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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!


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.


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