Monday, April 23, 2012

A Thought on Sensory Play

Sensory play is something that’s been on my mind lately. Probably due to the long Indiana winters and most recently this chilly spring. I know I should complain about 50 degrees, but really, people… BRRR! I’ll be honest and say that you probably won’t catch me outside recreationally until it hits at LEAST 65… and then it’s a gamble. ;) Annabel is good about bundling up and going out by herself, but Ash just isn’t there yet.
So, while we’re stuck inside (“stuck” being used loosely, of course!), I am always trying to come up with things to stimulate and entertain the kids. TV is such an easy fallback, but I try to stay away from that option as much as possible.
So why is sensory play important? Because kids- especially preschoolers- learn primary through their senses. Anyone with a toddler or preschooler knows that you can tell them something a  million times, and it may or may not stick. They just aren’t developmentally at the point of being able to learn (effectively) by being told something. That’s why modeling good behavior is so important- but that’s a different post. ;) However, if you take the time to teach through the senses- allowing them to touch, smell, see, etc… -and involving as many of the senses as possible- they are much more likely to remember the lesson! This is one of the reasons I love the Montessori method of teaching so much- it is very hands-on and sensory-focused. Think flashcards with the numbers and letters in sandpaper so the kids can feel the letter- rather than just seeing it (just one example). Sensory play is very calming and therapeutic for kids as well- many physical, occupational and mental health therapists use sensory play when working with autistic, learning disabled kids, or other special needs kids, or kids who have been through a trauma. But neurotypical children enjoy sensory play just as much, I guarantee!
Side note- we also try to involve the senses in our discipline of the children as much as possible. For example, if I tell Asher he needs to touch the kitty gently, I take his hand and show him what a gentle touch actually is. Several times. When I tell him he may not touch something, I reinforce this by physically taking his hand and walking him away from the object. But again, another post!
This brings me back to my original post- indoor sensory play. Recently I made a “bean box” for the kids. I took a small clear tub and filled it with black beans and Great Northern beans (so black and white). Then I put in other fun sensory objects- purple feathers, a spiky ball that flashes, a sand timer, little animals, pipe cleaners, shells, etc. And of course things to scoop and pour- measuring cups, funnels and bowls. The only rule about the box is- ‘beans stay in the box or the box goes bye-bye.’ Even Asher understands the rule and is awesome at picking up what he spills. And I don’t mind spills- I mind dumping and throwing! Its fun to see how they play differently with the box. While Asher generally just digs and pours, and loves to find the little treasures, Annabel is more likely to put all the beans in one long line across the floor (which I allow b/c she picks them up!) or sorts them by black or white. Our bean box is kept up high and only comes out at certain occasions- like when I’m trying to make supper or I have one kid by themself. (another tip- they play much better in the bean box when they’re alone- otherwise it generally ends in a bean fight **sigh**).
Another thing I’ve made recently – and this is an outdoor activity for us!- is a water table. I used a long flat tub and our wagon- VERY simple and mobile! The water table has sponges, nesting cups, mini water guns, floating dolphins that make different tunes when you bop them on the head, and water flutes. Oh- and of course a funnel! We fill it from the hose, but sometimes I boil water in the kettle and pour it slowly in so they can feel the water go from cold to warm. And sometimes I make ice cubes out of colored water for them to play with in it. Kids love water play so much, and this is a great way to keep it contained and use limited water (as opposed to filling up the kiddy pool).
This week I gave them each a pie tin filled with a shallow layer of baking soda. I gave each of them a dropper and a small cup of vinegar. They were enthralled! Annabel kept telling people she “did a science experiment!” Along the same lines, I had a bunch of those little “bath bombs,” so we’ve been using them in the bath occasionally- Asher was freaked out at first, but they eventually both loved holding the fizzing bar and feeling it tickle their fingers!
The bath is a GREAT place for sensory play. Some of our long winter afternoons were spent in the bathtub- with no water! The tub is a great place for finger painting and shaving cream painting- it rinses right away! Both kids love to paint their entire naked bodies like little tribal warriors. J
Other ideas for indoor sensory play- homemade “gak”- which is made from a mixture of Elmer’s glue and borax (or corn starch) and food coloring if you want. I haven’t done this yet, b/c it will definitely be an outdoor project at our house! Also, edible playdough (google recipes), finger painting with pudding, cotton balls soaked with essential oils and put in cheapo salt shakers (they can find the matches!), anything with glow sticks (think in the bath with the lights out!), indoor hammocks, a large tub filled with Easter grass (most places have it on clearance right now!), and so many others. If you are wary of the mess some of these things cause, buy each of your kids a mini broom and dustpan combo, and write their names on them. If you make it a routine, they will enjoy the cleanup (almost) as much as the play itself. I only have one mini broom/dust pan, and I swear to you that they fight over it every time. IKEA has really cute, affordable ones.
Of course, being outside is the ultimate sensory play. We only have 1/10 of an acre, but even our backyard satisfies so many of the senses. I’m thinking… soft green grass to feel on bare feet. Spiky, fragrant pine needles. Trees to climb in and hang from. Loose dirt in the garden to dig through (and the occasional earth worm to dig up!) and flowers in the garden to feel and smell (and eat…). Vegetables in the garden to feel and smell (and eat…). The sand box with its endless possibilities. The spigot and dog’s water bowls to get wet in. The rough concrete to draw on and feel on your skin. The lovely, fragrant dog poop, lol!
There are so many ideas on Pinterest or if you google “sensory play.” Your children will love it and you will get 30-40 minutes to do the dishes in peace (or whatever floats your boat!). Leave in the comments what you have done sensory-wise with your kids and what they liked or disliked… I’m always looking for new ideas!

Pssst…. I will add some pictures to this post once I’m home tonight….

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Thought on Positive Intent

Since this was an idea I mentioned in my initial post, I thought I’d take a moment to elaborate on it a bit. The idea of assigning positive intent was one that I stumbled on about 3 years ago… and there has been little in my life that has caused such a paradigm shift- especially as it pertains to parenting- as this idea. It has changed the way I relate to my adult friends and acquaintances, it has changed my attitude about life in general, and it has most definitely changed the way I think about raising and discipling my children. Since this wasn’t (and still isn’t!) something that comes naturally to me, I have to assume that it doesn’t come naturally to many. 
Put simply, assigning positive intent means to assume a person’s intentions in a situation are positive rather than negative. It gives people the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are loving or kind, rather than malicious, hurtful or manipulative. For example, if I’m in group supervision at work, and my boss makes the comment in front of everyone, “Well I think we all know what Lynsey would do in that situation…” I can choose to take this several different ways. I can choose to believe he doesn’t respect my judgement and ability to handle situations, and that he is deliberately shaming me in front of my coworkers, or I can choose to believe that he finds my quirky way of handling situations to be creative and inspired, and that if he really had a problem with it he would tell me in private. 
I’m not talking about making excuses for toxic people. Nope. We all have them in our lives, and they are what they are. I’m talking about those people that have done nothing to force your judgment- including (but not limited to) your children. And even when someone’s intentions are negative, it keeps me (or you) on the positive side of things, which will always be a healthier choice. When I choose to assign positive intent, I am treating someone with the grace that I would hope to be treated with. I am taking the time to be conscious of my thoughts and how they affect me.  And I am acting in a way that I feel Jesus expects me to act.
I want to add the caveat that assigning positive intent does not mean that I intentionally deceive myself and live in a la-la-land of rainbows and unicorns. It means rather that I try to overcome my natural inclination to jump to a negative conclusion of motive based on my initial perception. It’s looking at all the possible explanations of a situation and choosing the best from my limited information. Sometimes I will be wrong and that’s okay. At least my conscious will be clear that I did the best with what I had to work with at the time. And I will not have judged someone unfairly or harshly if and when their motives are good. 
So how does this relate to children and parenting? Okay, bear with me. It means that every day I choose to believe that my children are behaving a certain way for a reason. I assume that Asher is crying because he is trying to communicate with me, rather than manipulate me or make things more difficult for me. I assume that Annabel is acting out-of-control because she is hungry and overstimulated, rather than out of defiance. (These are simple examples, and don’t cover the broad spectrum of reasons I believe children cry or act out of control). I research what is normal and expected for each age/stage that my children are in, and choose to assume that this stage will pass. 
Does this mean that I excuse bad behavior?- absolutely not! There is a high standard of behavior in our home, and I expect- and actively help- my children to meet these standards. But because my assumptions are positive rather than negative, my feelings toward them remain loving and positive rather than turmoiled and angry. I respond to them out of a desire to teach, rather than to punish. 
I also truly feel that assigning positive intent to our kids gives them the motivation to actually behave better in future interactions. I’ll tell you what I mean by that- if Annabel hits her brother, and I respond to the situation with the belief that she is a kind person, but is acting out of a desire to protect her belongings, while understanding that at this age she lacks the impulse control to stop herself 100% of the time, my response will encourage her to be kind in the future. Because if instead, I act from the belief that she is being selfish and hurtful, she will internalize those labels. Even if I don’t say them to her, my tone and attitude will convey that to her, and eventually she will start to believe those things about herself. People who believe they are kind, or good, or helpful, will act in those ways, as will people who believe they are bad, selfish, or hateful. If I believe good things about my children, and take the time to convey those beliefs to them, they will be more likely to internalize positive labels about themselves. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions. 
In practicality this might look like me saying, “Annabel, I understand that you are mad that your brother took your toy. You are afraid you might not get it back so you hit him. Hitting hurts, and you may not hit your brother. Instead of hitting, you can say, ‘this is my toy, you can play with this ball.’” In this interaction I have assigned positive intent (she’s not hitting because she wants to hurt her brother), I have empathized with the emotion I saw (she’s mad. I know what that feels like) and validated that it’s okay to feel angry. I have restated our boundary (it’s not appropriate to hit to get what you want), and used the situation to teach (telling her what to do instead). I am teaching them both a life skill -conflict resolution- that they will rely on for the rest of their lives. In her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey states, “When you attribute positive motives to your child’s behavior, you position yourself to teach, and your child to learn. You model the value of cooperation” (p. 152). (She has an entire chapter of this book devoted to using positive intent to turn resistance into cooperation. It is excellent.)
Finally, I assign positive intent because this is the example I see in the Bible, over and over. Scripture says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9), and “Do not judge, or you too will be judged… and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:1-2). And of course, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). I can’t think of an example in which jumping to a negative conclusion was a helpful in Scripture. 
 I’ll leave you with the words of my friend Allison, who puts it beautifully, "Satan is a thief, but he can not take what we don't give him. Assignation of Positive Intent with our families, friends and community is a skill worth spending the time in prayer to develop, because it makes our time together so much more worthwhile."