Several years ago I read an article that tried to answer the question “why does my toddler want to read the same book every night?” It’s true – kids want to read the same book over and over again, watch the same movie, listen to the same songs. They crave that repetition and consistency. But, why? Their answer was that almost every experience young children have in a day is a new one. They hear new words, see new things, taste new foods, hear new noises, experience new games and social cues. They are exhausted because they spend their whole day exploring new things. So, they crave consistency and the comfort of a familiar book. It feels good and calming to hear those same words over and over again. Their brains can finally relax because they aren’t processing new information.
My kids are no longer toddlers and they have had enough life experiences that they can find comfort in the familiarity of our daily routines and the schedules established at school. But that doesn’t mean that they should stop exploring their world. As a parent, I firmly believe that one of the most important things I can do for my kids is to provide them with an environment that allows them to explore. And there are so many ways for them to explore the world – inside and out. I’d like to share with you how we have set up our home and our basic parenting philosophy that allows my kids to be explorers.
This is an obvious one. Kids need to be outside A LOT. We are fortunate that we have a large yard and woods to explore. As long as the weather cooperates I make sure the kids get outside every day. They ride bikes, play on the swing set, throw rocks into the wood, play in the sandbox and catch bugs. Some days we have somewhat structured play outside and we go for walks or scavenger hunts. The best days are the days that they create their own games and “get lost” in the woods for hours. Don’t worry – I can still see them from the living room window then they are “lost”!
But, outside doesn’t just have to be the backyard. We love exploring local parks and playgrounds. On my more adventurous days we explore different areas of the city. Kids absorb so much from their environment and need to experience the world outside their own neighborhoods too!
I am an avid reader and always have been. As a kid I would hide in my room reading the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins. As my taste in books grew I devoured Gone with the Wind in one weekend. Books allow us a glimpse into a world that we may never experience – whether it is a foreign country, a historical period of time or just life from someone else’s perspective. We probably own too many books for kids – my husband would definitely agree with that statement. But, I love that the kids have their own library and can find something to read all the time – a chapter book, a picture book, fiction or non-fiction. In this digital world I think it is important to teach our kids how valuable books are.
Interestingly, my seven year old and I were reading “The Little Prince” a few nights ago and he asked me what “lugubrious” meant. I didn’t have the answer so I introduced him to the dictionary and we looked It up together. I had to teach him how to search alphabetically and we located the word and read the definition together. For anyone who is interested lugubrious means “looking or sounding sad and dismal”. Anyway, I know that for most of his life he’ll just type the word into google and get an answer to his question. But, I want my kids to also appreciate the knowledge that is held in books.
I have always read to the kids A LOT. We read every night at bedtime. Now that they are all in school we rarely read during the day but when they were little we read books together at all times of the day. They all love books and even my kindergartners “read” in bed at nights. I try to mix it up a little and read both chapter books and picture books with them. A typical evening involves over an hour of reading for me but I love the time with the kids and it works for us. First, I read with the twins – typically a chapter in a chapter book plus one picture book. Then we alternate nightly and one of them will read us a short reader book. Once they are tucked in bed I read chapter books with my older son. I like to choose books that are more advanced than his reading level so he can explore the ones at his level independently. Currently, we are working our way through the Harry Potter series and we both love this time together. I am so proud that he loves reading and flies through his chapter books. Ok, I’ll get off my reading soapbox.
Explore through Art
Kids love to create. My daughter wants to be an artist when she grows up and would spend all day drawing, painting and playing with tape if I let her. Now that the kids are a little older I have moved a lot of our crafting and art supplies into the playroom so they have full access to them. I have another post planned to share what I consider the essential art supplies for kids and how we transitioned our play room into a more creative space. Just last night my daughter was creating princesses and unicorns with her stencils and decided to cut them out. Then she taped them to pospsicle sticks and put on a play for us. Without free access to her art supplies this amazing moment never would have happened.
My kids create more “art” with boxes, egg cartons and other bits of trash than I’d like to admit. I keep a big bin of these “supplies” in the closet and I am always amazed at what they create. Lately, they have made their own battlebots and spent hours battling; my daughter made a car for her American Girl Doll and my son made a “kitty house” for his ever growing collection of stuffed cats (that’s a story for another day!) The point I’m trying to make is kids need to create and it is our job to give them a space to be creative. Is it messy? Did I spend twenty minutes cleaning up glue today? Yes and Yes. But it is worth it – a little glitter never killed anyone!
Explore in the kitchen
My kids love to help in the kitchen. On busy nights I want to shoo them away so I can just get dinner on the table but I try to find tasks that they can help with. Our chopped mushrooms might look a little funky and our salad spinner gets a lot of use but the kids have fun. I have found that they try more new foods when they are involved in the cooking process. Definitely a win in my book. There is so much to learn in the kitchen – not just how to cook, but we practice reading and math when we study our recipes and measure ingredients.
It is important for kids to be exposed to different foods and to understand where the food they eat comes from. My younger son loves poms – those little pomegranate arils that I buy in bulk at Costco. But, I decided that he should learn where they actually come from so I bought a pomegranate and we opened it up and explored all those little seeds. It was quite the mess – my hands were red for days. But, a year later he still talks about it. He remembers where those little seeds come from. And I now know why I am willing to pay so much for a small cup of Poms.
Explore through Creative Play
As my kids have gotten older the number of toys in our home has started to decrease. But, as I am purging I realize that the toys that have lasted through the years are the ones that allow for open ended creative play. The electronic toys that light up and make crazy noises have disappeared as they really didn’t have much purpose. And although they don’t play with the kitchen as much as they used to – every so often I am invited to a party or asked to be a guest at a new restaurant. The play is more elaborate now – they create menus and charge me for my food!
Just as my daughter will create stories with her dollhouse the boys make “setups” with their playmobil castles and pirate ships. On a rainy weekend day they can disappear in the basement for hours. When I see the “mess” on Sunday night I remind myself that it is evidence that they spent the day lost in their imaginations. I will definitely miss this stage of play as the kids continue to get older. The art of creative play seems to be disappearing in this age of electronics and video games. But I am doing everything in my power to hold on to this play stage of childhood.
Explore through Building
Building is what my kids do with most of their free time. We have had magna tiles for five years now and they still love them. They build amazing things and use the blocks in ways I never imagined. I love watching them problem solve when they get frustrated that their buildings fall down. I’ve learned that my older son is more patient than me – he will keep adjusting his plan and trying new strategies to make a building stand. I would just get frustrated and walk away – but he keeps at it until he gets it right.
They also play with their creations – combining building and creative play. I love every minute of it! We have so many different building toys – playstix, Lincoln logs, large bricks, several different marble runs and everyone’s favorite – LEGO’s. I have another post about how we organize our LEGO’s to keep sets separate from our “free play” LEGO’s. The most important thing I have found is that the kids need a designated place to play with their building toys. If the table is full or the room is too messy I find that the toys are ignored.
Explore through Helping
This could be a post all to itself but kids need to feel useful in this world. I have never had chore charts or assigned weekly chores to the kids. But, I do expect them to pitch in and help me when I ask. And they know it! There are days I don’t ask much of them but if we are working in the yard those kids will be weeding alongside me. They are great at baseboards and vacuuming the rug after dinner. Separating laundry, matching socks and folding sheets might seem mundane – but that’s life. Helping Dad put together new IKEA shelves seems like a fun adventure when you are his “big helper”. It is important to give kids the opportunity to contribute to the family and help. And yes, they are exploring – they are learning important life skills.
Kids seem to be constantly entertained – either by electronics of all varieties or well-meaning adults who plan out their every minute. In the car they watch movies and play video games. They study by playing games on the iPad. They have a million activities and as moms we try to make every moment of their lives special and exciting. I am definitely guilty of this. But, it is good for us to be bored sometimes. It allows us to learn patience, entertain ourselves with our own thoughts and be comfortable with silence. My son often comes home from school and rolls around on the couch declaring “I’m bored”. That’s fine. Be bored. I’ll give him some suggestions of things to do – but I’m not turning on the tv. That time of just existing on the couch where he appears to be doing absolutely nothing resets him. It is ok to be bored. Last weekend we were driving home from my sister’s house (about a 6 hour drive) and my daughter lost her movie privileges for telling me to shut up. Once again, she was bored. But, she started looking out the window and got lost in her own thoughts. It wasn’t a fun trip for any of us because we were constantly reminded how bored she was – but she survived. We all need to slow down a bit so taking away the constant stimulation and being a little bored allows us to explore ourselves.
As parents if we give our children the right tools they will flourish in this crazy world. There are days I am exhausted and I turn on the tv or let them play Mario Brothers, but I don’t want that to be the norm in our house. I want my kids to be explorers of the real world and I believe we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start.