6 Thoughtful Gifts for Teacher Appreciation Week

Time to say thank you to the tireless people who challenge the minds of our kids, support them, and inspire them to think big about their future.

It’s almost teacher appreciation week!  Time to say thank you to the tireless individuals who challenge the minds of our little ones, support them both academically and socially, and inspire them to think big about their future.

How are you going to show your appreciation?
Parent Co asked a handful of teachers – from preschool to high school – to tell us what some of their most meaningful teacher appreciation gifts have been over the years.  We invited them to tell us not only about the “things” that students and parents have given them, but the other gifts of words, time, or thoughts that have meant something to them.  So before you buy that “World’s Greatest Teacher” mug check out what teachers have to say about the best gifts they have received.

1 | Thank you notes

This simple solution was mentioned by almost every teacher we talked to –genuinely being thanked for their work.  “I do feel that at times parents spend way too much on their child’s teacher and completely miss what teachers actually appreciate most, a simple thank you.  When parents thank teachers for their work with their child it really means a lot.
This is especially true when they use examples of specific things the teacher did, such as a learning activity or project their child really enjoyed or growth that they have seen in their child.”  Handwritten pictures and notes from children are equally valued for their simplicity and thoughtfulness.

2 | Memory jar

Taking the thank you note idea to the next level, one teacher told us how a room mother gathered comments on the best memories that kids and parents had of their time together in the classroom.  She put them on separate sheets of paper and stuffed them into a jar for the teacher to take out and read.
“The memory that is still taped to my desk is a handwritten note from a student that says ‘when I crushed my spelling test.’ This student used to tell me that he was going ‘to crush this’ when he thought he was going to do a good job. This message spread to the rest of the class…it became a motto!”

3 | A donation in the teacher’s honor

One teacher mentioned that he liked to “pay it forward” by inviting parents to make a donation to a charitable organization that he supports in lieu of shopping for a gift.
“In the past, I have sent a note out prior to gift time thanking families for their generosity and suggesting charitable organizations they could support in lieu of traditional gifts. I make it very clear that there is NO pressure for any gifts at all, but many families have expressed thanks- a gift in a teacher’s name is a little less stressful than determining a ‘thoughtful’ gift!”

4 | Your time as a volunteer

“I don’t know if this counts as a gift,” one teacher said, “but it’s great when parents can come into the classroom and do a special activity, share their knowledge about a specific subject with the class, or just help out.”
Teachers have a lot of planning to do every day to keep our kids engaged; if we have something to contribute we can lighten their load even just for an hour.  Do this just once and you’ll have a newfound appreciation for how much work it takes to keep a group of kids interested and paying attention for an hour much less a whole day!

5 | Build a bouquet

If you can get the whole class on the same page, have each child bring the teacher one flower.  Put them together and the teacher has a beautiful bouquet for her desk or to bring home.  This group gift reminds her of each kid in the class without cluttering her desk (or a drawer at home) with a bunch of separate gifts.

6 | Lunch break

This takes a bit more planning, but a couple of teachers have had parents bring them a special lunch during teacher appreciation week.
“The greatest ‘Teacher Appreciation’ event ever was when a group of parents came in before our lunch period, decorated our team’s break room with flowers and table cloths (!), and served us lunch during our lunch break. Parents actually served the sandwiches and beverages while we all chatted.  I think the monetary cost was minimal (donated flowers and multiple parents chipping in on food) but the impact of “getting away” in the middle of the day was amazing.  I think this happened three years ago and we still talk about that amazing lunch not infrequently.”

Heads up – there are also a few things that teachers quietly and politely said we could discourage.

Gift cards are nice if they are for places where teachers actually shop, but a pile of gift cards to a big chain coffee shop doesn’t do much good if the teacher prefers to go to their local coffee shop.  Likewise, teachers get a lot of candles and mugs.  There are only so many candles they can burn in a given year.  The caveat – a homemade candle made by your child from your own beeswax was a noted exception (possibly because this author raises bees and the teacher was a friend).
The lesson here is this – while teachers appreciate your gifts, they don’t want you to spend loads of money on gifts that won’t get a lot of use or aren’t from the heart.  They remember the gifts that make them feel special, help them to take a “time out” from the stress of their work, and reinforce the value of the time they spend with our kids.

3 Strategies for Being Genuinely Present with Your Family Even on the Busiest Days

Rather than relying on inner zen to slow down and connect with my kids, I rely on a few strategies that seem to always work for us.

I am going to make a wild leap and guess that any parent reading a parenting magazine has probably gone to bed at least one night and thought, with an exasperated sigh, “I barely saw my kids today” or “Why did I yell at her?”

I know that feeling. You’re exhausted after a long day and your child, equally exhausted from school or daycare, pitches a fit while you’re trying to make dinner.
Then you struggle to get your child to even eat that dinner, and have to work even harder to get pajamas on and wrestle them into bed. All the while you’re distracted by something stressful that happened at work or by how tired you are from taking care of the kids all day; or you’re mentally planning the things you need to get done after bedtime (do the laundry, pack the lunches, build that bookcase, fix the broken light).
On these nights, a little birdie on my shoulder pops up when I’m trying to get to sleep and asks “did you learn nothing in that mindfulness class?”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]For me, it’s not enough for someone to tell me I should stop and smell the flowers; that my kids will be grown before I know it and I should remember to pay attention to them now.[/su_pullquote]
For me, it’s not enough for someone to tell me I should stop and smell the flowers; that my kids will be grown before I know it and I should remember to pay attention to them now.
Maybe I’m wound a little too tight to know intrinsically how to do that. I find some solace in knowing that even the best yogis have taken years of classes to learn how to find that place where the brain can actually feel at peace.
So rather than relying on my inner zen to remind me to slow down, I rely on a few strategies that seem to always work for us.
And when I remember to do these things, and do them well, I can fall asleep a bit more easily.

Commit to a family ritual

We’ve all read the parenting magazines that tell us how kids thrive on routine, especially in the morning or at bed time when we need them to accomplish certain tasks. I believe it’s the same for parents.
We get better at slowing down and being present with our kids if we make a routine, or ritual, out of it. For us, this takes the shape of a dinnertime “share.”
Every night, after our meals are served (and yes, this relies on actually eating dinner together) our son pauses from eating and asks “So Daddy, what was it?” After a little bit of joking or absentmindedness (“What was what?”) we get down to business. My son is asking each of us to share the best part of our day. For a whole five minutes we stop telling the kids to take another bite and we listen to each other talk about the moments of our day when we were happiest.
This all started when I read one of those great articles about how useless it is to ask “how was your day” and tested out a more specific question. For over a year, this evening ritual has stuck. My son even asks it when we are visiting relatives or eating dinner with friends.
Rituals can be as small as this nightly conversation topic or as big as full family dinner preparation on Sundays, but the important thing is to hold the ritual sacred against almost every distraction that life throws you.

Drop everything (even for just 10 minutes).

Father Reading to Child
When my son comes home after a long day at school and aftercare I have a bad habit of telling him he needs to entertain himself (and worse, his sister too) while I make dinner. Are you kidding?
This is the first he’s seen of me and I now I’m telling him I’m still not available? It sounds ridiculous to admit that I try this on a regular basis; how many experts do I need to tell me that the poor behavior that follows is simply him expressing his desire to spend time with me? On my good days, I use a different strategy.
I put down my bags and say “OK, bud, I’m all yours for the next 15 minutes before I have to start making dinner, so what should we do together with this time?”
We might sit down and color together, taking turns filling in a joint page on a coloring book, or deciding together what picture we want to draw and consulting on color choices and who will draw which part as we go.
And during this time I don’t check my e-mail (I just left work, for goodness sake, why do I feel the need to check in again?) and I don’t try to multitask by getting ingredients out for dinner.
For those 10-15 minutes, I am all his. Eight times out of ten (nobody’s perfect), when I do have to make dinner he’s a little more relaxed and able to entertain himself or talk to me while I work.

Move together.

mother and son playing with autumn leaves
Let’s face it: getting exercise just isn’t the same after you have kids. Forgive me if you’ve already discovered this strategy and you’re one of those awesome families that is always hiking and skiing together; I envy you. I’m taking baby steps.
My recent wins include: getting up 10 minutes earlier so that the trip to the bus stop (we have a long drive) can be a family affair; realizing that the 20 minute fitness video that my son loves doing on gonoodle.com would actually be good for me to do with him; and signing up for a toddler yoga class with my daughter.
Sure, this isn’t the same as going for a half-hour run (I never did that) or taking an hour-long pilates class downtown (I used to do that), but it gets us moving and it also gets us spending dedicated time together. As an added bonus, it’s harder to be distracted or to multitask when you are doing something physical with your child. That’s a win-win in my book.
One thing they teach you in mindfulness classes is that being mindful doesn’t mean you have to meditate for two hours every day.
Even a 5 minute breathing exercise at your desk can reap rewards. Likewise, even 10 minutes of dedicated time one-on-one with a child can help to rejuvenate us both. Sometimes you just need a little reminder.
Every family has a style, and your strategy for finding moments to connect likely reflects that style, but there is also no shame in borrowing strategies from others. What works for you?

Here’s the Recipe For Preventing Witching Hour Meltdowns

The hour between coming home and getting dinner on the table can be a nightmare for a lot of families. But it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve all been there. It’s about 5 p.m. and you’ve just gotten home from work with your kids in tow after a long day at school or daycare or other activities. You desperately need to make dinner but your children are winding into a frenzy.

They’re hungry, they’re tired, and they want your attention – you just hope you won’t chop your finger instead of the carrots as you look up for the 18th time to tell your preschooler not to bite her brother even though he pushed her off the chair. Tantrums and tears ensue.

This, my fellow parents, is the witching hour. The details of your story may vary, but I’m willing to bet you’ve been there.

I’ve been known to resort to screen time or to yell distracted (and usually useless) directions at my kids during the witching hour. Both of these solutions are more likely to exacerbate the bad behavior than solve it, and I know it. But we’re just human, right? 

When I’m in better form, I remember some of the strategies that lead to happier, and less chaotic, early evening experiences. Strategies that have worked for us and, not surprisingly, seem to ring true with parenting experts and researchers.

Attend to your children’s need to connect

Many parenting experts agree that emotional connections between children and their parents are essential for creating positive relationships; there is also evidence that strong relationships lead to children actually wanting to listen to and please their parents. Lack of a strong connection can be a prime explanation for children who act out or meltdown.

It should come as no surprise, then, that kids want to connect with their parents after a long day of separation. If we withhold that connection while we try to get dinner made (or the groceries put away, or the house cleaned) we can cause our children to act out in all sorts of ways.

Older kids may actually tell you that they want some time with you by begging for you to play a game or read a book, but younger children may not have the words to explain. In either case, spending 15 minutes of dedicated time with our children BEFORE we try to “get stuff done” is a great way to meet their needs.

Rebecca Eanes describes this, in relation to a term that Dr. John Gottman coined, as “turning toward” our children’s bids for attention. Even if we can’t play with a child right away, we can still “turn toward them” by showing them that we hear and understand their request, and will try to find a way to fulfill it once we are able to stop what we’re currently doing.

I’ve found that once I do give my children some of the attention that they need – in a mindful, intentional way – when I make dinner my children are more likely to happily entertain themselves, or engage with me calmly while I work.

I‘ve also had success inviting my child to join me in the kitchen after our time together. I try to ask them about their day using specific questions that elicit stories, or get them stirring one of the dishes. I’ve frequently noticed that my son offers to help out more after I’ve paid significant attention to his needs.

Attend to your children’s hunger (strategically)

The longer our children have to wait to eat, the more likely they are to be hungry. Hungry kids can turn “hangry” in a hurry. Telling our children that dinner will be ready in a half-hour and that they’ll have to wait has never been that successful in our case.

That said, giving your child “snack food” right before dinner is also a pretty good recipe for poor eating at dinner. Ellyn Satter, founder of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model, says that parents should, “do the what, when, and where of feeding; other family members do the how much and whether of eating.” 

She encourages family meals, but she also recognizes that kids may come home from school completely famished and not be able to make it to dinner. This is where Satter’s “sit down snack” idea comes into play. If you are going to give your child a snack, they should sit down to eat it rather than eating on the fly while they play. The food should be high quality and well-rounded, and it should be timed long enough before the next meal so as not to mess up that meal.

Drawing on these principles, I’ve found success giving my children a sit down snack right when we come home – something that I consider healthy and almost a “phase one” of dinner. I lean toward fruits and vegetables when I can, adding a little bit of cheese or hummus for protein. 

Providing this snack also means that I can calm down a bit on the rush to get dinner on the table since they won’t be hungry again right away. And, this way, we’ve also created time for more connection. When dinner time does come around, I keep their servings modest knowing that they’ve eaten a healthy snack and may not be ravenous at dinner time, which is just fine with me. They can ask for more if they are still hungry.

Make meal prep easier by planning ahead

So you’ve attended to your child’s needs and now you’re reasonably free to prepare dinner. What are you going to make? I hate that feeling of staring into the fridge trying to see if we have anything decent I can pull together in a reasonable amount of time. That’s why one of the most valuable routines (that my husband and I manage to stick to about 25 percent of the time) is planning a week’s worth of meals on Saturday or Sunday.

In addition to the bonus of simply knowing what you’re going to cook, there are couple of added bonuses to this planning thing. For instance, you can shop for what you need on the weekend and know that you have it on hand. You can make those recipes you keep bookmarking but never get around to. You can double dip on a few ingredients across multiple meals (a big batch of black beans or a pulled pork). And you can plan even easier nights by working leftovers into the picture. As an example, check out this menu that we planned for meat free week this summer.

Research has also shown that stress around meal planning can have a negative impact on older children’s willingness to participate in family meals. Conversely, parents (mothers, in this research) who value family meals and plan ahead so that they are regularly scheduled are more likely to have children who participate. And family meals are connected to all sorts of positive outcomes for children and families (see The Family Dinner Project).

Planning ahead helps us feel less frenzied and more prepared, while also resulting in higher quality meals that we’re all more likely to enjoy together. 

I can’t pretend that every evening in our household is free from tantrums and meltdowns, but I can say that I’ve tried these strategies with great success. I only wish I remembered to use them more often!

How to Raise Critical Thinkers in a World That Desperately Needs Them

We should be striving to raise kids who ask thoughtful questions, challenge the “experts,” and closely examine the answers.

Our world is facing a lot of challenges, with even more coming. We need citizens and leaders who question things that are presented as “fact,” who ask critical and thoughtful questions of their leaders, and who think carefully about how they make decisions that impact their own and other’s lives. In short, this world is in desperate need of strong critical thinkers.

As a doctoral student, I spent four years studying college student and adult development, with a focus on whether innovative teaching and learning strategies were helping to foster critical thinking skills. I came to passionately believe that critical thinking skills are some of the most important skills we can emphasize in higher education. But as a parent, I became passionate about starting well before college. 

Learning to think critically and to make decisions based on those thinking skills is a lifelong pursuit; even traditional-age 18- 24-year-old college students do not always possess the complex analytical skills that allow them to balance their own needs with the needs of others or to analyze the extent to which an “expert’s” perspectives are well-informed. We can’t expect our young kids to achieve these skills right away either, but we can plant the seeds that will help them to be prepared for complex thinking as they grow older.

In my studies, I found that critical thinking skills are developed when four conditions are in place. 

  1. The individual needs to feel that his/her contribution to knowledge development is welcomed within an environment of trust.
  2. Learning experiences need to offer both challenge and support.
  3. Development often emerges from unexpected or new experiences (in which a person needs supported time to reflect and process).
  4. Educational experiences need to support both intellectual and emotional growth of the individual. 

So how can we translate these conditions to our role as parents? 

Create an environment of trust in which your kids’ feel that their opinions are welcome.

By asking your children to contribute to family decisions, you’re helping them learn how to ask respectful questions of those in authority (like their doctors or teachers), and encouraging them to ask questions even if they worry that their questions are silly. We can listen closely to their questions, stop what we are doing to engage in the conversation, compliment them on their curiosity, and let them know that we appreciate how hard they are thinking. 

Instead of simply telling our children that their conclusions are wrong, we can ask them if they have considered alternative interpretations or we can tell them what we think about when we make conclusions.

Offer challenge and support as your children navigate complicated concepts.

One way to do this is by selectively utilizing the Socratic method. While sometimes our children just want an answer from us, there are other times when they benefit from answering a question with a question. When my six-year old asks, “Why don’t you let me use toy guns?” I could launch into a complicated political discussion about my feelings on gun control or I could ask him to speculate on why he thinks I have that rule. 

His speculation, in turn, helps me understand how complex his thinking is on the topic before I choose my own words. I challenge him to answer his own question, but also support him to figure it out as the conversation continues. Thus I am also helping him learn that he has the right and responsibility to try to answer his own questions and formulate his own opinions. If he later wants to argue a different perspective, I can respectfully enter into that conversation, even though I will sometimes have the last word.

Expose your children to unexpected and new experiences.

Bring your children into the world with you at whatever level is appropriate. I take my child with me to vote and talk to him about why I am choosing certain candidates without getting into confusing (or even scary) conversations about terrorism or healthcare debates. In order to help him learn how to process these experiences, I try to model critical thinking by walking him through some of my own decision-making, without overcomplicating things or talking so long that he gets distracted and stops listening.

We can also expose our children to new experiences by going out of our way to ensure that they are engaged with diverse perspectives in our communities and our daily lives.  Living in a predominantly white community means that my child is not often exposed to children or families of color, thus I spend time thinking about diversity as it is represented in other sources of “input,” like books and media. 

When my child has questions about people who are different from him I do not aspire to the “color blind” perspective. If my child notices that there is a person of color or a person with a disability or a transgender person and is unsure how to talk about it, I try to help him explore his questions and choose respectful language. I don’t say, “Shh…don’t talk about it.”

Support the intellectual and emotional growth of your children in the critical thinking sense.

Realize that engaging in critical thinking and the discussions that go along with it can be emotionally draining. While it’s important to ask our children good questions and to challenge them to come up with their own answers, there are times when they are going to be too tired or overwhelmed to do so. We can observe our children and be sensitive to their emotions and sometimes simply help them to find a resolution that works for the time being. 

Likewise, when a topic arises that is intellectually complex but also emotionally challenging, we can help them to name the emotions that are coming up for them: “Are you feeling confused, honey? It’s okay if you want to take a break from this conversation and come back to it later.”

We can also model observation and acknowledgement of our feelings: “Isn’t it hard to understand this idea? I sometimes can’t make up my mind how I feel about it. That can be frustrating, but I know I don’t have to make this decision right away so that helps me.”   

And lastly, we can help them to develop the ability to understand others’ emotions – a highly important component of critical thinking – by engaging with them in discussions about putting themselves in someone else’s shoes: “ I know it seems like it doesn’t cause much harm to pick an apple from someone else’s tree, but how would you feel if you looked out our window and saw someone picking from our tree?” 

illustration of an apple

As my children grow older I hope to translate these lessons into more complex situations. I want to teach them things like “the danger of a single story” or the ways that politicians or media can twist statistics to serve their own purposes. I want dinner table conversations to equip them with the skills to engage in respectful dialogue with others, even when we disagree.  

When they go to college (if they so choose), I want them to be the students who are already equipped to make the most of their classroom and real-world learning – the ones who ask questions that even the professor can’t answer and who come up with new ways of interpreting even the most accepted theoretical concepts. 

If we can succeed in raising these kinds of children, just think about the potential for innovation and leadership for generations to come.

6 Tips for Getting Back to a School-Year Bedtime Routine

With summer having thrown everyone off schedule, it’s a good idea to add “gradually shift bedtime routine” to your back-to-school to do list.

Summer is full of opportunities to stay up later than usual; from firefly sightings to backyard barbecues and the additional hours of daylight, there are a million reasons why your kids’ sleep patterns have likely changed over the summer.

If you’re lucky, staying up later in the evening has also meant sleeping later in the morning – a parent’s dream. But don’t get too used to it.

In some parts of the United States, school has already started. The rest of us know that the regular morning routine is looming around the corner. My own son has to catch the bus at 7:20 and he has been regularly sleeping past 7:30 this summer. As much as I’d love to stay on that schedule, we’re planning to introduce him to the concept of an alarm clock at least two weeks prior to school starting. 

That gut instinct, it turns out, is backed up by science. Not only is it challenging for kids to change their sleeping patterns, but if they keep staying up late even when they have to wake up earlier they’ll lose precious hours of sleep that could impact more than just our morning stress levels.

The impacts of less sleep

It has long been argued that the sleep needs of adolescents can directly compete with the school schedules and wake-up times that society imposes on them (as this long-term Stanford University Study explains). Just as the teenager’s natural bedtime and rising time shift later, school demands often shift earlier. Unfortunately studies like this have not changed school schedules in many communities.

Letting kids stay up later, while forcing them to rise earlier leads to sleep deprivation that can have harmful effects on academic performance and behavior. This is not only true for adolescents but for younger children as well. The more sleepy our kids are when they are in school, the more likely they are to suffer negative impacts on memory, learning, and school performance (Dewald et al., 2010). Consider the following studies as examples:

A 2005 experiment (including 74 kids between the ages of 6 and 12) found that sleep restriction was connected to academic performance and attention among children as rated by their teachers, even among children who exhibited no symptoms prior to the experiment. 

A 2003 study that monitored children’s neurobehavioral functioning during their normal sleep routine and then asked them to limit sleep by just one hour had similar results. Students slept more deeply during their limited sleep but exhibited reduced alertness during the day. 

Likewise, a 2002 study found that connections between sleep quality and neurobehavioral functioning were even more prevalent among younger children. These children were also more likely to have behavioral problems, as reported by their parents.

Changing sleep patterns and transitioning to school

The importance of a consistent bedtime routine is often stressed in parenting literature as a means for addressing the struggle to get children to sleep. But getting children to sleep is only part of the reason why this schedule is important. Research also suggests that a predictable sleep routine is essential as we prepare students to transition to school. For example:

A 2002 study of over 200 incoming preschoolers found that children who had disrupted sleep patterns, defined as “variability in reported amount of sleep, variability in bedtime, and lateness of bedtime” had a harder time transitioning to preschool. 

A 2005 study of adolescents during the change from summer schedule to school time found that high school students can lose up to 120 minutes of sleep per night during the two weeks just after school starts compared to their summer sleep schedule. This loss of sleep resulted in poor performance in the earlier part of the day for most students. 

Plenty of research has demonstrated the potential positive benefits of changing to a later school schedule, especially for adolescents (Wahistrom, 2002; Kirby et al., 2011). But most school systems have not made the change to a later school day due to a plethora of competing factors, such as after-school schedules and transportation issues. 

Until we can figure out a way to align school start times (and our work schedules for that matter) with the circadian rhythms of our children, we’re going to have to do our best to help our children adapt to the start of school. 

Tips for adjusting bedtime

Helping your child transition to an earlier bedtime and wake-up time is something you should attempt gradually, especially if summer has changed the regular schedule drastically. Give yourself at least two weeks before school starts, if possible. 

Learn how much sleep your child should be getting. 

Before you decide on the best bedtime arrangement for you and your child, think about how much sleep your child needs. You might have a good idea based on experience, but these guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation can also be a good reference point.

Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day

(Including naps)



14 – 17 Hours



New born sleep schedule


12 – 15 Hours

toddler sleep schedule


11 – 14 Hours


preschool sleep schedule


10 – 13 Hours


school age sleep schedule

School age

9 – 11 Hours



teenager sleep schedule



8 – 10 Hours


From the National Sleep Foundation

If you need to change to an earlier bedtime, do it gradually. 

Pediatric sleep expert Judith Owens notes that it is much easier to ask a child to stay up later than to get them to go to bed earlier. She suggests working in 15 minute intervals, moving bedtime 15 minutes earlier every two or three days until you get back to the desired bed time.  Remember to also move the other parts of the bedtime routine (like dinner and bath time) earlier, too. 

Overemphasize the quiet pre-bed mood. 

Any strategy for encouraging sleep will emphasize creating a quiet, dark, technology-free bedtime routine. This might be especially important as kids are shifting back to school. Summer bedtimes often mean staying out late and falling asleep in the car, or rushing to bed after an exciting picnic. Children are naturally tired after these adventures and often fall asleep more willingly. 

As you remove these elements and ask kids to shift back to a more “normal” bedtime routine, they may be used to the excitement and energy-draining impact of summer schedules and won’t feel ready for bed. You might find that an added emphasis on creating a calm post-dinner environment is more important than normal during this transition period.

Create a wake-up plan together. 

When you know that waking up earlier is going to be a challenge, it can be useful to talk to your child about how you’ll work together to make it easier. Does your child want an alarm clock instead of you nagging at them? Can you set out clothes to wear the night before to make morning dressing easier? 

Younger children may benefit from a checklist that includes the tasks they need to accomplish before heading to school or starting the day. You could also consider some ideas to be more mindful and less chaotic in the morning, like choosing nature over technology or taking a 10 second breathing break before heading out the door. Talk to your child about the benefits of a happy morning routine and celebrate the mornings when everyone achieves that goal.

Change your own bedtime. 

As much as we know that we need to help our kids be prepared to wake up earlier, we’re going to have to wake up right along with them. Don’t underestimate your own need to make a gradual transition. Use similar strategies to move your own bedtime and wake-up time earlier, too.

Be patient. 

Asking our kids to change a schedule or routine to which they have become accustomed – and may be enjoying – will bring its own challenges. They may be resistant because they feel they’re losing a more fun daily routine. Emphasize the opportunity to spend quiet bonding time together, to do things together as a family, or to discuss what they are excited about when it comes to getting back to school. Let them know that you understand their feelings and may share them, but emphasize the positive opportunities that back-to-school brings.

So add “gradually shift bedtime routine” to your back-to-school to-do list. You’ll thank yourself when it’s easier to rise and catch the bus on that first school morning. At the very least you’ll have a much better first day of school photo.

5 Things a Working Parent Can Do to Cultivate Summer Joy

Summer can be total bliss. On the other hand, as a working parent who doesn’t get to slow down simply because the temp rises, it can feel a little daunting.

I remember the feeling as a child – mid-June rolls around and the world is your oyster because IT’S SUMMER! Time for sprinklers and popsicles and visits to Grandma’s. Life was easy.

Now that I’m a working parent, the arrival of summer means that I have to figure out how I’m going to juggle our work schedule with our kids’ lack of schedule for a total of 55 long summer days.

I’ve been staring at a calendar for the last three months jotting down notes about which child will be where with whom on what day. While it’s not quite enough to make me long for winter, it is enough to make summer feel more like a rat race than Mother Nature ever intended.

With summer’s official arrival, I’m acutely aware that this amazing season could end up feeling like a vacation that we spent more time planning than enjoying, so I’m trying to cultivate a new approach to unscheduled time this summer. Instead of freaking out, over-scheduling, and planning our days down to the last minute, I’m going to make every effort to be more mindful of the time we have. I want to remember the joy of my childhood summers and open the doors to welcome its return. 

Here are the promises I am making to myself and my family this year:

1 | I will play. 

It is all too easy to sit back and watch our children play, perhaps using this much-needed time to prepare dinner or weed the garden or check our work email. Watching them certainly brings vicarious joy and the pleasure of seeing our children happy, but this year when my kids are throwing water at each other or building a fort in the woods I am going to join in as much as I can. 

Creating memories together is one way of showing our children how much we love and treasure them; it can also help us to experience valuable reconnection with our kids, making more room for them in our busy lives.

2 | I will let my children play. 

After researching the importance of free play for kids, especially in nature, I’m doubling my efforts to create the space for this to happen for my own kids. Rather than scheduling a different camp every week, I’m working with other like-minded parents to arrange alternating play dates and testing out a mother’s helper so I can occasionally work from home. On these days, my children can create their own adventures with their friends and we all find joy in watching the self-reliance, creativity, and physical growth that comes with free play. 

3 | I will set my away message (and actually be away). 

Whether I’m on an actual vacation or just one of my days off from work (I am lucky enough to have negotiated a few extra weeks off during the summer), I will stop incessantly checking my phone to see if an email has come in that I need to address. I will put down the technology and actually be present with my family. I’ll pay attention to the silly face my daughter makes when she finds a bug on the deck; I’ll notice when my son is feeling hot and tired and suggest that we lay down under our sprawling maple to look at the branches against the sky; and I’ll dig my hands into the soil in the garden, nurturing my own need for physical movement.

4 | I will nurture connections with other families. 

Families that can play together, at both the kid and adult level, are a valuable asset to modern life and summer is the perfect time to foster these relationships. These are the families we can invite over (or drop our kid with) at a moment’s notice; the people with whom we can laugh about our crazy parenting mistakes; and the people with whom we can sit and talk for hours while the children jump on a trampoline until their legs turn to Jell-o. 

It can be easy to let weeks pass in the middle of a school year without this kind of laid back gathering, but in my humble opinion it should be at least a weekly event during the summer.  This is our tribe. These are our people. Having them in our lives helps bolster our spirits for the more challenging moments. 

5 | I will re-read this article every 3-4 weeks..

…to make sure I haven’t forgotten my promises to myself and to my kids. After all, just because it’s summer doesn’t mean I’m any less likely to get caught up in the neverending hamster wheel of life. 

Kids Need Active Free Play for Healthy Bodies

A conversation with pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom about the many benefits of “active free play” for kids – especially in in nature.

Angela Hanscom was practicing occupational therapy with children when she had an “a-ha” moment.

Almost all of the activities she was prescribing to treat children with sensory, attention, or balance issues were things that children could and should be experiencing on their own. Climbing, hanging, spinning in circles – these used to be the hallmarks of a child’s experience.

“The occupation of a child is play,” she said. Why were they not doing these things on a daily basis?

This discovery led Hanscom to take a close look at the lives of the children around her – at home, at school, on the playground, and on the ball field. She visited schools, sat in on classes, and watched kids in their everyday habitat. 

Kids were squirming, having trouble paying attention, or wanting to climb where they weren’t supposed to climb. And what were adults doing? They were telling these children to sit still, pay attention, get in line, and stop moving. 

Well-meaning educators, coaches, and parents were basically telling kids not to do their job.

As an occupational therapist, Hanscom’s expertise is in looking at an experience that a child is having and breaking it down to see how it is benefitting (or not benefiting) that child developmentally. Children, she says, will naturally seek out the movement they need, like spinning (which actually aids in developing balance) or jumping up and down.

 Her opinion, which is supported by strong research in her book “Balanced and Barefoot,” is that lack of active free play is actually harming our children.

“How many kids,” she wondered, “would need occupational therapy if they spent more time moving their bodies the way they need to?”

Active free play, as defined by Hanscom, is free play that is not restricted by the rules or objects created by adults. It is child-directed, ideally in nature where kids can come up with their own ideas about how to interact with each other and with the world around them. Thirty years ago, according to Hanscom’s research, the average child had about 4-5 hours of this kind of play during the day; now that number is down to somewhere between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours.  

She believes this drastic change is connected to increased issues with things like regulating emotions, reading, and sensory integration. 

Parents and educators are beginning to take note of Hanscom’s ideas. She has been featured multiple times in The Washington Post and was named a “Hometown Hero” in Glamour Magazine’s 2015 Women of the Year issue.

“When educators and parents hear that they might actually be harming their children by making them sit still or telling them to stop spinning, that’s when they begin to really listen,” says Hanscom.

Hanscom wanted to make sure that once people started thinking about these ideas, they had an opportunity to learn how to put them in action. That idea is at the heart of her book. She named the book “Balanced and Barefoot” because she wanted to convey the strong visual image of a child running around barefoot outside as the quintessential picture of active free play. 

“There is nothing like seeing a child out there playing to help parents understand the value of the experience,” she says.   

With friends, children are more apt to try new things, and to seek reassurance from adults a little less often.

Transitioning to this kind of child-led approach takes patience and practice, Hanscom explains.   Children need a lot of time outdoors to begin to explore their surroundings in new and creative ways, and adults need to be patient with children as they learn to play in a less structured environment than what they are used to.  

Friends are also key. “Every chance I got, I invited kids to come over for the whole day,” says Hanscom about helping her own daughter to develop these skills. With friends, children are more apt to try new things, and to seek reassurance from adults a little less often.

Hanscom also took action on her ideas when she created TimberNook, a developmental nature program in the U.S. and New Zealand that offers the opportunity for virtually unlimited, child-led sensory experiences in nature. TimberNook uses a unique approach from other, more traditional nature programs by focusing on using the environment to foster healthy child development – both intellectual and physical – with minimal adult intervention.

“Is summer camp enough?” I asked Hanscom as I listened to her passionate arguments. 

“We are a living example,” she answered, “of what can happen when children are given the opportunity to develop their free play skills. When I show a parent a video of what their child did while they were at camp, or a child goes home and tells their parent how much fun they had and helps the parent to recreate a TimberNook play space at home, that’s how we’re making the difference.” 

Hanscom says that teachers and parents often tell her that they “couldn’t put a finger on” why kids were having some of the challenges they were, but that learning about the value of free play lights a spark that makes people passionate about trying new things. 

She describes “Barefoot and Balanced” as a message packaged into book form. She hopes that parents will share it with teachers and that the movement will spread into multiple settings.  “There are a lot of barriers out there to making these kinds of changes,” she says, “but we should do everything in our power to keep educating.”

Raising Kids With a Movement-Based Lifestyle: An Interview with Katy Bowman

The simple truth is that we and our kids spend too much time sitting. But it’s never too late to start a movement-based lifestyle.

By now you’ve probably heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking.” The message that our sedentary lifestyles are causing all sorts of health issues is out there loud and clear. But have you also heard the message that exercise isn’t necessarily the answer? 

Think about a typical day in your life and the life of your family. How often are you moving?  Do you and your kids sit to eat breakfast, sit in the car on the way to school, sit at a desk all day, sit to watch television? The simple truth is that many of us, including our kids, spend significant portions of our day on our backsides.

Katy BowmanKaty Bowman is a biomechanist by training and founder of the “whole body movement program,” Nutritious Movement. Her message is that movement should be a part of our everyday lives – all day, every day – rather than just a thing we do in between all of the sitting. 

Nutritious movement, she says, is a human need just like a healthy diet. A repetitive exercise regime only moves your body in one specific way for one specific period of time, Bowman explains, but integrating movement throughout the day is a lifestyle change that moves your body in all sorts of ways, helping you to be more balanced. 

As an added bonus, nutritious movement can make you a happier person because movement is no longer something you have to check off your to-do list. “I’m not stressed about NOT exercising, feeling like I’ve failed to meet the needs of my body,” Bowman says of her own transition to this lifestyle.

Bowman is also raising her kids in a movement-based lifestyle.  They have monkey bars in their house and do not have chairs or couches; instead, they eat and hang out in all different positions on the floor. They walk everywhere they can, including frequent trips to the playground, and they hike barefoot through national parks. Bowman says her kids realize that their family is a little different from others, but they see difference as a normal part of life and don’t resist the lifestyle.

I became interested in Bowman’s work after giving birth to my second child and ended up diving into everything I could get my hands on. I’m a convert to Bowman’s philosophy and I’m already starting to feel better. 

I move more during my day at work by alternating between sitting, standing, and reading on the floor. I’m also trying to make movement, especially in nature, more frequent in my family’s life.  I’ve begun to prioritize our long walk to the bus stop each morning, getting myself outside to play soccer, and spending time on the swing set (I’m working up to my own monkey bar repertoire).   

I was thrilled to talk with Bowman about what it means for her whole family to live this way and what the rest of us might learn from her. Lucky for us, Bowman believes it’s never too late to start introducing kids, or adults, to a movement-based lifestyle.

View: a day in the life of a movement based lifestyle.

What strategies would you recommend to get kids excited about, or at least not protesting, more movement in their lives?

I think the key is to not make a big deal out of it. The whole “guess what everyone, we’re going to embark on our movement-based lifestyle” probably sounds like “you’re going to have to start doing things you don’t want to do.” Instead, just start taking walks and say “good bye everyone, I’m going to spend some time out in nature alone” and just watch them line up to come with.

Set up games and puzzles on the floor and watch them join you, which is different then saying “Let’s get on the floor and play this game because it’s healthier for us.” Most kids don’t enjoy kale and walking because it hasn’t comprised the bulk of their experience, and we’re all comfortable with our habits. Sneaking it in helps, and modeling is really the best way for kids to become familiar with the idea. Ask your littles where they want to walk and let them lead, rather than saying “we need to get our walk in to stay healthy.”

Are your kids involved in organized sports? Do you approach sports decisions any differently because of your own research and lifestyle?

My kids are little—three and just five. Organized sports are a fairly new thing. But there is more and more evidence pointing to early specialization (that is, having kids play the same sport for many years, as opposed to them playing lots of different movement games and sports before finding what they’re good at as older teenagers) can lead to injuries that can effect them as adults.

I think of sports in the same way I think of dessert—a great way to supplement a well-balanced whole-food diet. My kids climb trees, walk long distances, and hike a lot through nature. We walk to the store and jump off high things, and sprint, and wrestle, and swing through monkey bars—barefoot the bulk of the time. I’m all for sports, I just don’t see sports as fully meeting their movement nutrition guidelines.

I’ve read that you chose a Forest School for your kids.  What recommendations do you have for families who don’t have this type of option for school? 

Before you assume you don’t have an outdoor program near you, check. This can include a Facebook post that says “Family interested in enrolling their kids in a nature school, afterschool, or weekend program. Is anyone else similarly interested, or willing to take some steps with us to start one.” Once a week I post something about a new school popping up and there’s always a comment or two like “That’s right near me! I didn’t know there was anything.”

If there’s no official program, start an after school or weekend meet-up in nature. Here’s my biggest “get your kid moving” tip: Kids want to move with other kids. Going for a walk “because it’s healthy” is an adult construct developed out of an almost sedentary experience. They can’t relate. What they can relate to is other kids moving through nature, because it’s fun. Humans are pack animals. Get kids a little older and more skilled than yours and it’s like some natural instinct to keep up kicks in and away they go, COMPLAINT FREE (which means your outdoor time becomes a break from The Constant Whining – or, is that just my kids?).

Do you have any recommendations for parents who want to bring these ideas to their kids’ schools?

Suggest ways to add movement to your child’s teacher or the school’s PTA. This can be a bit tricky, but the research on sitting and learning and health are in your favor. I haven’t seen any research pointing to sitting as the best option for kids and education, it’s just how schooling has been done (for research to the contrary, check out this article on the benefits of standing).

Instead of only suggesting, offer to be of service in terms of funding, looking for grants, or volunteering your time in the class to help support this endeavor. I’ve inspired at least a few class rooms to go furniture free (check out this example of a chair free classroom ), and volunteering to shop thrift stores to stock classrooms with tables and cushions of various heights has been helpful, as is volunteering to chaperone class walks and weekly hikes.   

For more ideas on how to incorporate Nutritious Movement into your life, and the lives of your kids, I highly encourage you to check out Katy’s Facebook page.  I guarantee you will be inspired and occasionally laugh.  When you’re ready to dive a bit deeper, you might start with her book Move your DNA which provides all of the basic science behind the concept. 

PS – If you’ve been sitting the whole time you read this article, get up and take a movement break; your body will thank you!

This Is How We Can Appreciate Our Teachers Everyday

Here are facts to share next time you hear someone say that teachers “have it easy,” are “overpaid,” or are “never fired.”

Imagine that you have just accepted a new job.

Tomorrow, 20-30 young children will arrive at your house around 7:30am.  Some of them will be calm and collected; others will be bouncing off the wall from a sugary breakfast; and some will not have eaten breakfast at all.  Some of them will be friends with each other and some of them will not like each other.  Some of them will speak like little geniuses and others will have trouble reading.

Your job is to plan a day of engaging activities that will keep this group of children happy and well-behaved.  You have the option to design the day however you want, but your performance will be judged by how well they do on a test at the end of the year.

You’ll repeat this task with some variation for almost every weekday over a nine month period.

We’ll give you a generous 20 minute lunch break every day, and you can work from home in the evenings to plan for the next day.  Your starting salary will be about $30,000 and over time you’ll make about 50% less than your peers who also graduated college but are working in other professions.

You are going to love these kids like crazy and put your heart and soul into this job.  You’re not in it for the money.  You’re in it for the looks on their faces when they finally understand something new, for the joy of seeing them build their self-esteem, and for the impact you’ll have on their future and in turn the rest of the world’s future.  Just the little things, right?

Oh, and just so you know, a lot of the time you’re going to hear people say: “Gosh, I wish I had your job.  Only work part-time for 9 months and get my summers off!  Must be nice.”  

Interior of Elementary School Classroom

The first week in May is Teacher Appreciation Week.

If you didn’t get excited about the job offer I’ve just described, chances are you’re not a teacher.  And that’s ok.  Not everyone is built to be a teacher.  It takes a certain kind of person to spend day-in, day-out in a room full of kids.

It also takes a certain kind of person to take care of our kids in a system that is far from perfect and isn’t going to change overnight.  Those people deserve our appreciation.  Not just this week, but every week.

They deserve our appreciation even if they’re not perfect or they don’t always get it right.  [su_pullquote align=”right”]99% of teachers are in the classroom for the right reason; they care deeply about every kid who comes through the door and they are doing their very best to do right by each of them.[/su_pullquote]Because 99% of teachers are in the classroom for the right reason; they care deeply about every kid who comes through the door and they are doing their very best to do right by each of them.

This year, for teacher appreciation week, let’s take it outside of the classroom.  Sure, we should still do nice things for our teachers to show them personally how much we appreciate them (here are some ideas). But if we really want to make a difference in their lives, we need to do more.  We need to speak up loudly and clearly to defend teachers against those who criticize them based on inaccurate and unfair information.  

We can start by reading the National Education Association’s Myths and Facts about Educator Pay.  In addition to the salary statistics shared in our hypothetical job description, you’ll learn:

  • Annual pay for teachers has decreased “sharply” compared to other professions over the last 60 years
  • Most teachers work about 50 hours per week (not just the 6-8 hour school day for which they are contracted)
  • Most teachers spend the summer teaching summer classes or taking professional certification courses to keep up their license.
  • You’ll also learn that “tenure” does not equal “job for life” – it simply ensures that teachers can only be fired for just cause and have a right to due process before being fired.

Next time you hear someone say that teachers “have it easy” or are “overpaid” or are “never fired” you’ll have some facts to counter those arguments.

If we truly appreciate our teachers, we need to speak up when we hear people making these claims.  Whether we see these arguments in the comments section of a newspaper article or at a discussion for a town school budget vote, we can’t just silently disagree – we need to say something.  Write a letter to the editor, speak up in a public meeting, or write to your congressperson to advocate for legislation that supports teachers.

For Teacher Appreciation Week, and beyond, let’s give teachers the gift of our support and our voice, especially when times get tough.  Because that’s an easy thing for us to do compared to what they do every day for our kids and our communities.

Expert Resources for Practicing Mindfulness with Your Kids

How can you pass up an approach that might help your child focus on tasks, calm nervous energy, control negative behavior, and build self-esteem?

You’ve probably heard talk of the concept of mindfulness in your workplace, your yoga class, or your Facebook feed.  It is a concept that traces back to ancient Buddhist meditation but is growing in popularity as a helpful practice for our modern busy lives.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading visionaries in the modern mindfulness movement, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that being more present in our daily lives, and aware of the moments that shape them can help us to “realize the richness and depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation” (1994, p. 4).

Mindfulness is not exactly equal to meditation (which is a relief for those who can’t imagine sitting cross-legged for hours in silence), though meditation is one form of mindfulness. It encompasses a wide range of practices from seated meditation to moving meditation, and from simple breathing exercises to philosophies on how we approach our daily lives.

A 2012 American Psychological Association comprehensive analysis of the benefits of mindfulness cited research showing that the practice: decreases depressive symptoms, increases working memory, reduces stress, increases ability to focus, decreases emotional reactivity, increases “cognitive flexibility”, and increases relationship satisfaction, among other empirical findings.  It’s no wonder the adult world is grabbing on to this practice in a multitude of settings.

How can you pass up an approach that might help your child to focus on tasks, calm nervous energy, control negative behavior, or build self-esteem?

Over the last few years practitioners and educators have begun to explore the potential for mindfulness practice to bring similar benefits to children.  While in some ways the jury is still out on long-term impacts of mindfulness programming for kids (more research is needed), preliminary research has shown promising evidence that children can in fact participate in well-designed mindfulness activities and that they may reap similar benefits to adults.  In addition to the benefits described above, research has shown that mindfulness can improve self-esteem and self-regulation as well as academic performance in children. 

Schools, counselors, and other youth settings are beginning to integrate mindfulness in many ways, but parents can also use mindfulness with their kids at home.

How can you pass up an approach that might help your child to focus on tasks, calm nervous energy, control negative behavior, or build self-esteem?

The question, then, becomes: where do I start?

The following is a curated list of resources and activities for beginning the journey of mindfulness practice with your children; it is simply a place to start but may help you to begin integrating these practices into daily life in your own house.

Explaining mindfulness to kids:

Let’s start with some resources on how you can explain mindfulness to kids.  Mindful Magazine is an excellent resource for ideas on mindfulness practice at home (or at work).  Their article on teaching kids about the brain uses a visual metaphor of a house (“upstairs and downstairs”) to help kids understand how the brain relates to the rest of the body.  You can use this concept to help teach your kids about how the brain works and to talk with them about this complex idea in a way that may help them to understand how it plays out in their life.

An artistic and tactile activity is also an option.  The glitter jar activity described in Mindful Magazine engages kids in creating a jar of water and glitter (like a snow globe); by watching the glitter float around in a frenzy when shaken up, then settle to the bottom as it is allowed to rest, kids can begin to understand how the activities of their daily life may cause their brain to get overloaded.  You can use the jar as both an explanatory tool and a mindfulness practice (“let’s sit together and take some deep breaths while we watch the glitter settle”).

I was pleasantly surprised by my son’s reaction to this project on a Sunday afternoon when he was starting to get antsy.  He embraced the fun side of the project (shaking the jar around) but also was able to relate to his father how the jar represented his brain and how it had to be allowed to rest a bit in order to calm down.

Practicing mindfulness with kids:

There are a million ways in which you might practice mindfulness with your kids, and they range in formality from encouraging your child to really focus on a given activity (my son immediately calms down when he takes on the challenge of building a new Lego figure) to doing intentional exercises with them like yoga or mindful walking.  Even my toddler is beginning to understand what I am asking when I ask her to “take a deep breath” with me.

Here are a couple of my favorite resources for kid-friendly mindful activity ideas:

  1. The Mindful Teachers website has a great list of potential mindfulness activities for kids that can just as easily be done at home.  For example, when my son is too anxious or excited to sleep we use the body scan (something I use frequently myself) to help him redirect his energy and stop thinking about whatever is keeping him awake.
  2. The Mindful Schools website also has a list of guided practices, with audio explanations to help you learn more.  Our interest in connecting our kids with nature makes “mindful walking” a favorite – simply invite kids to take a slow, quiet walk and to intentionally notice how their body moves or to gently take in what is around them through all of their senses.
  3. Scott Sampson’s book How to Raise a Wild Child is a great link between nature-based play, learning, and mindfulness.  The concept of choosing a “sit spot,” where you simply sit and notice the natural world around you, is one of Sampson’s strategies for nature exploration.  My son’s teacher uses this practice as part of her Forest Kindergarten curriculum and we have used it at home as a way to connect with the land around our homestead while also encouraging quiet time.
  4. Gonoodle.com is a site I often recommend for helping kids to use technology in a way that encourages movement.  Among their list of “channels”, Go Noodle also includes “Flow” and “Think About it” which offer short breathing and guided thought exercises (you can also find these through the “calming” category).  They also have a stretching category which includes a number of yoga videos designed to capture kids’ attention.    Most of these videos are under five minutes and many focus on positive self-image.  My son will often start with an exciting exercise video on the site and follow it up with a more calming option.
  5. Lastly, I love this “Follow the Bird” mindfulness activity profiled in Mindful Magazine.  Just invite your child to simply stand in a field until they see a bird, approach it slowly, then gently follow it as it flies away.

We cannot expect our kids, or ourselves, to be intentionally mindful every minute of every day.  But I do believe that we can use the concept of mindfulness to bring a little bit more peace to each day; in fact the essence of the practice is the act of redirecting our attention when faced with stress, anxiety, or complexity. We can also equip our children with a skill that will last a lifetime, a skill that many of us are just trying to learn as adults.  What an advantage that would be!

If mindfulness seems counter to your daily frenzied life, begin with something small and see how it goes. I would love to hear how it works for you.