Messy and Creative Kids

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye and captured my heart.  Did you read Knead Slime? These Business Girls Can Fix You Up?

Note: If you should choose to make your own slime, be sure to research the risks of borax, a common ingredient. Consider one of the borax-free recipes instead, like this one that uses glue, laundry detergent, water and baking soda.

I love so many things about this article.  Any time a kid (girl, boy, a kid!) finds a project they can design, plan and execute, they are learning something.  They learn LOTS of things, They learn about learning and working and life in ways that will serve them well, even if their “work” appears to as play.  I know from experience that when such projects are messy, but heck, life is messy.  We had many events that started with separate paint cups and evolved into something like this:

Mess aside, projects like the ones described in the WSJ article reveal how kids intuitively tap into the design process, showing their ingenuity and curiosity.  Self-designed projects also help them develop skills, self-efficacy and neural networks in their rapidly changing brain.

First, they need to come up with an idea or a need.   If you’ve spent any time with tweens, you know fighting is NOT uncommon – whether it stems from nerves, attention, anxiety, boredom or habit. Humans, especially developing ones, are made to move. Fidgeting in school tends to come with consequences, so finding a “fix” is brilliant. Many can attend better with something to touch. Adults have been working on this for decades – everything from punishments and chemicals to alternative seating, coaxing and reinforcing positive attempts to control the fidgeting. Often kids have ideas worth testing and voila! They often work!  Recently, a college senior showed me her Fidget Cube, exclaiming in an energetic voice, “this THING IS GREAT!” There IS a market for learners for something to hold in their hands to soothe or stimulate.

Generic Ledeng Fidget Cube, various products available on Amazon


Second, these entrepreneurs need to design how their project/product will play out. As this article explains, there is research (apparently “slime” is a huge trend on social media, who knew? Teens, of course!).  There is testing the comps – factory bought versus homemade?  Which products work best? What can you dig up from your family’s bathroom to make it sparkle or smell? When can you get the job done?  Do your research, make your plans. Interpretation and Ideation are both key steps in design thinking.

From there, it’s testing and production.  Embedded in all of this are layers of executive functioning skills – initiating, organizing, mental flexibility (shifting from one thing to another – like from homework to slime prep to clean up), and self-monitoring (how am I doing? What can I do differently?).

Read this short overview of Executive Functioning here.

It’s essential that we give kids many, many opportunities to practice and hone these skills, a process which taps the parts of the brain that are constantly re-wiring and developing throughout the teen years and into their early 20s.  This experimentation and evolution are the meat of designing a project and where teens tend to dig into the “work” – taking things seriously, trying new skills and tasks and developing a sense of self-efficacy.These types of child-determined and child-executed projects allow kids to feel true investment and engagement in their important work.

Yes, this IS  WORK.

It’s like your boss throwing a problem at you, giving you the budget and space and telling you to get the job done, and then staying out of your way. Or at least checking in to listen, not problem-solve or micromanage. If you’re lucky, she might even reinforce what you’re doing well and notice your efforts!

It involves making a mess – literally or figuratively – as you dig into the trial-and-learn (not error) phase.  Ultimately, this concludes with skill growth and knowledge  and perhaps, even a workable, deliverable and profitable product. These projects reflect what is most salient and strong in teens.  As the folks at Responsive Classroom point out, “thriving thirteens” like be constructive activities, where they can be introspective.  They also:

want more freedom and will thrive with reasonably increased level of responsibility. Choices of tasks requiring new skills such as such as community service learning, student government, or tutoring younger children can meet with more success than having the only major school responsibility being to get their homework done.”

So here’s the girls and boys who go home after a full day of school and dive into a project that has meaning and relevance to them.  May they learn to do it well, grow in new ways and of course, clean up after themselves!

If you’re reading this and you’re not signed up to stay connected, I hope you do – just click here. Until next time, here’s to a messy and creative life!

Take care,








Brains and Learning

young brain at work

I recently attended the Gurian Institute’s summer conference in Colorado Springs – a spectacular setting with engaging and enlightening content and participants.  It was a real gift to work with these teachers and researchers all week as the presented on brain development and gender and spoke to the implications for both parents and teachers. Early in the week, speakers acknowledged that most of us are aware of how males and females operate differently, but the difference with these presentations is the data which provides the “why” we operate differently (from birth to adult) and how to play to the strengths of each gender.  Really fascinating stuff.

Our brains come hard-wired for certain behaviors and strengths.  What the presenters sought to demonstrate is ways in which we can help children further develop individual strengths as well as help the practice skills which are more challenging for them.  To better understand child deveolopemtn and leanring, we need to have a basic understanding of the neurology of the brain and gender.  Like many conferences and research on child development, it was also abundantly clear that child development is a process– something that requires time, practice and patience to hone despite societal and parental pressures and desires to expedite things.

One blog post cannot do justice to the expertise and research shared over the course of a week. If you are intrigued by child development, perplexed by behavior in your child (or spouse), or want to know more about what makes your child tick, consider the bullets I’ve culled below.  If you still want to know more, head to  and/or for specifics on the research and practical strategies.

Until then, consider these facts:

  • By  4 days after birth, infant girls hold eye contact while boys track movement. Boys spatial sense is activated early in life and their propensity to move helps them activate right brain. Girls seek to connect emotionally.
  • Girls hear better out of both ears while boys have one dominate ear.
  • Boys on average have fewer nerve centers which helps explain propensity for throwing, hitting, rough play; males don’t feel as much pain as girls do.
  • From birth to 20 years, boys put themselves through more experiences of pain on average than girls; while girls may have more longevity, may have fewer injuries.
  • Hormones work at play – oxytocin is a bonding chemical more prevalent in girls’ brains and testosterone is aggression chemical produced more prevalent in boys’ brains. Boys tend to engage in more aggression-type behaviors pushing  at their environment  to control or test and girls try to connect and work to bond (still effort to control, but more subtle).
  • In stressful situations, females’ oxytocin levels come up (as they try to bond) and males’ testosterone rise (act aggressively, interrupt).
  • 37.2% children in US are overweight or at risk; the more obese, less  successful they do in school.  We used to think this was related to bullying or self esteem but now know it’s related also to brain development and learning. Exercise and fitness produces an increase BDNF (brain growth factor, which acts like a fertilizer) and increases number of neurons and improve learning.
  • CDC study from June 2009 found that 1 in 5 child under age of 4 is obese which means we lowered IQ in these kids by what goes into their bodies.
  • Brains are physically mature at age 25 in females; closer to age 30 in males.  Physical development in the frontal cortex is still going on through late teens which will allow young adults to make better decisions, sort out consequences and work more efficiently.

Bedside Reading – a couple users’ guides

look deeper to help discover the enlightened soul in a child
look deeper to help discover the enlightened soul in a child

If parenting were to come with a users manual, Chip Wood’s Yardsticks would be tops on my list.  Many of us  seek support, advice, reassurance, humor, and sanity in the myriad of parenting and child development books on the market. Each offers it’s own perspective and we take from them whatever nuggets suit our needs at the time, but Chip’s work seems to be the reality check I need when I am questioning behaviors or my own approach.

Recently, Chip has been posting on “Positive Attributes” on developmental ages in his blog,  His recent post on “Sensational Sixes” made me laugh with his spot-on assessments of sixes, and many of the reasons I so enjoy teaching first grade – like sixes loving surprises, jokes, silly songs and guessing games.  Their minds are like sponges soaking up new facts and ideas and “conversation cannot be contained “right up to bed time.”

Throughout the years, Yardsticks has been the go-to book I’ve used as a parent and a teacher and each time I re-read a section, I think “what too me so long?!”  Gesell looked at child development in terms of phases, which come with periods of equilibrium (generally smooth sailing at ages 2, 5, and 10 years) and disequilibrium (the emotional instability at ages 2 ½, 5 /15-6 and 11).  More often than not, I return to Yardsticks or the books based on Gesell’s work during those phases of disequilibrium – you know, that “my kid is driving me nuts/I’m driving myself nuts/when will this end phase” when one or both of you are at your wits’ end.  My 11 year old is currently and affectionately called “M of A” because at age 11, he does know more than the rest of us about nearly everything. (a-hem!)  Debate arises for the sheer pleasure of taking an opposing view, most often with yours truly.  Publicly, he is witty, clever, smart, and almost always polite.  He chides my reading and writing on child development and most vehemently anything regarding boys, while insisting that “grown ups think they know what kids think but they are sooooo wrong.”  So I offered to have him be a guest blogger and write something along the lines of “the real story of life as an eleven year old.”  His response was to set up his own  blog with a multitude of entries written in lieu of Legos, tv, video games or skate boarding.  I should have known he’d outsmart me, right? This from a kid who has at times struggled with writing and reading in school while having so many deep thoughts on a range of topics. His writing is heart-felt, honest, and gives a clear picture into his rapidly developing 11 year old mind – “I want people who write about kids to know they know nada….if you think about it, it’s better for kids to write about kids…” Original entries are in need of an editor, but the process suited his purpose (to voice his opinion) in a safe and appropriate forum, which he enhanced his credibility by posting “on-line.”

As he was blogging away, I dug out Yardsticks.  Here are just a few words Chip uses which fit our situation to a T:  constant motion, mood, sensitive, oppositional, rude, unaware, debater,  appreciates humor, loves to argue, challenged by hard work, saving face is important. Ah-ha! It’s not me and it’s not him. It’s disequilibrium and it will smooth out in the foreseeable future. Better yet, it reminded me to choose my battles and give him room to stretch his wings to feel more grown up, but also to not let him take himself too seriously.
As I prepare for a conference this week at the Gurian Institute on gender, brain development and learning (topics of great debate in my house over the past several weeks), I’ve been re-reading several of Michael Gurian’s books.  Many of these would be on my list of users guides for raising children, but one in particular has really captured my heart again.    The Soul of a Child (now published as The Wonder of Children – and no relation to this blog other than I am a huge fan of the author).  Gurian scientifically, theoretically, and passionately outlines the reasons why we cannot simply look at our children as “economic interns” and bodies to be cared for.  They are already enlightened souls who require attachment, engagement, and thoughtful nurturing by parents and caregivers so that they are able to know their own and the world’s divinity.  Gurian succinctly traces history and all major religions to compare their views on children and weaves a common thread of the light and joy inherent in children and cultivated by capable and caring adults. He challenges us to know children’s brains, bodies, and spirits far better than we currently do.  It’s a heavy load to bear, but  as the Buddhist say, “you are already enlightened. Your job is just to realize it.”

And that is our job – to make the our own lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible.  If you’re looking for guidance in doing that, listen carefully and authentically to your child and hen consider Yardsticks or any of the Gurian resources listed below.

Deak, JoAnn, Ph.D. (2002) girls will be girls

Gurian, Michael. (2001) Boys and Girls Learn Differently!

Gurian, M. (1997) The Wonder of Boys

Gurian, M. (2002) The Wonder of Children

Gurian, M. (2002) The Wonder of Girls

Gurian, Michael. Nurture The Nature

Gurian, M. (2009) The Purpose of Boys

Healy, Jane M. (1998) Failure To Connect.

Levine, Mel. (2002) A Mind At A Time

Wood, C. (1994, rev. 2007) Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14.

Steady the Course of the Tween/Teen Years

navigating the tween/teen years of parenthood
navigating the tween/teen years of parenthood

A friend and I were recently discussing the somewhat awkward phase for our 13 year olds — too old for camp, too young for a job, so how much free time do we give them?  Her comment to me was “You know, someone once looked at me when they were toddlers and said ‘enjoy this time, it is the easiest time you will have them!’  Little did I know how right they were!”   When they were little, it was all about basic needs – food, clean/dry clothes, sleep, possibly an ear infection or croup.   We were all sleep-deprived, so those challenges seemed Herculean at times, but they were relatively easy to fix (if not a tad annoying to hear at the time).

As our kids have grown, our skills as parents have had to morph.   We have to grow as parents as our children grow into young adults.  Any change can be hard to recognize and even harder to act upon, and this no exception.  As Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist who has authored seminal work on achievement and education, writes in her book, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, Dweck writes about the marriage of ability and talent, with a growth mindset to achieve success as parents, professionals, in schools and in our personal relationships.  I’ve been a fan of her academic work for years, but am finding this book affirms many of my values and also challenges me to think outside my mental box to be a better teacher, learner, person and parent.

When they are young, parents are the micro-managers.  Attending to little details, planning, implementing, assessing and planning for the next activity.  You have to know when to be flexible and when to be the boundary keeper.  For those of us Type As or professional managers or planners, this came naturally.  As an early childhood teacher, I attacked home life much like a classroom – job charts, schedules posted, breaks for snack and quiet time, toys rotated in baskets to keep things fresh, projects connected to what we read or explored.  Gradually, as my kids grew older, I began to meet resistance.  My ideas and plans were (and are) challenged.  I am no longer the Chief Planner.  None of us are, as our little guys become tweens and teens.   This journey to help our children grow to be confident, happy, capable and caring adults continues but the tone, responsibilities and strategies shift.  Without a growth mindset, that is impossible.

I do recognize that my job has shifted and I’m adopting a serious growth mindset.   Dweck writes about the positive messages we have the power to send kids – “you are a developing person and I am interested in your development.”  That’s my mantra, particularly during pesky teaching or parenting moments.  “What are we going to learn from this? How are we going to move forward?”  That’s not to say I don’t lose my cool after repeated requests with a household task go unacknowledged. Just ask my kids, I do.  But as I remind myself that my job has changed, I think the unraveling moments are diminishing in frequency and intensity.  I’m an HR manager, a coach, a comedian (in my own mind), a referee, and yes, an ATM and taxi.   The more rational and productive thoughts generally prevail with this growth mindset as I remember to move beyond praising talent and intelligence, to asking questions which make them reflect on effort; to help them set their own goals which have skills and knowledge in mind; and insist on effort and commitment, not success in objective measures.

Heady thoughts for the lazy days of summer. Kids need to the downtime but I also want my kids to see summer as a time of opportunity for projects, personal growth, contribution to a larger organization (something or someone besides themselves!), a time to reconnect to family, friends, the outdoors, book characters, hobbies…. the important stuff that slowly slides to the far reaches of our consciousness during the school year.  So what do to with adolescents all summer? I am not an expert on adolescents, nor do I have the whole summer planned out and that is intentional. Here’s what I know I need to do as our summer rapidly unfolds.

  • Maintain sleep and meal schedules – tweens/teens  get busy and think they don’t need those boundaries, but when either need is not met, a toddler-like melt down will surely ensue, whether they will admit it or not. The stereotype of sleepy teens is certainly the reality in my house. Apparently, it’s exhausting to be a teen and their bodies are growing.  Reminds me of toddler days – eating, sleeping, moods changeable, nonetheless lovable.
  • Make my kids’ friends my friends – i.e., welcome them along for whatever we are doing. As much as my kids love our family (and they do still admit that!), friends are invaluable. The goofy antics of two 11-year-old boys or the unbridled giggles of a couple 13-year-old girls can surely get me roaring with them.
  • Encourage projects – give them the permission, materials (within reason), time, and responsibility to continue to question the world and investigate their potential.  This may be cooking, building, art, hikes, or organizing a small business.  Most adolescents are highly capable of doing that which interests them.   A little encouragement and a gentle nudge can engage any inertia and allow them to set their own goals and grow in new ways.
  • Keep them active – summer is an invitation for laziness and we all need that in moderation.  Allow for the down time, but also keep them moving with sports, jobs, games, camp, volunteer efforts.
  • Listen, listen, listen – It’s hard, especially when they ramble or get stuck on the same topic/issue/complaint, but the more I listen the more I am convinced they need to talk to sort out internal and external conflicts. Sometimes they do need to stop talking   – maybe to go write or to move forward with something else – but when they are ready to talk, I’ll be ready to listen.
  • Offer possibilities and perspectives, not solutions – Our kids want to feel like they are the decision makers.  When we offer solutions, they are likely to shut us out or dismiss that suggestion.  Phrasing such as “have you thought of….” or “what about….” often meets less resistance.  Allow them to think problems and solutions through and come to conclusions with input and guidance from us.

As our second full week of summer concludes, we’ve enjoyed many of the pleasures of a summer stay-cation.  We’re still reveling flexible schedule and the down time.  There is much that lays ahead – more adventures, time with extended family, chores, and summer reading…. I am resisting the urge to plan and mobilize folks into action as this summer and trying to assume the role of coach and navigator, not CEO or captain.  My tween and teen  will be taking a bit more responsibility to define the days which are the stuff of summer memories and opportunities for growth and I’ll be smiling along side them!