Risky Play

Have you ever found yourself enjoying a nice cup of tea and watching the morning news in peace when suddenly a pint-sized person jumps from the arm of the couch into your unsuspecting face?

Children love risky play, especially my children. They are constantly looking for ways to increase the thrill of the game, even if it means sacrificing safety. The purpose (other than to give me a heart attack) is to increase the fun and explore the rules of their environment.

 

A Learning Technique

Risky play is a learning technique – what I mean by this is that when children are engaging in risky play, they are conducting a science experiment (without knowing it). They are using reasoning and chance, as scary as it is, to determine what they are comfortable with, and what their bodies and environment will allow.

 

Benefits of Risk

Risk management skills, along with self-confidence, resilience, and reducing the chance of injury, are all learnings a child gains from engaging in risky play.

I know what you are about to ask; how can risky play reduce the chance of injury? The science tells us that those children who engage is risky play have a much greater understanding of what is likely to cause injury. A child that has continually experimented with tree climbing knows the best routes to take, which trees are safe to climb, and how to go back the way they came.

If you had never climbed a tree as a small child and then are asked to climb one as an adult, your body, being longer and stronger, would allow you to climb to the top without difficulty. But now you’re in a pickle because you’re at the top of a tree and don’t know how to get down. A child can only climb as high as his or her body and environment allows, not to the top. They take small steps as they mature, pushing themselves just as much as is allowable.

 

A Young Life Without Risk

Risky play certainly seems dangerous and it can result in injury, so why hasn’t natural selection weeded it out?

Experiments have been done on rats to deprive them of risky play and the outcome was less than appealing. The researchers did not deprive them of other types of socializing, just risky play, and they found that the rats grew up emotionally crippled. When faced with the unknown, instead of showing curiosity and adaptability like their risky play counterparts, the emotionally crippled rats would seize up in fear or lash out with aggression (click here). Not a rat-ical way to grow up.

On the flipside, the science has shown that risky play has quite the evolutionary advantage. I’m sure everyone can recall their puppy or kitten play wrestling with them or another animal. Perhaps to wolf cubs, this is practice for later squabbles over meals. Monkeys will leap for branches that are just within reach, pushing themselves further and further each time. This experience will certainly come in handy when leaping away from challengers. Certainly one of the most perilous types of risky play can be seen in mountain goats (kids) that frolic on incredibly steep, rocky slopes. Undoubtedly this will make them hard prey to catch. All animals engage in risky play and it benefits them tremendously.

Freedom + Fear = Thrill (Danger)

So now that we are all aware that risky play is a benefitting activity to engage in, should we just let our youngsters have at it – absolutely not. There are still real dangers in hazardous play (which often accompanies risky play), so parents have to be vigilant in identifying and removing the hazards.

Risk – The possibility of something happening

Hazard – A potential source of danger

Hazards are often beyond a child’s ability to recognize. Risks are uncertainties that a child often recognizes and challenges (click here).

Back to our lovely tree example, the child sees a challenge and is uncertain about what will happen if they climb to a certain branch. What the child does not recognize is that the branch they’ve chosen to climb to has rotted out – a hazard the parent needs to control. Removing the hazard can be done by removing the branch, or, even better, teaching the child how to recognize rotted branches. By controlling the hazards, the child is still able to engage in risky play without an increase in the chance of injury.

Risk now equals hazards divided by parental safeguards.

 

Risky Play in Your Community

I love the tree examples I’ve shared with you but when I look around the current area where I’ve chosen to raise my family, not many trees pop out to say “climb me.”

Living in a city rather than countryside can seem a little challenging when it comes to engaging in risky play, but it’s important to note that risky play hotspots can be found anywhere! Your local park, your backyard, your living room – anywhere! When it was too cold and slippery outside for hazardless risky play, my family and I set up an obstacle course throughout the house. My preschooler would run and jump from chair to chair and my toddler would bound into piles of pillows. When we play in the backyard, my kids love to use the short beam surrounding my yard to perfect their gymnastic skills. The chance of a small drop to the grassy lawn below certainly livens up the game! And local parks encourage plenty of risky play activities with its monkey bars, twisty slides, and swings. All you have to do to be a vigilant parent in these scenarios is to remove debris, check for the correct signage for safety standards, and be a helping hand when your child needs it!

To find out more on how Canada is improving your child’s access to independent and unstructured outdoor play, click here.

 

Last Note on Inspiring Yourself

“Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

 

Please feel free to leave a comment or story about the risks you and your child take together!

Language Development

A Stolen Opportunity

This week, I was a swashbuckling pirate with a peg leg, brandishing a foam sword while my scallywag preschooler danced around me with his own foam weapon in a fit of pretend fury. I deflected him numerous times before I gallantly admitted defeat, laid down my sword, and started changing my other child’s diaper.

My preschooler, with no mercy in his eye, charged at me shouting, “OPPORTUNITY!!!”

He is 3.5 years old.

After laughing hysterically and trying to hold him at bay with one hand, I wondered, how did his amazing vocabulary evolve so quickly?

Grizzly Bear

At 11 months, my Grizzly Bear (preschooler now) uttered his first words. He was a late bloomer (in comparison to some babies) and said bye-bye to his grandpa as I carried him up to bed one night.  He didn’t talk for months afterwards and said very few words when coaxed all the way until he was 2.5 years old. By 2.5 years, he could string together a few words but still seemed to lag behind his peers. As any parent would, I tracked as he met other milestones using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire provided by KARA (see Blog 14), and discussed speech milestones with his doctor. I was reassured that even though his speech milestones weren’t on par with others, he was within the normal range.

Polar Bear

At 10 months, my Polar Bear (toddler now) motioned up at me as he said “mama.” Of course, I was over the moon with joy at his choice in first-time speech, but his vocabulary didn’t evolve much from that beautiful moment. At 18 months of age, Polar Bear is still stuck on a handful of words, which he uses sparingly and with tremendous hesitation. I know he can talk, but he is quite stubborn and will whisper words to me and motion towards something rather than try. Of course, I am not concerned as the age range in which children learn to speak is particularly variable.

See below.

Vocabulary Milestones

Age 1

By their first birthday, experts agree that a child should be able to say a handful of words, respond when you talk, and follow very simple directions (when in a good mood, I would imagine). My doctor indicated that if my kids could say one word by their first birthday, that counted and was within the normal range. I also understand that doctors are more interested in if a child responds to sounds and their parents’ voices rather than saying or repeating words. This form of communication (eye contact and body language) is a better indicator of being on track (click here for more info).

Age 2

By their second birthday, a child should use 50 words regularly; I recall trying to count all of my Grizzly Bear’s words at this stage and totalling in at 12 words. They should also be able to string together words; another area we weren’t excelling in. Lastly, they should be able to identify frequently used objects. Here was where both of my boys lived and thrived. They were quite capable of telling me exactly what they wanted – a book, a banana, a diaper change; they seemed to be communication experts when it got them what they needed. They also seemed to know what I was telling them – pick up the toy, put on the boot, lay down, etc. Conversationalists, they were not, but determined and clever, oh yes (click here).

Age 3

By their third birthday, a child should be able to speak clearly, speak in sentences, choose the correct words, and follow two-part requests. Check, check, check, check, and then some! Patience, practice, and motivation led my Grizzly Bear to becoming a conversational wizard! He derives new stories on his own, builds his vocabulary repertoire by himself, tries out new phrases, and even makes up his own jokes!

Mom “Did you have a good day?”

Grizzly “I had a beautiful day!”

Mom “Do you need help opening the play-doh?”

Grizzly “Yes, this is so embarrassing.”

Mom “Can you help me with this?”

Grizzly “I can’t today, I’m a kitty.”

Mom “I don’t think Polar Bear wants to clean up your toys.”

Grizzly “Yes he does, he is my minion.”

Mom “Are you excited to go see Mrs. Joyce?”

Grizzly “Can you turn on some music?”

Perhaps my son has moved on to being a teenager… I pondered as I turned up the radio.

So what helped? Completing Ages and Stages Questionnaires certainly did because afterwards, I was able to talk to staff experts about activities I could do at home to help my children practice.

Practice (and Patience!) Makes Perfect

Self Talk, Parallel Talk, and Expansions

I was given plenty of advice and tips after my Ages and Stages Questionnaires. One comment I even took away when my son was just an infant: apparently even a baby is interested in what I am doing or reading. A newborn baby can hear that I am making noise and can interact with me (through eye contact and listening), so why not tell them what I am doing or read what I am reading out loud? My sons didn’t have any inkling that I was spouting off what I was reading in the newspaper, but they were certainly happy to hear Mom’s voice!

Next came self talk, where I would use short sentences to talk about what I was doing. My boys could pick up words, particularly nouns and verbs this way. Many children also learn action words like “bye-bye,” “want,” and “come,” which accompany actions like waving, pointing, or motioning.

Parallel talk is very similar to self talk but instead of going on about which boring dish I’m washing, I would be talking about what my child is doing. This seemed to really spark their interest when we were doing something together and I would talk about it. It seemed to encourage positives towards talking and the activity. Mom is putting away the puzzle… Yes, follow my lead…

Experts suggest that while actively doing self talk and parallel talk with your children, it’s best to use short, simple sentences that are only slightly longer and more difficult than the sentences they are using themselves. This leads into expansions.

Expansions – in this stage, after they use the word frequently, add a word to it so that it becomes a short sentence. Only expand on words and sentences that your child knows well and uses.

Polar “Thirsty”

Mom “Thirsty for Juice?”

Polar “Ball”

Mom “You want ball?”

It’s always a treat to hear your child learn something from you so try these and other methods to help your kids develop new language skills (click here).

More Resources

I also highly recommend taking an Ages and Stages Questionnaire or one or more of KARA’s literacy programs: Literacy and Parenting Skills, Aboriginal Literacy and Parenting Skills, Books for Babies, and Rhymes that Bind. The questionnaires and programs that KARA offers are wonderful ways to learn beneficial methods of promoting language development within a family. Give them a try!

Ages and Stages

The Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) is a tool used to look at children’s developmental skills and track important milestones. The tool is essentially a short test that describes actions and scenarios. Parents walk through the activities with their child and answer the questions based on how their child performs. It’s a great way to watch your child reach milestones and teach them new skills. The developmental areas included in the questionnaire are fine motor skills, gross motor skills, problem solving skills, communication skills, and personal-social skills. The questionnaire takes roughly 20 minutes to complete and is available from 2 to 60 months (from birth to kindergarten)!

I have been completing these developmental check-ups with my children at KARA since they were two months old. I love doing the ASQs with them, mostly because it’s a free, entertaining activity that boosts their self-esteem, but also because it’s important for me to know where practice is required. And I’m not the only one; my doctor completes a short one with them during their biannual check-ups. It’s incredibly important to catch developmental delays early, so both parents and healthcare professionals get involved! My boys are only three and one, but it’s not too early to think about elementary school. I want them to do well and keep up with their classmates. One way to accomplish that is to practice and to know what each ASQ area encompasses in order to complete activities that benefit my children.

Fine Motor Skills: This skill incorporates the use of small muscles, particularly in the hands and fingers, to accomplish tasks that require patience and concentration. Examples include a newborn grasping objects, a one year old holding a toy and changing it from one hand to the other, and a five year old using a crayon to draw a picture.

At Home: My three year old, Grizzly Bear, is currently working on learning how to hold a marker properly. He use to bunch his fingers like a fist around any stationary but after a few weeks of practice, he is now able to trace the numbers 1 through 10 while holding his marker between his index finger and thumb (Scholastic Write and Wipe Math Book – an absolutely fantastic book and
a great idea for Christmas)!

Gross Motor Skills: This skill encompasses the use of large muscles to complete tasks (and get into trouble)! Examples of these skills include a six month old learning to sit with support, a one year old pulling himself up to stand, and a three year old learning to hop or skip.

At Home: My younger son, Polar Bear, is learning (without much encouragement from me) to throw balls and climb into/onto furniture. My last blog on childproofing is being used to great effect here but I still wish there was a way to prevent myself from getting hit in the face unexpectedly with Mega Bloks Lego.

Problem Solving Skills: This skill encompasses a child’s ability to solve problems. Problem solving to a baby can be elusive to parents. Children have no problems, right? I quickly learned that a two month old that uses his hands and eyes to explore his new world is as much of an example of problem solving as a simple math equation is to a five year old!

At Home: Both of my boys were born problem solvers, from learning how to open cupboards from the bottom to help themselves to snacks, to uncovering the heat registers to shove the snacks into spaces where even Daddy can’t get to them. Only little encouragement is required at home to develop problem solving skills but one item that does help is a shape sorter! These toys are marvellous but do require encouragement as they aren’t easy to master at first and children can get discouraged. I found it’s best to use one that is also colour coded for easier mastery.

Communication: This skill includes the ability to use and understand language, another extremely important skill to have and not to be delayed. Examples of this skill include a 6 month old turning towards you when you call his name and a three year old telling you he has to use the potty.

At Home: Books, books, books. We read a variety of books everyday. My Grizzly Bear had a natural interest in books and took to them easily. When our second was born, we would include him in book time but we kept reading Grizzly Bear’s favourites. It’s no wonder that it took our Polar Bear a little while to warm up to them and through a little pause and think parenting, we realized we needed to separate book time between the two boys when Polar Bear became mobile. When we understood that our boys were going through different communication stages, we had to adapt our parenting strategies to match, even if it took a little longer to complete the bedtime routine. Polar Bear is now very content to sit and read flip-the-flap books while Grizzly Bear works on his Write-and-Wipe books. A win-win!
Personal-social Skills: This skill incorporates the ability to interact with others and self-control.

Examples of this developmental skill includes a two week old making eye-contact with Mom, a ten month old waving his chubby hand bye-bye, and a four year old taking turns in games. At Home: The most successful type of activity we do at home to build this skill in both kids is pretend play, and they love it! My Grizzly Bear is at the prime age for pretending to be a superhero, pouring Mommy an invisible cup of tea, finding superb spots for hide and seek, and building race cars out of thin air. His younger brother also gets so involved with the play that I’ve sat and waited for a make-believe smoothie for 25 minutes before all the right ingredients were blended and I got to make fake yummy noises. The key to helping children develop this skill is interaction and encouragement. A big cardboard box also works wonders too!

The ASQ is a wonderful tool and makes parent-led check-ups fun! Both of my boys passed most ASQ developmental areas each time, and the times they didn’t, we worked a little harder to bring them up to speed, having fun along the way. If you’d like to complete an ASQ with your child or simply want more information on the tool, KARA is readily available for questions and to help you complete the questionnaire. The wonderful staff have thousands of ideas on activities you and your child can do together to improve development, believe me! They incorporate their ideas into their programs everyday to help ready your children for their first days of school too!

Reading for beginners

Ah, the wonderful sound of silence that creeps throughout the house when a book falls open at a favourite page. That’s the moment in the evening that most parents wait all day for. The moment when you know it’s nearing your child’s bedtime and the busy little bodies stop being busy for a split second to see The Very Hungry Caterpillar turn into a beautiful butterfly.

My two Little Bears are busy all day long and continue to run, jump, yell, and destroy possessions even during our mandated book time. But we push forward with book time and do whatever is necessary to get them involved in reading because of how important it is for brain development.

Three years ago, a study on the importance of reading was conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Medical Hospital, where 19 preschoolers between 3-5 years (37% from low income families) underwent MRI scans while listening to their parents read a story to them through headphones, with no visual stimuli. The study showed that greater home reading exposure (reading for short periods often) was associated with the ability to “see the story beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination.” They could actually see the part of the brain responsible for imagination increase in function while the children listened to a story. They concluded that early reading allows children to easily transition from books with pictures to books without pictures due to the neuron pathways built in this portion of the brain.

Another study, a 50 yearlong study conducted at Edinburgh University starting in 1958, followed 17,000 seven year olds in England, Scotland, and Wales. The study proved the connection between reading well and future job success. Because of the massive sample size (so many seven year olds), they determined that engaged readers from households with fewer material advantages (lower income families) routinely outperformed less engaged readers from families with many material advantages. It doesn’t matter how many books you have, just read them!

Additionally, Leonard Sax, a well-known psychiatrist and physician, states gender also plays a gigantic role on the outcomes of a child’s life, and boys tend to fair less than their gender counterparts. From Grade 3 through to Grade 12, there is a literacy gap between boys and girls. Boys tend to drop out of school more often, attend post-secondary school less often, get poorer scores than girls, and have greater behavioural and addiction problems. Leonard Sax attributes these differences to video games, particularly violent video games, and has numerous studies to back up his theory.

Having two boys myself, I wanted to know the antidote to Doom and Grand Theft Auto, and it turns out it’s reading! Reading fiction especially, as the astounding benefits come from empathizing with the characters’ hopes, dreams, joys, and downfalls. Through empathy, reading increases social functioning because literature doesn’t just help children learn emotions, but experience emotions, a form of practice for later life. With greater social functioning, comes greater control and desire to achieve.

The Edmonton Public Library has tips on how and when to read to youngsters:
• Read at least once a day when your child/children are in a cuddly mood
• Read for any length of time but short, positive reading sessions are much more valuable than long ones
• Repetition deepens understanding so read favourite books over and over (and over)
• Engage children by reading to exaggerated voices, acting out stories, and switching voices for different characters
• Read books that incorporate interaction – kissy/cuddly books are my favourite, dancing books are Grizzly Bear’s favourite (my 3 year old), and flip-the-flap books are my Polar Bear’s favourite (my 1 year old)

For more resources, understanding, ideas or tips on reading to young ones, please visit KARA and register in our Literacy and Parenting Skills or Books for Babies programs. Your public library will also have information and programs regarding the importance of reading to infants and preschoolers.

To check out the studies listed above, follow the links below (but try to mix in some fiction reading too)!
https://www.google.ca/amp/s/neurosciencenews.com/mri-early-reading-brain-activity-1996/amp/
https://m.huffingtonpost.ca/jerry-diakiw/reading-and-life-success_b_16404148.html

My KARA Heros

Hello again, great to see you back! This week let’s dive into the KARA Summer Program; a fun-filled adventure around every corner, from great dinosaurs to the wild safari, every week has something different to offer!

If you weren’t aware, KARA has three locations; KARA, KARA-Too, and Dunluce Tenant Centre. Each of the addresses can be found on the KARA homepage or on the summer program calendar. Choose the location nearest you or attend all three!

The summer program calendar details the weekly themes for the free drop-in programs, held Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, at varying times to accommodate those difficult nap schedules. Interspersed throughout the summer, we will be hosting field trips that are sure to inspire and wow your little ones, including nature centres, spray parks, and a dinosaur theme park!

When packing for these adventures, please remember necessities such as sunscreen, water bottles, hats, and comfortable shoes. Odd bits and pieces that may apply to your family may also include swim diapers, baby food, and extra changes of clothes. A light lunch will be served but if your children are anything like mine, it’s best to pack a mini fridge into your diaper bag.

Last summer, when KARA hosted a field trip to the Ukrainian Village, I attended as a Mom and hauled along my toddler (featured picture) and newborn baby. At first I felt like Mom of the Year. Look at me, strong and independent, on an outing with two young children and I can handle anything! As the day wore on, my children began to tire – and so did I! I’d try to keep my toddler’s spirits up with food, toys, and a happy singsong voice that made birds abandon their nests. All for not though, as I soon found out what being a Mom of a toddler will teach you if nothing else, very little can deter an impending temper tantrum.

At the time there was no mistaking the signs; the wobbly walk, the whimpering whines, the tearful eyes, and there it was. My son collapsed on the ground, his childlike, yet mighty voice thundering his displeasure. As I stood there at a loss, shocked with the task of consoling a two year old heap of emotions rolling on the grass in front of me while simultaneously holding an infant in my arms, in swooped my heroes. The KARA team took and cared for my newborn while I consoled my tired child, all the while putting the pieces of my dignity back together. It wasn’t so bad after all.

So if your child’s tantrums or behaviour in public places are the kind of moments you are dreading, deterring you from attending a field trip or program, fear not. We’ve all been there (and the ones that haven’t should give credit to where credit is due). Parenting isn’t easy. Mom of the Year goes to those that get out and about and if you attend KARA this summer, put your mind at ease. The KARA team has been there hundreds of times over and will be there for you too. Dignity and all.