Downtime Play Tips

Downtime is truely unstructured, “go play” time. It’s suggested children have an hour of downtime a day through 10 years old. With the pace of life, downtime can be hard to come by. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Turn of the tv and computers – Screentime is anti-downtime. When children are in front of a screen, they are still being otherwise entertained. If the tv is just on the background, it’s a temptation. It can be helpful to set guidelines for screentime for the family and then really stick to it.
  • Provide space – It may be setting up a play area with their favorite toys, a reading area with comfortable beanbags or a craft corner with supplies and a good size table. Think about the activities your child prefers and then create the space around them.
  • Build downtime into the schedule – If you tend to overschedule, you may have to actually put this on the calendar. Block off the time they can be unproductive.
  • Focus on true toys – It may be helpful to provide more basic, open-ended toys such as blocks, dolls, balls, craft supplies or a cardboard box. Once given, let children plan the play.
  • Get them outside – Outside play provides trees, sticks, rocks, puddles and dirt. There’s also room for tag and throwing balls.
  • A little boredom is good – Children who can’t entertain themselves and get bored easily when given downtime, likely just need more practice. Given space and time they will learn how to entertain themselves. Have patience, this is a good skill to develop.

Floortime Tips

Playing with colorful blocks

Developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, founder of DIR/Floortime and author of many respected parenting books, Floortime offers parents a system of play to encourage language development, social skills, emotion regulation and leadership abilities. Seen as beneficial to all children, this approach to play is often incorporated into therapies for children with speech and language delays, and social and developmental concerns. Below are a few tips to get started and a link to helpful online workshops.

  • By design, the child is in charge- They are the director, you are the assistant. They decide the topic, place and pace of the play. Your job is to stay engaged and support the play.
  • Stay on topic- All of your questions and comments should be about the ongoing activity. Avoid introducing new ideas or taking the play in new directions. While this sounds easy, it really forces many parents to slow down. The goal is to comment or question in ways that continue the play or encourage the child to think deeper about current activity without moving them off it. You might ask open ended questions like, “what’s happening?” or, “how did you think of that?” You might describe their play or comment on the details.
  • Play at their pace- If the child is often running and dumping things, and you are often trying to slow them down, for these 20 minutes you are running and dumping. The message is – how you play is spot on for you.
  • There is no correction, no education- It is play. If the child decides the dog is a cow, it’s a cow while playing farm. Just go with it. Yes, you can go back later and read your farm books, but, for the time being, play.
  • The goal is 20 minutes per day- Put this on the calendar, set aside the time. This is a stretch that you turn of the tv and put down the phone. Floortime requires you be fully engaged and attentive.

There are many online resources that include and teach about Floortime. For online workshops designed for parents and professionals, visit http://www.thefloortimecenter.com/,   http://stanleygreenspan.com/.

Other helpful links include http://www.mindspring.com/~dgn/playther.htm and http://www.cms-kids.com/providers/early_steps/training/documents/floor_time.pdf.

Blended Families and Re-Building Relationships

Hi Dr. Rene,
We are a blended family and have been for more than five years. One of my step children has suddenly decided they dislike me, and will avoid eye contact or any type of interaction with me if possible. I am getting sighs and dirty looks for doing something as simple as saying good morning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no changes or incidences to cause this sudden change in behavior. Before this started we were very close, got along well and spent regular time together doing activities we both enjoyed. My husband and I have tried talking to the child about the behavior; that seems to help for a day or two. We’ve tried ignoring the behavior; which seems to make it escalate. We are at the point of wanting to enforce some sort of discipline for being disrespectful and rude. I’m not sure if this will help or hurt the situation, but things cannot continue this way, the behavior is affecting the entire family. Any advice would be welcomed.  Thank you!

Sincerely,

Michelle

Dear Michelle,

I am sure this is upsetting, but I would avoid discipline, at least at the emotion. First, I would try to look at the emotion behind the behavior and address that. While you may be unaware of any change, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It may have been a piece of a passing conversation, a new understanding of an old problem as they mature or a sense of slight from his other parent. It may be impossible to find the cause, even the child may be unable to pin point it, but clearly there is upset. I would go out of my way to validate the difficult emotions when there is a behavior. When child rolls eyes, this sounds like, “I get you are frustrated with me, you don’t like what I just asked you to do.” Without lecturing, this can be followed by a simple, “and I need you to do it now.” The idea is to validate the emotion, but follow through with the behavior. It is a narrow road, but if you move forward with discipline, it is along these lines. Validate the emotions and discipline the related behaviors. In the moment this would be starting with, “I see you are grumpy this morning, I will try again later,” or, “I know you are frustratted, let’s go back and try that again.” You might also coach how the child can better display emotion. Rather than a dirty look to a “good morning,” coach that they can say, “I’m not awake yet.” This coaching is best out of the moment, when all is well.

In all this coaching, avoid putting pressure on the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you and I are family, and you will treat me with respect,” go more global, “that is an unfriendly way to say good morning, it would be nicer to say…” Focus on coaching how to speak to people in general, how to be kind and how to carry conversation rather than pressuring the relationship.

I would also make every effort to have child spend individual time connecting with each parent. There’s no need to make an announcement, but think at least weekly each of you are spending a bit of time. This can be a trip to the grocery store if you are focused on conversation and spending the time together. You might also read about and practice Greenspan’s Talk Time as presented in Playground Politics. This is a book about social and emotional development through the grade school years, and it highlights the importance of children having open talk time as they move out of Floortime. It’s an interesting way to open up conversations and emotions.

If you decide to go more specific at the discipline, I would initially make it a whole family effort. Sit and talk with everyone about how you are going to make an effort to be kinder and gentler with each other in communicating even when people are upset. Make it an effort in your marriage and in the parent-child relationships. If there are consequences for negative tones and words, this goes for all. Likely more successful here is, it is a global effort rather than a narrow focus. I would look to discipline more specifically only if all this fails. I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Exactly! Downside of E-Readers for Young Children

So, I’ve been asked many times in the last year for my thoughts about young children playing on iPads or reading on Kindles. My answers always lean towards it being better to play with toys or each other and read books rather than screens. Even when it’s just to occupy them because you need a minute, I would much rather parents hand their three-year-old a crayon and piece of paper than a phone with an open app. When it comes to early reading, my sense has been there is value in experiencing the book, in turning the pages, taking in the pictures and talking about the story. Thankfully, my favorite technology writer Lisa Guernsey has pulled together a fuller answer in her Time Ideas article titled Why EReading With Your Kid Can Impede Learning http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/20/why-ereading-with-your-kid-can-impede-learning/?xid=gonewsedit. If your pre- or early reader is already on a screen, check this out for tips on how to use it better and consider setting and enforcing time limits.

Lisa Guernsey is the director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative and author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five. Great book!

Holiday Reading Tips

I’d like to share a few of our holiday traditions that revolve around reading. We’ve compiled a stack of 25 Christmas themed picture books. Each night, starting on the first of the month we include one in our read aloud time before bed. On the night of the 25th, we read what was their favorite The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Scarry.

Each Christmas morning there are three new books for each child under the tree. I recognize they quickly get set aside for the toys and tech gadgets, but I think it is important to have books be a piece of the gift exchange. As they’ve gotten older, we’ve branched out with more reading related gifts. This includes book marks, box sets, a writing journal, magazine subsriptions (thanks grandpa!) and now a kindle. I recently read a suggestion to wrap one book and leave it on the child’s bed, so the first thing they open on Christmas morning is a new book. For you last minute shoppers,  http://www.bookswithbows.com/DanaHome.asp is an online service that sends your loved one a book-a-month based on the categories you select.

You might also check these great holiday reading tips from Reading Is Fundamental  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTgEorSmd7o&feature=youtu.be. In this clip, Dr. Judy Cheatham reviews tips to build a love of reading over the holidays. Enjoy!

Push Back to Dad Traveling for Work

Dear Dr. Rene,

My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.

It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

Sarah, mother of two

Dear Sarah,

I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.

In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.

I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.

Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.

Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible.  It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

More Car Games

I have been thinking since the last post of all the additional ways we keep the kids engaged on road trips. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Collect as You Go – Bring an extra backpack to let children collect ticket stubs, receipts, brochures, maps and souvenirs as you go. This can be a treasure trove of supplies for scrapbooking or other art projects after the trip.
  • Pick up Brochures – I know I mentioned brochures, but they deserve their own bullet point. This is especially true if you stop at a hotel lobby or rest stop that has a wall of brochures. Encourage your children to take a copy of all that look appealing. These can provide a few hours of quiet reading and conversation. They might also spark a detour to a local museum or bakery (Mr. Sticky’s in Williamsport PA on our last trip – amazing!).
  • Have a Navigator – I know most cars have an electronic navigator, but there are good life skills in teaching your older child to read and follow a map and calculate mileage, distances and times for travel.
  • Bring a Child-Friendly Digital Camera – A camera or video camera that you allow your children to use can do wonders for long car trips. Let them take 100s of pictures then print a few of their favorites to document. We have a few creative videos my then bored nine-year-old took from the back seat of the mini-van that are priceless.

Car Games

On long roadtrips, it can be tempting to let kids plug-in to their i-pods or watch movies all day. I tend to think the car is the perfect place to connect with each other, you have a captive audience. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Play Games – 20 Questions, Punch Buggy, the License Plate Game, the Alphabet Game, Packing for Grandma’s, Add-a-Sentence Stories
  • Sing-Alongs – With young children, this is preschool and campfire songs. I loved relearning patriotic songs like America the Beautiful and folk songs like Puff the Magic Dragon as my girls hit elementary school. Now we have top 40 and alternative rock sing-alongs with the radio.
  • Books on Tape – This counts as reading aloud time and can be very enjoyable if you find a book that appeals to the whole family. We started with the Winnie the Pooh Classics Collection and have worked our way through Judy Moody.
  • Bring Car Toys – We keep a bag of toys on the shelf in the garage that are just for long trips. If they are available at other times, they won’t last long in the car. This includes travel board games, magnet dress-up dolls and playscenes, a foam tic-tac-toe board, travel bingo, woodkins and a rubics cube.
  • Bring Car-Friendly Art Supplies – Think notebooks, pens and pencils, crayons and coloring books, Colorwonder markers by Crayola and scratchpaper.
  • Bring New Magazines – The kids get several magazines including Cricket, National Geographic Kids, the American Girl magazine and Highlights. When these come in the mail, they go immediately in the seat pocket for roadtrips.

Please comment and share your best ways to keep them connected on roadtrips!

Managing Holiday Stress

I have a tendency to over schedule. As we enter the Holiday Season, this year more than ever, I want to slow down, appreciate the small things and make time for family. Here are a few things I am going to keep in mind, not just to keep sanity, but hopefully to add enjoyment.

  • Help children plan their gift giving – I sat with the girls this weekend and helped them to build a list of what giftcards they wanted to get for which teachers, which friends they wanted to buy for and who they feel we need to add to our card list.
  • Start shopping early and space out errands – We took a trip to the mall on Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. to start on their lists and look for holiday ideas for a few relatives. We are far enough out that it was low key and fun.
  • Focus on experience and time more than spending and things – We are focused on giving experiences like concert and play tickets or classes through the community center. Claire (youngest daughter) is giving Troy (husband) a gift card for rock climbing they can use together.
  • Focus on your family’s true meaning of the holidays – Whatever your beliefs, focus there. In our house, there is focus on faith, family and traditions. Build holiday activites around what is really important to you.
  • Build in kid-fun – It’s around this time every year, we spend a few hours on a Saturday morning making Gingerbread houses decorated with all the leftover Halloween candy. Build pillow forts, and stock up on hot cocoa.
  • Remember downtime in the schedule – Most children benefit from having at least some downtime (relaxed playtime) everyday. As much as there are errands to run and places to be, build in time to chill and recharge.
  • Take time to be thankful – Have conversations often about what we are thankful for, what makes us happy, how we like to share our downtime and what we love about one another. Especially when things are stressful, it’s good to focus on and share the positives; it’s good to be specific.

Traveling Away from Children

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am traveling alone at the early part of December and again in January. The first trip is to visit my sister who is ill and following treatment. The second trip is work related. I will be gone a week for each trip and have only been away from the girls once before. They are now three-and-a-half and almost five years old. The first trip out of town for work was two years ago, and it was difficult all around. How and when should I tell my girls?  Should I tell them together? How much do I tell them? What are things I could do to make this time go faster or easier for them? I too am having a hard time getting ready and making these trips. I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the separation and find it a difficult task. Then, I think about all the other moms of the world who travel regularly and wonder in amazement, how do they do that? Any insight and suggestions would be appreciated!

Sincerely,

Cristina, mother of two

Dear Cristina,

I know this can be difficult. The idea is to prepare them without overpreparing them. It is plenty to tell them just a few days before. Have a simple few sentences ready about where and why you are going, when you are leaving, how long you’ll be gone and most importantly who will be taking care of them. Be ready for the upsets and questions. If they are upset, give lots of empathy and talk them through. Answer all of their questions honest but small. Try to shift the follow-up conversation a bit to where they will be and who will be caring for them during the time. If there is anything fun planned for them during the time, highlight that as well. I tend to tell my children things together as they help each other. If your’s are particularly dramatic or tend to work each other up, it is fine to speak with each separately.

You might help them by teaching them to use a simple calendar to count down the days you will be gone. You can practice this next week with the Thanksgiving holiday. If you are all traveling or having houseguests for a few days or even just all home from work for a few days, draw a square for each day. Draw a picture in each square to represent something from the day and have them cross off each day when they go to sleep at night. For example, Grandma is visiting Wednesday through Saturday. The calendar would be four squares with a picture of grandma arriving in the first square, turkey in the second, a museum trip in the third and grandma leaving in the last. Each night during the visit, have them cross off a square. Make one of these for each of your trips.

You might also make them each a small photo album with a few pictures of you with each of them and a few of them with other relatives. It is a nice thing for children to have pictures readily available when a parent is away. You might also introduce the family to email and Skype. It would likely help if you can send notes or pictures each day and spend a bit of time on the phone or skyping with them while you are gone. If you were going to be gone longer than a week, you might also send postcards or small gifts in the mail. A little more effort, you could record them a few of their favorite or even some new books on tape.

As much as you feel overwhelmed and anxious, try to put on your brave and confident face when you are talking with them about this. If they are upset themselves and see your tears and lip quivering, it may add to the sense of panic. In general, I am all about sharing emotions openly with children, and I think you can let them know you are sad, but you want to be sure you are able to send comforting messages and the sense that this is a solid plan rather than adding your own sense of doubt.

In genreal it is good for children to have normalcy during times of change, so it’s good to keep them on a relatively similar schedule as to when you are home. Plan for them to attend school regularly. That said, around their normal activity, I would try to build in one special thing for them to do late in the week. Maybe their caregiver could take them to a movie or out for a dessert on Friday. You might also encourage the caregiver to help the girls plan a welcome home for you such as a special dinner or outing. This gives them things to look forward to and distracts them a bit.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely,  Dr. Rene