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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Building Brilliance: 7 Benefits of Constructive Play

Photo by Howard Lewis Ship (Flickr)

Lego bricks, K'Nex, cups, and boxes are a few of my girls' favorite constructive toys. They enjoy manipulating, connecting, and building. And while they play, they gain seven valuable benefits. Your kids can have fun building brilliance, too, thanks to constructive play.

Hone Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills describe your child's ability to control their hands and fingers as they move, grip, and write. These skills improve when kids play with construction toys. For example, I've watched my girls grow from barely being able to stack two blocks to building elaborate buildings. Clicking pieces into place, manipulating blocks, and holding blocks and pieces of all sizes hones their fine motor skills and prepares them to dress themselves, throw a ball, and hold a pencil.

Improve Problem-Solving Skills

The other day, my daughter tried to build a gangplank on the pirate ship she made out of blocks. Her first five ideas didn't work, but she kept brainstorming and finally found a solution. I'm grateful that her toys teach her how to solve problems. Because of constructive play, she's learning to think outside of the box, think quickly on her feet, be flexible, and keep trying until her vision becomes reality and she achieves her goal.

Enhance Academic Skills

Did you know that construction toys actually help our kids succeed in school? My younger daughter's teacher uses blocks in the classroom, and I sometimes pull them out to help with homework. As kids connect blocks and build objects, they practice:

  • Math: Counting, addition, subtraction, and basic geometry all come into play.
  • Reading and writing: Spacial awareness improves a child's ability to read and write.
  • Science: Tinkering and experimenting, kids explore cause and effect, hypothesize, and develop curiosity.

Expand Imagination

Constructive play allows kids to create whatever fantasy they imagine. Last week, my girls built a castle complete with a moat and dragon. This week, they built a tall spaceship. And as they play, they expand their imaginations and creativity that will prepare them to face real-world challenges and problems that require unique solutions.

Teach Focus and Patience

Most kids, my girls included, are not naturally focused or patient. They need these important skills to succeed in school, relationships, and every area of life, though. That's another benefit of constructive play. Kids have to focus as they build a project from start to finish and work carefully so they don't knock over their creation. As they play, they actually become more focused, patient, and prepared for life.

Encourage Cooperative Play

Blocks are one toy that brings kids together. They're ideal for boys and girls, and my girls often work together to create elaborate sets for their stories and search for the small pieces they need. This social interaction during constructive play encourages them to be cooperative, work as a team, and self-regulate. With these skills, my girls are better friends and teammates in their everyday social interactions.

Boost Confidence

I remember when my daughter built her first castle from blocks. She was only four, but she squealed with delight and insisted that I take a picture of it. She was so proud, and that confidence gave her courage to continue to build even bigger masterpieces. It encourages me to see how my girls' confidence grows as they play with constructive toys!

Constructive play offers seven key benefits and builds brilliance. It's an ideal way to play. What other benefits do these toys provide your kids?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, November 28, 2016

7 Benefits of Structured Play

Photo by San Jose Library (Flickr)

What do puzzles, Simon Says, and basketball have in common? They are all games my girls enjoy, and they are examples of structured play, activities that can be led by an instructor for the purpose of teaching a lesson or skill. This type of play is different from free play (kids choose the activity and play without adult guidance) or risky play (roughhousing, climbing, and racing). While all types of play are important, structured play provides seven key benefits and allows our kids to have fun as they learn.

Nudges Kids Out of Their Comfort Zones

When left to their own devices, my girls would play the same familiar games and with the same familiar toys. It's important, though, that they stretch their wings and get out of their comfort zones sometimes. Structured play introduces kids to new games and new playmates. Nudging them out of their comfort zone ultimately helps them become well-rounded and more confident individuals.

Improves Social Skills

One of my daughters doesn't enjoy group play with strangers. She prefers playing with people she knows. In her case, structured play at school, the playground, and summer camp encourages her to make new friends and be more social. I love watching her blossom socially, learn to communicate, and develop important social skills as she plays.

Teaches Teamwork

Life is filled with opportunities for our kids to work in teams. Structured play teaches kids how to respect the abilities and opinions of others, exchange ideas, and put themselves aside in favor of the greater good and the team. I appreciate band, board games, and soccer as three examples of structured activities that teach my girls teamwork. This type of play also equips them to be comfortable leading others and following, two essential teamwork traits.

Cultivates Imagination and Creativity

My girls have big imaginations and well-developed creativity in part because I encourage them to consider imaginary scenes as they play. They become spaceships while zooming through the play room picking up toys, and they turn into minnows while I'm the shark during tag. Even though structured play includes adult direction, many games and activities require kids to be flexible and use their imaginations and creativity. With these skills, kids have fun and cultivate the ability to think outside the box in daily life.

Hones Problem-Solving Skills

When faced with a challenge during a board game, kids have to consider different strategies for solving the problem. I will sometimes coach my girls to help them think about how their move will affect the game's outcome, but generally, I let them think through the situation themselves. These situations hone my girls' problem-solving skills. They're better able to come up with solutions in real life because of structured play.

Develops Emotional Skills

Identifying and expressing emotions is a learned skill. Since my girls were toddlers, I've used structured play opportunities to help them identify and express their emotions. Together, we've worked through disappointments over losing at Uno and frustrations over missing puzzle pieces. We've also learned to empathize with others, show kindness, and acknowledge grief as we've played.

Boosts Physical Activity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 60 minutes of exercise per day for our kids. Use structured play to help your children move. Play hopscotch on the walk home from school, have them run from the laundry room to their bedrooms as they put away laundry, or organize a game of Capture the Flag with the neighbors. This activity can prevent obesity and make sure our kids stay active.

Structured play provides seven key benefits for our kids. It's fun, too! How will you add more structured play time and its benefits into your child's life this week?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, November 25, 2016

How Play Develops Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills

Photo by Bill Benzon (Flickr)

Babies typically say their first word by 12 to 18 months of age, and it sure doesn't take long for their verbal skills to take off! I remember my older daughter talking up a storm by the time she turned two. Meanwhile, my younger daughter preferred non-verbal communication and didn't say her first word until she was almost two. No matter when your kids start to talk, play helps them develop important verbal and non-verbal communication skills in several ways.

Develop the Foundations of Verbal Language

Don't you love hearing babies coo as you sing, read, or talk to them? Those sounds form the foundation of a child's speaking ability. That's why you should talk to babies and kids of all ages often. Babies and toddlers watch your lips and imitate what they hear, so use regular words rather than baby talk. Play plenty of games like patty cake, and read books, too.

Read Body Language

Have you ever noticed how babies watch their caregivers carefully? They're taking mental notes and learning how to read body language, an important non-verbal communication skill. When kids can read body language, they understand that a smile means someone is pleased and crossed arms may mean that a friend is angry. These inferences improve a child's ability to communicate without words.

Express Emotions

I loved watching my young girls squeal with excitement, but I remember their frustrations when they were hungry or tired. I was grateful when they could finally tell me what they were feeling! Play helps kids develop the ability to express their emotions properly. Use puppets, dress-up, and dolls as you expose your kids to different emotions and teach them the right way to express their feelings.

Learn New Vocabulary Words

Preschool was a huge verbal learning experience. It seemed like my daughters learned new words every day as they played with their peers. Kids also learn new words and phrases as they play at home. If possible, introduce a variety of toys to your kids. Their vocabulary will grow as they operate a train, cook on a pretend stove, and draw a spaceship.

Take Turns

While playing with a rattle, babies learn that it makes a sound when they shake it. When toddlers roll a ball to you, they learn that you will roll it back. These two activities are examples of how play teaches cause and effect as well as how to take turns. This foundational skill is essential for communication. It equips kids to be patient, polite, and considerate as they talk with others.

Share Opinions

I've always wanted to empower my girls to share their thoughts and opinions. To do this, they have to know and verbalize what they like. Play is essential for helping kids discover and share their opinions. While enjoying a variety of objects and games, they discover their preference for word, action, or strategy games. They also learn if they like leading, following, or peace-keeping. Make-believe play can even help our kids develop career interests and goals as it equips kids to share opinions on a variety of topics.

I'm a big fan of play for many reasons, including the ways it helps kids develop verbal and nonverbal communication skills. How has play helped your child become a better communicator?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How Can Play Therapy Help Children Heal and Thrive?

Photo by Jeremy Miles (Flickr)

When you think of therapy, do you think of toys, costumes, drawing materials, sand, water, balls, or clay? These fun tools are exactly what play therapists use to help kids grow, thrive, and heal. I've seen it work for many kids, and it makes sense since kids use play to explore the world, learn about life, regulate emotions, and develop their sense of self-worth. Play therapy can help your kids and kids of all ages in several key ways.

Learn to Express Emotions

Instead of using words to tell me how they felt, my young girls stomped their feet when they were angry or squealed in delight when they were excited. It takes maturity and training for kids to verbalize their feelings. That's why play is essential. While playing in a safe environment, children can act out, draw, or verbalize how they feel and discover how to express their emotions every day.

Relieve Stress

Stress is a serious adult problem, but it affects kids, too. They can feel worried, anxious, and stressed about family dynamics, health issues, friendships, and other challenges. Childhood stress can affect their physical health, school performance, and relationships.

During play therapy, kids find stress relief. Not only do they identify and process the causes of their stress, but they also learn how to use play and fun to relieve stress in a natural way.

Work Through Trauma

When kids experience trauma, they often cannot verbalize how they feel. Many adults I know even struggle to work through trauma. So when kids experience something traumatic, they need an age-appropriate way to work through their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Play therapy gives kids the time, space, and resources they need to work through trauma caused by:

  • Relocation
  • Grief and loss
  • Divorce and family dynamic changes
  • Crisis and trauma
  • Hospitalization or chronic illness
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect
  • Natural disasters

If your child experiences one of these traumas, give them access to play therapy. It can assist them in working through the traumatic experience and finding the healing they need and deserve.

Modify Behavior

A few months ago, my daughter experienced several anger outbursts. I was baffled about it until I took her to play therapy. There, she was able to work through her feelings about her best friend moving away.

Almost any behavior can be modified with play therapy. It's useful to address:

  • Anger management
  • Anxiety and phobias
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Pervasive developmental, academic, and social problems
  • Physical and learning disabilities
  • Conduct disorders

If your child's behavior has changed, consider play therapy. It's a non-threatening outlet that helps kids find healing and make positive behavioral changes.

Teach Real-Life Coping Skills

We like to shelter our kids from real-life hurts, but as a mom, I know that's impossible. Instead, we can equip them with coping skills that help them grow and mature.

I appreciate how play therapy equips kids to see situations in a new way and discover and rehearse the right way to approach and handle those situations. They can role-play a social circumstance or practice a hobby like cooking or art that allows them to release pent-up emotions and handle life in a positive way. Play therapy also helps kids take responsibility for their actions, solve problems, and become more self-assured about their ability to find solutions to everyday challenges they face in real life.

Develop Social Skills

I watched my girls play with the neighborhood kids this weekend and noted how one kid used intimidation to get his way while another teased her brother until he almost cried. I did intervene in both cases but also realized that these kids need to develop social skills and learn how to relate to others. Play therapy teaches kids how to respect and accept themselves and others. It also cultivates empathy and respect for the feelings, opinions, and thoughts other people have. Learning to relate to people is a skill kids must learn, and play therapy teaches these lessons.

Close Communication Gaps With Parents

Many play therapists understand that parents play a key role in a child's life success. That's why they introduce filial play therapy, where the parents get involved. Parents who play with their kids enter their child's world. They discover the hopes, dreams, fears, and challenges their kids face, and they can begin communicating more. Closing that communication gap allows parents and kids to build stronger relationships that weather emotional storms and help kids thrive.

Fill a Recess Void

Thankfully, my girls' school still offers recess breaks every day, but many school take this play time away. Computers and TV screens take over at home, too, as kids spend more than seven hours in front of screens each day. That means kids are not getting enough time to release energy, reduce stress, and have fun. Play therapy can fill the recess void and give kids an excuse to play. The therapist can even give kids play homework that keeps them active between sessions.

Now that you know how play therapy can help your kids, you may be ready to use it with your children. Ask your family physician or your child's mental health professional for a referral. Play therapy sessions usually occur once a week for 30 to 50 minutes. Ideally, your child will choose the therapy activities so that they feel safe. I've seen how it works firsthand to help kids grow, thrive, and heal. How could it help the children you love?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Monday, November 7, 2016

Growing Up Grateful: 9 Ways to Foster Gratitude in Kids

Photo by Coconino National Forest (Flickr)

Turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie make my mouth water as I think about Thanksgiving. Yum! Even more important than the food, though, is the gratitude we show at this time of year. I want my girls to grow up grateful, and there are nine specific ways in which I teach them to foster gratitude and cultivate appreciation. These tips can work for your children, too.

Start Early

It's never too soon to teach gratitude! I'm sure you've noticed that kids are naturally self-centered, but they can learn to be grateful and show appreciation. Teach your young children to say "please" and "thank you." They can do this each time you give them a snack or help them tie their shoes, and you, too, can thank your kids when they do something for you. This repetition from an early age helps your children develop a habit of gratitude that will grow as they age.

Role-Play Showing Gratitude

One of my girls is shy. As a result, she struggled a few years ago to say thank you when she received a gift. We overcame this challenge through role-playing. With stuffed animals and pretend birthday parties, she finally learned to be comfortable saying thank you. We even practiced showing thanks for a gift that wasn't exactly what she wanted. Through our role-playing, she has become a more appreciative person.

Create a Daily Gratitude Routine

Every day, our kids face dozens of opportunities to show gratitude. We decided last year to be intentional about showing thanks. Before bed every night, we share at least one thing we're thankful for about our day. Sometimes, my girls are grateful for little things like warm jackets, tacos, and friends, but last week, my daughter was grateful that her friend didn't have to go to the hospital. This daily ritual teaches my girls to be intentional about giving thanks daily.

Serve Your Community

Our children are incredibly fortunate. They are surrounded by so many blessings, and I want them to share their fortunes with others. As often as possible, we serve people in our community. We may serve food at a soup kitchen, clean up a local playground, or play with puppies at the animal shelter. I also encourage my girls to look for ways to help our neighbors. They rake leaves, bake cookies, and unload groceries as they give back and serve the community.

Thank Public Servants

Firefighters, police officers, mail carriers, bus drivers, and teachers are all examples of public servants who keep our kids safe and help them. I find that thanking public servants is a way to teach my girls to be grateful. We give gifts to their teachers, prepare goodie baskets for our local police and fire station break rooms, and make cookies for their bus driver. These acts of gratitude teach my girls to appreciate the public servants in their lives.

Start a Gratitude Bucket

Dozens of good things happen to us every day. It's easy to forget those blessings, though. So I started a gratitude bucket a few years ago to remind us to be appreciative. Every day in November, we write down three things for which we are thankful. We read the list before Thanksgiving dinner. This annual tradition is a favorite way to learn the art of appreciation.

Donated Unwanted Toys

My girls are blessed with a multitude of toys, books, and art supplies. I decided that this year, we would donate some of the items they don't use, want, or love. Donating unwanted toys is a great way for my girls to practice gratitude. We give the items to local families and organizations that are in need. I appreciate that my girls are learning to share and be grateful for their many blessings.

Thank Family Members

My girls are super-excited this month to start writing their holiday wish list. They both have clothing, toys, and other items they can't wait to receive. In addition to material gifts, though, I also want my girls to be grateful for our family members who give them gifts. I ask my girls each year to write a list of things they appreciate about their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This exercise reminds them that the people in their lives are more important than objects. The list is also a special memento for our family members.

Be a Role Model of Gratitude

I know my girls will adopt my words and actions. That means I want to be a good role model of gratitude. Every day, I attempt to show my appreciation. I thank my girls when they do their chores, I thank the grocery store clerk for bagging my groceries, and I thank my partner for picking up milk on the way home. Showing thanks in the small and big things encourages my girls to show appreciation, too.

I think it's important that our kids grow up grateful. In these nine ways, I foster gratitude in my kids. What other tips do you use to teach your kids to show appreciation and give thanks every day of the year?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart