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.

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.

Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.

 

Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.

 

Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.

 

Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.

 

Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.

 

Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.

 

Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.

Why Danger?

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Kids just don’t have enough “good danger” in their lives these days.

No, really…Hear us out!

Think back to your childhood… What are your strongest play memories? Often, when we at Chicago Children’s Museum ask adults how they played as children, the things they recall most vividly were a bit risky. They climbed trees—or rooftops—and played in alleys. They experimented with tools and took things apart.  They launched things into the air, demolished things, melted things, and (maybe, just maybe) created some minor explosions. Why? Well, because they were curious!

From these experiences, they learned. There were minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but, oh, were there also revelations!

Encountering risky, seemingly dangerous situations provide children some of their greatest and most important learning opportunities. From interactions with hot, sharp, breakable, fragile, high up or otherwise strange things, we develop new understandings about the ways of the world. We grasp why some things really are dangerous (to ourselves or others) and how to be safe.  We learn about our own abilities and sensibilities.

As Gever Tulley, author of Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, says, “While there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger.”

Yes, exploring what is dangerous presents a prime opportunity for children to learn safety and responsibility.  It is also a natural motivator for learning in general. Danger is exciting; therefore, we pay attention.  You can bet that a child who learns about chemistry by creating an explosion is going to remember it far longer than the child who reads about it in a book. The “risk” aspect makes the experience stick.

Here are a few key ways adults can support “good” danger:

Ensure that children have opportunities to take risks that are developmentally appropriate.  For an eight-year-old, using a sharp tool or experimenting with heat could present an appropriate level of risk.  For a six-year-old, swinging on a rope swing might be just the right challenge. For a toddler, exploring a new material or attempting to walk over an uneven terrain may be a healthy risk. Children naturally want to push the limits of their abilities; it’s up to us, as adults, to help them find the right opportunities.

Provide time, space and support. While some “risky” activities require adult supervision (learning to light a campfire for the first time), others are best left for children to explore on their own (taking a leap from the monkeybars). If the worst that can happen is a cut, scrape, bruise, or even a sprained ankle, give children the freedom to do it on their own. Remember, you learned some of your best “lessons” when adults weren’t even looking!

Take comfort in the knowledge that “dangerous” activities help children flourish. Exploring fire, water and other physical phenomena, and using real tools and machines acquaint children with how the world really works. Nothing beats first-hand experience for learning how objects are engineered, why heat transforms water into vapor, what it’s like to drill a hole. Such “risky” physical behaviors as climbing, swinging or jumping from high places build strength, dexterity and self-confidence. Non-physical risks—performing in front of an audience or standing up for a principle—are similarly important learning opportunities. In each situation, children are developing critical cognitive and social-emotional skills: assessing risks, grasping consequences, practicing self-control, taking responsibility.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

So go ahead… Take the leap.  Make it blow.  Melt it down. Launch it. Watch it burn.  We’re learning here!