Abracadabra! Scarf Magic!

The thin, nylon juggling scarf has unlimited possibilities of play value. This loose material is lightweight and easy for children of any age—infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged kids—to manipulate and use to promote gross motor and fine motor development. Scarf play helps with hand-eye coordination and encourages movement of eyes and hands to cross the midline important pre-reading and writing skills for young children.

Teachers, parents and other early childhood caregivers don’t have to be a magician to conduct age-appropriate activities that involve all children in scarf play; just follow the child’s lead and have fun!

Here are some ideas:

–Throw the scarf in the air with one hand and catch with the other.
–Toss & try clapping once or twice before catching the scarf.
–Hold the scarf together with a friend as you move together around the classroom.
–Toss the scarf in the air, spin around and catch it before it falls to the ground. Try looking at the world through the fine mesh fabric. What do you see?
–Throw the scarf up in the air and clap until it touches the ground and count how many claps it takes.
–Move around the room with the scarf on a body part; try not to let it fall.
–Toss the scarf and try to have it land on different body parts (hand, elbow, foot, back and head.)
–Catch and toss with a partner.
–Pull out the CD player and put on some favorite music and dance with the scarves.
–Play “Follow the Leader” where the child at the head of the line does a movement with the scarf and all children will copy that movement (waving scarf overhead, swinging arms back and forth, jumping with the scarf, galloping with the scarf, etc.) When the music stops the child that was at the front of the line goes to the back and the next child in line becomes the leader. The music starts again and the game continues until everyone has had a chance to be the leader.
–Use the scarf to sing the following song and do the appropriate movements:
Shake to My Lou (Tune: “Skip to My Lou”)
Shake, shake, shake to my lou, shake, shake, shake to my lou, shake, shake, shake to my lou, shake to my lou my darling. (Shake scarf in front of body)
Other verses you can add:
Shake up high, shake down low (Shake scarf overhead, then down by feet)
Shake to the right, shake to the left (Shake scarf on one side of body and then the other)
Shake it out, shake it in (Shake scarf with arms extended to the sides, bring arms together in front of body)

The scarf also lends itself to exploring colors and shapes. Ask children what shape their scarf is. Can they make the scarf into a smaller square? Can you make it into a triangle? Can it become a rectangle? Discuss the geometric properties of each shape as they are made. Place all the scarves on the floor in color groups to see a graph of colors. Talk about sorting, quantities, more/less.

Use your imagination and be creative with the scarf… It can be a tail on a horse, a wing of a butterfly, the cape of a hero, a kite… The children can turn it into anything they can imagine and have fun as they incorporate movement into their day.

What else can you do with your scarf?

BRAIN FITNESS! Connecting Exercise and Learning

I recently attended a presentation by Harvard Psychiatry Professor and best-selling author, Dr. John Ratey. He wrote SPARK! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which I read. I was very interested in hearing about his research, especially with the of No Child Left Behind Act (which requires schools to raise students’ test scores in core academic subjects) and the resultant cutbacks in physical education classes and recess.

Dr. Ratey began his presentation by stating that he is on a mission to put exercise, recess and play back into our schools. Being an early childhood and school age active play advocate myself, I was thrilled. He shared emerging research and case studies that correlate exercise with a wide range of brain-related benefits: improving attention, reducing stress and anxiety, and staving off cognitive decline.

Ratey says that exercise is the single most important tool people have to optimize brain function. He doesn’t claim that exercise makes kids smarter, but he says it can make them more ready to learn. The prefrontal cortex– which plays a major role in executive function (thinking processes that involve planning, organizing, abstract thought or self-control) — is most affected by exercise. Laboratory studies in mice and humans show that exercise prompts the brain to produce greater amounts of a protein called BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which Ratey likes to call “Miracle-Gro®” for the brain. It encourages brain cells to sprout synapses, which are crucial to forming the connections the brain needs in order to learn. BDNF also strengthens cells and protects them from dying. Other research also suggests that exercise plays a role in neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells, in middle-aged and older adults and in laboratory animals.

Ratey shared a case study that I found interesting: At Naperville Central High School in IL, many students participate in 45-minute early-morning fitness-based PE sessions where they can choose from more than a dozen activities (treadmills, elliptical machines, stationary bikes, jumping rope, lifting weights, running, etc.) Students on average raised their grades by one letter just by participating in this “Learning Readiness PE Class.” This is a new approach to PE, and I find it confirms for me the research mentioned above that exercise helps prep the brain for learning.

And what about our youngest learners? Ratey emphasized that young children love to move and should be engaged in play activities that are vigorous and fun. For our young children, we need to provide instant and active involvement for every child. He mentioned a new book by Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. He said that every early childhood teacher should have it. Ratey states on the jacket cover: “This is one of the most important books I have ever read… Without play and physical activity, we can’t cultivate the skills necessary to handle changing times… Anyone who cares about the future of our world should read this book. It is a gift.” I gave myself the gift of Brown’s book, PLAY and Ratey’s book, SPARK. Perhaps you will consider doing the same for yourself or any preschool, school-age or early childhood educator, caregiver or parent you know.

Current statistics show that some 37% of U.S. schoolchildren are overweight, one in five American 4 year olds are obese and only 6% of schools now offer physical education five days a week. At the same time, kids are spending an average of six hours per day in front of a screen of some sort—television, computer or handheld device. Inactivity is killing our brains as well as our bodies.

The more we know about brain development and the importance of play, the better teachers and parents we will be. Keep moving, keep learning!

Trikes: 3-Wheeled Freedom!

The weather is turning warmer and invites us all to go outside for some active play. Trikes are a great way to engage young children outdoors. For 12 years I was the “Outdoor Teacher” at a preschool. I pulled out the tricycles, “big wheels,” bicycles, scooters, wagons and pedal cars daily. They were always very popular with the children, and riding toys such as trikes offer many opportunities for children to grow physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively. Toys that children can ride on their own offer opportunities for them to feel autonomous, develop gross motor skills, role play and to learn to follow rules. You know the educational benefits exist, so here are some ideas to help get you rolling:
First, remember that children should wear bike helmets when riding wheel toys. The helmet should sit on top of the child’s head, not tilted back at an angle. Make sure the strap fits securely and that the buckle stays fastened. (Visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission for more information at http://www.cpsc.gov/.) Helmets should only be worn while riding and should be taken off during play, especially on a playground as a child’s head may get stuck in playground equipment while wearing a helmet, causing serious injury. Children who associate wearing a helmet with riding a trike from the start are more likely to adopt the habit permanently.
For safety reasons, the space for using riding toys should be distinct from the equipment areas. If possible, choose a part of your playground with a hard surface and set up a safety zone. Provide vehicle pathways with adequate staging areas and routes in and out with painted or lines for parking spaces of trikes and bikes. You can enhance children’s use of this area by adding traffic signs, chalk road markers, directional arrows and cones to control traffic. Build a ramp so children can drive their trikes into the “garage.” Invite children to be riders or traffic officers; this will help involve children who are not on a trike and creates an opportunity for cooperative group play.
Prop boxes can extend trike play activities, too. A “hospital” prop box, for example, can turn bike riders into ambulance drivers and non-riders into “doctors.” Children also enjoy using tricycles in conjunction with fire station, police and mail delivery props. Similarly, you can introduce ideas or materials to support gas station or car wash dramatic play that can include practice of counting and learning currency. Whatever props you choose to use, whether elaborate or entirely imaginary, the result will be fun!
Riding a trike puts the child in the “driver’s seat,” providing that sense of power and freedom. To pedal a trike and keep one’s balance are abilities worth a lot in the life of a preschooler!

Belly Swinging and Spinning is Good Brain Food!

I was visiting a preschool recently. The young children were outside playing and I found myself standing and observing the children on the swings. A four-year-old child was draped over a swing seat on his stomach while swinging back and forth. At the same time he was spinning around and around as the swing chain twisted high above him. Soon he could twist it no more and then, propelling himself in the opposite direction, he spun around and around as the chain untwisted– his small arms extended as if flying in space, a great big smile on his face. I smiled back, happy that he was stimulating the mind/body connections. He was in the process of repeating the action, when from across the playground came a loud voice commanding him to stop belly swinging and informing him it was against school rules.
Children are innately programmed to spin, swing and be upside-down. When children are spinning and swinging, special receptors in the little “vestibule” of the inner ear are stimulated and communicate a sense of where the body is in space. This vestibular system controls the sense of movement and balance.

I often mention “brain food” in my workshops. Physical activity is good brain food for young children. When a child is swinging and spinning, they’re having fun, but their little body and brain is also unconsciously telling them that they need this kind of movement for a healthy sensory “diet.” Swinging and spinning helps kids regulate their bodies. It helps them focus and increase their body awareness. Young children do not get dizzy as easily as adults do because connections between balance and other systems are still being formed in the first eight years of life. We, as adults, take our sense of balance and our fundamental understanding of our place in space around us for granted. For children, those abilities are still developing, becoming more complete and connected. We need to give children opportunities for movement and physical activity so they can develop these crucial abilities (and so they won’t be bouncing off the walls when the teacher needs the child to sit down and be attentive.) Remember that teacher who was shouting at that child to stop belly swinging? I wished that early education teacher could have instead celebrated the child’s movements and his need to feed his body and brain– one belly swing, one belly spin at a time.

Games With Heart

Valentine’s Day is just a heartbeat away and provides an opportunity to share friendships, promote cooperation, and just have some plain good fun while participating in non-competitive, active games. Pick and choose from these games –or play them all to your heart’s content… Or, better yet, for the benefit of your heart!

Give Your Love Away
Materials needed: Heart-shaped piece of paper or small heart-shaped pillow or ornament
How to play:
1. Sit all children in a circle
2. One child is chosen to be “it” and leaves the circle. The space where “it” sat is still open.
3. “It” holds the heart and stands outside of the circle.
4. Teach children the following verse or chant:
Love is something
If you give it away,
Give it away, give it away,
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
5. Children are to chant the verse as “it”, holding the heart, walks around the outside of the circle.
6. On the last word of the song, “it” drops the heart behind a child’s back.
7. That child picks up the heart and runs after “it”, who is heading back to his place in the circle.
8. The child holding the heart is now “it” and the children start chanting the verse again as “it” walks around the outside of the circle, dropping the heart behind someone who has not yet had a turn.
9. The game ends when everyone has “given their love away.”

Musical Hearts
Materials needed:
Red yarn or red masking tape or red Mavalus Removable Poster Tape or sidewalk chalk

Music (with the words “heart” or love” in the title—i.e., “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News or “The Love Shack” by The B-52’s) and a music player.
How to play:
1. Using red or pink yarn or tape make giant red heart shapes on the floor or carpet. (If you can play outside, draw hearts on cement or asphalt with red or pink chalk.)
2. Direct children to stand outside of or beside a heart.
3. Play theme-related music and instruct the children to walk around the hearts, making sure not to touch any hearts while the music is playing.
4. When the music stops, children are to find a heart to stand in. More than one child in any heart is okay and encouraged.
5. The game continues with the starting of the music and children leaving a heart and traveling around the hearts. When the music stops, they once again jump into the nearest heart.
6. Use a variety of locomotor movements, such as marching, tiptoeing, galloping, hopping, skipping, jumping and running as children move around the hearts when the music is playing.
7. Challenge the children by stopping and starting the music at shorter intervals.

A Heart of Stone
Materials needed:
Heart doilies (one for each child)
Music (with the words “heart” or love” in the title—i.e., “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News) and a music player.
How to play:
1. Each child places a heart doily on top of their head.
2. Play theme-related music and instruct children to walk around the space while balancing the doily.
3. If the doily falls off a child’s head, he must turn to stone (freeze).
4. To remove the “spell,” another player picks up the fallen doily (while placing his hand on his own doily on top of his head) and hands it to the player turned to “stone,” who places the doily back on his head. The spell is broken and he becomes “unfrozen.”
5. After a “thank you” and a “you’re welcome” are exchanged, the players proceed to walk in the open space, heart doilies on head.
6. The game ends when the song is over.

These fun Valentine’s-themed games for your early childhood/preschool classroom or for young children at home can add an enjoyable active play element to your Valentine’s Day parties or celebrations this year. These simple games are easy enough for even the youngest children to participate, and teachers or parents can also tweak them to best fit the needs of the kids in your care.

Kids on the Ball!

We can promote brain development by providing equipment that helps facilitate movement in our early childhood classrooms and/or home environments. A favorite piece of equipment that I like to use with young children is the exercise ball (a.k.a. gym balls, physio balls, stability balls, fitness balls, therapy balls or Swiss balls.) These large, colorful balls attract kids and help build neural connections in the brain. They are great for working on balance, coordination, postural control and sensory integration, which is the ability of the brain to receive, organize, interpret and use the vast amount of sensory information that enters the body and neurological system through both external and internal stimuli. Try some of the following activities and watch children line up to have their turn with the ball:

  • Tummy Roll – Holding onto their legs and arms, have a child lay face down (on their stomach) on top of the ball and roll the ball back and forth. Belly laughs begin as the child rocks and rolls, enjoying the sensations produced from this movement which activates the vestibular system in the inner ear. The vestibular system takes in messages about balance and movement from the neck, eyes and body; sends the messages to the central nervous system for processing; and then helps generate muscle tone (which allows us to move smoothly and efficiently.) Rocking and rolling also provides kinesthetic and proprioceptive input—awareness of sensations that come from receptors in the muscles, joints, skin and tendons.
  • Bouncy Time – Sit a child on top of the ball and hold their hands or body and gently bounce the child up and down. Sing a song or recite a nursery rhyme as you bounce the child to the rhythm. Rhythm and rhyme facilitates language and memory while bouncing enhances the respiratory system.
  • Play Ball – Roll, dribble or bounce and catch the exercise ball with a child. This addresses bilateral integration, the coordination of the two sides of the body.
  • Pizza Dough – Have the child lie tummy down on an activity mat or carpeted floor. With consistent pressure, roll and press the exercise ball up and down all over the child’s body. Say, “I’m rolling out the pizza dough nice and flat.” Ask, “Want me to press harder? Not so hard? More? Tell me when you want me to stop.” (Give the child the chance to be in control and to guide the activity.) Say, “It’s time to add the toppings to make you extra delicious! Here’s some pizza sauce.” Rub the child’s arms, legs and back with your hands. Continue with, “Here’s some pepperoni,” and with palm flat, press a hand on back of body in several different places. “Chopped onions would be tasty, too.” Using side of hand, move it up in and down along their body in a chopping motion. When you and the child agree that s/he’s “done,” pretend to put “the pizza” in a pretend oven.

There are so many ways to incorporate active play and movement with large sensory balls in early childhood classrooms. Children from preschool to school age will literally have a ball! What are some ways you use them in your school activities or with kids at home?

Crossing the Midline, Cross-Lateral Movement & Brain Development

The midline is an imaginary line that runs down the body, separating it in half vertically from head to toe thus dividing the body into right and left halves. “Crossing the midline” refers to the ability to move a part of the body– such as a hand, foot or eye– into the space of the other hand, foot or eye. Being able to cross the midline indicates that the child has reached the point in his or her development that the right and left side of the brain are working in tandem. An example of crossing the midline is using your right hand to reach over your body and scratch your left elbow.

Connecting the two sides of the brain is a fiber bridge known as the corpus callosum. When children do cross-lateral movements (arm and leg movements that cross over from one side of the body to the other) the two sides of the brain are forced to communicate and this strengthens the nerve-cell pathways that link both sides of the brain through the corpus callosum.
Crossing the midline is necessary for reading and writing because in order to read and write one must work from one side of the paper to the other fluidly.

To encourage cross-lateral movement:
  • Sing songs and repeat chants using hand motions that cross the midline of the body such as “Pat-a-Cake” and “Hot Cross Buns.”
  • Dance using streamer ribbons or scarves. Play a music CD and ask children follow along as you swish the ribbon or scarf across the front of your body, make figure eights in the air, circle the streamer in front of your body like a Ferris wheel or circle it over your head like a helicopter blade.
  • Play games like Simon Says or Follow the Leader where actions require crossing the midline, such as touching your right knee with your left hand.

In my next post, we’ll look at more playful ways to encourage brain development. Stay tuned!

Found Ball = Spontaneous Play

It was the Saturday after Halloween and the unexpectedly warm Pennsylvania weather beckoned us all to go outside. The grandchildren were riding bikes and the adults, walking with the dog, were trying to catch up. Upon nearing the neighborhood lake, complete with geese and grassy knolls, the children called out to us, “Let’s play here!” Nana, Papa and the dog were left with the kids as the other adults headed home to gather the fixings for a picnic lunch.

We removed our shoes and started exploring the terrain barefoot – experiencing the sandy beach of the lake, trying to avoid goose poop between our toes. The lake water cleaned our dirty feet and enticed us to look for fish and skip stones. Looking for a container to fill with water, I found a discarded water bottle and, deeper in the tangled brush, a bright green playground ball.

My grandson and I started playing with it, tossing it back and forth. He proceeded to make up his own game of bounce-catch on top of a nearby picnic table.

“Nana, how many bounces will there be before you catch it?” he asked. Then he announced some rules about the number of points received depending on where the ball bounced on the table.

The green ball became the center of attention after lunch as well as children began kicking it on the grass and said, “Let’s play soccer!” Parents, grandparents and kids aligned across from each other, three against three. Toy sand trucks became goal posts on either end of our “field” and the game commenced. Running and kicking, fetching and throwing; children and adults all laughing and sweating. The best part of our afternoon was the unplanned, spontaneous play initiated by the boys.

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics says what children really need for healthy development is time for more old-fashioned play. Free play is essential for healthy physical, emotional, social and intellectual development and helps form the foundation for creative thinking.

The found ball was the provocation for family time, physical activity and FUN! Being involved, active and playful is one of the best gifts grandparents, parents or teachers give our children.

Halloween Game: Ghost Dancing

I just asked Grant, my 4-year-old grandson, “What was your favorite game that we played at your preschool’s Halloween party today?” He replied, “Try to keep your ghost up in the air.”

He and his other classmates loved this active play game that required some open space, music and white balloons to make “ghosts.” Teachers/parents can set the tone for this game by explaining that their “ghost” (white balloon) has been stuck in the attic for almost a year and wants to come out and play with them; try not to let the ghosts touch the floor or they might want to stay forever! The kids are exuberant as they jump and dance, keeping their ghosts up in the air. Hoots and howls abound!

Materials needed for this activity:
Balloons, blown up (a 9” or 11” helium-quality balloon works well)
Indoor open play space
Music (Halloween music is fun for this) and Music Player

How to play:
1. Start with children sitting in a circle.
2. Give each child an inflated balloon “ghost.” (If you are working with very young children or children who may be tempted to chew on broken balloons, blow up the balloon inside a knee-high stocking. This will keep the balloon pieces contained if the balloon should accidentally pop.)
3. Tell the children that when they hear music they are to stand up and keep their balloon up in the air with their hands. When the music stops they are to catch their balloon and sit down as quickly as they can.
4. The game continues with the starting and stopping of music, usually continuing as long as the length of one song. Make the game more difficult by stopping and starting the music at shorter intervals.

Besides the obvious FUN, children will benefit from this activity by—

  • Getting physical activity, which is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure
  • Getting health-related fitness, defined as components of physical fitness that are related in a positive manner to health and well-being—cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition
  • Building gross motor skills by using the large muscles of the arms, legs and trunk
  • Practicing listening skills by following directions
  • Building space awareness, which means knowing where the body can and should move in relationship to other people in the play space
  • Understanding shared space as all of the designated play space that can be used by everyone
  • Engaging in cooperative play, which are games and activities that the participants play together rather than against one another

Happy Halloween!

Where Have All the Swing Sets Gone?

As I visit preschools and observe children playing outside I am continually reminded that the swing set that was once a staple on every playground is now absent. Swing sets seem to be disappearing like dinosaurs of an era long gone—they are becoming extinct!

I’ve heard the reasons. Children can pinch their fingers while grasping the chain; other children can run in front of a child swinging and get hurt; swings present a safety hazard on the playground. Strict federal guidelines, state licensing and the insurance costs make it impossible to keep swings where they once were. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Handbook for Public Playground Safety requires that swings be set apart from any other structure, with a clearance both in front and back equal to twice the height of the swings, and six feet of clearance on either side. That’s sometimes most of the space in a typical preschool playground! And the standards also call for costly new playground surfacing beneath swings to cushion falls. There are certainly unsafe swing sets out there but to totally eliminate them has created some unexpected developmental delays for many children. Swing sets are being torn down but nothing is being erected in their place that offers the same contributions to a child’s physical, cognitive and social development.

When a child is swinging, both the vestibular system and proprioceptive system are being activated. The vestibular system is comprised of several structures in the inner ear. When the head tilts in any direction fluid moves small hairs within the structures and their movement lets us know our position in relation to the earth’s gravity. This is how we know when we are in motion. The proprioceptive system gathers information from the muscles and joints to tell us our body position and posture. Swinging naturally helps children to develop balance and coordination. The visual connection between vestibular and proprioceptive systems is also developed through swinging, as swingers use visual cues to adjust their balance and movement. The influence of these systems plays a major role in the developmental milestones of sensory processing and gross motor skills for children. And let’s not forget the relationship between swinging and social development. Whoever thinks that swings don’t promote cooperation never heard best friends say, “I’ll push you, if you push me.”

Do the benefits of swings outweigh the risks?