The Importance of Free & Unstructured Outdoor Play for KidsDo you remember having long extended periods of time outdoors where you invented elaborate play scenarios? Perhaps you played pirates or were part of a new made-up family. Maybe you planned adventures like building a fort or tried new skills like catching salamanders. Children benefit greatly from open-ended time where they are in their parents’ view but have some independence in solving problems and determining how the play proceeds.

Child Development through Structured & Unstructured Play

Structured play is the kind of play where there is typically an adult leader and a specific, planned way in which the play will go. For example, organized sports or dance classes are structured play. Playing a board game with specific rules and directions with an adult playing or looking on is also an example of structured play. Your child can benefit from finding the right structured play activities but it should be complemented with opportunities for unstructured play. These are the types of activities that are typically child-directed with no set goals or direction.

The Benefits of Unstructured Play for Kids

Why is unstructured outdoor play important? There are so many benefits. A few are below:

  • Children need more physical activity. Many sources agree that today’s children are too sedentary. In addition to 20 – 30 minutes of daily structured physical activity, children should get at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity daily, and more is even better
  • Unstructured outdoor play offers opportunities to develop executive function skills. Executive function skills have been compared to an air traffic control system in each of our bodies. These essential life skills help us remember information, filter out distractions, switch gears when needed, and sustain focus over time (Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 2015). Among the many benefits of imaginary play, one is helping children develop these executive function skills. Children develop rules for the imaginary scenarios they create, remember and try out complex ideas, apply the rules to the scenarios as they go along, and regulate each other’s behavior. Given the time, children can extend imaginary play for hours.
  • Children who play outdoors regularly are less likely to be nearsighted (Shephard, 2015). Sunshine and natural light help children have better distance vision.
  • Social skills are enhanced. There are many different skills children learn from unstructured activities. Children who have opportunities to work together with their peers towards a goal learn friendship skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, care and cooperation, all critical skills for school and life.

Younger Children and Unstructured Outdoor Play

Younger children need closer supervision than school-agers. You can help them get started by asking them what they could do with a basket of smooth stones or a net bag filled with balls of varying sizes. Then step back, keep them in view, but let the play unfold and resist the urge to intervene too much. (Note: children also benefit greatly by having you engage in play with them; but occasionally let them figure out the direction of the play with their peers without much adult intervention). Consider loose parts for a variety of open-ended play possibilities. Examples of loose parts include natural items like sticks and stones of varying sizes, sand, water, small logs, and leaves and/or man-made items like hula hoops, balls, jump ropes, stepping stones, trikes, wheelbarrows, buckets, tubes, large blocks, or sifters. The possibilities are endless with these kinds of materials.

Children want to play outside because it is fun. That is enough of a reason to offer it. Look for ways to build unstructured outdoor play into your child’s week with many potential benefits for your child.

Keeping Your Child Safe from the Summer HeatFrom infancy, humans seem to be on a quest for independence. Babies insist on holding a bottle or picking up food themselves. Toddlers emphatically announce, “Me do it.” The preschool years are a time of burgeoning independence as children gain the intellectual, verbal, and social-emotional skills to tackle more tasks independently.

But how do you balance your child’s desire for independence with his need for safety and limits? This issue is one that doesn’t go away as your child gets older, but continues to emerge. Think of sleepovers, extracurricular activities, teen dating, sports, and perhaps the scariest of all – handing over the car keys to your teen driver. The communication and relationship style you develop when your child is a preschooler will continue to inform your parenting for many years to come. Here are a few ideas to navigate the journey to independence with your child.

Tips to Help Preschool Children Develop Independence

  • Pick your battles. If you find yourself butting heads with your preschooler, ask yourself, “Will this matter a year from now?” In many cases, it’s okay – and even desirable – to let your preschooler make decisions. Parents always get the final say in matters of safety, health, and well-being, but your preschooler can help make many small decisions, such as which book to read at story time or which movie to watch at family movie night.
  • Offer choices. One of the simplest ways to foster independence and help develop critical thinking skills in toddlers and preschoolers is by offering choices you both can live with. For example, many children love to choose what they’ll wear each day, but still need a little guidance to make appropriate choices. Let your child pick her clothing, but set some boundaries, e.g., “It’s cold outside so you need to wear pants or leggings.”
  • Provide flexibility within structure. Predictability and consistency help children feel safe, but rigidity can cause them to bristle. Maintain a schedule and let your child know what to expect. At the same time, be willing to make changes when necessary. For example, perhaps you have a rule that you eat dinner as a family with no television or devices on. This is a perfectly reasonable rule, but there’s room for flexibility too. It’s okay to move dinner back 15 minutes to let your child finish watching a favorite television program. These small gestures build a spirit of good will and cooperation within your family.
  • Support growth. Early childhood theorist, Lev Vygotsky, favored an approach of “scaffolding” children’s growth to teach new skills. He suggested observing children to understand what skills they had already mastered, then working directly with them to learn a new, slightly more difficult skill. Perhaps your preschooler can put on his shirt and pants, but hasn’t learned to put on shoes and socks. Encourage your child to learn these skills and practice together for several days. Soon your child will develop the new skill independently.
  • Set up the environment for success. How your home is organized can make a big difference in your child’s independence. Organize your home so your child knows where everything goes. Shoes and coat go in the mudroom, for instance. Toys go in marked bins in the playroom or bedroom. In the kitchen, keep plastic dishware down low and teach your child how to get a simple snack or cup of water.

Think about the experience of parenting as slowly releasing responsibility over time, starting when your child is in preschool. Your child should learn from an early age that you are her best advocate and cheerleader. At the same time, it’s your job to keep her safe and healthy by setting reasonable limits. Mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation guide every interaction.

Financial Planning for Your Baby's College YearsOne day you’re bringing your new little bundle of joy home from the hospital, the next day they’re off to kindergarten and the day after that they are off to college. Ok, it’s not QUITE that fast but you get the idea – time flies when you’re having fun. Because it won’t be long until your baby is heading to college it’s important that you start saving for that time now. In fact, if you haven’t started planning, preparing and saving by the time your child enters kindergarten, you’re just about five years behind the eight ball.

Financial planning for your baby’s college years

Even if you haven’t started until after your child is of school age, it’s never too late to get moving. However, be sure that you are being realistic in your planning. The average cost of tuition at a public university is almost $43,000 and a private school can cost almost $110,000 – increasing more than 40% over the past ten years and will without a doubt continue to rise. Many schools offer prepaid tuition programs that freeze the current rates to allow you to pay off the tuition.

There are also state-operated college savings plans called Section 529 plans. These allow not only parents but also grandparents, relatives and even friends to put money aside to help offset your child’s tuition expenses.

Another option you may have is to invest in an educational savings account. While these accounts are typically small – only $2000 per year – it’s still a help with books and supplies even if it doesn’t do much to offset the high cost of tuition.

Before you can truly prepare for your child’s education costs, you should first have your own solid, financial plan and make sure your goals are prioritized so you know the exact steps you’ll need to take to reach them.

How to Find the Right Bike for Your ChildWith bicycling listed as the second most popular outdoor activity in the US, it only makes sense that sometime in the possibly not-so-distant future you will be looking for a new bike for your child.

When you first start looking, the massive wall of bikes at your bike shop or retailer can be overwhelming to say the least. There are a lot of options to choose from and it may be difficult to know which one is right for your child if you aren’t sure what to look for.

The most important thing and first decision to be made is about the size of the bike. Bikes for children are measured by the wheel’s diameter and can be from twelve to 24 inches. The size you’ll need depends on your child’s age and either his or her height or leg length. An easy example – a two-year-old will likely start on a 12-inch bike.

To make sure the bike has a proper fit with your child, have he or she sit on the bike with hands on the handlebars. A bike that is a good fit will allow your child to sit comfortably on the bike with both feet on the ground.

Safety is also very important and no bike purchase is complete without a helmet. By purchasing a helmet with your child’s first bike, you are setting them on a course of good, solid habits early on, not to mention, some states – like Maryland – require helmets for any bike riders under the age of 16. Helmets can come in all shapes and sizes so be sure to pick one that fits properly: it should be tight against the back of your child’s head while the front is parallel with the eyes.  The helmet should also sit two fingers’ width above your child’s eyebrows.

You may also want to consider bells or horns for your child’s bike as a further added safety precaution. It never hurts to have your child get in the habit of alerting people that a little one is scooting by.

Helping Your Children Stay OrganizedDaily routines can be a challenge, especially if you have younger children who have a way of losing or misplacing things on a regular basis. Here are some great tips on how to keep your children, especially young ones organized:

  1. Have a designated work space for homework, projects, etc. Pick a room or a part of a room that your child can keep all of his or her supplies for homework, arts and crafts, reading. Use bins to keep supplies neat and in one place. Be sure you have enough room, if possible, to keep their books and try using a basket to keep papers that your child may need for school, studying for tests, etc.
  2. When you buy school supplies at the beginning of the year, color code each subject – Math is blue, English is green, etc., and use the same color for each subject throughout the year. This will make it easy for you to child to quickly grab what they’re looking for without having to rifle through every folder or notebook.
  3. Create a cubby hole at or near your front door to keep your child’s backpack, hats, gloves, scarves, shoes – anything they need to grab quickly if the morning gets away from them. Teach your child to put whatever they need for the next day in the cubby each night before they go to bed.
  4. Use a calendar. For your older children you can provide them with a calendar or appointment book. With your younger children, create a weekly or monthly calendar and use bright colors and pictures to help remind them of important days.
  5. Lead by example. If you want your children to be organized, keep yourself organized. They are more likely to follow by example. Make to-do lists, turn the television off at the same time every day/evening, pay bills on a regular schedule – anything that requires a routine. Let your children see you follow an organized routine and they will do the same.

Answering The Difficult QuestionsSometimes difficult questions can take parents by surprise. It can be good to plan in advance on how and what to talk to your children about when they ask about death. It is critical not to avoid or try to brush off the questions as that will only cause more confusion and perhaps even fear if children pick up your discomfort on the subject.  Here are some tips on how to talk to your children when they ask the difficult questions:

Stay Child Centered

It is very important to discuss death and dying at the child’s level of understanding. Taking in abstract terms or using common phrases about death to kids will only cause confusion. You certainly can talk about spiritual or religious beliefs about the death and dying with your children but keep them at an age appropriate level.

Be careful not to use terms like “sleeping” or “passed on” or “lost” but rather be compassionate and honest. Children need a clear description that makes sense to them. Even younger children can understand that a body can stop working when a person is in an accident or is elderly. Often this type of honest, clear and simple explanation is enough for a youngster.

Talk About Real World Examples

It is important, especially with younger children, to stay to simple examples and not to try to include too many concepts at one time. It is important for children to understand that death is a normal part of life without stressing the mortality of the child or of you as the parent. It is also important to remember that younger children, especially those under the age of 10, may see death as reversible.

Kids may ask about a pet, family member or loved one’s death repeatedly. Be patient and provide a consistent answer that provides the information the child is seeking. Talking to a counselor or reading a book about death that is at an age appropriate level can help a parent start the conversation and allow children to ask the questions they may be worrying about.

The Importance of Reading to Young ChildrenYour child isn’t going to become a great reader over night, but it can happen one book at a time. But what is the best way for you to choose the right book for your child to read?

It may be second nature to feel like you should be picking your child’s books, but the fact remains that letting your child choose their own books is a skill that they should learn at young age. By allowing your child to choose their own books independent of your input, allows your child to learn the different reason we choose a book to read in the first place.

If your child has reached reading age, here are a few helpful tips to help him or her learn to choose books that will make them want to read more:

  • When your child is ready to start reading, begin instilling the fact that we read for a purpose – whether it’s too learn something or if the purpose is simply for enjoyment.
  • Have your child browse through the books either at the library or the bookstore. If this seems to be too overwhelming, then have them narrow down their choices by either a type of book (fiction or nonfiction) or by action, funny or other subject.
  • Say “yes” as often as you can when your child selects a book that he or she is interested in. Rather than saying “no” try saying that a choice is a “not so great” selection
  • If your child selects a book that is beyond his or her reading ability, solve the problem by reading the book out loud with your child. Let them read as much of the book as possible, you can jump in if there are difficult parts for your child to read.
  • If your child has really enjoyed a particular book, remind him or her of the author name when they are selecting books the next time.

Need more information? Contact Premier Academy Today!

Have a Picky Eater? We Can Help!One of the most common struggles parents have is dealing with picky eaters. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

  • Your toddler takes a few bites of food and announces he’s “done”
  • You can stock your fridge and shelves full but your little one will only eat the same 5 things over and over.
  • Your toddler asks for one thing, you make it, then she asks for something else then decides she wants something completely different altogether.
  • Coaxing your children to just take “one more bite” is a constant battle in your home

First things first – meal times are supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable so you want to avoid these battles every time you sit down at the table. Toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 typically have smaller appetites, so if they only eat a little at a time, that’s ok.

However, also realize that their appetites can change on a daily basis and even from meal to meal. If they like carrots, don’t be afraid to throw some in at breakfast. Do they prefer eggs? Who says you can’t have eggs for dinner?

Dinner time is typically going to be the meal that your toddler feels like eating the least. It’s the end of the day and they are tired and unless they have been doing a physical activity like swimming or playing outside or at daycare, chances are they aren’t going to be as hungry as they are at other times of the day.

If you are dealing with preschool or school age children who are picky eaters, you may be able to reason more with them and enforce the “one bite rule” – meaning they have to take at least one bite of every food on their plate and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it again.

Here are just a few ideas for dealing with picky eaters:

  • Don’t nag or coax your toddler. Pick and choose your battles – plain and simply put, your child WILL eat when he is hungry.
  • Have realistic portions: Many parents set unrealistic goals for their children when it comes to mealtime. A good rule of thumb to follow: If your child is under the age of 5-6, use a tablespoon per year of age. If they ask for more when they’ve finished that then you can always give more.
  • Keep trying to introduce new foods – even if they haven’t liked them before. Tastes change and you never know when you find something new they like.
  • Avoid too much milk, juice and soda in place of food. Many kids will fill up on sugary drinks and have no room for food.

Remember, pick your battles and don’t make meal time miserable for everyone!

Need more information? Contact Premier Academy today!

3 Tips to Creative ThinkingHave a real one-on-one conversation with any preschooler, and you’re in for a treat — kids are soaring with ideas. As a mom, an educator, and an entrepreneur, I wondered: When do kids lose their imagination? And what can we do to foster creative thinking skills at home?

1) Ask Your Child to Describe His Work

Your preschooler may sometimes make pictures that look like a one-year-old made them– a series of lines, circles, and a mess of color. But what may look like scribbles can be a whole lot more when you ask your child, “Tell me — what did you make here?” I’ve learned to never assume, and once my kids start telling me about their scribbly-looking masterpieces, I realize they are just that — creative expressions of their ideas. Plus, drawing and describing their pictures is a very early step to literacy. It is the same skill set they’ll use to formulate and write a story someday.

Be sure to motivate your children rather than simply praise them. For example, instead of just saying “good job” or “nice picture,” you will encourage your child a lot more by saying “I love how you shaded the sunset with the colored pencils so carefully,” or “I can really tell you worked hard on drawing the little boat.” Mentioning something specific will motivate your child to be even more creative next time.

2) Let Kids Design Their Own Bedrooms

Support your child to take ownership of his own space by creatively coming up with ideas for his own bedroom design.

Designing their own bedrooms teaches children to step outside the box from one way of thinking and toward feeling comfortable expressing themselves creatively. Today, you see so many kids’ bedrooms that look like they’ve come right out of a magazine. Let your kids take the plunge! Soon he’ll be drawing plans, measuring, and problem solving about whether or not his desk will fit under the window.

3) Answer Questions with Questions

When your child has a question, avoid simply giving him an answer. Instead, respond with a question of your own. This allows him to start thinking with a creative problem solving point of view.

For questions you both don’t know answers to, it’s important to model how to figure out. Continue to prompt your children with questions that will gently lead them to the answer. It makes them feel the success of figuring it out for themselves. That success will give your kids the confidence to ask more questions, find more answers, and become more creative!

Looking for more fun things to do with your children? Contact Premier Academy today!

How to Help Your Child be a Gracious Playdate GuestHosting a playdate at home is one thing but going to someone else’s house – where the rules, snacks, and potty are different – is a whole new experience. Here’s how to prepare your child to have a great time – and be invited back!

The Invite – Say “yes” when you know (and trust) the family, the children get along, and the scheduling works for you. Don’t feel pressured to answer immediately if you’re unsure. Say, “Can I let you know in a day or two?” If you decide to turn down the invitation, for whatever reason, a simple “Thanks, but we can’t do it this time” will suffice. If your child is a playdate newbie, take special steps to make it a good experience. Accompany her to her friend’s home and stay the first time, so that she’ll be comfortable trying a drop-off playdate next time.

The Prep – Exchange contact info, pick-up details, and special issues such as allergies with the other parent. Then go over plans and expectations with your child ahead of time so she’ll be ready. “First, you’ll go with Maddie and her mom after school. They have an extra booster for you in their car. You’ll go to their house and play. I will come and pick you up later, before dinner. Ask Maddie’s mom if you need help with anything while you’re there, and remember to take turns with Maddie. Her mom says you’ll be baking cupcakes for the bake sale. Sounds fun!” Remind your child to be gentle with any younger siblings in the home, and to use her good manners.

The Exit – At pick-up time, spend a few minutes chatting with the host’s family, then give your child a “2 minutes until clean-up” warning. When it’s time, insist that your child helps tidy up, and debrief with the host’s parents to get a run-down of the events, and your child’s behavior. Make sure your child says “thank you” and “good bye.” On the way home, ask your child what they did and whether they had fun, and discuss any behavior snafus. Focus on the good times, and brainstorm ideas for the next playdate.

Looking for more fun things to do with your children? Contact Premier Academy today!