Month: May 2020

  • Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

    Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

    Open-ended play

    “Go play!” Have you ever spoken these words to your child? Turns out you’re not being selfish – indeed, by urging your child toward open-ended play, you are looking out for his best interest. According to Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.” 

    Swiss scientist and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who died in 1980, educated the world as to the cognitive development of children. Piaget believed that children take an active role in the learning process, essentially performing experiments all day long.

    Like little scientists, they interact with the world, making observations as they go about their days.

    Children continually add to their knowledge of the world via these interactions, sometimes building upon existing knowledge or adapting previously held beliefs. Piaget held that, rather than being ‘little adults’, children have inherently different methods of thinking than adults.

    Furthermore, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in the thought processes of younger versus older children.

    Based on Piaget’s theory of child development, and knowing that children learn EVERYTHING from their environment, what, exactly, should parents put in that environment? What should children play with?

    Toys Matter

    There’s certainly no shortage of toys available to purchase. Go to WalMart or Target, and you’ll be inundated with loud, colorful playthings at every price point.

    How about a doll? Or a drum set? What will your child learn from that – how will a doll impact your child’s development?

    Let’s talk about the best choices in toys.  This article isn’t a resource for buying specific toys, but rather it’s an explanation of open-ended toys, their purpose and value.

    We’ve all been the parent cleaning up after our preschooler’s birthday party. Gathering wrapping paper and packaging, plastic silverware and half-eaten, frosting-heaped cupcakes.

    Surveying the room, now filled with new playthings, we see our wondrous, already-gifted child, playing……..inside a box. THAT – that box – is an open-ended toy.

    Open-Ended Toys are Ideal

    How on earth, you wonder, could a cardboard box, whether open-ended or not, have more inherent play value than a scientifically-researched, state-of-the-art, $50 toy? WHY is my kid more attracted to that BOX than he is to this top-ten-parent-recommended plaything?

    Great question. The answer is perhaps less complicated than that cardboard box. One word: options.

    Open-ended toys have limitless options, while that $50 electronic keyboard has exactly one function – to play music. Valuable? Of course! What fun it is to play music! A keyboard will produce hours of melodic (read:noisy) fun…until it doesn’t.

    Either it breaks, the batteries wear out, or the child gets just plain tired of it. Or someone (not you – of course, not you) hides it.

    But the box? You will have to wrestle that box out of your kid’s hands.

    As in, literally have to throw it out when your child is out of the house.

    You may even resort to taking that box to your mother-in-law’s on trash day so that your kid doesn’t ‘rescue’ the box and bring it back into the house.

    So we’ve established that this box has lots of value as a plaything. What, exactly, is your child learning, developmentally, while playing with a box? What does open-ended play mean, anyway?

    Fine Motor Skills

    Ripping off the remaining wrapping paper and tape is great exercise for small fingers and hands. Perhaps your child will decorate the box using crayons or markers – maybe even paint. All of these activities strengthen those muscles that enable a child to hold a pencil, tie shoes, grasp a crayon, move a bubble wand, and zip a zipper.

    Gross Motor Skills

    Crawling, jumping and running through and around the box improve your child’s gross motor skills, as does balancing and mastering an obstacle course. Every time he climbs into or out of that box, he is getting stronger and more proficient at moving his body!

    Social-Emotional Development

    Your child might have siblings, and they might play with that box together. What a great opportunity to build social-emotional skills like working together, sharing, compromising, negotiating, empathy, sympathy, etc. It’s a BIG job to manage your own feelings! Inevitably, conflicts will arise – how will your child get through these conflicts? Will he talk, cry, whine, hit, or something else? Each time he navigates a disagreement, he learns tools for the future!

    Language/Literacy Skills

    Deeply connected to social-emotional skills, language skills are necessary for all of us to get through the day. We communicate verbally as well as non-verbally. Has this box suddenly turned into a bus? Through pretend play, your child will use language to test out new words relating to buses! Drive, horn, honk, exit, money, seat, etc. – what fun he will have trying out this new vocabulary! Language and literacy also refers to the written word, which might involve making tickets for the bus, or writing the name of the bus on the side of the box. Maybe your child will need a name tag because he’s the bus driver!

    Cognitive Skills

    Your child will be solving problems and making decisions in his own head before you hear one word of it! Where does his bus go? What’s that one song people sing about a bus!? Oh, yeah! ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round…’

    Does your child focus on creating his bus? Is he busy for thirty minutes solid before coming up for air? Or maybe he’s distracted by so many ideas at once. Open-ended play can be changed immediately by your child – with no adult help!


    This is where a box beats out a keyboard every time. On Tuesday, your child is ‘driving a bus’ with that box. By Thursday, the box has turned into a castle, and your child is the king. Your dog is a knight. Imagination has no limits.

    THAT is the value of a box – or, really, any open-ended toy. No amount of technology can do for the developing child’s brain what a box, a pile of clay, or a tub of wooden blocks can do.

    Tell your gift-giving friends, and remember this on your next visit to the toy aisle. You don’t need expensive toys – nor do you need a lot of toys. For engaging, self-directed learning to happen in your home, you need toys to encourage open-ended play.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:
    Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?
    Type of Play for Development
    100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your Kids
    Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play
    Top Toys to Encourage Outdoor Play
    7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)
    The Power of Play
    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

    Read More

  • Top Outdoor Toys to Encourage Play

    Best Outdoor Toys for Kids

    The sun is finally shining where I live and I couldn’t be more pumped. 

    Yes, my kids go outside in all types of weather but it’s certainly easier to get them to stay outside without me for extended periods of time when the weather is more mild, the birds are singing and the hose is available for water play.

    Getting kids outside is so important for their physical, social and emotional health and making sure to have some awesome open ended and engaging toys specific for your outdoor playspace is crucial. 

    Here is a list of some of our top toys for outdoor play. Some are a little less traditional, but I promise you they allow for hours of fun.

    15 Must Have Outdoor Toys for Kids

    Our number one must have is a mud kitchen. What is a mud kitchen you ask? It’s an incredible outdoor kitchen space dedicated for children to play with dirt, rocks, sand, mud, water…

    It’s designed to to invite your children to play for hours–making mud pies or stone soup. You may need access to a hose to clean them afterwards, but the fun is well worth the mess. 

    We absolutely love this one by our friends over at The Monarch Studio. Not only is this a small mama run business, but her values closely align with ours and that makes supporting her even easier.

    She also makes a sensory table which is perfect for outdoor sensory play. The bins are interchangeable so you can easily switch from sand, to water, to rice, to whatever else you can dream up to throw into a sensory bin. She even sells rainbow colored rice!

    To add to your mud kitchen I recommend these awesome pieces of rock Play Food they encourage imaginative play, are super durable and are the perfect weight for little hands.

    Even if you don’t want to get a full on mud kitchen I suggest getting an Outdoor pots and pan set. They are a fun way to bring kitchen play to the outdoors.

    We always try to include our children in practical life skills and since we have a yard, that means yard work. We love this set of kids Gardening tools and have one for each kid.

    We recently got our kids this beautiful wooden Magnifying Glass and they love to use it outside to inspect bugs, grass, and flowers.

    A Kid sized wheelbarrow is a great addition for any kid who is interested in cars, trucks and things that go. It’s great for collecting sticks or helping move small rocks. We try to give the kids small jobs within the job we are doing in order to give them a sense of purpose and allow them to actually contribute to the task at hand.

    Another great outdoor toy for kids who are interested in trucks and digging is this awesome ride on digger. There is one with and without wheels depending on if you want this thing to be mobile, or not. 

    For some serious gross motor play add one of these scooters to your list, the Micro Kickboard with these little streamers is our favorite. It has an easy to adjust height, a break (but my kids still insist on just dragging their feet behind them to stop) and you can get accessories like bells and lights as add ons.

    Another gross motor toy to grab if you have any yard space at all is this Climbing dome. It does take some time to put together, but not because it’s difficult it’s just tedious. But so worth it.

    Kids can climb, jump, and hang upside down. If you have a large sheet you can let them throw that over the top to make a fort.

    If you want to actually give them some serious fort builder capabilities then get this Fort building kit there are so many amazing things kids can create with this thing–and added bonus is that building reinforces STEM concepts.

    Chalk is a staple of summer. I really love these Ooly ones because they are dustless and they are more similar to the look and feel of crayons. You can use them on such a variety of surfaces.

    I mentioned this in another article because I think it’s a must have for anyone who has a gutter and wants to keep their kids entertained for HOURS. This Rain barrel can easily collect water when it rains for kids to use for play.

    They love to turn the spigot on and off, and practice measuring and pouring. They use the water collected to make mud so we don’t have to waste water from the hose. It’s also a great way to reduce your water use if you water plants.

    I really love finding unique ways to encourage independence in my kids and these Walkie talkies allow me to do that. They love to take them out to talk to each other but it’s also a fun way for them to “call” for me (vs just screaming from the backyard).

    On a related note, if you’re in need of outdoor wheels to cart your kids to the beach, around town, over hilly grassy knolls or whatever other outdoor adventure youre taking on, consider getting a wagon instead of a stroller.

    The Veer and the Keenz are great options. We can fit all three kids and our puppy in our Keenz. We love it for the beach as a shady spot for the baby to nap, it even has a cooler.

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:

    Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.


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  • The Power of Play

    The Importance of Play

    We take for granted the power that play has on our children’s growth and development.

    Often times parents are so focused on early academics, scheduling play dates, setting up Pinterest worthy crafts, enrolling their kids in organized sports, and entertaining them with flashy “educational” toys.

    It makes sense that many parents get sucked into this as this is what our society has come to place above free and unstructured play. 

    Play is HOW Kids Learn

    Play is actually HOW kids learn.

    It is how they develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills that allow them to succeed in all things. In a recent clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) titled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children” the abstract states play is “a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain.”

    So this concept is no joke.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics is actually having to PRESCRIBE AND ADVOCATE for play. 

    This is what the AAP is recommending pediatricians do:

    1. Advocate for the protection of unstructured play because of it’s proven benefits in the development of motor skills that have lifelong benefits (such as preventing obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes)
    2. Advocate for educators to focus on play by allowing children to take the lead and follow their own curiosity
    3. Encourage educators to put a “premium” on building social-emotional and executive functioning skills
    4. Advocate for protecting recess time in schools

    Play Based Learning

    We have become so obsessed with “educating” our children; extending their school day, shortening their recess, increasing homework, signing them up for enrichment classes and organized sports, trying to provide them with endless stimulation and educational activities at home. Our society has forgotten that it is through play that children learn the process of learning.

    What is play?

    There are four basic types of play:

    Object play

    When children explore objects to learn about their different properties.

    Physical play

    Using and developing gross motor skills by doing activities such as running, jumping, wrestling, spinning and climbing.

    Outdoor play

    Play that happens outdoors and allows children to improve sensory integration skills

    Pretend play

    When children are experimenting with different social roles, including dress up, make believe and imaginary play.

    How much play do kids need?

    Okay so we know kids NEED to play. But how many hours a day should we be shooting for? An occupational therapist and author of one of my favorite books, Angela Handscom, says kids should be playing (ideally outside) for three hours a day.

    That may seem impossible, especially given all the other commitments we tend to take on during the week but it’s time to make play a priority for our kids.

    7 Tips for getting in those “play” hours

    Break up the time

    It doesn’t all have to be done at once. You can “schedule” play as you would any other activity. This may be needed if you are used to a very booked schedule of classes, mommy and me activities etc.

    Unschedule your time

    Instead of going to a scheduled activity invite a friend or two over. Don’t stress about finding people with kids the exact same age, in fact, mixed age play is great for kids development.

    Don’t hover

    Sit back and let your kids do the work. Enjoy a book, a conversation with a friend, do your nails….seriously anything but getting to involved in your kids play. You may feel guilty at first but they need time to engage in play without adults participating or directing.

    Get Outside

    Visit a local park, playground, hiking trail. You don’t have to have a specific activity planned–I guarantee your little one will be able to find things to do given the opportunity.

    Evaluate your play space.

    Is it conducive to independent play? Are your toys open ended?

    If you need help with this, book a virtual consult! 

    Get the right gear

    Read this to make sure you have the right gear to play outside in all kinds of weather.  

    Don’t let messes get to you (hard, I know!).

    One of the best pieces of advice I was given specifically about kids and messes was….”there is no mess that can’t be cleaned up.”

    And a note about messes, I generally enlist my children to help clean whatever mess they make so it’s a win win. They get to play and get messy without me freaking out, and I feel like they are being taught a valuable lesson in picking up after themselves and contributing to our household. 

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book:Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:Type of Play for Development100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your KidsToy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)

    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

    Read More

  • Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?

    Outdoor Play is Important

    Research shows that the average American kid only spend 4-7 minutes outside playing vs the 7 plus hours of time spent a day in front of a screen. This lack of time outside in unstructured play (no, organized sports don’t count…) is detrimental to our kids.

    To their health, their happiness, their creativity, their attention spans, their social, emotional and academic skills. 

    In an article titled “Getting back to the great outdoors” published by the American Psychological Association they quote research that explains that “One of the most influential longitudinal studies, led by Cornell University environmental psychologist Nancy M. Wells, PhD, found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32, No. 6).

    Similarly, in a study of 337 school-age children in rural upstate New York, Wells found that the presence of nearby nature bolsters a child’s resilience against stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress.

    Benefits of Outdoor Play

    • Physically healthier kids (better immunity, less obesity, more physical strength)
    • Mentally healthier kids (less anxiety, less depression, better moods and sleep)
    • Increase in attention span and creativity
    • Increase in sensory specific skills
    • Stronger ability to collaborate with others, adapt to new situations, problem solve, and negotiate–all life skills that your child will NEED to be successful in the world beyond school

    The need for risky play

    Children have an innate need for risk taking–and some research indicates that children who are encouraged to take risks at a younger age are able to better manage risk once they have gained more independence (so think about when your child is older and you want them to be able to manage risk when you aren’t there to swoop in to save them).

    It also shows that lack of ample opportunity to take risks may increase fear, inappropriate aggression, and the ability to cope with stress. 

    All of which translates into increased anxiety–this article also notes that “anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorder in children and adolescents and parental overprotection has been associated with increased rates.”

    What does risky play look like?

    Some ways you may see kids engaging in risky play are:

    • playing at heights
    • running at high speeds
    • using things in ways that aren’t intended (climbing the couch, going up the slide instead of down), rolling down hills, climbing rocks
    • walking on anything that requires balance
    • spinning in circles
    • jumping off anything and everything

    These are things we should be encouraging our kids to do.

    To read more about risky play check out the article “A Guide to Understanding Risky Play”

    A little dirt never hurt

    Pick up a copy of the book Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System by Jack Gilbert Ph.D. for a more detailed explanation of why I let my kids eat dirt (and gasp…I don’t always wash their hands after they have played in dirt even when they are about to eat).

    Basically, exposure to low level germs and microbes are actually good for your kids as they help the immune system build itself up (read this article for more immune system boosting tips).

    Professor Gilbert explains that “exposure to microbes prevalent in the great outdoors will establish a stronger, more robust immune system in young people.”

    So stop stressing about washing off every speck of dirt, let your kids eat food from the floor, and stop using hand sanitizer unless you’re in a pinch and near “real” germs like cold and flu viruses (even then warm soapy water is best!)

    There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

    This is not just a great book, but a philosophy lived by many families in Scandinavian countries and other areas of the world where outdoor play is held in higher regard.

    From personal experience, I find it’s much easier to send my kids outside when I know they have all the right gear.

    The right rain suit and boots can allow kids to stomp in puddles for hours.

    Rain Gear

    Some of my absolute must haves for outdoor play include the OAKI rain suit which my kids wear outside even in torrential downpour and still stay dry. We typically wear base layers in the fall and spring as the OAKI suit is a thin waterproof material.

    We have tried both the Crocs rainboots and the Bogs rainboots.

    We prefer the bogs because they have a nice liner which makes them easy to slip on and because they are taller and are more flexible rubber.

    Base Layers (Layering)

    Baselayer just means the FIRST layer of clothing that is touching your skin.

    We mostly use merino wool as a base layer because the material is breathable, helps regulate body temperature and is a natural fiber.

    We love wool by Nui Organics and Sloomb because we wear a lot of wool year round, but if you just need a base layer you can get the Merino Kids thermal set by Simply Merino or these pajamas by Woolino.

    I also know a lot of moms who use fleece for warmth, which is the synthetic version of wool–it isn’t as breathable as wool but it is a great option and is typically less expensive. These are some good fleece options: The Rocky fleece thermals for girls and boys.

    Snow Gear

    For snow, we are LOVING our Patagonia Snow Pile one piece.

    My son has a little bit of a complex about gloves and really needs to be able to use his hands effectively otherwise he gets very frustrated.

    So we have tried a bunch of gloves and really love using these wool Melton Baby gloves underneath these POLARN O. PYRET waterproof shell gloves.

    What’s nice is you can use both of these separately or together depending on the weather.

    If your little one prefers a mitten style glove then you can get these waterproof shells and these merino mittens both by Polarn O. Pyret.

    For serious snow play we have been using, and loving, these Stonez Mitts. They cinch at the wrist and elbow and are super warm and SO easy to put on.

    As for hats I strongly recommend a baclava this like one from SmartWool, or a hat that pulls down over the ears.

    Our favorite snow boots are Bogs. I would recommend either the Bogs “Slushie” Snow boots or the Bogs baby waterproof boot. They are super easy to walk in and really protect their feet from the cold.

    I challenge you all to purposely send your kid outside to get dirty or play in weather you normally wouldn’t.

    Set up a water table and with a couple buckets of dirt and a shovel.

    Let them dig a hole for you to plant something with their bare hands (and don’t freak out when you see them then stick their dirty fingers in their mouth or their nose).

    Bundle them up and send them outside in the snow (watch them from the shelter of your house if you need to).

    Put on those rain suits and boots to stomp in puddles and run around in the pouring rain.

    Just get those kids outside. Every. Single. Day.

    If you want to join a really cool challenge, check out the 1000 Hours Outside Challenge!

    If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
    If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:Type of Play for Development100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your KidsToy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)

    The Power of Play

    What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education

    Read More