does this toy spark joy?

I’m pretty sure everyone on the planet has heard of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show  ‘Tidying Up’ and KonMari method at this point, and with the New Year at least half of my friends have posted on social media about sorting through a mountain of clothes to find what sparks joy. For families with kids, though, the biggest mountain of Stuff in their home is likely to be toys. In a few episodes of ‘Tidying Up,’ Marie tackles kid toys with the same strategy as every other type of clutter - dump it in a big pile and find what sparks joy for the kids. I have to be honest, I winced throughout each of the family episodes. As a nanny and former daycare teacher, I can’t tell you how many playrooms, nurseries, classrooms and kid bedrooms I’ve organized. Decluttering and organizing using the KonMari method sets parents up for failure because it treats toys and kid items like any other possession in the house, when they’re really a lot more complicated. 

Image: A large pile of toddler toys

Image: A large pile of toddler toys

Here are a few decluttering rules that will make the process much easier on everyone:

Kids’ toys are adults’ responsibility.

In the KonMari method, kids participate in the decluttering process and decide for themselves which toys “spark joy.” It’s a nice idea, but for young children it’s just not developmentally appropriate. A huge pile of toys is overwhelming and they will want to start playing (or dumping toys on the floor) immediately. Toddlers and preschoolers also will choose to keep whatever they’re immediately interested in, not understanding the permanence of discarding the rest. And finally, it’s up to adults to make sure kids have a balanced variety of toys for different types of play - gross motor and fine motor, art and literacy, dramatic and constructive, etc. If you’d like to include your kids in the decluttering process, do it once you’ve already sorted and purged. For example, you might show them a few stuffed animals and ask them to choose which ones to give away, or engage them in picking books to put in your neighborhood's Little Free Library.

Image: Baby toys sorted in bins

Image: Baby toys sorted in bins

Sort toys by use, not ownership.

Marie is adamant that belongings should be sorted and separated by each family member, but that just doesn’t work for growing children and larger households. Other than special stuffed animals, I prefer to combine all toys in a central storage area and pull out the materials at the right age range for each child as they develop. This is the first step in a toy rotation system, which will get it’s own whole post soon. But in the meantime, try finding a central toy storage area, like a closet or basement shelving, and only pull out what the kids are interested in using. Start sorting toys into storage boxes and try to narrow down the categories as much as you can - so instead of a big bin of “baby toys” have several small ones labeled “teethers,” “stroller toys,” “play mats,” etc.

Image: Bins of toy trains

Image: Bins of toy trains

What’s visible is available, what’s forbidden should be out of reach. 

You’ll notice that I didn’t just suggest a toy box or a playroom bookshelf. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies even more to kids than adults and the converse is equally true. It’s best to store the bulk of toys out of sight and reach of kids so that you don’t end up with a) everything in a pile on the floor or b) having to say no over and over. At the same time, toys are at their most appealing when they’re neatly set out in plain view, not hidden away in bins, or dumped in the bottom of a toy box. For inspiration, check out Montessori and Reggio Emilia philosophies - both suggest low open shelves with the available toys for the day set out by adults. You’ll be surprised how engaged kids can be when they have just a few appealing toys instead of an overwhelming mess.

Image: Shelves of toddler toys

Image: Shelves of toddler toys

10 reasons to bring your baby outside

There’s a Scandinavian saying that “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing,” and while the US is in a subzero polar vortex that definitely qualifies as bad weather, overall I agree. Parents are often surprised that I take babies outside almost every day in all weather, but for me the benefits of nature far outweigh the hassle of trying to get tiny fingers into mittens or applying sunscreen to a squirmy toddler. Here are ten benefits to taking babies outside.


Image: bare baby legs standing in a field of grass and clover.

Image: bare baby legs standing in a field of grass and clover.

1. Sitting, standing, crawling and walking on uneven surfaces requires balance, coordination, and core strength. You could invest in expensive climbing equipment for indoors… or you could just go to the park!

Image: Two babies in snowsuits sitting and crawling in about an inch of fresh snow.

Image: Two babies in snowsuits sitting and crawling in about an inch of fresh snow.

2. Snow, dirt, mud, grass, flowers, sand, rocks and more become sensory materials that sharpen babies’ sense of touch and fine motor skills.

3. If you have access to garden spaces, babies can eat a variety of fruits and vegetables straight from the earth, giving more interest and variety than pre-made purees.

Image: the feet of two babies sleeping outside in a red double stroller.

Image: the feet of two babies sleeping outside in a red double stroller.

4. Fresh air means better sleep. Throughout Europe, babies nap outdoors, even in winter, and I’ve found that getting outside leads to great naps, even for little babies.

5. Early experiences in nature set babies up for a lifetime appreciation of the environment.

Image: a baby in an orange sun hat crawls in the grass and fallen leaves.

Image: a baby in an orange sun hat crawls in the grass and fallen leaves.

6. The variety of sounds outdoors are endless - even in a city, babies can hear trains, helicopters, sirens, and dogs barking as well as more natural sounds. Nature is also the ideal place for babies to exercise their voices and I encourage you to let babies (and older kids) be as loud as they like outside.

7. The great outdoors lends itself to lots of rough and tumble gross motor play that involves the whole body (and bonus, will tire them out for a great nap!).

Image: a view of a blue sky through tree branches and leaves.

Image: a view of a blue sky through tree branches and leaves.

8. Weather is a fascination for babies who are experiencing everything for the first time. We tend to keep babies’ environments perfectly temperature controlled and sterile, but with proper clothing and for short times, babies can take in snow, wind, rain, heat or fog. Even thunderstorms can be watched with fascination from inside.

Image: A baby in a pink sunhat and orange dress sits in the grass and plays with a handful of grass clippings.

Image: A baby in a pink sunhat and orange dress sits in the grass and plays with a handful of grass clippings.

9. The materials found in nature are completely open ended and allow babies to explore and play however they like, developing creativity and independence.

10. Dirt is healthy! Scientific studies show that babies exposed to dirt and animals before age 1 are less likely to develop asthma and allergies. This idea even has a name - the “hygiene hypothesis.”

Image: a baby in winter clothes sits in the dirt and dead grass.

Image: a baby in winter clothes sits in the dirt and dead grass.

As winter turns to spring, bring your babies outside and see them blossom!

play prompt 13

Montessori discovery basket

The Montessori-inspired discovery basket or treasure basket is a play prompt that allows babies to safely explore a variety of everyday items and simple toys. Look for 5-10 objects that provide a variety of sensory experiences - soft and spiky, metal and wood, quiet and loud. This activity is perfect for babies who are sitting up but not very mobile yet.

Materials:

play prompt 12

If you have a truck-obsessed toddler in the house, expand their creative play by making roads and parking lots out of construction paper. Here, I cut and taped black paper to our art table, then glued on smaller scraps of white and yellow paper to make the traffic lines.

Materials

  • construction paper
  • glue
  • cars and trucks 
  • buildings, trees, or other small world/dollhouse accessories (BRIO pictured)

 

babies and food allergies - tips and recipes

When I started working with babies, we had a list of top food allergens to avoid posted on the wall of the infant classroom. In the past decade, however, the advice has completely reversed, and research now suggests that babies should be introduced to commonly allergenic foods as soon as possible to help protect against food allergies. Baby Led Weaning (BLW), or giving babies finger food instead of purees, has also become very popular in the last few years, so here are some tips on how to introduce the top 8 food allergens to babies no matter how they're fed.

Milk 

Purees: plain Greek yogurt is high in protein and a baby favorite on its own or mixed with fruit purees.

BLW: cubes of cheese like mozzarella or cheddar are a healthy snack - but if giving string cheese be sure to cut it lengthwise to avoid a choking hazard.

 

Eggs

Purees: soft scrambled eggs can be mashed and mixed with veggie purees.

BLW: eggs can be hardboiled, scrambled, or made into omelettes (a great way to add in veggies to a meal!)

 

Peanuts

Purees: stir a spoonful of peanut butter into oatmeal or mix with mashed banana.

BLW: Bamba are a puff-like Israeli peanut butter snack that have single-handedly reduced the rate of peanut allergies in Israel because they’re so popular with children. They’re now available in the US at Trader Joe’s or online.

 

Tree nuts

Purees: almond butter can be used like peanut butter as an add-in to purees or oatmeal.

BLW: ground almond meal can be used in baking in place of flour.

 

Soy

Purees: use soy milk to make cereal, or mix silken tofu into pureed veggies.

BLW: edamame make a healthy, soy-based snack, and many BLW kids are surprisingly willing to eat cubes of tofu!

 

Wheat

Purees: teething biscuits made with wheat flour can be introduced while baby is still on purees.

BLW: this is an easy one - any type of wheat cracker, bread, pancake, muffin, etc will do!

 

Fish and shellfish

Purees: flaked fish can be mixed with vegetable purees, or use fish stock if you have it on hand.

BLW: babies can be given fish as table food, just watch out for bones, which are a choking hazard.

Image: an assortment of vegetables around a bowl of pureed baby food. Credit: Pixabay, CC0 licensed.

Image: an assortment of vegetables around a bowl of pureed baby food. Credit: Pixabay, CC0 licensed.

top 5 baby care myths, busted

Parenting has changed a lot since our parents or grandparents were raising their kids, and science is offering us new understanding of all sorts of aspects of infant care every day. Unfortunately, there's so much parenting advice out there that scientific fact and up to date recommendations can get lost among the outdated information and old wives' tales. Here are 5 common myths about babies and the science-based best practices you should be doing instead!

1. Avoid introducing high risk allergens until age 2.

Recent research actually shows that early introduction of highly allergenic foods like peanuts, eggs, shellfish, etc, makes kids less likely to develop a food allergy.  Doctors noticed that Israeli kids had much lower rates of peanut allergies than those in other regions and linked it to the popularity of peanut butter Bamba puffs as an early finger food for babies. The current recommendation is to introduce a variety of solid foods, including nuts and other risky foods, starting at 6 months.  Nuts and peanut butter can be a choking hazard for young children, though, so try nut butters spread on crackers, stirred into oatmeal, or baked into muffins.

2. Babies who sleep on their backs can choke if they spit up in bed.

According to the AAP, there is no increased risk of choking or aspiration for babies who sleep on their backs, and babies who sleep on their stomachs are at a higher risk for SIDS and suffocation related deaths.  Remember the ABCs of safe infant sleep: babies should sleep Alone on their Backs in a Crib.

3. Flashcards, Baby Einstein videos, and other "educational" tools help babies learn language.

Nope.  The way babies learn to speak is from you!  Studies show that Baby Einstein videos have no benefit to language development.  Talking naturally and reading with your baby, on the other hand, is shown over and over again to be the best way to foster your baby's language development.

4. Rear facing car seats are uncomfortable for kids.

Many parents turn their baby's car seat to face forwards early because they feel their child will be more comfortable or less fussy, but rear facing is perfectly comfortable for babies, toddlers and even preschoolers.  More importantly, rear facing kids are up to 500% safer than forward facing!  Best practice is to rear face until at least age 2, preferably closer to age 4.  Pro tip: many babies dislike the bucket style infant car seats, so if you have a fussy baby, try switching to a convertible seat instead of turning baby around!

5. Putting cereal in a baby's bottle will help them sleep through the night.

Not only does it make no difference to baby sleep, adding cereal to bottles can actually be dangerous itself for several reasons.  Cereal in bottles is a choking hazard, interferes with babies' natural hunger cues, and consists of nutritionally empty calories.  Healthy sleep routines and development are what cause babies to sleep through the night, not solid food.

please touch! (visiting museums with young children, part 1)

This is the first post in a series on visiting museums with children birth through 5 years - stay tuned for Washington, DC museum recommendations next week!


Image: the front of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Image: the front of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

I'm lucky to live and work in Washington DC, surrounded by world-class museums with free admission.  My academic background is in history and archaeology, so I love introducing my nanny kids to the wonderful world of museums from a very young age.  People are often surprised that my toddlers go to museums almost weekly, can behave themselves, and enjoy the outing, but they're favorite spots for both the kids and I, and they'll ask me if we can go to visit the airplanes (Air & Space), Henry the elephant (Natural History), or Marie the ballerina (Degas' Little Dancer at the National Gallery).

1) Have a plan going in.

Start small - plan to visit for about an hour maximum, and don't try to squeeze in things the adults want to see in the same visit.  The more positive experiences children have in museums, the more stamina they'll have for longer visits later on.  Make sure your child is fed, diapered, well-rested and comfortable, keeping in mind most museums don't allow food so cheerio bribery is off the table!

2) Check online for children's programming.

There's a big trend in museum education to welcome visitors of all ages and abilities, so chances are your museum will have events and spaces meant just for kids.  At the various Smithsonians here in DC, there are storytimes, toddler playspaces, art workshops, scavenger hunts, and interactive exhibits appropriate for the under 5 set.

Image: A toddler in front of a display of colorful rocks and minerals

Image: A toddler in front of a display of colorful rocks and minerals

3) Museum manners.

Set expectations with your children before you set foot in a museum.  My kids learn "museum manners," a concept I borrowed from a training with the director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center.  Before we walk in a museum I remind the kids of our museum manners with a familiar call and response chant, touching each part of our body as we go:

Our feet are....

Walking!

Our voices are...

Quiet!

And our hands are...

On our belly!

4) Follow the child.

Sometimes, we're at a museum for a specific event, or I have a plan for what we're going to see based on the child's interests, or books we've been reading.  But other times, I'll just steer us into a relatively child-friendly exhibit and let the kids explore what appeals to them.  Once I spent 40 minutes sitting on the floor in front of a model sailboat with a 2 year old, talking with her about what makes boats move.  Other times they're most interested in the escalators!  Take off the pressure of learning something specific or seeing the most important things, and your kids will lead the way.

Image: A toddler touching a rock with a "please touch" sign

Image: A toddler touching a rock with a "please touch" sign

5. Expand the experience.

Not all museums or all exhibits are perfectly suited to young kids, who learn best through free exploration with all their senses.  Feel free to bring along props children can touch, books related to what they might see, or even art supplies (always check to make sure they're allowed in the museum, and don't bring anything noisy or disruptive, of course).  I especially like doing this in art galleries that are less likely to be interactive than other types of museums.  A great way to create an emergent curriculum is to recognize the area of interest for the child, check out books on the topic from the library, pack up some related toys, and head to a museum with an exhibit on the subject.  For instance, most toddlers go through a phase of being train obsessed - we might note this, read some books about trains together (Freight Train, The Little Engine That Could, Thomas, etc), pack up a few Brio train engines, take the Metro, and go to the transportation exhibit at American History to look at the different types of trains on display. 

With a little planning, museum outings can be fun and educational for adults and kids alike!


Do you bring your kids to museums?  What do they like to see there?

meanest nanny on the playground

 Goldilocks (2) sees another nanny lifting her toddler charge into the highest part of the playground climber.  Instantly she whines, “I can’t do it, heeeeeeeeelllllpppp.”  My response?  “Nope!”

Image: a playground rope climber. 

Image: a playground rope climber. 

 

My nanny kids know I have a rule - I don’t “help” kids on the playground.  I don’t push them on swings, lift them up ladders, or go with them on slides.  As a (mostly) RIE based nanny, I firmly believe that children develop gross motor skills by doing for themselves - they naturally push their own boundaries just enough to learn at their own pace. 

 

When a toddler has climbed up a rock, ladder, or climber on their own, they’ve had to watch themselves every inch of the way, calculating where to place their feet and hands, always conscious of the drop beneath them.  When they reach the top, not only do they feel a sense of achievement, they also have a new, tactile awareness of their surroundings which makes them less likely to, oh, walk straight off a ledge, or try to jump 5 feet from a ladder (speaking from experience!).  If they were able to get up, they’ll be able to get down, and have gained experience, strength, and independence along the way.  

 

I often get dirty or incredulous looks from adults, especially parents, when I practice this free-range philosophy in public.  The current trend is helicopter parenting, with children never allowed to fall and potentially hurt themselves.  But when children aren’t allowed to take small risks in their daily play, they never learn the limits and capabilities of their own bodies, never feel the pride of doing it themselves, and never develop the knowledge of what feels safe and risky for themselves.  So please, parents, nannies, and teachers: step back.  Sit on a park bench.  Bring a book.  Your kid will be better for it.

 

Resources on risk taking and natural gross motor development

Teacher Tom: Safety Play

Teacher Tom:  Eleven Things To Say Instead Of “Be Careful

Don’t Stand Me Up | Janet Lansbury 

The Unsafe Child: Less Outdoor Play Is Causing More Harm Than Good

The Overprotected Kid | The Atlantic