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Friday, March 24, 2017

Self-Guided Growth: 11 Benefits of Unstructured Play

Photo by Henry Burrows (Flickr)

My girls love to play! While they enjoy structured and organized activities like sports, I also make sure they have plenty of time for unstructured or free play, where they choose what to play and engage in those activities with minimal adult supervision or direction. Over the years, I've found that kids gain many benefits from unstructured play. I call it self-guided growth and encourage you to give your kids plenty of opportunities for free play, too.

Builds Creativity

During unstructured play, kids make up their own games, rules, and activities. Their creativity blossoms when they're in charge of making up their own fun.

Develops Critical Thinking Skills

While building block towers, solving word puzzles, and climbing jungle gyms, kids must solve numerous problems and challenges. They'll use the valuable critical thinking skills they develop as they play to succeed in their academic, personal, and social pursuits for the rest of their lives.

Cultivates Communication Skills

My girls like to play with each other and with friends, and I often hear them talking about their hobbies, families, and daily lives. The ability to talk to others and communicate effectively is an invaluable skill cultivated during unstructured play.

Promotes Physical Well-Being

Kids need 60 minutes of play time every day to combat obesity and gain better physical strength. Play also improves coordination and body awareness, making it essential for a child's physical well-being.

Helps Kids Discover Likes and Dislikes

In the past year, my younger daughter has aspired to become an artist, writer, and veterinarian when she grows up, and she practiced being all of these things during unstructured play. Without realizing it, she's developing a list of things she likes and dislikes as she has fun.

Provides Relaxation

My girls spend eight or more hours every weekday following directions and focusing on school work and other responsibilities. Free play encourages them to relax, unwind, and have fun.

Reduces Stress

Even though they're still kids, my girls often feel stressed about school, friendship, and even family obligations. They need time to step away from the stress and enjoy carefree moments as kids while they enjoy free play activities.

Promotes Social Skills

When engaging in free play with other children or imaginary friends, kids learn a variety of social skills. I appreciate that free play promotes social skills like sharing, negotiating, taking turns, patience, and conflict resolution.

Hones Talents

Are your kids interested in music, sports, or art? Provide plenty of unstructured play time during which your kids can discover and hone their talents, abilities, and interests.

Builds Self-Esteem

I want my girls to become confident, courageous, and self-aware. They learn these skills as they make choices and self-advocate during free play.

Regulates Emotions

Almost every time my girls play, they experience a wide range of emotions, which can include joy, anger, fear, excitement, and disappointment. Through play, they develop the ability to regulate all of their emotions and show their feelings in appropriate ways.

Kids receive these 11 benefits when they participate in unstructured play. Encourage your kids toward self-guided growth by offering plenty of free play time. You may even get the same benefits as you join them!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Little Helping Hands: 10 Volunteer Ideas for Children

Photo by Virginia State Parks (Flickr)

As a parent and play advocate, I've discovered over the years that volunteering helps kids learn social skills, develop positive self-worth, and make a difference in their communities. It's also fun. I never pressure my girls to help others, but I do encourage them to participate in volunteer activities they enjoy. My favorite 10 volunteer ideas for children prompt kids to use their little helping hands for good. Your kids might enjoy helping others in one or more of these ways, too.

Donate Unwanted Toys and Clothing

Are your kids' closets or playroom overflowing with toys, clothes, and games? Encourage your children to give away their gently used items and help others. They can set up a toy or clothing swap with neighbors or fill as many bags as possible for the local thrift store or homeless shelter.

Host a Food Drive

Hunger affects millions of Americans, including people in your community. Help your children end hunger with a food drive that benefits your local food bank.

Babysit Younger Kids

Both of my girls love kids, but they're still too young for paid babysitting jobs. That's why I encourage them to volunteer their services. While I supervise, they organize and host play dates in our backyard for the neighborhood kids and learn valuable skills while having fun.

Clean Up the Environment

One of my daughters is passionate about protecting the environment, so she walks around our neighborhood every week or two and picks up litter. Your kids could also pick up litter and debris from a local park, playground, or cemetery.

Make a Grandfriend

Kids who spend time with senior citizens have fun, make memories, and learn valuable social and life skills. Adopt a grandfriend from your neighborhood or local senior center. Your kids can play games, do crafts, and share stories with their new friends.

Repair Broken Items

Last summer, one of my nephews discovered a talent for bike repair. Now, he opens his garage once a month and fixes his neighbors' bikes for free. Do your kids have a talent like sewing, computer repair, or carpentry that they can put to use?

Foster Pets

If your kids love animals, let them become a pet foster parent. The short-term commitment gives your children the opportunity to care for and love a pet, and it could save an animal's life.

Help the Neighbors

When one of our neighbors had a baby last month, my girls and I made her a meal. Since then, my children have helped neighbors unload groceries, walk dogs, and gather mail. What neighborhood needs could your kids meet?

Grow and Share Plants

On Facebook last week, a friend posted pictures of the herbs, flowers, and vegetables her kids started from seeds. They'll give those plants to their neighbors, teachers, and friends this spring. What a fun idea!

Do a Sibling's Chores

I woke up yesterday to the sound of the vacuum, and to my surprise, my younger daughter had decided to do her sister's chore and vacuum the playroom! I love that my girls have learned to serve each other occasionally by voluntarily doing each other's chores.

Every child can benefit from the life skills and lessons volunteering provides. How will you encourage your kids to have little helping hands today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring Fever: 4 Great Ways to Play This Spring

Photo by Wellspring Community School (Flickr)

Spring makes my heart sing! I love the chirping birds, blossoming plants, and warmer temperatures. This spring, my girls and I plan to enjoy some playful activities that are unique to the season. They're sure to cure spring fever!

Enjoy Your First Picnic of the Year

As soon as the temperatures warm up, my girls and I head outdoors for our first picnic of the year. There's something about fresh air that makes food taste better! For our menu, we usually pack tasty foods that are easy to transport like cheese and crackers, apples, and nuts. You can customize your picnic lunch to include your favorite foods.

The backyard, neighborhood park, or a local picnic spot can provide the perfect setting for your picnic. Consider picking a spot with plenty of open space to play and run, and make sure you have bathrooms nearby, too.

Games are next on our list. My girls enjoy Frisbee, and we sometimes take cards, a football, or even art supplies.

Remember to plan for the weather. Sunscreen is a must! I also recommend extra sweatshirts or jackets and umbrellas, since spring weather is unpredictable. And here's one more tip: Consider making a checklist so you don't forget anything. One year, I forgot to take silverware and a trash bag, so now, I always make a "picnic essentials" list!

Attend a Tulip or Cherry Blossom Festival

I enjoy seeing all of the new plant life blooming in the spring, especially cherry blossoms and tulips. My bucket list includes visiting an international cherry blossom or tulip festival in Holland, Spain, Japan, Istanbul, or Ottawa.

Until then, we're considering a road or bus trip to Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan, this year. I'm looking forward to seeing all of the tulips, and my girls are excited about the entertainment, which includes parades and dancing. Join us or visit one of these festivals as you celebrate spring with the beauty of nature:

  • National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC
  • Albany Tulip Festival in Albany, New York
  • Wooden Shoe Tulip Fest in Woodburn, Oregon

Decorate a Birdhouse

A variety of birds fly through my neighborhood every spring, and they're fun to watch. This year, my girls suggested we decorate birdhouses for our feathered friends. I decided to buy a pre-assembled birdhouse at our local craft store, but we also considered kits we could assemble ourselves. For the decorations, we'll use our imaginations. I find inspiration in nature and plan to glue stones, moss, and twigs to my birdhouse. Meanwhile, my older daughter wants to paint her birdhouse bright colors, and my younger daughter will paint her birdhouse to look like a real house, complete with windows, doors, and shingles. When we're finished decorating our birdhouses, we'll hang them in the backyard and have fun bird-watching.

Plant a Container Garden

For some reason, spring makes me hungry for fresh tomatoes! It might be because we plant tasty tomatoes and other veggies and herbs in containers every spring. A container garden is convenient because it doesn't require tons of space or time, and it's fun. Follow these steps to plant a container garden of your own.

  • First, choose your plants. We grow veggies and herbs, but flowers would also work.
  • Then, choose a location. Certain plants need lots of sun, while others only need a little. Consider your plants' needs as you determine whether to place the containers on your deck, windowsill, or patio.
  • You're now ready to prepare the containers. Almost any container works as long as it has excellent drainage. After placing the containers where you want them, fill them at least two-thirds full with a quality potting soil and fertilizer mix from the garden center.
  • After arranging your plants in the soil, fill the container to within two inches of the top with soil. Water generously and enjoy watching your plants grow.

Do you have spring fever like me? Try one of these four activities. They're playful and fun for your entire family!

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

5 Rules of Proper Playground Etiquette

Photo by dadblunders (Flickr)

At the playground, kids burn off energy, make friends, and have fun, but playground safety and fun depend on proper playground etiquette. I follow these five simple rules whenever taking the girls out to play and I've found they go a long way to avoid dampening their fun. They help everyone have fun while staying safe and teach our children important life lessons!

1. Monitor Your Children

Once your kids race off to play, it's tempting to snag a bench and check email, chat with other caregivers, or relax. What happens, though, if a child falls off the swing, is bullied by another kid, or chases a butterfly down the street or out of sight? Monitor your kids and avoid becoming too distracted. As a bonus, your attention boosts your child's self-esteem and shows them that you love them and are proud of their climbing, running, and playing.

2. Promote Sharing

Sometimes when we visit the playground, a kid will hog the swings or skip to the front of the line for the slide. It's annoying, and this behavior affects our fun. That's why I encourage my girls to share the equipment and take turns. When they aren't sharing, I give them a warning, and they know we'll leave if they continue the behavior. When another kid doesn't want to share, I'll encourage my girls to switch activities so they can continue having fun or, in appropriate cases, I'll ask their caregiver to step in.

3. Follow Equipment Age Limits

When my younger daughter was a toddler, she begged and cried to go on the big slide by herself. However, it was way too high and fast for her. On the other hand, we saw a teenager try to squeeze himself into the baby swing yesterday, and I had to ask him to stop before he broke it. Proper equipment usage is essential for playground safety and fun. Before you visit the park, set ground rules so your kids know which equipment they can safely use. If your kid is the one trying to use equipment that's too small, remind them to stick with equipment that's their own size so the playground stays safe and intact for everyone. This also helps to keep the bigger kids from playing around smaller, easily stepped on children.

4. Deal Properly With Aggressive Children

One time, my kids and I visited a park where a boy kept hitting everyone. We ended up leaving earlier than planned, which was unfortunate. Has this ever happened to your family?

Encourage your kids to stand up for themselves without resorting to violence. They can tell the aggressive kid to stop and walk away if the bully continues the aggressive behavior. Also, you can calmly talk to the child's parent or caregiver as you all cooperate to keep the playground safe for everyone. If the aggressor turns out to be your child, leave immediately to show that behavior will not be tolerated and so everyone stays safe.

5. Pick Up Your Litter

I always take snacks when we visit the park; I don't ever want to be caught empty-handed. We always pick up our cracker wrappers and juice boxes, though, because it's our responsibility to keep the park clean. Bring a plastic bag for your trash and other park litter (don't forget the hand sanitizer!).

With these five rules of proper playground etiquette, your kids can stay safe and have fun as they play. What other etiquette rules do you encourage your kids to follow on the playground?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

6 of the Coolest Parks and Playgrounds in America

Photo by wizardbearr (Flickr)

At our local playground, my girls and I enjoy playing on the swings, monkey bars, and basketball court as we socialize with friends. We love our playground! That's why we're celebrating Take a Walk in the Park Day on March 30. I've discovered six cool parks and playgrounds across America that offer a variety of exciting, educational, and playful attractions. Join us in taking a walk through one of these fun, entertaining, and cool sites with your family this month.

Imagination Playground in New York City

When I think of a playground, I think of play, but kids do so much more than play at Imagination Playground. This New York City attraction is also interactive and minimalist and encourages kids to be active during fantasy and co operative play. Kids discover and imagine as they maneuver, stack, and connect objects like sand, water, blocks, mats, wagons, and fabric. They can also climb, jump, and run. Basically, this outdoor space is a giant playroom that provides hours of engaging, entertaining, and creative fun.

Harry Thomas Sr. Playground

We know that playgrounds are supposed to be fun, but Washington, D.C.'s Harry Thomas Sr. Playground also incorporates math. Its design is inspired by the Fibonacci sequence, with curving paths and play equipment shaped in Fibonacci spirals. Other features include a fitness loop, rain gardens, basketball and tennis courts, and a shaded picnic area. Visitors also appreciate the community gardens and ADA-accessible walking paths. Kids can play, learn, and socialize while enjoying this pretty and cool playground in our nation's capital.

Woodland Discovery Playground

When designing the Woodland Discovery Playground in Memphis, Tennessee, its creators asked kids for input. The result? A fun and innovative playground! It's divided into six play nests connected via ivy-covered walkways, and visitors play together with slides, sand, tree houses, climbing nets, an open grassy lawn with picnic tables, and more. In addition to the play focus and ADA play elements, I appreciate that the playground is certified by the Sustainable Sites Initiative to meet stringent international standards for play.

City Museum

Talk about a playground designed for creativity, adventure, and learning! City Museum provides all of these features and more. It's housed in a 600,000-square-foot St. Louis, Missouri, building and includes dozens of attractions, many of which are made from reclaimed building materials such as chimneys, tiles, and bridges. During your visit, ride a 10-story spiral into the building's basement, play in the giant tree house, or ride in the 30-foot Ferris wheel on the roof. You can also crawl inside two airplanes, swing on a rope swing, and explore a series of underground tunnels as you enjoy one of the most eclectic playgrounds in the country.

Neptune Park

My girls can't wait to visit Neptune Park in Saratoga Springs, Utah, and climb the largest play pyramid in the country! It's 30 feet, or over two stories, tall, is made from metal, and includes rope netting for safety. But the pyramid is only one feature of the 10-acre park. Swing on the teeter-totter swing and regular swings, make friends on the toddler and older kids' playgrounds, and climb a crazy rock wall. You can also play Frisbee, basketball, or soccer, explore nature, and dine in the large pavilion or open air when you visit this unique park.

Encanto Park

Located a few blocks from Central Phoenix, Arizona, Encanto Park offers 222 acres of fun for kids and adults. Enjoy nature walks on the trails, go swimming in the pool, or share a picnic. Visitors may also go fishing, canoeing, or paddle-boating and observe waterfowl and ducks in the lagoon. The park also includes a playground, two golf courses, and an amusement park plus a sports complex where you can play softball, volleyball, basketball, racquetball, handball, and tennis. Encanto means "enchanted" in Spanish, and this park certain lives up to its name, in my opinion!

Are you ready for a different play experience? Try one of these six playgrounds. They're innovative, fun, and engaging for kids of all ages. Which one will you visit this month?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart