How to Foster Empathy in Your Kids

One of my earliest Thanksgiving memories starts at school. I was in second grade and we were making turkey hands—you know, when you trace your hands and your fingers make the feathers—and we had to write what we were thankful for on each one of the feathers. Like any good 8 year old, I wrote toys, cake, TV, and family—just in case Santa was watching for early nice points.

When I got home, my mother took a look at my masterpiece and asked me, “What do you think I’m thankful for?” I immediately thought it was a trick. I slowly answered, “Me?”

Little did I know, I received more than a big hug that day—I received a lesson in empathy.

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and to imagine how they feel. These skills allow us to become stronger problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, and cool people.

Considering we all want to be a bunch of Fonzies, here are some tips for how you can foster empathy this Thanksgiving and all year long.

Talk about others feelings.

Is your child’s friend crying? Identity how that friend is feeling. Point out cues to how you know they are feeling that way.

Read feeling books.

There are a great number of books which addresses feelings. Ask your local librarian for their recommendations. Personally, I love Todd Parr’s The Feeling Book.

Label your own feelings.

Point out moments if empathy when you see it in movies, television, and real life. You can also promote empathy play by pretending with stuffed animals and dolls. By setting a strong example, your kids can learn empathy from you.

 

So this year, when you are making Thanksgiving hand turkeys with the little ones, ask them to write what they think their family is Thankful for. You’ll give them a mini empathy lesson—and you might get a great story out of it too.

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Executive Function: What it is, what it does, and why your kids don’t have it (yet)

Have you ever been in the checkout line when it hits you—Milk!—and you have to haul it to the dairy aisle and back before it’s too late?

That’s your working memory saving you from another trip to the store. Working memory is just one component of executive function—which is a fancy term for the ability to focus, plan, remember, and have self-control.

Executive function consists of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control—skills that help us make plans, manage time, resist temptation, and remember the milk.

However, these are not skills we’re born with.

Executive function skills develop over time, which means that little ones under the age of three are learning them, practicing them, or don’t have them at all.

But whether you’re a little one just learning or an experienced adult, nothing derails executive function skills quite like stress. And what’s more stressful than the Holidays? It’s hard enough for us grown-ups to keep our executive function skills on track this time of year—let alone our kids who are just starting to develop those skills.

Here are some tips to help you relieve your frustration and give your brain (and your kid’s!) a helping hand.

Make a list…check it twice.

Make all the lists. You can never have too many. Even if you forget the list at home, you will have the tactile memory of writing each item. However, remember the list.

You can also ask your kids to help remember the grocery list—it makes them feel involved, helps build their working memory skills, and might even save you a last minute dash from the checkout line.

Let the little ones help.

Kids can be a massive help in the kitchen, when they are given tasks that match their skill level.  Take it from my personal experience: Thanksgiving is NOT the time to start knife training—that is unless you fancy extensive urgent care lines.

Here are some tasks that all kids can help with that will give you a hand AND help them develop some executive function skills of their own:

  • Washing fruits and veggies
  • Mashing the potatoes
  • Measuring ingredients (think of the math!)
  • Making place settings
  • Setting the table
  • Cleaning up

Summon your executive function.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that stress is messing with you—and your executive function. Now that you know what those skills are and what they do, you can take a step back from the stress and remind yourself that you’re an expert. And if you feel your patience wearing thin, remember that your kids are still learning.

 

Now, go get that shopping done.

 

Fun Facts for Your Next Play Group: Handling Holiday stress

On October 31st I had the fright of my life. It was a fall day like any other: Leaves were changing, wind was blowing, children walked blissfully in their Halloween costumes. Then it happened—a sight so scary I nearly fell off my bike…

People were putting up holiday decorations.

I was immediately struck with panic. A series of questions rushed through my brain: What day is it? Did I miss the Tofurkey? Have I been abducted by aliens?

I went from the excitement of candy to the fear that I didn’t have my holiday shopping complete. I know I am not alone in this. The time-warp between Halloween and Christmas is maddening. It’s stressful, and your kids are picking up on it. 

A massive part of your little one’s development is social emotional, and the strategies you provide your little one with to handle stress are more valuable than any king-size candy bar.

Here are some quick tips to help you and your family destress this holiday season.

Stick to a routine.

Kids thrive under a steady routine. Try your best to stick to nap and bedtimes. While sticking to a schedule maybe hard this time of year, it is WAY easier than trying to reestablish post-holiday crazy.

Maybe don’t eat all the cookies.

It is easy to give treats during the holiday season. Pies, cookies, cakes—no matter where you look there’s temptation…for you and your kiddo. While you are welcomed to get your sugar high on, make it a sometimes treat for the kids. Random tip, if your kids discover the frosting container in the fridge you can level out the sugar crazies with water. That being said, keep your kids hydrated.

Just say no.

It’s okay to say no. Are you invited to another holiday party, a cookie swap, another playdate? Before you say yes, take a moment and be realistic with yourself. Do you or your child honestly have the time or energy to attend? Remember your friends are just as crazy busy and stressed as you are. If you say no, they will understand.

Forget perfection.

Not every year has to be a Martha Stewart year. Did you forget something? Burn something? Did the children already destroy their holiday clothes? It happens. What matters is how you handle it. Take a deep breath…take 10 deep breaths. Remind yourself that this is a moment and it too shall pass.

My final little tip is to live in the day. I am the biggest “tomorrow” person. I am constantly thinking about what I have to do tomorrow, the next day, the next week. I do this so often that I tend to miss the amazing moments that happen around me. So although the holiday decorations are up, remind yourself that it is November and relax.

 

 

Fun Facts for Your Next Playgroup: The impact of pretend play

“Let’s pretend:” Words more magical than Abracadabra.

Pretend play is the greatest tool a child has. When children engage in imaginary play there are no limits. As soon as a child utters the words “pretend that…” it doesn’t matter if the next words are “I’m a shark baby”—every child participating in the play provides a platform for that child to be a “shark baby.”  Be it a shark baby, a doctor, a superstar, a mommy or a daddy, a child uses that persona to explore a curiosity, an idea or an emotion.

Children use role-playing to make sense of what they observe. It’s a way to explore an experience that can be scary or confusing. One of the most concrete examples of this is when kids pretend to go to the doctor. When I taught preschool, I was always able to see who was about to have their annual checkup. Right before their appointment, little ones would start engaging in serious doctor play, which ALWAYS involved a shot. The child was always the doctor and I was always the patient.

Warning: I’m totally going to geek out about this and break it down.

When kids become the doctor, they create a setting where they are in control. As they act out each part of the examination—the stethoscope, checking reflexes, looking in ears and nose—they are reenacting what they are familiar with. They are psyching themselves up for the moment when they have to administer the shot.

I’ve had approximately 700 pretend shots in my life and every one of them is administered the same way: The child tells me that it is going to hurt a little, there is a slight poke of a pretend needle followed by the encouragement that I am “a brave girl,” and then they ask if I want a lollypop.

By the end of the examination, the child is more emotionally prepared for the upcoming appointment. How freaking magical is that?!

The power of pretend doesn’t stop there. Here is a list of all the incredible things that transpire when kids engage in imaginary play.

Building language

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When kids engage in pretend play they use one object to represent another. This type of default symbolic thought is used in language development—words are symbols. They stand for our thoughts and ideas. Pretend play and language both involve the same underlying ability to represent things symbolically (Weitzman and Greenberg, 2002).

Little ones start engaging in make-believe as soon as they say their first words, around 12-18 months. Children will start to imitate language and behaviors of others. I’ve seen a 15-month-old child hold full phone conversations using a block. As she babbled away saying “Siri,” “mommy,” “play,” and “milk,” she was practicing the language she hears every day. As cute as this is, it gets better. When you engage with a child during pretend you are able to expand their vocabulary. In this case, by picking up a block and holding a conversation with the girl, she was introduced to all kinds of new words as well as practice her back-and-forth communication!

Practice problem solving

Pretend play often involves cooperative play, when a child plays with others. One thing you can bet on is when multiple children come together in make-believe, there’s going to be some heavy negations. “I’m the mom. You have to be the big sister.” “You were the knight last time! Not fair.” I’ve seen children fighting over who got to be the baby pig. If you can pretend it, you can fight over it. While I’ve seen children brought to tears at the idea of not being the “bus driver,” I’ve also seen kids negotiate with their friends to create an elaborate turn-taking process. The turn taking and share responsibility skills developed during pretend resonate deep with little ones and have lasting power.

Social Emotional Learning

pretend play social emotionalPretend play fosters empathy. It’s true! Have you ever heard the phrase “walk a mile in their shoes”? When kids engage in make-believe that is exactly what they are doing. They are trying out new personas, experimenting with social roles. When they play pretend with other children they are taking into consideration the feelings of others.

Despite all of the wonders pretend offers, it tends to fall out of favor about the age of eight. Some parents even encourage their children to leave the world of pretend, regarding it a phase that should pass. Gasp, I know.

That’s why this October, we’re celebrating all things pretend play—just in time for Halloween.

Very Busy Toddler

Each time your child visits the museum it’s a brand new experience.

“Treehouse…been there, done that,” you might think after your first or second visit, but not so fast— for kids, the museum experience is never the same.

It’s true! Children are constantly creating new experiential memories that scaffold them to higher thinking. Think of it this way: On one visit, your little one learns how the nuts and bolts work. During their next visit, those very skills help them to build a massive structure in Skyline that you will take a billion pics of and gram the tags #childgenius #futurearchitect #chicagochildrensmuseum.

Studies show that the best way to learn is by making experiential connections.

Take it from me: I can tell my mother how to use Snapchat, but it’s not until she sends me a ton of selfies of her as a puppy…or swapping faces with my dad (seriously, Mom: Enough)—that’s when I know she has learned this new skill.

Play creates the same experiential connections to power amazing brain-building results. Between birth and five, children make more neurological connections than any other time in their lives. If only there was a place designed for children where they could learn through play…oh, wait… There is!

Now that you know all of the amazing benefits of play and experiential learning, let’s take a closer look at some of the exhibits at Chicago Children’s Museum.

Treehouse Trails

Ah! The great outdoors without the bugs and rain. Use all your senses as you explore the trickle of the water from the waterfall. Practice your hand and eye coordination as you catch fish in our stream. Make a delicious meal, and real life connections, as you play in the cabin. Play in the canoe, climb a rope, and go down the slide as you take safe risks…and get out some energy.

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Fun Facts (for Your Next Playgroup): Bed time drama

Ah, sleep—what most adults wouldn’t do for a few extra hours a night. Kids, on the other hand, are a completely different story. However, if they only knew what I know about the wonders of sleep they may change their tune.

Here are some fun facts that you can pull out next time your little is putting up a fuss about bedtime.

 

During sleep, your brain grows!

Early childhood is the time when the brain develops the most—and the amount of fuel required to support children’s healthy brain development is crazy. Think of it this way: The average five-year-old weighs 44 pounds and takes in about 860 calories a day—and HALF of that caloric energy goes straight to their brain while your little one is resting.

 

Sleep makes you smarter!

When your little one is resting, they are subconsciously processing their ENTIRE DAY! During sleep children sort and store new information and prune data they no longer need. When your kiddo is working on insufficient amounts of sleep, you may notice that they often have difficultly accessing, processing and storing new skills.

 

As you sleep, you grow taller and stronger!

Has your child ever woken up and you could swear they were taller? Well, it’s not the lack of coffee playing tricks on you. Your little ones do most of their growing while asleep. This is because our growth hormones are primarily active while we’re sleeping. Sleep is also a time for cells to rejuvenate and muscles to rebuild.

 

So how much sleep should your little one be getting? Most experts agree that 10 hours is best. Also, your kiddo should be hitting the hay before 9 pm. Sleep studies have shown that children who fall asleep before 9 pm fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer and wake up happier. Yep…it’s a win-win all around!

Fun Facts (For your Next Playgroup): If the Shoe Fits…Tie It!

 

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Be it bunny ears or the around the bend and over the bridge method, it takes about 300 steps to tie a single shoe.

I know what you are thinking, there is no way it takes 300 steps… and you would be right. Physically, it only takes 28 steps, but the neuron communications needed to complete the act totals a whopping 300. Just imagine you are programming a robot, you would have to punch in 300 lines of instructional code to have just one completely tied shoe.

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So why am I telling you this? Because thirty years ago, the average age a child learned to tie their shoes was four years old. Now it’s eight years old! Right?! Eight! What changed in the last 30 years and why is this so important?

 

One word. Velcro. To be fair it wasn’t just Velcro. Kid shoe fashion started switching to slip-ons and buckles— think uncomfy Jellies, penny loafers and docksiders. However, Velcro’s patent expired in the early 1980’s resulting in the ubiquitous adoption of the modern fastener, particularly in 80’s and 90’s kid kicks.
On to the second question, “Why is this important?” Well, some amazing math skills develop by moving a few laces around. When your little one is making those bunny ears, they are developing the spatial awareness their brain will be using in the future— particularly in understanding math concepts.

The brain benefits don’t end there— Cross-lateral integration (you remember, the skill they learned as a crawler) is absolutely crucial to mastering reading and writing.

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Wrangling those unruly laces into a bow also carries with it some important benefits for a kid’s emotional development— from gaining independence to establishing self-confidence and grit.

 
So while it may take you a few extra minutes to get out of the house, consider the distance that 300 steps can take your little one through life— one step at a time.

Fun Facts (for your next playgroup): Crawling into Reading

Few things make me cringe. While stepping on a rogue Lego with bare feet tops the list, a parent stating that their child skipped crawling and went straight into walking comes in at a close second.

Now let’s get this out of the way: Am I suggesting that children who pass over the crawling phase will never develop properly? NO! I’m not saying that.

I am saying: Crawling is awesome! The simple act of scooting about literally builds the brain structures a child will use their entire life. Many of the same physical skills necessary to successfully crawl are used later on for reading.

The link between crawling and reading

Crawling into reading

Crawling aids in the development of visual skills. When crawling from one place to the next, a baby will use her binocular vision to look ahead and visually determine where she wants to go. Put simply, binocular vision is when the eye alters its focus between distance and up close. This teamwork of eye functions is used in both reading and writing.

The eyes aren’t the only thing working together. Crawling and reading require both sides of your brain to communicate with one another in a movement pattern called Cross Lateral Integration or Bilateral Coordination. These fancy terms refer to crossing the midline of your body. The act of crossing your midline promotes stimulation in the Corpus Callosum (AKA a million of nerve fibers joining the two sides of the brain.) This cooperation between the brain’s two hemispheres is essential for the appropriate development of various skills— including reading and writing.

Crawling into readingAnother essential skill shared by crawling and reading is problem solving. When little ones are learning to crawl they are planning, strategizing, and reflecting. These skills develop so they can navigate around obstacles and create new paths— the same skills later used in reading comprehension!

Do crawlers have a leg up when it comes to academics? While many studies have linked crawling to early proficiency in reading, there are many readers who have never crawled a day in their lives. However, crawling is adorable and if there’s a chance that the simple act of moving about will help your child develop stronger motor and cognitive skills, why not encourage them to linger in the crawling stage?

So the next time you gram an adorable pic of your little one crawling, think bigger than #crawling. Go ahead and share some of these sweet facts with our #CCMfam. Heck, throw in a #ChicagoChildrensMuseum for good measure!

-Ms. Rachel

Why your childhood fort is so memorable

We asked Exhibit Development Director and forts aficionado Katie Slivovsky to share her insights with us. Here’s what she had to say.


Does the word “fort” spark memories of secret hideouts you built in your closet, living room or yard?

Our childhood forts still evoke powerful memories, though they probably weren’t much to look at or particularly well-constructed. In fact, if we saw them today, we might think, “Someone needs to clean up that mess, pronto!”

We don’t remember our forts because they were impressive—we remember them because they were ours.

Forts were both sanctuary and home base for our developing imaginations.  We built them, we made the rules (including who could enter), and because of that we were the landlords and we were empowered.  Forts also provided comfort—a calm place just for us in the midst of a sometimes chaotic world.

As adults we may forget that children need a break too. Kids are aware of what’s happening around them, for worse or for better, and between challenges at school and demanding schedules, their worlds can be stressful. Forts provide a much-needed respite—if they get to design and make it themselves.

That’s why we created our Forts exhibit—to provide a space specifically designed for children to build the forts of their dreams. In doing so, we’ve learned a few things that can help parents and caregivers encourage kids to create their own sanctuary through fort building.

 

  1. Fort-building materials are not the same as a fort-building vision.

At home, adults usually provide fort-building materials: blankets, pillows, furniture and the space to build. At Chicago Children’s Museum, we’ve created a space totally dedicated to fort-building—our walls have hooks, our blankets have loops and every piece of furniture there is up for grabs.

But that doesn’t mean we control the vision—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Even though we designed the space, we love to be surprised at how our visitors configure it. It’s probably our favorite thing about the exhibit—at any hour of the day, the space looks totally different because the kids are in charge.

Parents and caregivers can provide materials and space (with limits, of course—not all your furniture need be up for grabs), but the kids should control the vision and direction of their fort. When parents and caregivers exert too much control, the fort becomes less about the kids building it and children lose the sense of control that is so integral to creating their own sanctuary.

 

  1. “No grown-ups allowed” is more than okay—it’s a good thing.

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes children don’t want grown-ups in their forts. In fact, sometimes we literally don’t fit—and that’s okay. A kid-sized fort that fits only one or two little ones shows that the child has been able to build a space just for them.

 

By letting children control the forts they design and build, they most certainly won’t be adult-sized. Remember to sit back and let children build forts that reflect their kid-sized view of the world—even if you can’t be a part of it.

 

  1. If you are invited, it’s a huge compliment—just don’t overstay your welcome.

At Chicago Children’s Museum, when one of our child visitors invites us to play, it’s the greatest compliment a museum staffer can get. Our space—including our Forts exhibit—is designed for kids to be in charge of how they play. If they want a grown-up to come along, we’re ready and excited, but realize that we’re guests in their world.

When a child extends an invitation into their space, it means they feel safe and comfortable to share their world with you. It’s a compliment for sure—but be sure to be a gracious guest and leave them to the world they’ve created for themselves.

 

We love forts because of how incredibly powerful they can be for children. When they build forts, children design and construct their own sanctuaries. They set the boundaries. They get to be in charge. They can be whoever they want to be, and gain confidence as they make their own rules.

When you come to our Forts exhibit, kids can get that experience in a space designed just for fort-building—and the best part is, we’re in charge of cleaning it up.

Katie Slivovsky is the Exhibit Development Director at Chicago Children’s Museum and spent her childhood building forts in the woods behind her house on the edge of a small town in eastern Iowa. Katie has developed several exhibits at CCM and at Brookfield Zoo, including the Hamill Family Play Zoo. FORTS is one of her favorites because children have complete creative control of the space. Her daughter, Leah, is quoted in the exhibit and pictured in a fort built for her dog, Midnight.

Once Upon a Castle: Going beyond boy/girl story lines

In our current exhibit, we focused on removing the gender stereotypes from castle play. Here’s what happened.

 

You know the scene: a woeful princess cowers in a castle tower, every strand of her blonde hair perfectly in place, her waist impossibly small in her pink dress. Soon, some bright-eyed prince will come rescue her with his cartoonish biceps and flash his pearly whites, and if she hasn’t already fallen in love with him as he scales the castle walls, she will once he whisks her away on his horse.

As adults, it’s a story we’ve been told over and over again.

Children, on the other hand, may not be used to it yet—or the stereotypes that come along with it.

That’s why, when we designed our Once Upon a Castle exhibit, we wanted to take back the castle narrative from this cliché. We wanted to ditch gender stereotypes so that children could create their own stories and come up with their own characters. We set out to create a space where any child—no matter what their gender—could put on any costume, pick up any prop, and play however they want to play.

To begin, we made costumes children can wear regardless of gender, included a wide range of fabrics and colors (not just pink or blue), and coached staff to use neutral language like “your majesty” to make everyone feel welcome. Here’s what we learned.

 

It took weeks to tweak and finalize our ads.

Ditching gender stereotypes in our marketing proved more difficult than we’d assumed. We struggled to find the right way to get our message across—how to be clear while showing off everything the exhibit has to offer. But when you remove the gender from something, often you remove what’s stereotypically considered “feminine.” We began to wonder: Is it okay to strip the feminine from something just to resist gender stereotypes? Will girls still feel welcome?

Our goal wasn’t to exclude anything stereotypically feminine because it’s bad—we love pink! Instead, we wanted to make sure what we included wasn’t so strictly gendered that a child might get picked on for choosing the “wrong” thing—like a little boy in a pink costume getting made fun of by his friends, or worst yet, scolded by a parent/caregiver.

And the girls who visit the exhibit have no problem picking up the wide array of props and costumes and having a blast—even without a tiara in the mix.

 

Children know exactly what to do—but parents get confused.

Children don’t seem phased by the lack of pink or tiaras in Once Upon a Castle, however some parents have a harder time adjusting.

On one particularly busy day, a little girl around five years old starting asking for a tiara. We didn’t include tiaras in the exhibit because of how strongly associated they are with cartoon princesses—a gendered stereotype we wanted to avoid. It isn’t that we don’t like them, but rather that we wanted to encourage the children who visit to invent their own characters and stories instead of rehashing the ones they already know.

When her caretaker couldn’t find one, the child seemed disappointed for a moment, then scooped up the nearest crown, hopped on a stick horse, and charged toward an available sword at the other end of the exhibit.

Her caretaker, on the other hand, kept searching and asking for a tiara, not even noticing that the girl had moved on so quickly. It just goes to show you—sometimes kids adapt better than grownups.

 

Ditching stereotypes opens a whole new way to play.

Taking away existing rules lets kids make up their own. Since Once Upon a Castle opened, we’ve seen children switch from playing knights to jesters to chefs to wizards in a matter of seconds—they don’t have to be pushed or led in the right direction or follow any prescribed rules.

In fact, a lot of the time, it’s better not to prescribe, because that’s when their imaginations really shine.

So why does it matter? Our big takeaway from this process has been that too often we lead kids without watching to see what they do. Letting children lead is a cornerstone of Chicago Children’s Museum experiences. Children often have a better route. Sometimes it’s better to stand back, watch, and let them show us.

It’s what we try to do every day.

 

Visit our website to learn more about Once Upon a Castle or how you can join us in ditching gender stereotypes.