Saturday, January 4, 2014

A little inspiration for your next play session

DIY Alphabet Painting

With a blank canvas and a little paint, you can make your child an alphabet poster for the wall, customize it to his or her interests, and save yourself fifty dollars. You can also choose colors that match well with whatever room you're going to put it in.

We found an inexpensive canvas at Michael's, where they are often on sale. You can also print their online coupons, which often feature deals like twenty-five percent off any item. Then I penciled in my alphabet, painted it blue and added a few items that my young son would recognize to go with the different letters. For him, "P" is for "Pumpkin", "L" is for "Leaf." Maybe at your house "P" is for "Pansy" and "L" is for "Lips." Whatever works best for your little one. 

I painted with basic, cheap acrylic paints, and it still looks lovely after six months, so I don't predict any upcoming peeling. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

DIY Play House

I built this play house (doll house, animal house, superhero house, whatever you want to call it) after a frustrating search for plans online. Ana White has several amazing plans for giant toy houses, but I wanted something more moderate that could fit on top of a coffee table. So I just took some scraps and bolted them together, going for that chalet feel. The most fun part has been adding pieces of furniture along the way, and responding to my son's interests. After making him a step to use when washing his hands, I made a miniature step for the dollhouse. When we started talking about potty training, I made a tiny toilet with a jig saw and spade bit and wood glue. When he was obsessed with climbing stairs, I added a staircase and a ladder.

He loves it! I like to set it up in different places around the house, with different components in and out. Some days his toy sheep are waiting to descend on the place with their toy suitcases. Other days its his gorillas or his little dolls. Some days the kitchen takes center stage with tiny puffball apples and lemons available for cooking, other times the living room beckons. It's easy to move everything around, and with the chalet style, he can reach in and out from any angle.

If you have built anything or painted anything, chances are you have enough scraps and paint to make this simple project.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Building Kids' Furniture

I think you can probably relate when I tell you I wanted my baby son to have everything. At home with him each day, there was always something I could picture adding to the house that would facilitate his play. I liked to imagine him sitting at a little table, playing in a sandbox, cooking up a storm in a play kitchen, eating a snack with little buddies at a picnic table, hammering his heart out on a tool bench. But everywhere I looked in the stores I found expensive plastic items or really really really expensive wooden items.

Enter Ana White. Browsing one night for DIY ideas, I found this site . Soon I had collected an electric screwdriver, a measuring tape, a selection of nails and screws, and a t-square. I found out Home Depot would cut my boards for me to the right size, and soon I embarked on my first big project, the sandbox with fold-out seats. It was so doable, and turned out so nicely, that I decided to build a work bench and set up a little shop in the garage. I had a new hobby to pursue when my son was napping. Next, I wanted to build a little table and chairs, so I picked up a pocket hole jig that was not too expensive and my very first circular saw. After watching a half dozen safety videos on how to use a circular saw, and inviting a friend over to help me learn how to make pocket holes, I figured out how to safely cut my first boards. Over the next months, I built my son the Clara Table, the stackable chairs, the preschool picnic table, the toy workbench, the storage step, and the play sink and stove.

I now look forward to happy hours in the shop, and have even gotten enough confidence to try crafting some plans of my own. I will be able to make a toddler bed when the time comes and maybe even a playhouse. Learning to build furniture was a great move for me, and if you're at all interested in trying it yourself, I would check out Ana White!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Toys vs. Life

If there's one thing I've learned about toys, it's that they're really for parents in the first eighteen months of life. And I have no problem with that.

N would rather march about with a canoe paddle over his shoulder than put shapes on his felt board. He prefers putting candles in their holders to putting multi-colored rings on a dowel. He's more likely to swoon over a beach full of rocks than his sandbox.

So does that mean I've stopped buying toys? Stopped arranging invitations to play on toy tables and furniture throughout the house? Stopped thinking of Melissa and Doug as best friends of mine?

Not so much.

Toys are there for me. When we're in the car. When I'm trying to get lunch ready. When I can't think of another way to rearrange the furniture for climbing and jumping and cruising.

But I'm also aware that they are a (pleasant) sideshow to the main event - real life, real world. So N and I get out in it as much as we can. We wade in the lake. We wander safe green spaces. We examine butterflies and see if sticks fit into sewer grates.

Will I continue to make green jello sensory tables and line little horses up on his table while he is asleep? Yes. And I'm hoping these things will become more and more fun.

There are all kinds of play, and for a toddler, the whole world is a playground. What toys offer is some on-location fun and the chance of a little break from the search for everything in the world, for, you guessed it, the parents, whose needs still really are relevant.

Many people have mentioned to me that kids have too many toys. That the best push for creativity is to have less, not more. None of these people were new parents of new toddlers. And I'm not necessarily disagreeing with them. But the bottom line is, toys help. And every now and then, the magic moment comes when your tiny one finds a thrill in the playtime you've created, and you can both rest in that magic for half an hour.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Isn't he too young for a museum?

Turns out, N is just the right age for museums. Children's museums, that is. And I am the right age for them too, because some days it is just time for a new space in which to be together. I read some advice once that a good strategy for spending time with very young children is to bring them into a space that you enjoy and let them be there with you. We have followed that advice - visiting college campuses and libraries, beaches and mountains. But obviously, not every place that I enjoy is just right for my toddling babe. Paris, for example.

Children's museums, like these other places, walk the line between a space for me and a space for N.

Sure, he's a little young to truly take in the CA Science Center's floor-to-ceiling photo montages and video screens, but boy did he love playing on the stairs in the Ecosystem Discovery Room. And yes, the herb garden at Kidspace might be more up my alley than his, but washing fruit in the water tables? Man! Awesome!

We suggested a membership to a local children's museum as a lovely holiday gift his grandparents could give him, and we now go about once a week. It is a nice change for both of us. Plus, it came with a reciprocal membership to museums across the country.

We've also visited (with the same membership) a children's museum in L.A. called The Zimmer (five huge stars) where N got to make mini-meals in a cafe, jump off a life raft into an ocean of blue balls, push a shopping cart on a shopping car track and climb into a special treehouse built around a real tree, indoors. We could live there for a quite a while, ordering in food and falling asleep smiling and exhausted every night.

We even discovered a museum in my parents' hometown in Minnesota with a massive loft full of toddler delights where our (California) membership brought our whole family in for free. We all played with the magnetic wall and the airstream, and helped N climb the toy bridge, plant vegetables in the cloth garden, and eat a tart in the Medieval room. My mom made a complex train track on the train table, and I took my shoes off and climbed into the fossil pit with my brush, ready for action.

I mightn't have thought I'd already have taken my toddler to a museum dozens of times before his second birthday, but that's because before he was born, I'd never been to a children's museum. Now I'm tempted to plan our family vacations around them. I keep hearing about this place called the Exploratorium...

Friday, May 31, 2013

Reading in the first eighteen months... what and when?

From the beginning, N and I have spent time with books. He has held them, chewed them, tried to swim across his quilt toward them, laid propped up on our laps before he could lift his head and looked at them. 

When he began to turn the pages himself, I could hardly believe it. The first time he anticipated a coming page, the last in Goodnight Gorilla, by saying "zzzzzzz" for the sleeping gorilla, my heart did a happy dance. 

N has had pronounced taste in books from a very young age. He loved our black and white baby animals book in his first few months, and would transfer his affections from animal to animal, loving the baby dog one day, the baby otter another. 

Later, he loved Clifford. He would stare at the pages for long periods, and showed a pronounced interest for the one where Clifford and Emily Elizabeth have a tea party. 

He went through a long, long period where he loved to see baby's faces. I was a little surprised at the lack of such books at the library, but eventually found many wonderful ones through interlibrary lone. Baby Talk, Baby Faces, and Baby Faces Peekaboo were all huge hits for us. I would line the books up along the wall and he would point to the one he wanted to read next. 

After faces came touch-and-feel books. We read the whole Usborne line after finding "That's Not My Teddy Bear" at the library. We read That's Not My Penguin, That's Not My Dinosaur, and so many more. 

Next N loved books with pictures of things he was seeing every day. Books with pictures of fruits and vegetables, like I Like Fruit and I Like Vegetables and Eating the Alphabet were all big favorites. We read them many times over. 

These days I try to follow N's interests. Right now he is into dogs, and we have read "Good Dog, Carl" a dozen times this week. He also loves to eat berries, and we have fun looking for all the berries in Bruce Degen's lovely book, Jamberry. 

We tend to read right after breakfast every day. Sometimes N sits down with me to read, but more often he plays as I read, and comes over to see the pages every once in a while. Of course, before he could walk, he was a captive audience, but he usually seemed like a happy one. We would read before anyone else go up, laying on our backs on his quilt in the living room, four of five books on deck beside us. It was a peaceful and happy time. I always knew just what to do after he woke up in the morning, and it started our day off in a pleasant and reliable routine. 

We also like to read in the car. If my husband is driving and I am sitting with N, we read Eric Carle's Have you Seen My Cat or another board book. Sometimes N holds them, sometimes I do. It's a simple pleasure for us both. 

We also read before his nap and before bed. For a long time, I thought it was ideal to have a regular book so he would relax into the routine. Then one day as he tried to leap from my lap, I realized he might be getting bored! And indeed, after I started changing it up, he relaxed again. We like Llama Llama Nighty Night, Where Should I Sleep, Goodnight Moon and Guess How Much I Love You. I also often read N a board book I designed for him with pictures of our family in it. I titled it "We Love Nate" and each page shows someone who loves him holding him, with the words "__(name)___ loves Nate." I made it at My Custom Story after a lot of searching for a place to make a custom board book. N likes it a lot, and it is especially nice to be able to read if his dad is on a work trip or he has just had to say goodbye to his grandparents. It's a short book and usually the last one we read before he falls asleep.

N always has books around him - displayed on shelves or along the table or fireplace, tucked into the backseat pockets of the car, sitting beside our rocking chair in his room. He sees them all the time, and we read them every day. For me, as a new parent, reading has been a rock even when I didn't know what else to do. When the whole world was still dark and we were the only ones awake, our blanket and books were always there for us as the sun slowly lit up the living room. I hope books will always be a joy and a rock for N too.