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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

7 Ways That Play Cultivates Empathy in Kids

Photo by Colleen Kelly (Flickr)

Empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions." That sounds like a pretty good skill for our kids to possess, don't you agree? I know I want my girls to show empathy as they develop positive and long-term friendships, resist the temptation to bully, understand their feelings, and become team players. Our kids aren't born with this life skill, though. It takes practice and time to learn. How do we cultivate this trait in our kids? We play, of course!

Role-Play

Because our kids don't understand what it's really like to walk in someone else's shoes, we can provide opportunities for them to learn empathy through pretend play. Have your kids sit in a wheelchair for a few hours or place their leg in a pretend cast to teach them how people with disabilities feel. They can also participate in an improv play. Let them play animals or characters from other cultures and the opposite gender as they consider how others may feel in different circumstances and situations. By pretending, kids have fun as they become more empathetic.

Include Younger and Older Kids

When kids play together, they learn crucial skills like sharing, taking turns, and teamwork. These qualities are essential as kids learn to respect and care for other people's feelings. I especially think older and younger kids who play together can learn empathy as they work on art projects, play games, or perform service activities as a team. I've watched my girls become more helpful when playing with younger kids and share their feelings more openly after playing with older kids.

Choose Logic-Based Games

Thinking like someone else is part of empathy. That's why I like my girls to play logic-based games like chess and Battleship. As they anticipate their opponent's moves, they put themselves in someone else's shoes, and that's an essential part of empathetic behavior.

Read Books

My girls love reading because it takes them on an adventure. I love books in part because they can teach empathy. While reading fictional and non-fictional stories with various settings, characters, and conflicts, my kids become more mindful of the struggles that others deal with. They also learn how to deal with their own emotions in constructive ways.

Conduct Mock Interviews

If you want to know something, you ask questions. The same principle applies to our kids. Pair them up and let them ask each other thought-provoking questions about how they feel in certain situations and why they act certain ways. I've also asked my kids open-ended questions to help them learn to express their emotions and communicate clearly.

Practice Making Faces and Identifying Emotions

Do your kids like making silly faces as much as mine do? I'm telling you, they can stand in front of the mirror for hours and practice looking silly, sad, happy, and mean. It's funny to watch them, and I know they're also learning empathy. After all, recognizing your own emotions and emotions other feel is part of showing compassion. That's why I encourage you to have fun making faces and identifying emotions with your kids!

Model and Encourage Empathetic Communication

My girls are pretty nice to each other and their friends when they play, but every once in a while, I hear words that aren't very nice. That's when I step in and model empathetic communication. Instead of saying, "This is stupid" or "You made me feel bad," I encourage the kids to use statements like "I saw," "I feel," "I need," or "I would like." I also try to model empathetic language when I play games with my girls. This modeling can go a long way toward teaching your kids how they should act.

Empathy helps our kids be successful in life, and it's never too early to teach this skill. I use play to help my girls become empathetic, and so can you. Which empathy-building activity will you encourage your kids to play today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, December 28, 2015

10 Ideas for Outdoor Winter Play

Photo by Jen's Art & Soul (Flickr)

Snowy weather is on the horizon, and there's no way I'm staying indoors! I love too many fun winter outdoor activities, and your family will want to try these fun outdoor activities as you play this winter, too.

Build Snow Creations

In your backyard, in a neighbor's front yard, or at the local playground, build as many things out of snow as you can. There's really no limit to the number and types of creations you can build. So go wild and build a snow family, a snow horse, or a snow fort. Your family will have fun, exercise creativity, and develops gross motor skills as you play.

Look for Tracks

My girls see cat, bird, and squirrel tracks in the snow every time they walk outside. Your backyard and neighborhood may reveal a variety of tracks, too. Learn more about animals and their habits and habitats when you check out animal track books from the library and research the tracks you find in the snow.

Create a Scavenger Hunt

Last winter, my girls took turns hiding small items in the snow drifts around our house. They hid toy cars, marbles, and even chocolate candies. They had hours of creative fun and practiced their observation skills during their scavenger hunt, and we're excited to invite the neighbors to join in the fun this year!

Find Icicles

Challenge your kids to an icicle-hunting contest. I know our house eaves often feature several icicles, but you can look on playground equipment or the buildings downtown, too. The winner of your icicle treasure hunt is the person who finds the biggest, fattest icicle. This activity gives your kids practice using a tape measure, and you can explore the science of icicles.

Draw on the Snow

All of the white, fluffy snow in your yard gives your family the perfect blank canvas for snow paint. Simply fill empty squirt bottles with a mixture of natural food coloring and water, then create colorful works of art. Your kids can get creative with their unique designs as they mix colors and hone their precision while drawing.

Make S'mores

Teach your kids how to build a fire in the snow, and you've taught them an essential survival skill. I know my girls love roasting marshmallows for tasty and warm s'mores, too!

Build Snowshoes

With shoe boxes and shoe laces, your kids can build their own snowshoes. My girls and I are definitely trying this craft as we walk on snow this winter. It uses their math, engineering, and mechanical skills and keeps them active.

Feed the Birds

Dozens of bird species will stop by your backyard this winter if you feed them. We make suet and peanut butter wreaths each year and experiment with the best spots to hang our feeders. Your kids might also enjoy watching and learning about different birds this winter.

Shovel Snow

Shoveling can be a chore unless you turn it into fun and work together. Your teamwork can clear your driveway and sidewalk in no time. Your kids can also be helpful or make extra cash by shoveling for the neighbors.

Sled

Sledding was one of my favorite winter activities when I was a kid, and I definitely want my girls to enjoy making their own sledding memories! Not only is this traditional winter activity fun, though, but it's a workout that burns off extra energy.

Outdoor winter play is as close as your backyard. With a little snow and creativity, your family can have fun all season. What activity will you try first?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Thursday, December 24, 2015

10 Wonderful Quotes on the Power of Play

Photo by Alberto P. Veiga (Flickr)

I support play because it's beneficial for our kids. I'm not the only play advocate in the world, though. Hundreds of play fans support a child's right and necessity to play each day. Here are 10 wonderful quotes by influential men and women from the past and present who also think play is a powerful activity for our kids.

1. "Play is our brain's favorite way of learning." (Diane Ackerman)

Play time isn't solely about fun and games. While building a block tower, figuring out how to put a puzzle together, or learning how to jump rope, our kids must concentrate, think, and problem-solve. They're doing hard but rewarding and fun work.

2. "Almost all creativity involves purposeful play." (Abraham Maslow)

Any artist, writer, or problem-solver will tell you that creativity is a job requirement. Since I want my girls to think outside the box now and in their adult lives, I'll gladly advocate for more play time today!

3. "Play fosters belonging and encourages cooperation." (Stuart Brown, MD)

I've seen firsthand that kids build friendships, learn social skills, and develop the ability to cooperate, compromise, and work together with others as they play. I'm thrilled that play helps kids become socially confident.

4. "Play matters because it creates an opportunity to bring out the best in every kid, and it's an opportunity for kids to really see the best in themselves." (Jill Vialet)

Our kids learn if they're good at sports, drawing, or engineering as they play. I'm not one for rushing my girls to grow up or choose a career, but I want to equip them for success by encouraging play.

5. "Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity." (Kay Redfield Jamison)

It breaks my heart every time I hear a story about kids losing recess or play time. Play is essential, and experts agree that kids should play every day no matter what else is going on.

6. "Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play." (Henri Matisse)

If you've ever watched a creative person at work, you know that they're curious, flexible, persistent, and independent. They also know how to play. I figure we should nurture a playful attitude in our kids now so that they grow up to be playful and creative adults.

7. "When children pretend, they're using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality. A stick can be a magic wand. A sock can be a puppet. A small child can be a superhero." (Fred Rogers)

I know two superhero girls who can turn anything into a toy. My daughters are two of millions of kids who use their imaginations as they play.

8. "Children have always learned and created places for themselves through play." (Donna R. Barnes)

Whether they're hiding in a basement tent fort or improvising scripts for theatrical performances, children use play time to discover who they are and where they belong in their homes, communities, and world.

9. "Play is the beginning of knowledge." (George Dorsey)

Our kids learn everything from how to ride a bike to how to take turns as they play! It provides children with an influential classroom that's also fun.

10. "It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self." (D.W. Winnicott)

I've watched hundreds of kids develop better self-worth and discover their talents, gifts, and interests as they play. Your kids probably will, too.

Play time is not idle or mindless time. It's powerful for your kids now and into their future. I hope you've enjoyed these 10 wonderful quotes about the power of play. How will they change your philosophy about play time for the kids you love?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Snowy Adventures: 9 Tips for Winter Hiking with Kids

Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Flickr)

Winter weather has arrived. Are you ready to snuggle under a blanket and hibernate for the season? I say grab your hiking gear and go outside! Staying active year-round improves health, mood, and school performance. For your next snowy adventure, try these nine tips as you go hiking with your kids.

Model Good Habits

I know it's tempting to tell the kids to go outside while you sit inside with your toasty hot chocolate. Our kids need us to model good habits, though. Zip your jacket, grab your enthusiasm, and go outside with your kids. They need the fresh air, exercise, and time with you.

Be Realistic

On summer hikes, my girls and I easily walk three miles before we start to feel tired. Winter hikes take a lot more energy, though, as we navigate the snow and cold. I suggest you set realistic goals, try short hikes, and increase your hike lengths gradually as your kids adjust to this fun winter activity.

Wear Layers

Safety comes first during winter hikes, so dress in layers. Start with a base coat that traps moisture, add an insulating layer for cold protection, and finish off your outfit with an outer layer that repels cold or wind. Remember the hats and gloves, too, as you limit exposed skin.

Keep it Fun

Let's face it: A hike can turn into a chore quickly, especially for young kids. Make it fun when you add games. My girls look forward to making snow angels, building snowmen, and looking for wildlife on our winter hikes. What other games could you play together on your next winter hike?

Look for Tracks

I'm always on the lookout for educational opportunities. That's one reason why I challenge my kids to look for animal tracks when we hike. If they don't know which animal made the tracks we see, we sketch them or take a picture and research the tracks when we get home.

Compare Trails

We hike one local trail every summer, yet I noticed this past weekend that it looks totally different in the wintertime. As you hike your favorite trails this season, challenge your kids to spot the ways its appearance changes based on the winter weather and time of day.

Keep a Photo Journal

Whether it's the funny faces my girls make as they catch snowflakes or the breathtaking ice crystals we see on the trees, I love capturing pictures of our winter hikes. You, too, can keep a photo journal of your adventures and capture all of the highlights.

Bring Healthy Snacks

Hiking is fun, but it's also hard work. I always pack healthy snacks like apples, granola, and peanut butter crackers. A container of hot cocoa also comes in handy when we take breaks to catch our breath, watch birds, or look at the landscape.

Go in a Group

My girls are still too young to hike alone. But when they are teens, I'll encourage them to nix the adventurous solo winter hikes and go with at least one other person. I suggest you hike in groups whenever possible, too. This way, you'll be able to keep each other company, look out for danger, and have twice the fun.

This winter, go on a snowy adventure and take a hike. You and your kids will have a blast as you stay active. What are you waiting for? Go hiking today!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Thursday, December 10, 2015

9 Essential Skills That Kids Build on the Playground

Photo by North Charleston (Flickr)

What's your child's favorite activity on the playground? Whether they enjoy tag games, the swings, or four square, they learn essential skills as they play. I took a few minutes today to jot down nine skills my girls and your kids learn as they play on the playground. Learn about the value of play, then head out and have fun!

Develop Gross and Fine Motor Skills

As kids of all ages swing, jump, balance, and slide, they develop motor skills that help them walk, run, and even hold a pencil better. Research shows that imitating other kids, particularly while climbing, improves motor skills, and balancing on a bridge or balance beam hones locomotion skills. Even holding onto monkey bars, following the leader, and grasping the swings' chains develop essential motor skills.

Get Along With Anyone

I don't know about your local playground, but ours attracts a cornucopia of kids. They're different ages, sizes, and personalities, and that means my girls gain plenty of opportunities to learn how to get along with anyone. I love watching them negotiate game rules, assert themselves when someone gets too bossy, and encourage shy kids to join in the fun as they play.

Improve Physical Health

On the playground, my girls exercise and don't even realize it. Pumping the swings, climbing the rock wall, and working the see-saw gives them a full-body workout and improves their physical health.

Include Kids of All Abilities

Inclusive playgrounds are some of my favorite innovations. I love watching kids of all abilities play together thanks to the wheelchair accessibility and specially designed equipment. My girls also learn to include and appreciate kids of all abilities, two valuable skills they need for success in life.

Expand Emotional Control

We've all watched our kids lose their cool on the playground, but that doesn't mean we avoid playgrounds. Instead, I appreciate that my girls get to practice their ability to tolerate frustrations, exercise self-control, and walk away from trouble all while interacting with their playmates.

Exercise Their Imaginations

If you've ever watched kids play together, you know that it doesn't take long for them to start using their imaginations. Whether they pretend the jungle gym is a castle, hide from aliens in the tubes, or invent conversations while using talk tubes, I love watching my girls use and stretch their imaginations on the playground.

Improve Balance and Coordination

When my girls were toddlers, I held them as they sat on the see-saw, walked on the balance beam, and slid down the slide. Practice and time, though, have improved their balance and coordination. Your kids learn these skills, too, as they play.

Develop Language Skills

Toddlers who are just learning how to talk do so primarily through practice and imitation. Rhyming games and songs are two activities that help kids develop language skills on the playground. Older kids, too, learn to communicate in meaningful ways as they interact with others kids as they play.

Promote Free Play

At home, in the classroom, and after school, our kids follow a structured schedule. They need time to play whatever they want in the way they want. I know I enjoy watching my girls pretend they're dragons, work hard to master the monkey bars, and giggle on their favorite swing. On the playground, they're free from structure and able to just relax and be themselves.

Playgrounds do more than give kids something to do after school or on the weekend. They're education centers that teach, hone, and develop essential skills. What skills will your kids learn at your local playground today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

7 Ways to Give the Gift of Play

Photo by Shannon McGee (Flickr)

Everyone loves receiving gifts during the holiday season. Giving is pretty fun, too, though. I know I love choosing presents my girls will love and use, and watching their excitement when they open their gifts is priceless. In addition to blessing your loved ones this year, consider giving the gift of play to kids around the world thanks to these seven tips.

Donate to KaBOOM!

Kids shouldn't have to play in junkyards or on the streets, but there's often nowhere else for them to play if they live in an impoverished area. KaBOOM! builds playgrounds in these neighborhoods and has served more than eight million kids since 1996. Your financial donation inspires communities and gives kids a safe and fun place to play.

Donate to Playworks

Playworks believes in the power of play. They use financial donations to train and equip people to deliver top-quality play to children all over the world. Your donation can provide a playbook of 400 games to schools or train a junior coach. Because Playworks is one of 2015's top-rated nonprofit organizations, donate with confidence because your money is going to a good cause, which is pretty cool in my opinion!

Donate to Shelters and Thrift Stores

In some homes, kids give away two items for every one item they get. I love this idea because it encourages kids to be generous and prevents overflowing shelves, bins, and toy boxes of stuff no one uses. A local homeless shelter, orphanage, or thrift store will gladly accept donations of gently used toys, games, and books as your family shares a little love with kids in need this holiday.

Donate to Local Parks

Most community parks, playgrounds, and nature preserves rely on donations to keep their grounds maintained and programs running year-round. Give a financial donation this holiday or set up a time for your family to clean up trash, pull weeds, or paint picnic tables. Your donation keeps outdoor recreational areas open and accessible for families.

Donate to Operation Warm

It's impossible for kids to play outdoors during the chilly winter months when they don't have a warm coat. Since my girls grow like weeds, I donate their gently used winter coats to Operation Warm every year. This way, other kids can be warm as they enjoy playing outside after school or during recess.

Donate to Operation Christmas Child

More than a million kids around the globe receive Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes every year. Those boxes include toys, games, and hygiene items. Get your kids involved in filling boxes for kids their age, and share the fun of play with others this holiday.

Donate to Toys for Tots

My kids take new toys for granted, but some kids don't receive toys for the holiday. When you buy something for the kids in your life, purchase an extra gift or two for Toys for Tots. Most department, big-box, and grocery stores feature Toys for Tots bins where you can donate new, unwrapped toys. More than 97 percent of your donation helps less fortunate children, and that fact makes Toys for Tots a top-rated charity that focuses on play.

Your kids, like mine, may take play for granted. This year, you can make a donation that gives play to kids who need it. Which of these play organizations will you and your family support this year?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Happy Earth, Healthy Family: 9 Tips for Eco-Friendly Play and Parenting

Photo by Oregon Department of Transportation

As they play and go about their daily routines, our kids come in contact with at least 700,000 toxins. These chemicals harm our children and the environment. That's why I decided to fight back. I'm implementing nine tips that create a happy earth and a healthy family, and I hope you'll join me.

Invest in Eco-Friendly Toys

From baby's first rattle to the electronics our teens enjoy, eco-friendly toy options are everywhere. There are dozens of ways to invest in green toys for your kids, but my favorites are purging plastics, buying toys with a trusted manufacturer, and stocking multi-purpose toys.

Buy Used

Our home is filled with used books, furniture, and sports equipment. And you know what? These secondhand items work the same as new items! In thrift or consignment stores, at garage sales, or during neighborhood swaps, stock your home with used items, too, as you reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Collect Litter

In your neighborhood, park, or city, you can play a litter collection scavenger hunt game and reduce trash. We grab gloves and trash bags, then pick a few outrageous categories, like neon green bottles or baseball caps. The team that finds the most of these special items wins, but the environment also wins as we do our part to reduce litter.

Recycle Playground Equipment

When choosing playground equipment for the backyard or for your child's school, look for recycled options first. Whether you opt to relocate a gently used jungle gym from someone else's backyard or purchase recycled flooring, the kids have fun as you invest in their healthy future.

Wear Sustainable Clothing

I don't advocate that everyone run around naked, but I do encourage you to wear eco-friendly clothes. Choose options made from sustainable fiber sources like hemp and bamboo, and look for eco-friendly dyes, too. Personally, I also recommend secondhand clothing, donating your kids' gently used items, and gathering your kids for a monthly craft day when you repurpose outgrown clothing into shopping bags, winter gloves, and other functional stuff.

Eat Seasonal Snacks

My local farmers' market always sells a variety of fresh fruits and veggies that I turn into delicious snacks for the week. I feel good about buying local because this one step reduces carbon emissions and supports my organic farming neighbors. I realize, though, that not everyone has a local farmers' market. If that describes you, follow guidelines from the Environmental Working Group and buy organic milk, juice, and these produce items whenever possible:

  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Blueberries
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries

Hydrate the Healthy Way

Staying hydrated is one of the most important parts of play, but we don't want our kids using water bottles that leak toxins. Instead, we use BPA-free sippy cups and stainless steel water bottles.

Implement Eco-Friendly Laundry Tips

Most kids I know get dirty when they play, and that means you have laundry and tons of it. Make your laundry routine eco-friendly when you:

  • Install a high-efficiency washer and reduce water usage.
  • Make your own laundry detergent.
  • Wash full instead of partial loads.
  • Use cloth diapers.
  • Hang your clothes to dry.

These five tips alone can yield big environmental savings and are easy on your wallet, too.

Use Non-Toxic Cleaners

Take a look around your kids' play room and you see dozens of surfaces. What chemicals are on your kids' toys, table, or floor? Clean the surfaces your kids touch every day with nontoxic cleaners. Baking soda and white vinegar are two of my favorite pantry products because they disinfect and clean. You can also dilute the cleaning products you already own as you take steps to clean green.

Maybe we can't control all of the chemicals in our kids' lives. But we can create a happy earth and healthy family when we take these nine steps. I'd also love to hear other ways you make play time and every day eco-friendly for your family.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, November 20, 2015

Climb to Success: 5 Ways That Play Preps Kids for the Future

Photo by LabyrinthX (Flickr)

What are your kids going to be when they grow up? My girls don't have their future life journeys figured out yet, but I know that I want them to be well-adjusted, healthy, and successful adults. That means they need to play today. How does play prepare our kids for the future? I've noticed that there are five specific ways our kids can climb to success as they play.

Improve Social Skills

As adults, we use social skills every day. We have to be comfortable around other people, and we need to be able to negotiate, communicate clearly, and express our emotions in healthy ways.

That's one reason why I encourage my girls to play. Every time they visit the playground, enjoy a play date at someone's house, or go outside for recess, they practice social skills. These opportunities improve and mature my kids and prepare them for adulthood.

Explore Different Roles

I'm a firm believer in empowering kids to understand their personalities, interests, and likes. I know, though, that children are a work in progress and need play to help them become more self-aware.

As they explore different roles and play house, tag, or soccer, they discover new things about themselves and about other people. They learn to put themselves in someone else's shoes and be more compassionate and empathetic.

Play also lets children discover their passions. I enjoy watching my girls pretend they're firefighters, teachers, and veterinarians. Who knows what career they'll ultimately choose, but for now, they're exploring new and different roles as they play, and that will help them be happier and more fulfilled as adults.

Establish Physical Activity Habits

I'm a big physical activity advocate because kids are less likely to be obese and more likely to be focused and engaged in school when they're active. Plus, kids who find a physical activity or sport they really enjoy are likely to stick with that activity when they grow up.

There's nothing wrong with playing video games or enjoying sedentary activities like reading, but I also encourage my girls to climb the park's jungle gym, hike a local trail, and roller-skate around the block at least daily. They need these play times for better health now and as they establish physical activity habits that last a lifetime.

Feel Comfortable Making Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. It's part of life. As adults, we can either embrace our mistakes and learn from them or feel depressed and useless when we mess up. I think we all can agree that we want our kids to know that mistakes happen and be comfortable when they fail. Those mistakes mean they're taking risks that help them grow.

Play time is a great time to learn how to make mistakes. As kids build block castles, throw a football, and practice drawing, they're figuring out that mistakes are normal, learning how to cope with their humanness, and honing their problem-solving skills. This resilience and ability to embrace mistakes can only help our kids in the future.

Promote Mental Health

Kids spend hours concentrating on academics every day in school. When they come home, they have homework, scheduled activities, and practices. When do they have time to relax, unwind, and play?

Kids need downtime in their daily schedule. A healthy work-life balance can reduce burnout and anxiety. Play also reduces depression. Shooting hoops, jumping rope, and building blocks are all activities that cam improve a child's current mental health and establish good mental health habits for them when they're adults.

Playtime today is essential for our kids' future success. They're more likely to be prepared for the real world thanks to lessons they learn during play. How will you encourage your kids to play and climb to success today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

10 Ways to Support Children Around the World

Photo by David Robert Bliwas (Flickr)

Of the 7 billion people living on earth today, a quarter of them, or 1,750,000,000, are 14 and younger. Those children are the future of our planet. They're the caretakers, parents, leaders, and thinkers of the future. What can we do today to support these kids? I can think of 10 supportive actions we can take today to support children around the world. Maybe my list will inspire you to help, too.

Donate to KaBOOM!

KaBOOM! promotes play and creates safe play environments for children around the world. In fact, they've built 16,300 playgrounds and served 8.1 million kids since 1996. Be part of their playful mission when you visit Kaboom.org and donate money, interact on social media, or volunteer your time.

Give Coats to Kids

A warm coat raises self-esteem, promotes pride, and builds excitement and joy for kids in need. Be part of providing kids in your community and around the country with a warm coat when you give money and other resources to Operation Warm.

Sponsor a Child Through Save the Children

You can't help every kid in the world escape poverty, but you can support Save the Children. By donating money, participating in a fundraiser, or sponsoring a child, you can provide medical treatment to newborns, tutor kids, and assist in disaster relief. Visit SavetheChildren.org and put 89 percent of your financial donation toward changing lives across the globe.

Volunteer at Your Local Library

Reading to kids improves their reading comprehension, standardized test scores, and chances of succeeding in life. Transform a child's life when you volunteer to read to kids at your local library.

Feed Hungry Children

As many as one in five kids in the U.S. are undernourished. We can change that statistic by donating an hour's wages, holding a bake sale, or volunteering with No Kid Hungry. The organization teaches nutrition and budgeting, operates food banks, and provides food to emergency relief organizations as it feeds our neighbors.

Fix Your Local Playground

Neglected playgrounds always make me feel a little sad as I think of the fun kids are missing. That's why I encourage you to take action in your neighborhood. Clean up trash, paint benches, and fix broken swing chains. You can also apply for grants or raise money for new equipment as you welcome kids to play safely.

Fund Doctors of the World

As many as 50,000 kids live on the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. Did you know you can help those kids and children like them in 20 countries across the globe? Support Doctors of the World (DOW) with your financial donations and you combat epidemics, protect children's rights, and offer prenatal care.

Spend Device-Free Time With Your Kids

I appreciate that my kids need electronics for school projects and to stay in touch with family and friends, but they also need device-free time with me and each other. We unplug for dinner every night and at least one day a week. The experience builds stronger emotional bonds, boosts my kids' academic performance, and helps us have fun together. I encourage you to unplug with your family, too.

Support Reach Out and Read

Medical providers in all 50 states distributed 6.5 million books to kids in 2014. Be part of promoting literacy when you support Reach Out and Read. Donate money, volunteer, or buy a Ralph Lauren bookmark to support children's literacy.

Donate Birthday Presents

If your kids are like mine, they have enough stuff. This year, I'm challenging my girls to donate their birthday presents to kids in need. Instead of presents, their friends and family members can donate to a favorite children's charity in my girls' names as we all support kids around the world.

Are you ready to change the world one child at a time? Let's support kids with these 10 ideas. I can't wait to hear how you decide to make a difference!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, October 30, 2015

Brain Games: 9 Benefits of Play-Based Learning

Photo by U.S. Army (Flickr)

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood." I love that quote by Fred Rogers because it expresses my belief that play is essential for learning. Do you agree? Here are nine reasons why play-based learning is beneficial for our kids.

Play-based learning draws from a child's innate desire to explore, interact, socialize, and play.

Children are naturally curious, and they want to actively engage in their world. Imaginative, creative, and practical play provides plenty of opportunities for them to explore, interact, and socialize as they have fun.

Play-based learning motivates and engages kids.

Some kids do learn while doing worksheets or listening to a parent lecture, but my girls and many kids thrive while playing. For these kids, play-based learning motivates and engages them. They're eager to learn math facts while shooting hoops and are quicker to remember how to tie their shoes while they say a rhyme.

Play-based learning builds positive relationships with education and learning.

I know I want my girls to become lifelong learners who always explore, grow, and learn. If their educational experience is boring, though, they'll have no desire to keep learning things. That's why I appreciate play-based learning. Because my girls have fun as they learn, they're more likely to want to continue their education in the future.

Play-based learning enhances creativity.

Many modern curricula focus on facts but neglect creativity. That's why pretend play is crucial for kids. They can imagine scenarios, invent problems, and come up with solutions in an active environment that promotes and hones their creativity.

Play-based learning provides opportunities to practice skills.

When I talk to other parents about school, homework is one of our biggest challenges. That extra practice reinforces lessons from school, though. So why not use play to do the same thing? While reinforcing skills, exploring concepts at their own pace, and becoming comfortable with facts, they also have fun learning math as they play hopscotch or run around the yard, for example.

Play-based learning reinforces social cognition.

Empathy, taking turns, and negotiating conflict are all aspects of social cognition that kids learn as they play. By providing play-based learning opportunities, you help kids get along better with their peers now and in the future.

Play-based learning improves abstract thinking.

Sometimes, kids need to see more than concrete facts. They need to think outside of the box and feel intuitively. Abstract thinking is one skill kids gain when they play. As they build creations with blocks or consider what a character on a coloring page is thinking, they improve their abstract thinking skills.

Play-based learning helps kids problem-solve.

Kids can learn to solve problems in a classroom, but I want my girls to know how to think on their feet. What will they do when another kid is using their favorite swing or four kids want to play a three-person game? Play time helps our kids learn how to come up with solutions and find an answer that works as they problem-solve.

Play-based learning teaches critical-thinking skills.

All day long, my girls are told what to do and how to do it. I appreciate that they can learn to think for themselves when they play. They learn how to ask open-ended questions, consider multiple or unspecified responses, and interpret the results. On the playground, during family game night, or on the sports field, they develop critical-thinking skills that are essential for success in life.

Kids need play to learn these important skills and life lessons. I encourage my girls to engage in play-based learning. What brain games will your kids practice the next time they play?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, October 23, 2015

Smart Seeds: 7 Ways That Young Brains Blossom Through Play

Photo by J Aaron Farr (Flickr)

When your kids play, it might look like they're merely having fun. However, they're actually developing their brains. Numerous studies show that play helps young brains blossom. Learn more as you encourage the kids you love to play.

Play Improves Attention Spans

Recess is more than a way for kids to get fresh air. Studies show that kids pay more attention in school after they take breaks for free play without adult direction. Chinese and Japanese students understand the correlation between play breaks and improved attention. They rank high in academics perhaps in part because they take short breaks every 50 minutes.

Play Improves Language Skills

We know kids aren't born with the ability to talk, but did you know that play develops essential language skills? Our kids learn how to communicate with receptive and expressive language, which means they understand more words and speak more words, thanks to play.

Play Improves Problem-Solving Skills

Learning how to solve problems is a skill I want my girls to learn. They can become better problem-solvers as they play with multi-solution toys and pretend.

According to psychologists, there are two types of problems. Convergent problems have one solution, and divergent problems have multiple solutions. Kids are better able to solve divergent problems when they play.

In one experiment, some kids were given puzzles, a convergent toy, while others played with blocks, a divergent toy. They were then given a divergent-thinking test, and the kids who played with blocks were better able to solve the problems. In another study, kids who played pretend also had a greater ability to solve divergent problems.

Play Improves Self-Regulation

The ability to control impulses, attention, and emotions is super-important for kids, and they can actually learn this skill through play. One study found that kids who frequently engage in pretend play also frequently practice cooperation and conforming to rules. This practice develops their self-control and hones their self-regulation over time.

Another study links counterfactual reasoning and pretend play. Basically, play helps our kids learn how to infer what's going to happen even though it hasn't happened yet, and I know that I want my kids to master "what if" scenarios as they go through life.

Play Improves Math Skills

The blocks your kids play with aren't just toys for building, sorting, or stacking. Studies show that kids who engage in more complicated or sophisticated block play in preschool take higher-level math classes and perform better than their peers in high school. IQ does play a part for these kids, but they need play to develop their math skills, too.

Play Improves Kids' Real-Life Coping Skills

Do your kids enjoy playing imaginative and make-believe games like my girls do? If so, they're building real-life coping skills. Preschoolers as young as three understand the difference between real life and fantasy in part because of their pretend play. They also know that they can put their pretend experiences into practice with friends, at home, or in school.

Play Improves Scientific Awareness

The next time your kids ask to play in the mud or build a sand castle, let them. These types of messy play activities promote scientific awareness and build a child's understanding of physics, textures, and matter.

Have you ever made the connection between play and brain growth? Our kids grow and learn because we give them freedom to play. Let's raise smart seeds as we encourage young brains to blossom while they play!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, October 19, 2015

Mama Play Awards: 5 Twitter Moms Who Are Awesome Advocates for Play!

VaniaRaposo (Pixabay)

In June, I published a blog post honoring the fathers who dedicate time and effort to delivering the joy of play to kids around the world. I am deeply grateful for all of your positive feedback and shares! The "play matters" community is astounding, lively, and empowering! Now, I want to honor the mothers who serve as steadfast, enthusiastic advocates for play. These five women are so deserving of the 'Mama Play Awards'! If you want to learn more about the importance of play, I urge you to tap into the fantastic resources they provide. To connect with them via Twitter, click on their names!

  1. Lenore Skenazy: Risky play is natural. It preps children for the unpredictable nature of the real world. When children engage in a healthy balance of risk, freedom, and play, they build confidence and independence. Risky play provides a challenging and enriching kind of fun that kids create themselves. Lenore Skenazy knows just how powerful this is! When she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the subway alone, Lenore Skenazy became known as the "worst mom in America." That experience prompted her to launch FreeRangeKids.com, a platform where she advocates for more freedom in children's daily lives. Her bold, proactive approach has empowered countless parents to loosen the reins and encourage their kids to explore all facets of play, including myself!
  2. Janice Halloran: I love interacting with Janice on Twitter and exploring her colorful, abundant website! As a licensed social worker, mental health counselor, and mom of two, I wholeheartedly trust her insights on how vital play is for the social and emotional wellbeing of children. She believes that play is the foundation for future skills, and is dedicated to making play accessible to all children, especially those with ADHD, autism, social anxiety, and sensory processing issues.
  3. Jill Vialet: If you have read my interview with Jill Vialet, you know how much of a fan I am. Jill Vialet is the founder and CEO of Playworks, a non-profit organization that strives to unlock every child's "superpowers" with recess and play! They train coaches that embark on exciting, community-fueled journeys to create more playful cultures in schools. Jill firmly believes that play matters because "it creates an opportunity to bring out the best in every kid - and it's an opportunity for kids to really see the best in themselves." Jill also penned a novel titled Recess Rules - it empowers kids to stand up for recess and believe in their ability to make a positive impact.
  4. Charmin Calamaris: Charmin Calamaris departed from her seasoned career and became dedicated to supporting her own health and wellbeing. In doing so, she discovered that it helped her be a "better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and citizen." This personal revolution sparked the Momiverse. This lively, wholesome resource empowers mothers to build a more fulfilling, balanced lifestyle for themselves while nurturing a family. The Momiverse explores topics that are meaningful, such as cyberbulling, healthy recipes, exercise for the whole family, and of course, the wonders of play. I also admire her dedication to being eco-friendly and celebrating the planet we have!
  5. Bethe Almeras: If you believe childhood should be messy, muddy, and silly, connect with Bethe Almeras, the one and only Grass Stain Guru! Almeras encourages parents and kids to unplug, go barefoot, embrace eccentricity, and seek unbridled joy outdoors. Really, she advocates for kids to be kids! My interview with her was such a fun and enriching experience. Bethe states that "children are born to play." I passionately agree! Another wonderful thing about Bethe is her spirited support for animal adoption. She truly is a blessing to her community!

These are just a few of the marvelous women I have met that are deserving of a Mama Play Award. While they may not all be mothers, their commitment to play means that they are creating a world where every child can thrive. Are there any other champions of play we should know about? Please tell us in the comments!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wondrous Worlds: 7 Ways That Kids Benefit From Pretend Play

Photo by Lars Plougmann (Flickr)

Epic battles, stirring speeches, swashbuckling pirates, awe-inspiring astronauts, poised princesses, lost treasures, talkative teddies, heroic rescues, bustling restaurants, terrific tea parties - where can you find such an entertaining line-up all wrapped into one package? A child's brain! Pretend play makes all of this possible and more. Pretend play is often considered fun and frivolous, fueled by imagination and whimsy. In truth, it goes far beyond that. While kids are jousting in tournaments, operating a starship, and whipping up a gourmet meal, they are learning to solve problems, communicate, and think inventively. As they dive into these creative scenarios, they are building real world skills and individuality. Yes, they are having fun, but this kind of natural joy is key to keeping their minds and bodies engaged! Let's don our archeologist gear and uncover the 7 truths of pretend play!

Social Skills

Kids can learn social skills at school, but they also hone these invaluable skills during pretend play. When children play, they are freely experimenting with social and emotional roles. Not only will this help them develop empathy and understanding, it will also boost self-esteem because they are discovering all that they are capable of! Group pretend play adds a new, nurturing dynamic. They talk, share responsibilities, take turns, and work through disagreements. Pretend play invites children to explore and become comfortable with the endless array of social cues they will encounter throughout life.

Emotional Skills

For children, the world can be a scary and confusing place. Ever wonder why "playing doctor" seems to be a common choice? Pretend play gives kids the opportunity to confront unfamiliar, frightening scenarios in the comfort of their own play place. New emotions can be tough for kids to navigate; pretend play creates a sprawling stage where they can face these feelings, work through them, and create a healthy balance. It helps them feel more in control of their surroundings and any changes that they experience.

Problem-Solving Skills

As kids concoct masterful meals, conjure up elaborate adventures, or build epic forts together or alone, they are surmounting challenges with abstract thinking, communication, and brainstorming skills. Are the kiddos lacking a suitable roof for their fort? By uniting creativity with practicality, they will find a solution such as using an upside down kiddy pool. Listening, emotional regulation, balancing peer input, communication, negotiation, goal-setting, planning, taking action - all of these pretend play attributes are exactly what an adult needs to excel in the workplace too!

Imagination

This is a given! Pretend play is all about cultivating and activating the imagination. Picasso once said that "every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." This is why pretend play is so important and why kids need recess! With the wonderful, whimsical power of their minds, kids are transforming boxes into castles and spaceships. Pretend play compels children to think big, imagine big, and dream big. Plenty of play keeps the natural talent of imagining nothing into something incredible thriving throughout life!

Empathy

I touched upon this before. Pretend play often involves becoming someone else. Kids are walking in other people's shoes, experiencing their problems and emotions. Of course, cultivating strong empathy takes time and maturity, but pretend play helps set the foundation for viewing life from the perspective of others.

Language Skills

The colorful, unique conversations that my girls have while playing never cease to amaze me. Not only do they speak realistically, but they use vocabulary words I didn't even know they knew! Pretend play creates a platform for kids to employ words that they hear and learn in various situations. Not only does it help them become more comfortable with self-expression and speech, it helps connect the dots of language.

Self-Esteem

Through dramatic play, kids of all ages are hard at work discovering themselves. They are learning about their abilities and interests. This self-awareness and individuality helps build self-esteem. When kids put their minds to it, they can become anything! I love watching my girls tie on their superhero cape and save the day or work as doctors who heal sick babies and animals.

What are your children's favorite pretend play activities? I would love to hear all about it! All forms of play are fundamental to every facet of a child's development. Pretend play is priceless because it feeds children's imagination and individuality!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fit Family, Fun Fall: 9 Ways to Stay Active as the Temperature Drops

Photo by Steven Depolo (Flickr)

It's easy to stay active during warm weather, but cooler temperatures tempt me to hibernate indoors under the blankets. If you're like me, you might need some encouragement to stay active. Here are nine activities my family enjoys, and they might motivate your family to stay active, too, when the temperature drops.

Dance!

My girls love to play Just Dance on Wii, dance as they get ready for school, and dance to music as they clean their rooms. I've also been known to break out in a dance while prepping dinner or during commercial breaks as we watch TV. You can even host a dance party or do Zumba as you stay active and have fun this fall.

Go Camping Indoors

Plummeting temperatures may prevent you from heading to your favorite outdoor camping spot, but you can pitch a tent in the basement or set up air mattresses in the master bedroom. Turn off your devices, cook on your indoor grill, and plan a scavenger hunt. Your entire family will still have fun while staying active and spending time together.

Take the Stairs

Wherever you go this fall, look for opportunities to take the stairs as often as possible. I advocate this fitness activity all year, but I especially like it during the colder months. It keeps me healthy and warms my fingers and toes, which is an extra bonus I definitely appreciate!

Go Ice-Skating

Whether you're an ice-skating newbie or expert, take time during cooler weather to try this aerobic sport. It's family-friendly and affordable. Plus, you'll have fun cheering for and supporting each other on the ice.

Jog in Place

Sitting still for too long isn't good for your circulation, heart, or health. As you watch a movie or a TV show, stay moving by jogging in place. If you can't jog, walk in place, jump on a mini-trampoline, or do push-up competitions with the whole family. You'll still see your favorite shows as you add activity into your family time.

Play Twister

Active games like Twister keep my girls moving all winter. They have fun tying themselves in knots, and I appreciate that they're moving. Other active games your family could try include Simon says, hide and seek, and hide the button.

Walk the Mall

If your kids love shopping as much as my girls, walk the mall this fall. Park as far away as possible from the entrance, speed-walk between stores, and opt for the stairs instead of the escalators as you get a workout and enjoy retail therapy.

Do At-Home Workouts

I love the fact that my family can access dozens of workouts at home. We can watch YouTube videos, play fitness games on the Xbox, and use our exercise ball, Hula-Hoops, or yoga poses to get a great workout. And while we're staying fit, we have fun together.

Join a Rec Center

At our local rec center, we can play basketball, swim, and take fitness classes. There's an activity for everyone in our family, and we love the opportunity to be active together. If you don't think you have time for another thing on your schedule, try meeting up for a basketball game after dinner or swim on Sunday afternoons.

Staying active is more challenging when cooler fall weather hits, but you and your family can keep moving with these nine tips. What are you waiting for? Be a fit family and have fall fun as you stay active today and all season!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

7 Tips for Peachy Playdates

Photo by guilherme jofili (Flickr)

The other day, my girls asked if they could invite a few friends over for a playdate. I thought it sounded like a good idea, but the day didn't go as expected. One of my daughters had a meltdown because she didn't want to share a favorite toy, and one of our guests spent the whole hour watching videos on her cellphone. Can you relate? If so, learn from my experience and implement a few playdate guidelines that will help future dates be peachy and fun for your kids and their friends.

Keep it Simple

Elaborate invitations and gourmet snacks are fun additions to a birthday party or baby shower, but they're not necessary for playdates. Keep the details simple so you can focus on helping your kids enjoy the fun. Simplifying saves you time and money, too.

Go Easy on the Invites

One time, I got excited and invited almost 10 kids to our house for a playdate. My girls were overwhelmed, some kids were left out of the game time, and I ran out of snacks. From that experience, I learned to only invite one or two kids at a time. While this strategy doesn't completely resolve conflicts or ensure I have enough food, it does increase the opportunities for everyone to have fun and reduces stress on the kids and me.

Be Aware of Special Needs

When my girls invite new friends over, I always check in with the parents first. I want to know if the kids have food allergies, environmental sensitivities, or activity preferences. With this knowledge, I can prep my girls and our home or playdate location to ensure that everyone's safe and comfortable.

Let the Kids Plan the Agenda

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I micromanage playdates. Do you ever do that? If so, we need to remember that playdates teach our kids to make decisions, compromise, and interact naturally. Instead of us setting up the schedule, we can set out a few different toys or games ahead of time or let our kids and their friends choose a few games after the playdate starts.

Hide Favorite Toys

Most kids have one or two favorite toys they hate to share, and that's OK. Go ahead and hide those toys in a box on a high shelf. Pull out toys your kids don't mind sharing or ones that several kids can play with together as you respect your child's favorite toys and promote cooperative play.

Turn Off the Devices

I let my kids occasionally watch TV and play on their tablets, but I don't let them use electronic devices during playdates. They should use that time to engage with their friends and improve communication and socialization skills, not be glued to a screen. To make the "no devices" rule work, tell your kids' friends and their parents in advance so they know what to expect.

Don't Force Your Kids to Play

Playdates offer kids opportunities to socialize outside of school, and they should be fun, not forced. I know my girls are sometimes exhausted and want to rest instead of run around the playground, and sometimes kids have an off day and just don't get along. In those situations, I give my girls permission to hang out on the sidelines or head home early to relax.

My girls and I are big fans of playdates. I've learned, though, that these seven tips make play time go smoother and be more fun for everyone. What other tips make playdates peachy?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Heartfelt Summer: 7 Ways That Kids Grow Through Volunteering

Photo by Rikki's Refuge (Flickr)

With the season in full swing, there is more time to enjoy together as a family! We hike, we swim, we trek, we cook new meals, we garden, and we relax! Not only do my girls dive into many playful adventures, I volunteer at the local summer camp. Volunteering unites my passion for play and my dedication to helping out however I can. Volunteering is so enriching for kids, too! Let's explore the benefits.

Volunteering Deepens Compassion and Understanding

As parents, we instinctively shelter our kiddos from pain and suffering, but families working together can a dazzling difference. Volunteering helps children develop a deep, realistic understanding of the they world live in. As they collect towels for the animal shelter, serve meals at the soup kitchen, or play games at a veterans' hospital, kids cultivate gratitude for their blessings and become more compassionate, empathetic, and understanding individuals.

Volunteering Improves Social Skills

Many children struggle with communication and self-expression. Volunteering provides a proactive platform where they can interact with others and learn to use their voices for good. As they meet individuals from a medley of backgrounds, they will foster positive connections and discover just how vital sharing can be to the livelihood of the community. Plus, it will boost their confidence to play a role in uplifting others!

Volunteering Builds a Strong Work and Personal Ethic

As they pack food boxes for deployed soldiers, walk eager pups at the local shelter, pick up litter from the local park, or hand out water bottles at an outdoor fundraiser, kids are learning the value of hard work. They discover that putting in effort and making a difference towards a cause they believe in is fulfilling in ways beyond profit. This will compel them to seek out wholesome careers sparked by their individual passions in the future.

Volunteering Can Become a Lifelong Habit

If you want your kids to grow up and become lifelong volunteers, introduce them to volunteering now and make it a regular addition to your family's schedule. A new habit can take up to 66 days to form, reports University College London, so repeat exposure is beneficial. As your kids foster homeless dogs, help neighbors with weekly lawn care, and teach crafts with preschoolers after school, they establish a lifelong habit and love for volunteering.

Volunteering Introduces Passions or Hobbies

Adam Werbach began volunteering with the Sierra Club when he was in second grade. In middle and high school, he founded the forerunner of the Sierra Student Coalition. By age 23, Adam became the youngest president of the Sierra Club. Your kids may discover fulfilling and empowering passions and hobbies through volunteering, too! Maybe they'll cultivate a love for teaching as they supervise preschoolers after school or develop a penchant for politics as they campaign for a local candidate. By inviting your kids to explore different avenues of volunteering, they can find what inspires them while helping others.

Volunteering Grows a Strong Moral Compass

As parents, we want to guide our children towards compassionate decisions and ethical attitudes. Volunteering can help establish a strong, active moral compass within children. It opens their eyes to the realities and wonders of the world. By providing aid to people, animals, and causes, your kids learn to value all life and treat every living creature with dignity and respect. They will understand that positive change is worth the effort, and that we can move mountains if we work together. There is an endless variety of ways to make a difference; find a cause that resonates with you as a family!

Volunteering Connects Communities

It's awfully easy to get caught up in the hectic momentum of daily life, especially with kids on board. By dedicating just a bit of time to volunteering, you can reconnect with the community and meet like-hearted people. My daughters have met some fantastic friends through weekly dog-walking at the local shelter! Build a house together with Habitat for Humanity, bake cookies for a neighbor's fundraiser, or knit blankets for newborns in your local hospital.

These are just a few benefits to volunteering for kids! Ready to get started? Here is a helpful guide to getting the whole family involved. Already an avid volunteer? Tweet me some pictures and stories! I'd love to hear all about it!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, September 21, 2015

6 Playful Ways to Beat Back-to-School Blues

Photo by woodleywonderworks (Flickr)

It's almost here! School is set to start soon, which means it's time to set a consistent bedtime routine and think about homework. Are they ready? I know my girls have enjoyed the relaxed summer schedule, and they're feeling a little sad about restarting the school routine. That's why I've come up with six fun ways to beat the back-to-school blues. Maybe some of these tips will help your kids feel better about starting school, too!

Arrange a Play Date With School Friends

Every summer, I schedule a back-to-school play date with my girls' favorite friends and any new kids who moved into the neighborhood. We meet at a local park where the kids talk about their summers, eat healthy school-themed snacks, and plan for the new school year. This fun day gives them a chance to rekindle old friendships and make new friends before the busy school year starts.

Create a Summer Bucket List

My girls each have their own idea of the ideal summer, so we create a summer bucket list. This year, they wanted to visit the zoo and our favorite ice cream shop. When summer comes to a close, we check our bucket list and each choose one last thing to do. It's always fun to end the summer with a bang, and the bucket list helps my girls feel like they enjoyed summer to the fullest.

Conduct an "Interview"

A week ago, I thought my girls were excited to return to school. But while we ate lunch one day, they mentioned that they've really enjoyed summer and felt a little anxious about restarting the school routine. That's when I got the idea to interview them. I made up a questionnaire that gave me a better idea of how to prepare them. Some of the questions I asked include:

  • What do you want to wear on the first day?
  • Who do you hope to sit beside in class?
  • Who do you hope you don't have any classes with?
  • What's scary about school?
  • Which teacher do you want/not want?
  • What are your thoughts about homework?
  • Do you want to join any activities or clubs?
  • What's the one thing you're most excited about?
  • What breakfast and dinner do you want me to make you on the first day of school?

Create an Action Plan

Because bullying, hard classes, or a disinterest in school do affect kids, I found that creating an action plan before school starts helps. For instance, one of my daughters struggled in math last year and cried every time she did homework. This year, I emailed the teacher before school started and asked about available support. My daughter knows that she'll have a study buddy this year, and that automatically helps her feel less stressed and nervous about the first day. If your child struggles with something, take action before school starts.

Tour the School

New classrooms, teachers, and buildings can be intimidating to some kids. That's why I like scheduling a "meet the teacher" day. We also take a test walk to school and look for playful landmarks like colorful murals, unique buildings, or fun playgrounds. When we can't visit the school before the first day, I at least review the schedule with my girls. We set up a mock classroom, and the girls take turns being the teacher. Doing all of this prep work helps them know what to expect and reduces first-day jitters. Plus, it's a fun way to play school without doing any homework!

Go Back-to-School Shopping

It sounds strange, but shopping helps to build excitement for the new school year. Last year, my girls couldn't wait to show off their new outfits and backpacks. Even though they don't need much this year, I'll at least let them buy a few supplies and new shoes as we prepare for a successful year.

Are your kids ready for school to start? They can be when you do one or more of these six back-to-school activities. Feel free to put your own spin on it and modify it to meet your kids' needs. Which one will you do today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Reach for the Sky: 9 Benefits of Hiking for Kids

Photo by Jeff Turner (Flickr)

When my girls were little, they loved taking nature walks around the block. They'd look at flowers, try to find bugs, and enjoy the fresh air. Now that they're older, we hike local trails and get a workout as we look for wildlife and identify trees. Whether your kids are ready to tackle Mount McKinley or have never been on a hike, now's a great time to start enjoying this fun and beneficial activity. Hiking can have plenty of benefits for the whole family, especially the kids.

Exercise Your Body

If you're looking for a fun way to exercise, take a hike. Walking on flat trails or up hills gives your whole body a physical workout as you tone your legs, strengthen your core, and get your heart pumping. It's fun, too!

Connect With Nature

Your kids connect with nature when they explore the outdoors. I challenge my kids to use their five senses and make hiking a truly sensory experience as they gain an even bigger connection with the natural world around them.

Hone Survival Skills

You don't have to be a hardcore survivalist to hike, but you will need to make basic preparations. Packing gear like a map or compass, flashlight, rain poncho, charged cellphone, first aid kit, matches, water, and food could end up saving your life if you get lost or injured, and these precautions teach your kids how to survive and be prepared.

Enjoy Family Time

If your family is like mine, you're busy and could use more time together. Why not reconnect and laugh as you hike? My girls and I often play "I Spy" as we look for colorful plants and wildlife, or we'll ask each other questions about our week as we enjoy family time.

Refine Motor Skills

As kids climb, walk, jump, and explore, they also refine their motor skills and learn their body's capabilities and limits. This benefit makes hiking an ideal activity for kids of all ages.

Improve Mood

Are your kids angry, frustrated, or bored? Tell them to strap on their hiking boots and take a walk through the woods, in a park, or along a river. The fresh air and exercise will improve their mood in no time. It definitely works for my girls!

Learn About Nature

For the ultimate educational experience, walk in nature and interact with trees, plants, and animals. My girls often take pictures of interesting plants or bugs to research later.

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Social pressures, home tension, or world events create stress or anxiety that's tough for kids to handle. Hiking and time in nature can reduce these emotions. I know I feel calmer and more centered after a hike, and this activity can help your kids be mentally healthy, too.

Inspire Creativity

Are your kids struggling with a troublesome social situation or a big test? Hiking provides an escape from the daily routine and inspires creative problem-solving. You'll appreciate this benefit, too.

When was the last time your family took a hike? Today's a great day to go on a nature adventure. With these nine benefits, you'll enjoy a healthier and happier life. See you on the trail!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tinkering Tots! 7 Ways That Play Helps Kids Grow into Thinkers and Inventors

Photo by Pascal (Flickr)

When you consider the great thinkers and inventors of all time, who comes to mind? I think of philosophers like Plato and Ayn Rand and inventors like Marie Curie and Thomas Edison, but plenty of kid inventors also come to mind. Maybe one day, my own girls and your kids, too, will join the list of greats. There's no better time than childhood to hone their thinking and innovating skills, thanks to these fun play ideas.

Building Blocks

Blocks are a basic toy most kids enjoy. I know my girls like building houses, garages, and towers with large blocks and Legos. I've also noticed that in addition to having fun, my girls learn persistence, physics, how to break large tasks into manageable pieces, and patience when they play with blocks. Those lessons are all traits that thinkers and inventors have in common.

Playgrounds

On the playground, my curious kids are always looking for new and fun ways to use the equipment. The jungle gym helps them escape from zombies, and the slides transform into enemy castles they can conquer. Even playing with other kids helps my girls become more flexible in their thinking, and those creative, imaginative, and problem-solving skills shape their ability to think and invent.

Art

If you think art is useful to express creativity, you're right! I've watched my girls spend hours drawing pictures and choosing colors that move the image in their mind onto paper. By persevering until the project is complete, mixing colors to make new shades, and trying different media, art also becomes a wonderful way for kids to practice creativity and express themselves.

Role-Playing

I get so excited when my girls and their friends decide to put on a play. They write the script, set up the props, and dress their parts. Watching them work through the process reminds me of how role-playing builds thinkers and inventors. After all, it takes creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, and imagination to put on a play, invent new technology, or cure cancer!

Sports

Do you think of teamwork when you think of inventors? Orville and Wilbur Wright worked together to build the first in-flight airplane, and every great thinker needs a teacher. Our kids also need to learn teamwork and collaboration, which they can do when they play sports. Sports also teach kids to make decisions, be confident, and persevere as they train to become thinkers and inventors.

Modeling Clay

It's hard to imagine that one tiny ball of modeling clay can teach our kids so many valuable lessons, but I've watched it in action. In addition to helping my girls express themselves, clay play helps them hone their mechanical skills and learn to cooperate as a team. Even the acts of concentrating while following a pattern, restarting a project that didn't work right the first time, or waiting for clay to dry prepares our kids for their future.

Obstacle Course- and Fort-Building

Have you ever watched your kids try to build an obstacle course or fort? I know my girls spend more time building it than actually playing in it because they have to come up with just the right design and then figure out how to get all of the parts to fit together. Those engineering, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills all help our kids succeed in life.

Maybe our kids will grow up to become the great thinkers and inventors of their generation. Or maybe they'll become influential teachers, architects, politicians, or parents. No matter what the future holds, out kids need to play. It teaches them important skills that prepare them for their future. How will you encourage your tinkering tots today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

9 Fun Ways for Kids to Keep Learning Over the Summer

Photo by vastateparksstaff (Flickr)

Summer break may be your kids' favorite time of year, but typical students lose two months of math skills over the summer, according to the National Summer Learning Association. This season is also the time of the year when parents struggle the most to find productive and entertaining activities for kids. I think summer can be filled with learning opportunities, and they don't have to be boring or dry. Here are my favorite nine ways to help my girls actively learn as we have fun together.

Play Outside

Learning can happen in a structured classroom with a desk, paper, and pencil, but my girls won't learn that way this summer! They'll explore nature, engage in pretend play, and meet new friends at the park as they stay active mentally and physically.

Teach Your Kids to Cook

Yogurt-covered blueberries, garden salads with homemade croutons, and zucchini pizza are just three tasty recipes my kids will learn how to cook this summer. We'll also search our local farmers' market for other fresh and in-season fruits and vegetables. While the end result of our cooking sessions tastes yummy, my girls also exercise their brains as they read recipes, follow directions, and use safe cooking practices.

Go Stargazing

Armed with library books on astronomy and a small telescope, my girls and I will spend hours on clear summer nights searching the stars for constellations. Not only can we sit in our backyard for this fun activity, but I also appreciate that they're learning about astronomy, reading, and having fun.

Visit National Parks

With 59 national parks in the U.S., you're probably within driving distance of at least one. I know we are, so I'll turn the trip into an education for my kids by having them use library or online resources to plan the trip itinerary, learn more about a park's history, and find local wildlife and plants. My girls will also create a travel guide, journal, or scrapbook with their findings so that we can remember this fun and educational trip for a long time.

Start a Rock Collection

Your kids don't have to be geologists to enjoy collecting rocks. I know my girls simply gather pretty, textured, and unusual specimens while hiking, and they've found some cool ones at our local park or while walking around town. Then, they use books and online resources to identify their new collectibles. Your kids might enjoy this fun and educational summer activity, too.

Read

Whether your kids are avid or reluctant readers, get them to read this summer with a few literacy resources and tricks.

  • Join the local library's reading challenge and earn prizes or other rewards.
  • Race each other to see who can read the most books.
  • Start a book club or book exchange with neighborhood kids.
  • Blog book reviews.
  • Read books together.

No matter which tricks you try, reading this summer is one of the best ways to engage your children's minds and keep them learning.

Make Homemade Bubbles

Of course, you could buy bubble solution at the store, but what fun is that? I prefer a homemade bubble solution my girls can mix themselves. Then, we use strings, empty milk cartons, cans, and other unique tools to blow bubbles all around the neighborhood.

Build Your Own Musical Instruments

Repurpose tissue boxes, paper towel tubes, and string into musical instruments as you ignite your kids' imaginations. I store different materials like these in a craft box and let my girls make guitars, maracas, and trumpets. Then, we turn on the music, dance, and play our instruments on rainy days or any day!

Plan a Family Activity Day

Instead of being the activity director every day, I give my kids a chance to plan a fun family day. With a budget, they can decide where we go and what we do. In addition to the trip, they practice budgeting, planning, and time management.

This summer, your kids can keep learning even though they're not in school. I personally like these nine activities and enjoy doing them with my girls. Which activity will your kids try first?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Smiles in Bloom: 7 Ways to Introduce Gardening to Your Kids

Photo by Lee Ruk (Flickr)

Are you a novice or experienced gardener? Gardening provides numerous physical and emotional benefits for your entire family. From grandparents to toddlers, everyone in your family can experience smiles in bloom while gardening, and here are my top seven ways to introduce your children to this fun and beneficial hobby.

1. Visit Community Gardens or Farms to Spark Ideas

During a field trip to a local community garden or farm, your kids can learn more about which plants grow in your area, how to lay out a typical garden, and which jobs must be done to keep a garden healthy. These lessons spark creativity and help your kids think about what your family garden might look like.

2. Start Small Window Sill Containers

Whether you live in an apartment or wish to start small, consider growing a few herb containers on your kitchen window sill. Your kids can pick out herbs like mint and basil that they enjoy eating or ones like lemon balm and lavender that feature an appealing aroma. As your kids choose, plant, and water your small and manageable container garden, they see plant growth in action on a manageable scale.

3. Assign Individual Plots

Instead of one big garden that everyone works on together, section off your plot into individual areas. Smaller plots are more manageable and fun for your entire family, since each person can choose what to plant and the take responsibility for nurturing their section.

4. Provide the Right Tools

Any task is easier with the right tools, don't you agree? Your kids can safely dig in the dirt, pull weeds, and water plants with tools that are easy for them to handle. I suggest you pile in the car and drive to the gardening center where your kids can hold and carry different-sized tools. Once you're home, teach your children how to use those tools properly to ensure safety and fun.

5. Grow Interesting Plants

Think about all the plants you could choose to grow in your garden. Which ones would appeal the most to your children? Would they like to touch wooly lamb's ears, taste juicy tomatoes, or hear corn rustle in the wind? Maybe bright sunflowers or a fun green bean trellis would capture their attention. By choosing fun plants, you set up your family's garden for success.

6. Assign Chores to Everyone

Most likely, you have one or two kids who aren't very interested in the garden. Get them involved in your new adventure by assigning gardening chores to everyone. Take turns each week watering, weeding and checking for new growth. With age-appropriate chores, all your kids can discover the joy and rewards that come with nurturing the family garden.

7. Start a Small Compost Container

My girls love adding our kitchen scraps, yard waste, and newspaper to our compost bin because they know those items become garden vitamins. Your kids might enjoy composting, too, especially when they see that nutrient-rich material improve plant growth and quality. Use guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency to teach your kids how to start a home compost container and what to put into it.

Introducing your kids to gardening opens up a world of wonder for them, not to mention the delicious produce and beautiful flowers a garden produces. You'll enjoy seeing smiles in bloom when you introduce your kids to gardening with seven easy steps.

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

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