Our boys and their toys

Recently in a parent‘s consultation we were told that Leander was reluctant to take the Montessori materials off the shelves and they asked what he was interested in playing with at home. We said: “Toy cars.“ But those are not allowed in The Children‘s House. They are not part of the Montessori Concept. In fact: They had toy cars and cards accordingly so the kids could match the cars with the cards. But all the boys did was play with the cars, not the material as it was meant to be. So they took the cars away. They also took the little London bus that served as a moneybox for which they had provided little buttons in a basket to put inside the moneybox. But as you may guess – the boys only played with the bus as a bus, not a moneybox. 

A mom on twitter recently asked: “My son (2,5) has been obsessed with sea animals for months now. He can name them all and is extremely interested. Should I leave him or should I help him take interest in something else, because it has been going on for so long now. And how can I do that?“

What is our fear when we try and move the focus of our child‘s play to something else? That he could miss out on something important? And if so – what?

There is so much to learn when you are a child that we as parents often feel the need to fill our kid‘s brain with information. Constantly. And who can blame us? As soon as we become parents we ourselves are filled with information and offered all sorts of classes and groups to attend that encourage and foster all sorts of life-important areas such as music, creativity, language, science. You name it. Parent-infant classes as Emmi Pikler or Magda Gerber ( http://www.rie.org/classes/parent-infant ) offered are questioned because the children are not given any input, no songs are sung and no activities lead. What is the point if the child is not learning anything?

What we might miss out on from the very beginning is trust. Trust in our own children, that they have it all and are able and most importantly willing to learn. Maria Montessori said: “A child cannot NOT learn.“ Whatever a child does – he is learning. It‘s just not always obvious to us adults who seem to know everything but in fact quite often – seem to know nothing. This trust is taken from us during those first days, weeks and months when we start focusing on children‘s play and age appropriate toys. Every packaging of a toy has a big bubble blown up that states what this toy is encouraging. May it be “just“ creativity or even logical and scientific thinking. And it is hard not to look at it and choose just simple play objects. In the end – everyone has it. And is amazed. So there must be something to it, right? Right?

Another reason why parents are so worried their children might miss out if not being offered early learning opportunities in all sorts of ways, is our own background. If we feel we haven‘t achieved everything we quickly project those expectations on our own children. So they at least do better in writing, spelling, math, playing an instrument or whatever. And how can this be achieved other than by attending a class that offers it all?

If you have terrible childhood memories because you had a hard time understanding math you might know how that feels. The need to offer numbers, puzzles and counting games at the earliest possibility. And in the end – if it does not help it won‘t harm either, right? Well, we’re not sure. Some experts, who have been working on the concept of play, might disagree. As long as we don‘t understand play as it really is and what it really offers to our children, we might harm them in taking those important hours from them by doing something that “has a point“. Because “The importance of play is, that it has no point.“ ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-childrens-play-is-being-sneakily-redefined/2011/11/15/gIQAMNjdPN_blog.html )

We might not harm them directly by offering them charts with letters to be able to read at an early age. But we harm them by not leaving them enough time and room to explore on their own. To engage with something they are interested in. And maybe even learn to read, write and count in the process – who knows? But how much more fun would it be, if this whole learning was done on their terms, while playing with their beloved cars, sea animals or tea sets?

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. (Fred Rogers)

And therefore we have happily been watching our boys play with cars. But not just that. We have been trying to discover what they are actually learning by “just playing”. Because of course, just like all of the other parents out there, we are curious about what they do when they “just play”. So, is there any learning going on? Even without the special materials, and all the educational toys? We don’t know for sure, but here are some of our ideas of what might be going on. These are not based on Parten’s or Piaget’s categories, they are purely our ways of understanding what our children are doing when they… well, play

Movement – large and small

We have already talked a lot about how important movement is in development of play, and how much of movement is really play. When just playing with cars? Well, there is the pushing and pulling that can get discovered, practised, and practised again – what surfaces and slopes are better for which one? What happens when you pull the truck downhill?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there are the fine, small movements, which we probably barely even think about now that we just have them all in our toolbox – opening and closing tiny doors, and putting little people (or, in A’s case – allspice) inside, taking them out, making sure they are sitting upright and that they all fit – these are all extremely precise movements of hand and fingers. Have a look at how your child is trying to manipulate something small – it really is fascinating!

Language

Car parts. Different types of cars. Different types of vehicles in general. What they do. What kinds of people drive them? What are they wearing? What do these people do? This could go on for a long while… Here we also have a unique opportunity to join in and answer all the questions – starting with pointing and a questioning look on a face of a very young baby, up to probably much much later and all the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

The only thing we have been very careful of is not to have an agenda. If they ask what color the car is, we try and answer ‘yellow’ – not have them guess, or try and make them remember. We believe the trust the boys put in us by asking us to tell them names of things in the world needs to be respected for what it is, rather than unnecessarily tested.

Serious science

Playing with cars has been a source of some serious scientific discoveries for our boys. These are just some of them:

  • Hypothesis: Some cars, when pushed, go faster than others. Tested for the van versus the truck. Will it also be true for other cars? Which ones?
  • Hypothesis: Some cars are much bigger/ heavier/ longer than others. Tested. True, with different answers for different combinations.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars will fit into other cars. Tested for some, true for some.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars break when thrown on the floor. Tested for one. Enough proof obtained. Not willing to test on others.

And of course there are the many categories that they have been using to organize the cars – by size, speed, length, color… These discoveries are particularly engrossing; it takes hours to figure out just the right way, and is as fascinating to watch as any Discovery channel documentary. These categories, discovered on cars, sea animals, tea sets, so early on, help all of us understand life later on without going crazy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therapeutic play

A. became scared of flying, especially take off and landing, once he turned 2 and had to be in his own seat. On our return from a first trip like that, he dug out a plane tucked neatly among his many cars. He was practising taking off and landing for a couple of days. He put his plane in the air (on the windowsill), then took one of his cars (that’s right, cars!) in his hand and proceeded to explain to the car: “You are bigger now, you will have your own seat on the plane. You can hold my hand.” I watched quietly as this play continued for another few days. We were due to take another flight in a week or so. It was much better.

 

(Also have a look here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/10/the-power-of-play-therapy-and-4-ways-to-encourage-it/)

 

Fantasy play: cars aren’t always cars, you see…

… sometimes they are potatoes, when you need to go shopping and fill your bag with them; sometimes they are chopped veggies that will taste so nice for dinner tonight; sometimes they are people, or animals. They really are what you want them to be. Just like acorns can be coffee, once you put them in a cup, or a turtle can be a table when you put a cup on top of it.

Which is why it’s ok that our boys don’t have all the toys in the world – they really only need the ones they have. If they did have all those toys, would it be half the fun?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh and just maybe – social stuff?

Kind of funny, but it is also quite amazing. A. has two tractors, but only one little cart that goes on the back of the wooden tractors. I have just found out recently that the two tractors share the cart.

A. usually explains to one of the tractors that the other will now borrow the cart, but that later it will be back. Not quite what is happening on the playground yet.

 

 

So does it matter that they have been playing mostly with cars for… well, quite a while now? We’re not too worried about that, to be honest.

It doesn’t matter what you play with, but what and how you think and feel as you play. You can play intelligently with a doll […] and you can thoughtlessly read books. (Janusz Korczak)

It doesn’t matter if our boys are playing with cars, sea animals, or tea sets. What matters is how they think and feel as they play. And to let them develop in this thinking and feeling as they play, to let them discover the creative possibilities and scientific facts, we are choosing to give them the freedom to choose what they want to play with, how they want to do it, and the time and space for their explorations.

What about your children – do they have their favorite toys, or play objects? What are they? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Weaning part 2: The big transition – From breast milk to soft boiled eggs

Imagine you work in an office. You have been working there for about six months now, all is going well, you like the people around you, you know where everything is and who to ask for help. One morning you come in, and the key you used to open the door doesn’t work. Someone walks past and hands you a card, without a word, smiles and walks away. Ok, this card is different to any you have used before, how do you get it to work? You try and try, someone finally walks behind you, quickly does the trick for you and lets you in. You notice the office looks different, things are all in the wrong places. And someone was definitely playing with your chair! How can you work like this?! You look around, but nobody seems fussed, everyone is smiling at you, even though you have no idea what is going on.

What does this have to do with weaning?

Weaning is a change from something familiar, something your baby is used to, comfortable with, and ‘knows how it works’. Weaning is a big transition, it is a big step and a moment when everything changes – from the comfortable, familiar feeding sessions, it’s all new and different. How?

Spoon?

Whether until now you have been bottle- or breastfeeding your baby, introducing a spoon is a very different thing. Your baby has no idea what it is, why it should go anywhere near his mouth, and what you want to do with it. Imagine you are blindfolded and someone is feeding you something with a weird stick. Spoons are a normal thing in our household, we don’t think about them anymore – and why should we? But it’s something our babies have never used, seen, and it is to go in their mouth – it’s pretty intimate.

And that thing that is on the spoon? What is that?? Where is my warm, yummy milk?

Food?

It’s different consistency. Different taste. Different texture. Different color. Probably also different temperature. It is as big a change, as it can be. Again, try and remember when you are invited somewhere and you end up being offered something that looks like nothing you’d ever eaten. If you have travelled a lot, it probably happens all too often – how do you react? What is your first thought?

When we were travelling I often got offered food that looked like nothing I had ever seen. My first thought often was – I hope it’s not made of insects. I can assure you, I had to work really hard on keeping a straight face more than once when I saw what landed on my plate, or banana leaf. It takes time and a lot of courage – at least for me – to let something so unfamiliar end up in my mouth. It came back to me when we were feeding Antek in the first months – once I remembered that feeling, it was easier to give him all the time he needed to open his mouth and let us feed him. (Anna)

Position?

Until now, your baby was comfortably cradled in your arms while nursing, with the possibility of close body and eye contact. How can we keep this from changing too much, when we move on to the next stage?

Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber advocated for no high chairs. One of the reasons for not using high chairs is that often we start weaning before babies can sit up by themselves – we need to then put them in a position into which their bodies cannot yet get naturally. Another one being that babies will not be able to get in and out of high chairs by themselves, even as they grow older. It might be exactly the tempting thought of that, that makes parents go for it. But do you really want to tie your child to their seat with food in front of them? (We had a high chair in the beginning, and moving Antek to our lap after a while made us aware of how much more intimate and enjoyable the feeding was. He was close to one of us, even when the food was somewhat strange the body contact helped him relax and feel a bit more at ease with the whole situation. Anna)

Of course it’s impossible to keep your baby in the same position that you did while breast- or bottle-feeding, but there are a few differences between the cuddled arm position and the high chair.

Everything really is different when we start the weaning process. Change is something we need to get used to, something we need to tame so that we can work with the new conditions and new expectations. New passages have to form in our brain (that takes time), and we need to develop new habits – this, as we all know too well, takes a lot of time. How can you help?

Here is Emmi Pikler’s way to baby-led weaning

Emmi Pikler intensely focused on all the different changes that come along when weaning your baby, and she suggested that there should always be just ONE change at a time. So when moving from breast/bottle milk to spoon-fed solids there were many little steps in between.

Those include:

  • Offering milk or tea in a glass instead of bottle or breast;
  • Once the child is used to the glass she would also offer first mashed vegetables from a glass (a little more on the liquid side obviously);
  • Only when the child is used to glass AND the new taste and consistency of food would she introduce the spoon;
  • And once the spoon is a well-known companion, the food would get more solid, the position of feeding would slowly change to be a little more upright;
  • Once the child is used to the new food, the spoon and the position he would be placed on a little chair and by a small table (by then his motor development would allow this)

In terms of positioning the baby when offering solid foods Emmi Pikler suggested a slow transition process too. From the arms of the caregiver the children would move to a half-seating position on the lap. And then, once they were (i) able to sit up by themselves, and (ii) used to something other than breast or bottle, would she allow placing them at a little table. The chair was matched for size, so the child could get on and off by himself.

When I first saw this little table – apart from finding it lovely and cute – I thought – I don‘t want my child to sit in there while I have dinner with my husband at our table. It felt like leaving him all one. Little did I know that at an age where a child is sitting at a table that small there is no common family meal. There is no „having dinner together“. 

We didn‘t buy this table but got a high chair that he could climb up himself (obviously much, much later). Only after a few months and „disturbed“ meals where I had to take care of him and go back to feeding him on my lap instead of us all just enjoying a meal together I realised that children not only take food at meal times. They take our attention. It‘s nourishment for the body as well as for the soul. (Nadine)

Pikler‘s thought was the same as with the diaper changes – when a child has had our undivided attention and full presence during those feeding times, he would be able to engage in play on his own while we – the parents – enjoy our meal together.

This sounds like a lot of work. Much to think through before starting with solids. And a long walk from breast- or bottle feeding to the meal at the family table. But in the end – this is what it is. A long journey. A big transition. From being closely cuddled up with just mom or dad while enjoying some warm milk – to sitting at a table with plates and cutlery, a variety of foods and the constant inner question of being full or not.

„Family meals are very, very rarely pleasurable when babies are included. Not only do babies not have any table manners, they need constant attention, create a mess, and I cannot see why such a tense atmosphere is desirable.

I prefer that the parent feed the baby ahead of time (and maybe even for the baby to be in bed) by the time the parents enjoy a well-deserved, peaceful meal. When children can participate in table conversations, they are ready to join the family at the table.“ (Magda Gerber „Dear parent: Caring for infants with respect“)

This may seem very „old fashioned“ to many of you as it did to us too. Now that our boys are 2,5 years old, can mainly eat by themselves and talk (sometimes A LOT), those family meals are finally becoming pleasurable and fun.

But I have to admit that until a few weeks ago it was rather stressful – to have the meal ready on time otherwise Leander would be impatient, 

  • to constantly have to check if he is eating or throwing the food
  • to have him change places (his chair, my lap, my husband‘s lap)
  • to not have a conversation or simply being able to EAT. (Nadine)

During those many parent evenings Nadine attended in the past two years, and the number of talks Anna has had with other parents, feeding and mealtimes were a constant topic for many parents. Most of it has to do with our expectations, our own experiences as a child and our impatience.

We are not denying that there may be problems and not all babies are happy to accept this whole transition at the moment we think is right. And not all babies accept the food we offer straight away. Or the spoon. Or the change in position. But what we are trying to offer here is a little food for thought. So we can understand our babies and lead and accompany them through the whole process mindfully and respectfully. To set a strong foundation for all those future mealtimes that are still to come when our children grow older.

“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last, ‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’ ‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’ ‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.”

The beginning of weaning: guilt, pleasure and information overload

Sometimes the internet does not seem the perfect invention when being a parent. There are too many decisions that have to come from within you and your family. Starting the weaning process is one of them. There is the when, what and how. And many many more questions you surely did not think of before giving birth to your little baby.

And then there is us – mothers – with our own thoughts, feelings, fears and worries, that emerge every time we face a new phase, a new challenge, a new step ahead. Weaning is just another one of them.

(This is the first of a three-part series on weaning and feeding small children in their early days of adventures with eating. Please let us know what you think, and if there is anything else you would like us to focus on in the two (or more?) posts that will follow)

Both of us mostly breastfed our boys, but regardless of what decision you made in the first months, there comes the day – dreaded or long-awaited – when milk is not the main meal anymore, and when the time comes to move on to something else. There is a moment when you start thinking about it for the first time, and you realize (perhaps) that the number of questions you had in mind is nothing compared to the number of possible answers, and the amount of information about everything that is to do with weaning: when to start? what to give? how often? cow’s milk? gluten? fruit or vegatables? iron supplements?

The old-school version (at least how we know it) said wait until 6 months, then slowly start with one small meal a day and see how it goes. This, as far as we’re concerned, is about enough to know about weaning (if your baby is healthy and does not have any allergies). But, unfortunately, both of us also love the question and answer game. And finding information. More often than not, it is useful, good, and once you get the hang of where to look you’re fine. But that, very often, is not a calm and collected way in which new mums look for information, especially not online. Ask your doctor, if you have one, or a nurse. Aks your friends. Look fort he information you need once. And then just move on – you have what it takes. And you have all you need.

So of course, there is the 6 months mark. But then there are new studies coming in. And of course there is also Annabel Karmel or any other influential celebrity of choice.

When Leander was about 3-4 months old a new study was published that suggested to start weaning at the age of 4 months already in order to avoid the risk of allergies. Before that all I heard was that breast- or bottlefeeding until the age of 6 months would be best for the child. Mothers. Pediatricians. Midwifes. And everybody else who thought to know all about it led long and painful discussions about what is best for a little baby‘s long term health.

It was dreadful to read or listen. But something told me that neither nor can be stated as right or wrong. It‘s a decision you as parents and your baby have to make privately. Whatever advice you want to keep in mind. So I decided to see how the breastfeeding went and how his interest in food would develop. (Nadine)

What we tend to forget is – every child is different. When we speak about gross motor development or play this all seems logical to us. But why should it be different when it comes to food? So how can we listen to a university professor who wants to tell us that we should do it this way or that? And the pediatrician, who looks at hundreds of little kids in a week, how could he know that our child is ready? Or not?
It is dificult to know when your baby is ready, the overall general guidelines are helpful. But YOU are the one who knows your child. And also YOU are the one who knows yourself. Weaning is the beginning of another part of the journey. For some of us it is easy, for some it comes with a feeling of loss and fear. The most important thing we learnt – trust yourself, and remember you are weaning your baby but also… yourself. Give it time.

The simplest, easiest advice we can offer, based on what we learnt with our sons is this:

When?

  • Roughly around the time when most of the health guidelines suggest, but don’t be too strict – every baby is different, it does not have to be on the day your baby turns 6 months.

What?

  • Easy food. Easy fort hem to digest and for you to prepare. Milk is easy. Whatever comes next will be different. Don’t give them anything you would not eat (I remember a friend of mine repeatedly giving her daughter mashed apples with green peas. ‚She won’t eat anything’ the friend complained. When I asked i fit tastes nice, she replied: ‚I’m sure it’s fine, I don’t really want to eat this’ – Anna)
  • Try to give a range of choices after a while, once you know they are used to the taste (and there are no allergic reactions). Try not to suggest what is good and what is not, even without words your baby is fully aware of how you feel about things (if you really hate something, maybe skip it for a while?)
  • Don’t prepare a feast only to later be disappointed that your baby is not keen to try the new wonderful thing you have so lovingly prepared. Leave the amazing dishes for later, when she is so used to the taste of your kitchen she will really really appreciate it. Put the time into being with her, rather than in the kitchen. Make it simple – for you and for her.

How often?

  • Once a day, small portions.

How?

  • Explain first. Maybe a day or two before you think you might start with the first meal. Tell your baby what will happen. Communicate. Show them the spoon, maybe the food. Next time, it won’t all be new and unfamiliar – making things familiar is a very important part of any change. Remember, you would want to know why the desk in your office looks different, and what happend to the coffee machine?
  • Slowly. Very very slowly and patiently – it is a big change, allow it to happen rather than rush through it. Every day is different – one day mashed carrots will be great, the next they will be on the floor. That’s fine, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you, or the carrots. Leave them and next time try something else. Allow your baby to try somehting more than once so they can get used to the taste. But also – allow them to decide they don’t want something. Surely there are things you don’t like to eat.
  • With a full understanding how difficult this might be, and no expectations of what will happen. It is a big change, but you are there to help him. This is another step you are taking together – both of you. It can be another wonderful adventure, another step in developing your relationship. Food is important, breast or bottle-feeding is important, so is weaning. This is the continuation of the relationship with food – they will learn now how to think about food, and this will set them up for life. The trust in your child that he can do this on his own time, will later pay back with his trust in you. That you will be there when he needs you, but also that you will let him take as much time as he needs. Be respectful of your child by letting her lead the weaning process. Observe to see how she feels about it’ (Magda Gerber)
  • With patience. This is never said enough. With enough patience, so that you are not waiting for another step – enjoy this moment, enjoy the here and now. The moment you are showing your baby what food is. Soon enough they won’t need your explanations. The most difficult part for me was realising that the beginning of weaning does not automatically mean we can bring out the knives and forks, our best plates and carefully prepared meals – That it is a long, long way between this first taste of food, and the time when my son will enjoy his meals knowing full well what he likes and what he doesn’t. When we started giving him food, and when he tried to eat it the first day, I was almost ready to prepare a feast the next. Of course, the next day no food went anywhere near his mouth… One of the hardest things for both my husband and me was not to take this personally. The food is good. It’s healthy. This whole process is so new to him, that we had to just let him do it, so that finally he could enjoy it – in his own time, not on our schedule. It is paying off now, when we see him willing to try new foods at two-and-a-half, happy to experiment with a fork, asking for more when he is not yet full, and giving the bowl back when he’s had enough. Letting him learn the relationship with food on his own terms has definitely paid off – but those first months were a true test of patience. (Anna)
  • With a lot of love also for yourself. Giving up those precious moments when you snuggle together for feeding might be hard for some. Not for everybody, but a lot of us have felt this tiny tiny sadness that this is the beginning of the end of something, and there is no going back ( http://sydneysteiner.com/2012/07/01/let-him-live-his-life-a-weaning-story-of-loss-and-separation/ ). There are many moments like this along the way. Admit that you’re sad, or whatever feelings you have. All those feelings are fine. Admit, so that you can move on. We have felt it. Both in the beginning of weaning and in the end – the last moments, when you know these are the last breast- or bottle-moments for the two of you. Cry. Buy yourself chocolate. Go for a walk. Admit to whatever you’re feeling (guilt, sadness, relief – it’s all normal, natural, and it’s so good that you have these feelings, you are a wonderfully emotional human being!), and get ready for the rest of the big adventure. But also – listen to yourself and your baby. If it‘s too hard for both of you – slow down. Starting the weaning process, starting to eat solid foods does not mean there is a deadline to be met to stop bottle- or breastfeeding. Give both of you the time you need. May it be months or even years.

Maybe one of the problems we see with weaning or starting solids is the wording. In the English speaknig world it all relates to weaning your baby. Stopping the milk supply no matter if breast or bottle have been given. In the German speaking world it‘s called „starting solid food“ so it‘s all about your child finally eating instead of drinking.
What if we call it a big transistion in your child‘s life? Where the aim is to make it as smooth and comfortable as possible. Not to replace morning, lunch or evening feeding session. Not to eat at the family table. But to go with the flow of nature, that milk at some point might not be enough, that interest in solid food grows and the path is a process. No handbook available. Only then can we go back to our inner feeling, observing our child and realising what he needs most right now.

We should not forget – food is about relationship as well. The relationship with our own body. While eating we try to constantly listen to myself. Am I enjoying this taste? Is it too cold or too hot? Am I still hungry? We as adults have almost forgotten to eat like that. Our children haven‘t. This is a huge gift we can give them – the ability to listen to their bodies when eating. To Stop when they’re full, say no when they’ve had enough (surely we all want our babies to be able to do that once they’ve grown up).

So when accompanying them during this big transition – there are more things to keep in mind than when and what. There is how and how much. And many many nuances in between.

 

Is there anything you found particularly difficult when you started the weaning process? Or particularly helpful? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!