s shoulders carried way more than I assumed a human could. They never doubted me those many nights I loudly announced I would never get better.

Our new neighbors in Oak Park stepped up and carried us through. Friends sat with me while I wept on the porch and one friend was charged with dragging me to movies so I’d leave the house…those are some damn fine friends. What I've Learned - Julie SchumacherIt was through therapy and talking with my husband and closest of friends (a mom entrepreneur champion Jill Salzman of the Founding Moms) that I took the years of research and teaching of writing and launched Well Turned Words. I was given time and permission and support to do something I always kind of thought I could do but would likely have never done…because who actually gets paid to write? Now, our world makes so much sense on this path. Our family is happy and strong. It was a slog. No doubt. But hot damn, I’m happy and our family is thriving.

I sometimes wonder if a single part of my body, mind, worldview, approach to life, or future goals have not been touched by parenthood. On a very basic scale, having a kid is a nice swift kick to the shins of whatever routines you enjoyed pre-kids. On a larger scale, I think more about modeling for her an expansive life. If I let fear, regret, guilt dictate how I move through the world, she’ll see that. If I don’t do something because I’m just too tired or if I don’t handle a relationship with care, she’ll see that. If I lead with a strong partnership, good friendships, grace, confidence, humor, sass, joy, and a dash of “well, I guess we’ll see what happens!” she’ll see that. I want her to know she can have many acts, be many women, and do many things in a single lifetime. So I have to live that first. When I need parenting advice, first and foremost, I talk to my husband.

What I've Learned - Julie Schumacher We share what we see, strategize, offer gentle suggestions on something that worked for one of us. He’s the person I chose to parent with so his opinion or ideas matter more than anyone else’s to me. Then, I have a phenomenal community of women. I highly recommend surrounding yourself with women better than you. My mom and sister are awesome and talented mothers (and great overall) as are some close friends who I’ve known since college and met as a mom. I also have plenty of dad friends I think are just phenomenal parents. I don’t just talk to other people with girl parts. A good parent is a good parent.

I have an online community as well. I have the SpitfireMom Society, which I started with a design partner in Denver and appreciate the conversations there about business and family life. I adore Ask Moxie and the community she’s built. I also have a top secret group of women from a birth board now connected on Facebook. We all have kids the same age and were bonded over those first months. We’re all over the country and about as different as can be but it’s a safe, warm space to say out loud the stuff that goes through my head. We call ourselves the Mamascenti. It’s silly and awesome. What I've Learned - Julie Schumacher

My favorite thing about being a parent is the forced intentionality. I have to be more purposeful and thoughtful about what I say and do, both around her but also in general. The selflessness is hard but great creativity emerges through constriction, I think. There’s also the heart-explodingly-huge amount of love I get to experience when she says “Mama?” and then asks me something weird. For my marriage, I love having a whole new way to fall in love with my husband. I knew he was great. Watching him as a father? Wow. Watching Lo, my favorite thing is her acquisition of language. It’s like watching civilization evolve. That sounds ridiculous. But it’s really incredible to witness and hear how our intonations and expressions regenerate in her. She says “awesome” a lot. Not surprising.

Are there routines that you’ve set up in your family to help things run more smoothly?

Yup. M/W/F I get up with Loie and get her ready for school. T/Th my husband gets up with her and I sleep in. I say once a month I am going to start getting up to work out. I will let you know if that ever happens. We tend to each sleep in one weekend day, which is superb. We encourage each other to spend time out at night with friends. I’m home with her on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We do a play date or go to the library or play outside in the mornings. Sometimes we just hang around the house in our PJs all morning. We host a toddler music class here on Thursday afternoons. One of us takes her to school, the other picks her up. Whoever is putting her down for bed, theWhat I've Learned - Julie Schumacher other person is prepping a late dinner or tidying up. We try to keep the house in good shape because we both work from home and my husband is a neatnik. We’re pretty rigid about her sleep. A well-rested kid makes the whole world sunnier and protecting her sleep 85% of the time means we can be flexible the other times. We have a weird kid who sleeps in so we get her up at 7 so she’ll take a nap. And we wake her up from her nap 90% of the time so she’ll fall asleep at night. Please don’t throw things at us. I know most moms would kill to have a 7am wakeup. We all seem to thrive on routine. We talk about whether she’s a creature of habit (she yawns at 1:15 if we’re late putting her down for a nap) because it’s in her DNA or in the air of the home.

What do you know now that you wish you knew back then? (as a first time mom) 

That you’ll find a way. That any thing your kid is doing that feels unsolvable, untenable, or totally bizarre will likely be replaced by something that feels equally permanent, annoying, or odd. And you’ll be so busy worrying about the new thing that you will forget to realize that the previous worry has resolved itself. That cyclicality of parenthood is both comic and infuriating to me now. That no one gives you a reward or medal if you refuse to ask for help or refuse help that is offered. Even now, after being knocked on my rump, I still want to do it all myself. That’s lame. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. And if someone offers to hold the baby so you can pee in peace or take a nap? JUST SAY YES. What I've Learned - Julie Schumacher

When it comes to fun, I always crave travel. My husband and I like to cook together, I love baking. The fun of chopping and stirring and seasoning as a couple was a huge piece of our courtship. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the meticulousness of baking is very calming for me. Give me some flour to sift and something to level and I’m in heaven.

I like to talk. A lot. So talking with my friends and husband about things inconsequential and grand. Plan and scheme for the next phases and iterations of our life. If I’m not talking, I’m reading. I’m in an excellent book club of smarter-than-me women who actually read the books. Our neighborhood is ripe with families so we do things locally, the Farmer’s Market, the park. Because we like the parents of the kids our kid knows even toddler birthday parties at jumpy places can be fun. Forth Chicago, a creative salon I run with two other Smart Moms, is so much fun but not super unwind-y. It does connect me to other women who like to talk about all sorts of things. And I What I've Learned - Julie Schumacherget to try out new parts of my brain through the beauty of our events and revisit the parts of my brain that love facilitating conversations.

With my daughter, I love reading. I will read the same damn story over and over and over. And there is nothing a 3 year old likes to do more than read the same story over and over and over. When it comes to values, we talk about wanting our daughter to move confidently and with empathy and awareness through the world. To have a chance to try many things she might like and to fail miserably at some and experience success in others and to realize there’s value in each. To cultivate community and to be civically minded. To be an excellent friend. To be able to speak her mind and to listen with equal measure. To have a strong moral compass rooted in global and progressive values. I want her to have a social sport she can play with friends into adulthood (that is one of those “because I don’t” things). I want her to be a good communicator, always put her shopping cart away, and to vote (because I do).

Photo by Kelly Allison

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Teaching Manners to Children - SmartMom

Teaching Manners to Children: When Should You Start?

Manners are an important social tool that children need to learn in order to be successful in school and life. No time is too early to start teaching manners to children, even if only by example.

Even as infants and toddlers, children pick up on how people in your family treat each other and whether there is courtesy and respect shown daily. When my daughter was three, I was trying to reinforce good behavior by thanking her when she did something well and “tank oo” became one of my son’s first words. No matter that he didn’t know what context to use it in yet, he learned, in time.

The time to be a good role model is inside the house, and out. Grumbling at other drivers or people in public is also noticed, and unfortunately, sometimes copied, too, to great embarrassment.

As toddlers and preschoolers, there a number of ways you can begin teaching manners to children.

Say Please

If you make a habit of using please when you ask your kids to do something, they will become more accustomed to hearing it and using it.

Say Thank You/You’re Welcome

Ditto. The more you use them, the more they will. This good behavior will help in disciplining your little ones as well.

Do Not Interrupt

Kids are pretty self-absorbed at early ages and expect you to respond to their needs immediately. When you are in a conversation with another adult, remind them not to interrupt (unless it is an emergency).

Then, when there is a break in the conversation (this shouldn’t be too long, if they are young, but long enough to get the point across) give them your attention and respond to them.

Do Not Touch Things that Don’t Belong to You

This can go for stores as well as other people’s houses. Teaching children to only handle what you have established belongs to you can save you some embarrassing moments and set some ground rules for purchases. I avoided many requests at the store and merchandise dragged off shelves by teaching my kids that those things didn’t belong to us and they needed to stay where they were.

Share and Take Turns

These skills are very important when your child enters social settings with other children. Preschool-age children notice, and complain, when other kids in their classes don’t take turns or share.


There are consequences when your child strays outside the guidelines that you are trying to enforce. Teaching your children to apologize when they make a mistake gives them pause to think about it and let’s the other person know that your child realizes they should have acted differently.

Stay calm and be prepared to repeat these lessons over and over again. It can be frustrating, but I have found that losing my temper negates the lesson and nothing is learned. Manners will come if you are diligent, but it takes time.

Once it becomes second nature to your kids, it is nice to see their interactions with people outside your home and even with you. The other night, before we even sat down to dinner, my son sang out, “thanks Mom for the great dinner!” It can kind of make your day.

Check out our roundup on the benefits of house chores for your little ones!

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5 Ways to Avoid the Summer Slide

If the idea of workbooks fills you with dread and the words “the summer slide” make you want to slide into a corner and hide, don’t worry. Your kids can have a mentally engaging summer — without resorting to formalized school work style learning.

Hit the Beach

Wait, what? How can a trip to the beach help avoid the summer slide? Well, it’s all in what you make of it. Before you go, read up on tide pools, creatures that live in your local body of water and other info about the ecosystem. Then, while building sandcastles and jumping waves, point out the snails, hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs and share little facts with the kids.

They’ll love hearing what exactly the snails eat and why clams squirt water through airholes when they bury themselves beneath the sand. Or focus on tides and teach them how the moon impacts the tide, as well as where the water goes when it “goes away.” And you’ll love continuing to help your kids learn in a total no-pressure way.

Take a Hike

Like the beach, hiking can provide infinite opportunities for learning. You can teach about rocks, plants, animals and so much more. Choose your trail wisely – some nature centers have self-guided tours that can help with the learning on the go. Or try geocaching, which is a sort-of scavenger hunt that requires you to use GPS coordinates to find special spots where geocaches are hidden.

Another option? Hike a waterfall – then you can talk about water flow, erosion and more. Again, this is a fun and active way to enjoy summer without falling into the Summer Slide trap.

Visit the Library

It’s no secret that instilling a love of reading in kids is important. Stories let children explore new worlds, discover creativity and linger in their imagination – all good things. So, if you haven’t already, join your local library and go weekly.

The kids will love choosing stories, and you can tap into all the resources that libraries offer for families – like story hours for kids, author visits and more. And just the act of going to the library will help prevent the Summer Slide since the kids will be inspired to learn.

Also, check to see if your library has any summer reading incentives for kids – they can range from prizes to cold, hard cash just for reading a certain number of books. Pretty sweet, right?

Get Cooking

When it comes to practicing math, cooking is an awesome way to do it without even thinking about it. Between number recognition, fractions and time (this takes 15 minutes to cook – when will it be done?), numbers are part and parcel with everything done in the kitchen.

Better yet, if you are working from a recipe, kids can practice their reading skills and their direction-following skills too.

Plus, the help in the kitchen is a priceless way to bond too (it’s not just about avoiding the Summer Slide!).

Garden Together

Psst! There’s a lot of learning that can happen just by doing – like by planting and maintaining a garden. It’s not too late to get pretty flowers in the ground and cultivate them.

Have the kids help with the planning, planting and care-taking of the garden. They will learn first-hand about what makes plants grow, garden pests and so much more.


Here are some ideas on fun summer activities!

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Ask Away - SmartMom

Ask Away: the Parents’ Role in Child Development

We’ve all seen it. You’re in the park, and there’s a parent pointing to every green leaf and asking their child, “What’s this?” The child answers, either eager to please his/her parent or annoyed by the constant inquiry. Alternatively, perhaps you’re sitting with your child, who happens to be picking leaves and putting them in a pile. You start to feel that parental pang of guilt. Since, of course, along with caring for your child, you should also be educating him on the flora and fauna of the local area. What’s the best way to ask your child questions?  How do you help expand your child’s knowledge for life, instead of enabling them to memorize trivia for the Jeopardy game they may never be asked to play?

What is the parents’ role in child development, anyway? Here are some things to consider when seeking to ask your child meaningful questions:

1. Consider their age.

The “wh-question” effect has been heavily studied by childhood researchers. Around the age of two, identification questions (“what is it?”) are completely appropriate. However, by age two and a half, your toddler can start answering questions about location. By age three, “who” questions are age-appropriate. Last to develop is “when”, as time can be an abstract concept for young children. These questions help promote a variety of language skills needed for school and social relationships with peers. Easy ways to incorporate these questions include:

  • asking about the scenery when on a car ride
  • asking about a book you are reading together
  • asking in reference to your child’s dramatic play


Appropriate Questions

2 years


2 years 6 months


3 years

Who, Why, How Many

3 years 6 months


4 years 6 months and older


(Paul & Norbury, 2012)

2. Consider involving your child.

“Show me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

Asking your child questions about a shared experience and involving your child in your day can be a wonderful way to promote learning at home. A simple trip to the grocery store with a three-year old can blossom into a learning experience with a few questions and a little conversation. Here are some example questions for involving your child on your trip:

  • “How many different fruits can you find?”
  • “Why do we get in a check-out line when we go to the grocery store?”
  • “Who do you think puts all of this food on the shelves?”

3. Consider the research.

Language is the single best predictor of cognition in children (Rosetti, 1991). Therefore, engaging your child in meaningful conversation is critical to his/her development. When asking questions, try to limit those that elicit only a one-word response. If your child is capable of speaking in longer phrases, think of questions that will get them thinking and talking! Research also suggests that asking questions while reading together can promote more language production (Whitehurst, et al., 1988). So, find time to read together, and ask questions about the illustrations and the storyline. No, it’s not critical that you teach and quiz your child on the Greek alphabet or on species of butterflies. Find ways this summer to ask your child questions while doing your everyday activities–reading, playing, cooking, and driving. You may find that your child is willing to share more when asked, or you may get your child thinking about things they have not yet discovered. Instead of becoming one of those annoying trivia parents, try fostering learning in your home by becoming an effective question asker.

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10 More Reasons to Love Children’s Literature

If you’ve read my previous post, Enrichment over Entertainment, you know that I’m a fan of Enrichment. Books provide the best of both worlds: the perfect opportunity to enjoy literature while also enriching your child’s life with pre-literacy skills, rich language, and creativity.  Here are all the reasons I love Children’s Literature (and you will too!) 

I usually travel with a bag of books, often borrowed or purchased on Amazon. You’ll find children’s books stashed in the back of my car, backpack, and scattered around my desk. I was the college student that read children’s books to my friends because I would be so astounded that their mother never read them classic titles like Love You Forever.

I’m still awe-inspired by the beauty and richness of the language and illustrations in children’s books. Good children’s books are truly a work of art. C.S. Lewis said it best: “A children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” The plethora of wonderful literature out there provides a good excuse for reading time with your child to be enjoyable, enriching, and entertaining for both of you!

Ok, I’ll admit it. My 10 reasons are actually just 10 of my favorite books.  I’ll mention a few of my old favorites, but I’ve also decided to share a few new gems. I hope they will work their way onto your bookshelf and into your heart.

  1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  2. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Suess
  3. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
  4. Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin
  5. If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano
  6. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones
  7. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  8. Sense and Sensibility: A BabyLit Opposites Primer by Jennifer Adams
  9. Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson
  10. What Does the Fox Say? by Ylvis and Christian Løchstøer

If these don’t strike your fancy, talk to your librarian. I’ve always found children’s librarians to be incredibly helpful. I usually end up with a stack of books that would compete with a CrossFit workout. If you’d prefer to stick with the classics, I suggest you refer to the New York Public Library’s 100 Great Children’s Books list. This list is geared towards all childhood ages, so don’t expect to complete it by your child’s third birthday.

Head to the SmartMom Pinterest boards for some pics of these books and a few good quotes.  I’ll leave you with this poem by Strickland Gillian titled “The Reading Mother.”

I had a mother who read to me

Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,

Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,

“Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.

I had a Mother who read me lays

Of ancient and gallant and golden days;

Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,

Which every boy has a right to know.

I had a Mother who read me tales

Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,

True to his trust till his tragic death,

Faithfulness blent with his final breath.

I had a Mother who read me the things

That wholesome life to the boy heart brings–

Stories that stir with an upward touch,

Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be–

I had a Mother who read to me.


What are your favorite children’s books?

My son is only 2 months old but he got all these great kid’s books for Christmas and I cannot wait to start reading them to him! When did you start reading to your babies before bedtime?

When did you start reading to your LO?

So I’m giving my two children a combined birthday party, turning 3 and 1. I made the “theme” children’s books, what are your favorite children’s books?

For those of you who read to your little ones before bed…do you only read children’s books? My boy is 18 months and I’m looking for book inspiration.

Good place to get children’s books.. Like the one that are hard , not paper. I’d also be like to spend $10 per book! Any ideas?

Does it matter what books I read to my one year old? Can i read anything or does it have to be children’s books?

My little sister has to write a children’s book. She wants to write it from the child’s perspective about the things the mother thinks goes unnoticed. Since I am a first time mom I don’t have a lot of answers to give. As a mother what are things do you do that you think go unnoticed?

In regards to children’s books: what subjects would you like to see more of? Potty training, opposites, family, religion, etc.


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SmartMom: Open-Ended Play. Photo by Nicole Gerulat

The Art of Open-Ended Play: How to Shop for Toys

Photo by Nicole Gerulat for MerMag Blog

You’ve got a playroom.  A trunk full of toys in your living room. From the toy you trip on during your walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night to the mesh bag of plastic sea creatures that take up three quarters of your bathtub, there is proof of your motherhood in every corner of your home.

In your child’s extensive toy collection, which ones are the best for inspiring creativity and open ended play? How can you prevent your little one form getting bored with their toys?

In moments of frustration (or when you step on a lego) it can be tempting to indiscriminately purge your toddler’s extravagant toy collection. But before you pull out the garbage bags, take a look at these tips for shopping for the best toys for your little one.

Think quality. It’s easy to get caught up in your child’s opinions in a toy store. For this reason, I suggest toy shopping without your little toy enthusiast. After all, you know their interests and their developmental age. Companies package their toys in a way that appeals to eager children with a hold on their parents’ wallets. However, you’re the informed consumer in this equation. You know quality; you know which toys are worthwhile investments, and you know which toys are bound to end up buried in a tub of dog food.

Here are some brands I highly recommend, showcasing toys that encourage cognitive engagement and open-ended play:

  • Melissa & Doug. This is my absolute favorite brand of toys. These days you can find them almost anywhere. I’ve spotted them at Whole Foods and even at T.J.Maxx on occasion. I love their Stacking Train Toddler Toy– it’s a toy that you’ll hang onto for your grandkids. Also, their Pattern Blocks and Boards are great for encouraging geometric understanding.
  • Blabla. These toys are plush, precious, and the perfect alternative to piles of stuffed animals. These finger puppets are great for encouraging your child’s narrative and language skills. How about hosting a mini theater performance with these guys?
  • Hearthsong. These toys are developmentally appropriate and well-built. Mail is always fun, especially this time of year. The Holgate Mail Truck would be the perfect addition to your Valentine’s Day. Perhaps write some Valentines and deliver them to friends and family in this truck? This toy encourages both pre-literacy and fine motor skills.

Host a Toy Exchange.  Especially in the dead of winter, hosting a toy exchange is a great excuse to gather your mom friends while also providing them with some new toys. Here’s how to make it work.

Before the exchange, ask each mother to gather a set of toys (cleaned and sanitized), in a sturdy bag.  Reusable grocery bags from Whole Foods work wonderfully. When your friends arrive at your house, encourage each mom to label their own toys using permanent markers. Attach a tag to each bag, each one receiving a different number. Also, prepare a basket containing matching numbered slips of paper. Each mom then draws a number from the basket and takes home the corresponding bag of ‘new’ toys.

Of course, you might want to prepare some lemonade and cookies (or wine spritzers and cheese), because after that toy exchange, those mamas are going to want to chat. And those children are going to want to play! Repeat each month, returning the old toys and bringing a new bag to exchange. You’ll be surprised how ‘new’ your old toys will feel when they eventually find their way back into your bag.

Create a ‘Rainy Day’ Toy Bin. Perhaps you’re left flying solo in this venture of motherhood. For you, a toy exchange is unlikely, as your friends are either kid-free or sending theirs off to college.  For now, try this tip for making old toys ‘new’:

Collect toys from around the house that seem uninteresting to your child. Perhaps it’s a collection of blocks that your child hasn’t touched in awhile, or a doll house that has become more of clothes rack than a play piece. Place these toys in a plastic bin labeled “Rainy Day”, and store it away in a closet that’s out of sight from your child. Then, when the day warrants a new toy or activity, you won’t even need to leave the home. Your child will be delighted with their ‘new’ toy, or be thrilled to see their old toy back again. Either way, it’s a win for Mom.

When purchasing new toys (or assessing your toy inventory at home), ask yourself, “Does this toy allow my child to be in control of their play?  Or does this toy tell my child how to play?” Keep toys that engage your child and also encourage them to plan their play.  Your children should manipulate toys and materials in such a way that they can be creative. Open-ended play encourages cognitive development, language skills, and creativity. And with a bag of old ‘new’ toys, a bin for rainy days, and the wonderful mind of a toddler, you child will be engaged for days.  And don’t forget to check out the SmartMom Pinboard for more great toy ideas!

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SmartMom: Enrichment vs. Education

Enrichment over Entertainment: How to Fill your Home with Opportunity

Photo by Design Mom

It’s so very alluring: the iPad app that entertains your child while you take a shower or make another phone call, the battery operated toy that’s a must have for every American toddler, or maybe it’s that next episode of ‘educational’ television.

Let’s admit it: we like to be entertained. And the convenience of entertainment in our generation makes it even more enticing.  But I want you to ask yourself a question: What kind of home do you want to create for your child?  I propose that choosing Enrichment over Entertainment will be exponentially more rewarding in the long run.

Some days it will seem like you have no choice in the matter. The kids are screaming, the phone is ringing, and you have dozens of e-mails in your inbox. But take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself, “Do you want your home to be a place of entertainment or enrichment?” If you chose the latter, excellent. But what does it look like to have a home focused on ‘enrichment’?

During my years in early childhood education and research, I discovered several ways you can implement critical and creative thinking skills right in your own home. I searched for households that sought to give children opportunities. I found places that weren’t a break from education, but promoted discovery.

Here are a few ideas on how you can transition your home from a place of entertainment to a place of enrichment:

Set up an art table. This can be a child-sized garage sale find or something like this one from Pottery Barn Kids. Tucked in the corner of your dining room or living room, this is a place for messes. Encourage creation here, not coloring sheets. Your child is capable of new ideas and will get comfortable with their creativity when given the opportunity to create. Supplies for your art table need not be magnificent. In fact, save things like paper towel rolls, bottle caps, and yogurt cups for moments of childhood inspiration. Have a basket you devote to such items and another basket for markers, paper, tape, and paint if you’re daring. Oversized t-shirts make great art smocks. Providing opportunity inside boundaries is perfect for young artists. Perhaps, each day you provide your child with a different medium to explore: chalk, crayon, marker, paint, clay or Play-Doh. All of these provide wonderful opportunities for fine motor skill development and creativity. If your child takes up a particular interest in painting, perhaps think about investing in an easel as an upcoming birthday gift. I suggest this one by Melissa & Doug. 

Play in the kitchen. Whether you let your child ‘wash’ the dishes in the sink with soap and water, or you venture to bake with your toddler, they will inevitably engage in the task and gain knowledge of various properties of ingredients and how things work. For a toddler, the kitchen is a glorified science lab. Allowing your child to play with water is a simple activity that is common in many popular preschool approaches.  Many schools invest in tables specifically designed for water play. However, if you have a large kitchen sink and a sturdy kitchen chair, you can create your own at home. Try saving water bottles, funnels and plastic cups for your child to experiment with in the water. Check out the SmartMom Pinterest page for more water play ideas.

Engage in dramatic play. Your house has the capability of transforming into a rocket ship, a grocery store, and a library: perhaps all in the same day! When your child is encouraged to engage with household items, the sky is the limit! Early on, this may take some encouragement from you as the parent. However, you will be surprised to watch your child come up with their own ideas when they are encouraged to utilize the materials around them. To stimulate this dramatic play, try questions like, “I wonder what we could make out of this table and these blankets?” or “How could we turn our living room into a Gas Station?” This encourages child-directed play and it will excite your child to see their ideas come to life. Dramatic play is critical to early childhood development because it helps engage children in various roles that will be demanded of them in later life. They develop language, social, and critical thinking skills, all while building an airplane out of pillows on the carpet in the hallway.

And, of course, don’t forget to read. With these methods of enrichment over entertaining, you aren’t likely to hear your child complain of boredom. After all, discovery happens in the mind of your toddler. Find ways to engage their creativity and enrich their minds!

If you’re wondering how to shop for enriching toys, look no further – we’ve got your back.

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