Does Your Kid Have Constant Heel Pain? It Could be Severs Disease

Sever’s disease, also known as Calcaneal apophysitis, is the most common cause of heel pain in children.

I felt like the world’s worst mom. My sixth-grade son had been complaining about pain in his heel since starting soccer a month earlier. We were new to the area. He was shy and not overly interested in athletics. I thought he was just trying to get out of it, so I pushed him on.

It took his tears and a coach’s concern to wake me up.

That was the beginning of his battle with Sever’s disease, a condition that took him out of sports and out of gym classes for more than three years. His case was acute, far worse than most. Many kids can continue with athletics after therapy and treatment, but not him. He had to wait for the disease to run its course.

Along with the physical pain, he fought ignorance and the social repercussions of invisible illness. A substitute gym teacher accused him of faking it. His peers were too young to understand what they could not see. He needlessly suffered through medical boots, casts, and expensive orthotics ordered by a doctor who went by the book instead of treating our son as an individual.

It didn’t have to be so hard. Like many parents, we’d never heard of Sever’s disease. If we had been more educated, his experience might’ve been less painful, physically and socially. The more we learned, the more surprised we were at how common Sever’s disease is and how little most parents and coaches know about treating it.

Sever’s disease, also known as Calcaneal apophysitis, is the most common cause of heel pain in children. It’s not really a disease. It is an overuse condition that usually occurs during the growth spurt of adolescence, about two years before the onset of puberty. For most kids, that’s between the ages of eight and 13 for girls and 10 and 15 for boys.

This is how it happens: Children who are still developing physically have plates made of bone surrounded by cartilage on their heels where their Achilles tendons attach. Picture that piece of bone as an island in a sea of cartilage. The pain occurs when the tendon repeatedly yanks on that growth plate, causing inflammation in the cartilage. The only permanent cure is time.

Eventually, the cartilage turns to bone and the pain is gone for good. The worst pain usually lasts only a few weeks or a few months, but flare-ups can happen any time during the 18 months to three years it takes the cartilage to solidify. Knowing the root cause is essential in deciding how to treat it for the long-term. We didn’t know that.

The most popular articles that popped up in my internet searches addressed only the acute stage, as did our doctor, a sports podiatrist who came highly recommended by friends. We had no reason to doubt the doctor or question his approach to treatment. So when he recommended casting, we did it. When he recommended a boot, we did it. When he encouraged our son to return to sports with a duller version of the pain, we agreed.

Each time it flared up, this doctor prescribed the boot, again and again and again. Nothing seemed to keep the flare-ups at bay. The doctor’s final solution was an expensive pair of orthotics that did nothing.

It was an exercise in frustration and it led to confusion for us, the school, our son’s coaches, and his peers. Our son was becoming depressed, especially after we hit the two-year mark and the pain with activity was no less intense. We found no real relief until we ditched our doctor and found an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Rochester, who was known for thinking out-of-the-box.

What we learned is that not all cases of Sever’s disease respond to the same approach. There are several potential causes of the condition. Overuse in sports, a tight Achilles tendon, and bio-mechanical problems such as flat feet and high arches are common culprits, according to The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. Most often, the condition will improve with medication, physical therapy, ice, and a reduction in exercise.

Many kids can continue in sports if they pamper their heels and tendons a bit with stretching, shoe inserts, ice massage, and a reduction in the intensity of their training when the pain returns or becomes more intense. Some never experience that pain again.

Our son was not a typical case. He is tall and his bones grew faster than his muscles, tendons, and ligaments, the doctor said. With such a short Achilles tendon, there wasn’t much he could do to prevent that constant yanking. No amount of casting, booting, medication, or icing was going to make the pain go away. He needed to accept that activities involving repetitive walking or running would be off the table or a while.

His new doctor tossed the orthotics and prescribed simple, comfortable heel lifts to shorten the tendon while he walked, relieving the stress on his growth plates. He recommended physical therapy and daily exercises to stretch the Achilles tendon. Even the slightest gain in length would relieve his pain during daily activities such as walking to classes, he assured our son. He had to keep them up at home long after therapy ended, stretching the tendon three to six times a day.

It was that simple.

The lifts, therapy, and stretches created a new bounce in our son’s step. He knew what to expect and he finally understood that he was playing a waiting game. He knew that a full recovery was around the corner and that he just needed to bide his time until then. So he began lifting weights and working on his abdominal muscles, preparing for the day he could return to gym and sports.

In tenth grade, he joined the cross-country team again. This time, he finished the season pain-free.

Why I Don't Worry About the Small Stuff Anymore

When your child is born with a heart that’s broken beyond full repair, you learn what you can and cannot control.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
I used to have a recurring, panic-inducing dream about an underground parking garage. The garage lies beneath the children’s hospital where my son receives ongoing treatment of his heart defects and other serious medical conditions.
Picture incredibly narrow parking spots with load-bearing columns scattered about everywhere, creating an obstacle course that even the most compact of vehicles must navigate carefully. Scuff marks with glimmers of auto body paint litter the sides of every single one of those load-bearing columns: a reminder that many who have gone before me have failed to make it out unscathed.
I’m a horrible parker, hence the nightmares.
Thanks to my poor depth perception, visuospatial tasks have never been my forte. I’ve hit more than a few stationary objects in my nearly 15-year-long driving career.
Throw in the previously unfathomable level of sleep deprivation that accompanies the job of parenting a medically complex child (which exacerbates my depth perception problems), and I stand no chance against this parking garage.
For the first several visits, I have my husband park the car, or I give up and drop it off out front with the valets. But this arrangement eventually becomes unfeasible. Sometimes my husband and I need to arrive separately, and the valet booth has limited hours.
I realize I’m going to have to learn how to park the car in that hellish garage so that I can always be there with my son while he’s in the hospital. There’s just no way around it anymore.
I take the scholarly approach, as I tend to do. I make diagrams of the precise angles necessary to maneuver my way into one of the spots without scraping a column or a neighboring car. I visualize the garage and imagine myself parking. I even ask my husband for pointers, but he’s not much help since he’s been graced with a natural gift for this sort of thing: “I dunno, I just turn the steering wheel and park the car?”
After all that preparation, I get a chance to put it into practice at the next scheduled appointment I must take our son to by myself. I meditate on (that’s my code for “obsess over”) the task at hand the whole drive to the hospital, and I briefly contemplate saying, “Screw it, I’ll just do valet parking” before turning into the garage.
I choose my target. I take a hard pass on the spot between two huge SUVs that are barely within the lines and decide on one with well-behaved neighbors instead.
Much of the elegance of my diagram was missing in this real-life attempt, but I managed to get my car in the spot. Never mind that I’ve wedged myself into a position that will require a nine-point turn to exit. That’s a problem for “Future Me,” and it’s beside the point.
When your child is born with a heart that’s broken beyond full repair, you learn what you can and cannot control. I can’t control whether the cardiac surgeon I’ve handed my son over to will return him in a better condition than he was in before – or if I’ll even get him back at all.
I can’t control the fact that I’ll probably outlive my child.
But I can learn how to park the damn car. I can conquer that fear and make that nightmare go away. I can let go of all the anxieties that used to plague me, the worries about issues that seem so trivial in retrospect.
Now I know that if the worst-case scenario in a situation is a scraped fender or having to file an insurance claim, that’s not something worth worrying about. Those are problems we can solve if the worst should happen.
It’s the unsolvable, uncontrollable, life-threatening types of problems that are the real stuff of nightmares, anyway.

How to Guide Your Kid's Inventive Spelling

Encouraging your child to use invented spelling will help her become a successful student, even if the immediate results look disastrous.

Invented spelling – young children’s attempts to write words by recording the letter sounds they hear – has long been common in early childhood classrooms, but new research has brought it into the spotlight this year. A recent study suggests that engaging regularly in this analytical process is more effective at preparing children to read than focusing on word memorization.
What does this mean for parents? Well, for one thing, you can stop worrying that a note from your five-year-old that says, “U R A GRT MOM” means she’ll forever be reliant on spell check. Encouraging your child to use invented spelling will help her become a successful student, even if the immediate results look disastrous.
It also means you might struggle with how to best help your beginning writer. The following tips come from my experience as a kindergarten teacher and have passed the true test: I have a five-year-old inventive speller at home.

Take yourself back to kindergarten

As a proficient reader and writer, your brain works differently than a young child’s. You have a massive mental bank of words you read and write automatically. So it’s understandable if you’re out of practice at relying heavily on letter sounds.
It will be easier for you to help your early speller (and read what she writes) if you temporarily suspend your knowledge that the ending “shun” is often written as -tion or that care written without the “e” would technically be pronounced as the word meaning automobile.
Go back to the ABCs. Consistency between home and school is always helpful, so find out how your child’s teacher introduces letter sounds. Many teachers use a keyword carefully chosen to teach each one, as in this common phonics program. Instead of “E is for Elephant,” it’s Ed, to make the “short e” sound crystal clear. No xylophones or x-rays, either. The keyword for X is fox to teach the ending /ks/ sound.
For extra credit, watch this video clip to confirm you’re pronouncing each sound correctly when helping your child.

Set up for success

You can avoid some common pitfalls by being ready with supplies and ideas when your child wants to practice writing. It’s hard for new writers to plan use of space, so squeezing words into small areas will likely be frustrating. My son always chooses the tiniest scrap of paper, so I try to quickly swap it out for something with plenty of room.
Consider ditching the standard no. 2 pencil, also. Pencils break at the wrong moment and erasing can easily become a messy obsession. These nifty crayon rocks are a fun alternative. They come in a velvet bag, which makes them feel treasure-like, and have the added bonus of a shape that encourages a correct pincer grip. Many teachers also favor these felt tip pens, which slide easily across the paper.
It can be frustrating for everyone when adults can’t read what a child laboriously wrote. If you encourage a new writer to label an item in a picture or an actual object, you have a giant clue as to her intended message. Give your child a stack of large sticky notes and have her label things around your home. “Dangerous!” by Tim Warnes is a hilarious picture book about labeling that inspired my son to whip through an economy-sized pack of Post-Its.
There are many authentic contexts for writing lists, which are a logical next step after labeling. Suggest grocery lists, real or pretend menus, to-do lists, top 10 lists, and so on. You’ll have the list’s context to help you decipher each word. My son spent all summer getting ahead of the game and writing wish lists for Santa. A tad consumer-driven for my taste, but he was highly motivated to include as many sounds as possible so his message was legible.
Finally, if you encourage your child to attempt writing short sentences within a functional framework, the task feels worthy enough for him to see it through, and you’ll have something to go on when you try to read it. Encourage him to write thank you notes, signs, birthday cards or a caption to accompany a picture he drew.

Help, but not too much

So much of parenting is about striking the balance between giving help and leaving enough space for independence. Once your child gets the idea of saying words slowly and writing down letters for sounds she hears, let her go for it.
Constant correction or giving into to “How do you spell…?” requests quickly creates dependence. I find it useful to suddenly become very busy in another room when my son is trying to write something. When I’m out of sight, he trusts himself more.
At the same time, new writers need to maintain momentum. If your child is stuck on a sound, especially if it’s one you’re sure he doesn’t know yet, just supply it so he can move on. It’s okay to provide tips like how to spell the ending “ing” or “it takes s and h together to start shell” without lengthy explanations. My son often gets hung up on people’s names, which can be phonetic minefields anyways, so I just write them on a piece of scrap paper for him if he asks.
Like potty training, training wheels, and Velcro shoes, invented spelling spans just a short phase in your child’s development. I keep reminding myself to appreciate (rather, APRESHEAT) the window it offers into my child’s thinking. I know that, soon enough, the only notes I’ll get from him will be texts that he won’t be home for dinner.

How to Find the Right Music Teacher for Your Kid

If your kid is passionate about music, how do you find a music teacher who will bring out the best in them?

Your child is passionate about music, has a great sense of rhythm, and begs to learn an instrument. How do you find a music teacher who will bring out the best in your child?

Parents of musically-inquisitive children rarely know where to start. Many have little direction, and typically seek music instruction locally, through word-of-mouth referral, and where it is affordable and convenient. Some teachers may be accomplished musicians, some may be retired music educators, some may have been teaching privately for years, and some may be just getting started.

However, what works for one child may not work another. Just as some classroom teachers follow a structured curriculum and have difficulty accommodating each child’s unique needs, some music teachers adhere to rigid views of what is acceptable pedagogy. They insist on a strict format of study and don’t know when to hold back or when a talented child needs more encouragement.

Recent articles have highlighted the emotional and cognitive benefits of music instruction and the long-term effects of musical training on the brain, but finding the right teacher for your child can be a challenge. Specific qualities seen among excellent music teachers are outlined here, but what’s also critical is the teacher’s understanding of your child’s developmental, emotional, and motivational needs.

Here is one example of what can go wrong:   

Jake’s parents responded to their five-year-old’s sense of rhythm and interest in piano by seeking lessons at a large, well-known music school. The school had fairly rigid expectations – for example, requesting payment up front for an entire nine months of lessons. Before agreeing to this, Jake’s mom requested a trial lesson first. Jake was assigned to a young teacher, who initially told his mom to wait in the hallway along with a group of other parents. She insisted on attending the lesson, though, so she could assess the teacher’s approach and see how Jake responded.

The teacher asked Jake to play something, since he had some rudimentary understanding of musical notation that he’d acquired from his parents (both had studied music in the past). When he could not follow additional written instructions on the page, the teacher appeared frustrated and asked him the meaning of a particular word. Jake became quiet and said nothing. His mom had to remind the teacher that Jake was only five, and could not read words like that yet.

When asked how future lessons might proceed, Jake’s mom was informed that she would not be permitted to stay in the room despite Jake’s wish to have her present. After they left, Jake told his mom that he did not like the teacher. The entire experience was a disappointment, and they did not return. Jake’s mom kept searching, and eventually found a lovely, experienced private teacher, who was highly attuned to the developmental needs of young children.

Situations like those that occurred with Jake’s family happen frequently. While Jake’s first teacher may have been an accomplished musician, she seemed unfamiliar with how to engage with Jake and what was appropriate for a five-year-old. Many parents without a musical background may be afraid to assert their concerns, and tolerate a stale, uninspired, and often developmentally-inappropriate approach to learning.

What should you consider when searching for a music teacher for your child?

1 | Recognize your child’s temperament and developmental needs

Each child is unique. A six-year-old clearly requires a different approach than a teen, and a good teacher will appreciate this. Wise teachers know how to capture your child’s interest, instill motivation to practice, and help her set reasonable goals. Anything too demanding will result in resistance. Anything too simplistic and rudimentary will be viewed by your child with skepticism. Even a young child can sense when a teacher’s expectations are out of sync with her abilities.

2 | Stay attuned to what is happening during lessons

Music lessons are different from classroom instruction. Don’t let a teacher keep you out of the room. While you must respect the teacher’s authority and should not interfere during the lesson, you also need to know what’s working, what your child is expected to learn, and how he responds. Find out how you can (or should not) help in between lessons to encourage him with motivation and practice. Older children and teens may be more comfortable without you present; however, some contact with your child’s teacher will keep you informed about you child’s progress and aware of areas that need improvement.

3 | Notice signs of resistance in your child

Your child will convey signs of resistance, such as boredom, frustration, and disinterest in her music instruction, just as she might with schoolwork. This can be expressed through lethargy, avoidance, anxiety, and even melt-downs when practice becomes too overwhelming. Be alert to any signs that your child worries excessively about disappointing her teacher, or feels ashamed of a poor performance. Some resistance may be due to normal avoidance of hard work, but it also may signal that she is not getting what she needs from her lessons.

4 | Keep expectations in check

Watching a child’s musical development can fill any parent with pride. How you respond to this, though, can impact your child’s motivation, drive, self-confidence and even his potential to rebel. Excessive boasting about his successes, overt or even subtle pressure to achieve, or dejection if he performs poorly at an audition can have an impact. It may be confusing for him to distinguish his passion and drive from the needs of his family.

It’s just as essential to find a teacher who understands the emotional impact of his or her words, and who refrains from any coercion, pressure, excessive criticism, or shaming. Instruction and critique must be offered in a respectful, upbeat, and encouraging manner, reinforcing that mistakes are a necessary part of learning.

Children who feel excessive pressure to excel or are shamed for their mistakes, even if these messages are not overt, may develop perfectionistic standards or low self-esteem. They may push themselves relentlessly and become increasingly anxious, or may slow their progress, refusing to take on challenging new assignments where they might struggle or fail. Some may give up completely. Older children and teens who are confident in their abilities may be more receptive to a challenging and rigorous approach; however, your child’s temperament is a better predictor of whether this would be beneficial than her age or talent.

Supporting, encouraging, and nurturing a musically talented child can be a challenge. There are few resources and no clear roadmaps for parents. Finding the right teacher takes time and effort. Don’t necessarily settle for the first teacher your meet, or the one your neighbor recommends. Keep searching until you find the right fit.

Trust your instincts – after all, you know your child best! Keep in mind that your child’s needs may change over time as he matures both developmentally and as a musician. Sometimes a new teacher may provide just the right motivational boost to reignite that spark. Most of all, enjoy this wonderful journey with your child!

My Place With the Playground Benchwarmers

Where there is a playground, we will be there as Protectors of the Peace, like mundane super heroes keeping an eye on petty criminals.

It is almost 3 p.m. and I am standing around with a bunch of other parents waiting for the torrent of children to come barreling out of the school doors like a herd of screaming cats. Some of us chit chat idly with each other, some look at phones, some kind of stare aimlessly. It’s a fairly subdued scene, save for the slight hidden tension in anticipation of the impending barrage. Then the bell rings.
Some things never change, and certainly the end of the school day looks much like it did for me when I was a screaming cat in the herd. Like a river flowing forth from a burst damn, tiny people come streaming out of the doors, heads whipping wildly about in search of their respective rides home. Some charge off to the school bus lines, while other throw their backpacks in the general direction of their guardians and run recklessly to the parking lot.
Others, my son among them, greet their elders with pleading cries requesting playground access with their peers. Since I’m a sucker both for time spent in pursuit of physical activity and my son’s begging puppy-dog eyes, I graciously relent and we head around behind the school, my scion at top speed and me lagging behind with a newly acquired schoolbag.
The playground is ground zero for childhood, and these kids are anxious to spend as large a portion of their pent-up energy as possible before the cluster of parents at the picnic table finally decides we’ve had enough and it’s time to go home. They charge into whatever game they’d presumably created at recess earlier and just like that, they’re off.
As an experienced Playground Benchwarmer I know it is only a matter of time before the younger siblings that have been dragged along to pick-up will find something to complain about, and somehow in my seven years of parenting I still haven’t figured out the appropriate amount of snacks to bring to a venture such as this. So I bide my time as I commiserate with the other Benchwarmers about the nightly homework arguments and what new learning style has been introduced this year.
There was a time once, in the distant past, when I determined I would follow my son on the playground and do what he did, because I wasn’t one of those lazy parents that just sits around all the time while their kid plays. Oh no, I was one of those active, fun parents that likes to play with their kid and run around and swing on the monkey bars! I was able to keep up with him respectably for approximately three minutes, following which I collapsed on the nearest bench and spent the rest of the evening caving to TV demands just for a moment’s rest. Since that atrocious folly I have realized my place among the adults, and I stray no further from the bench than necessary.
This playground hierarchy, with kids rampant at play while parents sit nearby or push a younger sibling on a swing, translates to any and all designated play areas equally, I have found. There will always be a few guardians who get more involved, a few who remain aloof and remote, and the majority watching out of the corner of their eye from the sidelines. The Playground Benchwarmers are a stalwart bunch, braving the afternoon sun on an August afternoon or huddling around a steaming cup of coffee on a crisp November morning. Where there is a playground, we will be there as Protectors of the Peace, like mundane super heroes keeping an eye on petty criminals.
At the slightest sign of discord, the more alert and attentive of the bunch will call out a cease and desist cry, warning of the terrible consequences of non-compliance as the offending children pretend to listen before finding a sneakier way of breaking the rules. This is the way it has always been, and the way it will always be. One generation makes way for the next, but the bench will be forever warmed.
Finally the call has been made by one of the monitoring elite, and soon the rest follow. Momentum is a powerful force, not to be understated when children must be removed from a playground. Once one child has been suitably convinced of the need to leave, the rest will be much easier to persuade. It is imperative, therefore, the Benchwarmers work together as a group so as to avoid disruptive meltdowns and lengthy arguments. Slowly the playground clears out save for a few stragglers, and the sweaty children are led to their chariots to be carted off to the familial snack huts.
The Playground Benchwarmers have done their job, and the playground has been used and vacated without bloodshed or tears. Tomorrow is another day, and another chance at mutiny for the children. Against the Swingset Supervisors they stand little chance, however, and life will proceed as it has for generations.
I carry the bounty of second-grade math papers and left over lunch on my back as my son exchanges his last remaining potty jokes with his guffawing friends. As the sun sinks lower in the afternoon sky, we finally make it to the car and climb in, contentedly weary. All is right with the world now, as we head for home. Proudly I offer the bounty of Goldfish I actually remembered to bring this time, to which he replies that he has suddenly decided he hates Goldfish and is desperate for water, which of course I forgot to bring. Seven years in and I still have no idea what I’m doing.
This article was originally published at lifeoutsidethebox.me.

Turns Out, Screen Time Does Influence IRL Learning

A recent study suggests media activities can provide kids with valuable learning, teaching problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications.

Ask my son what happens when you watch too much TV and he’ll be straight with you: “Your brain turns into mush.”
You can thank me for that one.
Back when he was still in my belly, I read the parenting book, “Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina”, and drilled the following phrase into my brain: “Face-time, not screen-time” (and I don’t mean FaceTime).
Medina explains that babies and toddlers need face-to-face interaction in order to form healthy social, emotional, and cognitive skills. This made total sense to me, so I resolved to wait as long as possible before exposing my son to TV or letting him get his hands on a tablet.
After waiting the recommended two years – okay, fine, it was 18 months – I began allowing him to view a little bit of TV at a time, just so I could get something – anything – done. As he grew older, that amount increased and the type of screen-time expanded, but so did my guilt and concern over it.
“Face-time, not screen-time,” a little voice whispers in my ear each time my son reaches for the remote or gleefully plays the Nick Jr. app on my husband’s iPad (reserved for extra stressful situations). But, another voice tells me to let it go, because I really have to nurse his baby brother or cook dinner or get us through airport security (read: extra stressful situation). And besides, he’s four now, so more than a little screen time won’t hurt…right?
Some recent research has found that, around age five, certain media activities may even help children learn. But can the skills they learn from a screen be useful in real life? In 2016, Joanne Tarasuik, a researcher at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, set out to answer that question with a study that looked at how Australian children between the ages of four and six solved the same puzzle using a touchscreen tablet version and a tangible, wooden version.
She and her team found that children could indeed transfer skills they learned from working on the virtual puzzle to solving the physical one, demonstrating that screen-based skills were translatable to the real world – although in the age of smartphones and Facebook it can be hard to know what’s real anymore.
Because that finding contradicted most of the research that had come before it, the team decided to replicate their study using a different group of children from a different culture for reliability purposes. In the repeat study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Tarasuik and her colleagues teamed up with researchers in Croatia and studied a group of Croatian children using a puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi, made up of wooden pegs and discs.
The children tackled the puzzle using the tablet version and/or the wooden version. Researchers measured the amount of time and number of moves it took for the kids to complete the puzzle. They observed whether practicing on the device enhanced the children’s performance on the wooden version.
According to Science Daily, “The children all needed a similar number of moves to complete the wooden puzzle, regardless of whether they had practiced using the virtual puzzle, the physical puzzle, or a combination of the two. From the first to final attempt at the puzzle, all the children also improved their speed,” thereby replicating their original finding that four- to six-year-old children can take knowledge gained from a screen-based activity and apply it in a new, physical, practial context.
Clearly, not all screen-time is created equal. Researchers hypothesize that passive screen-time, like watching a video demonstration, will lead to different learning outcomes for children than engaging in an interactive app. The results of this study suggest that certain media activities can provide children with valuable learning experiences, teaching them problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications. It also shows how further research on the learning value and real-world applicability of touch-screen technology for children of different ages could be beneficial.
While it’s clear that we need more information on this important topic and I’m not about to let my son ‘go to town’ with the TV or the tablet, I guess I should admit that not every screen will turn his brain to mush.
But those YouTube videos of people opening toys and Easter eggs will.

The Surprising Way Horses Benefit Kids' Emotional and Social Skills

What does current science say about the benefits kids can enjoy from being with horses?

Many years ago, I read Mary Pipher’s influential text “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”. Pipher speaks briefly and encouragingly about the positive benefits of horse riding as a hobby for teen girls’ emotional well-being. It’s one of my favorite parts of this engaging read.
Since then, equine therapy has become increasingly well-known. People who struggle in office based therapy, including children with autism, troubled teens, and traumatized adults, find being out in the open with horses a welcome alternative. Often the lessons learned from their therapeutic work with horses are those not found in spoken words.
Advocates of equine therapy claim many benefits from working with horses: confidence, a sense of self-efficacy, assertive communication skills, and developing awareness of emotional communication as horses are very sensitive to emotional and verbal cues.
My own experience of horsemanship resonates with the claims made by equine therapists. I grew up as a horse riding girl and still like to get out on the trail. The confidence and positive emotions I gained from contact with horses are the reasons I involve my children in the same way.
I was curious about what current science had to say about the benefits children can enjoy from being with horses. Do the positives that Mary Pipher noted and that I experienced apply to other children and teens? Here’s what I found.
In a 2013 study of the benefits of a horse-education program on children’s social competence, 64 children in the grades five through eight were randomly allocated to take part in either an 11-week horse activity program or remain on the wait-list as the control group. The program involved mounted and unmounted horse activity, including observations of horse behavior and grooming. Parents rated children’s social competence before and after the experiment.
Children who participated in the horse program made many positive gains. This included improvements in the children’s self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, goal directed behavior, and relationship skills. When the wait-list group took part in the program at a later date, similar improvements in social competence were also found post-completion.
In a 2014 study, levels of the stress hormone cortisol in teenage participants of a horse-education program were measured: 131 teens participated in the study, with 53 teens randomly allocated to the 11-week horse activity program and 60 teens placed on a waitlist to act as the control group. Each week the teens in the program took part in 90 minutes of horse-related activity and learning, both mounted and unmounted. The study took saliva samples of the teens in the program and compared them to the samples from the wait-listed teens.
High stress cortisol levels indicate ill-health while lower levels of stress cortisol indicate positive health and mental health outcomes. The teens who had contact with horses had lower afternoon cortisol levels and lower total cortisol concentration per waking hour at the study’s end compared to the teens on the waitlist. The results suggest that regular contact with horses may help reduce stress levels and promote healthy outcomes for teens.
If you would like to explore the benefits of horse riding for your child, here are some pointers:

  • Make time to explore your local options. Visit the facilities and find out about the programs they offer. There are many options, including lessons, day horse-care camps, and trail ride.
  • Regular interactions with horses are better than one-off pony rides or trail rides to build up skills and confidence similar to those achieved in the studies.
  • Horse related activity requires space. Many urban children can’t have contact with horses easily due to transport and distance. If you live far from horses, consider lessons, horse-care day camps, or trail rides when you vacation in a rural area.
  • Horses and their upkeep are costly, which can make horse-related activities too expensive for some children. If affordability is an issue, riding schools are time intensive businesses and many welcome teen volunteers.
  • As with any activity involving children, if you are not present, please make sure your child will be in good hands and that all appropriate safety and welfare checks are in place.
  • If you can only spend small amounts of time around horses, use those opportunities to teach your child about horse-human relationships. When I am around horses with my children, I use those opportunities to help them notice the feedback they receive from a horse. I teach them first how to make contact with a horse, to wait for signals of trust, and to watch for the signals in the horse’s ears and the way their body reacts for signs of acceptance, anxiety, or irritation.
  • Horses are large animals, and there is some risk involved. If you’re feeling anxious about your child interacting with horses, please note that horse riding establishments vet horses for temperament to mediate the risk. They want your child to have a good and safe experience just as much as you do.
  • Why not learn to ride with your child? You may even experience some positives for your wellbeing, too.

Research Shows Recess Might Be More Important Than We Think

Recent research suggests that for toddlers and preschoolers, recess might be key to childhood development.

Raise your hand if you’ve had this conversation:
“Hey honey, how was school?”
“Good.”
“What was the best part?”
“Recess!”
As much as this response makes me want to bang my head against a wall (this is why I’m paying for preschool?), outdoor time may very well be one of the most valuable – and enjoyable – parts of early education.
Recess may typically be viewed as a way for children to blow off steam before returning to the classroom for more rigorous academics. But recent research suggests that for toddlers and preschoolers, it might be key to childhood development.
A study of one- to three-year-old children in Italy compared toddlers in traditional nursery schools and those in outdoor education schools. The study found that over the course of a year, children in the outdoor education group showed more improvement in most developmental areas – cognitive, emotional, social, and fine motor skills – than children in the traditional education group. The authors of the study suggest that outdoor education activities might provide better opportunities for child development than indoor ones.
As much as my preschooler loves his time to pump his legs on the swings and soar down large plastic slides, recent research suggests that natural environments might be a key for optimizing children’s outdoor playtime. An Australian preschool gave children the option between a traditional outdoor play space and a naturalized one and monitored their play in the two different types of areas. The researchers found that children spent more time in sociodramatic play in the natural play space than the traditional one.
Natural play spaces seemed to edge out traditional ones for their use of flexible play spaces, open-ended materials, and greater sense of seclusion and quiet. Researchers found these elements enabled children to better use their imagination and communication skills, leading to more complex sociodramatic play.
Unfortunately, many child cares have not gotten the message about the benefits of outdoor play. A 2015 study found that for nearly 90 percent of the time children are in day care they did not have opportunities for active play. The children in the study, who were attending childcare full time, averaged 48 minutes of play per day.
Outdoor time fared even worse, despite the authors noting that when children were outdoors, their play was much more likely to be active than sedentary. Outdoor time averaged just over half an hour each day – even though all the centers that participated in the study scheduled at least 60 minutes of outdoor playtime into their day.
Leading health organizations have long pushed an increase in activity for children as a way to address the obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that children should participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, suggests that two- to five-year-olds might need as much as two or more hours of physical activity each day.
Despite knowing the benefits of outdoor playtime for children, I often find myself dreading the thought of lacing up boots and chasing down rogue mittens as the weather starts to cool off. But once we do get suited up (which is often at least 30 minutes of physical activity in and of itself), we find we all tend to be much happier outside. If nothing else, I am at least happy at the prospect of tired toddlers and a good night’s sleep coming my way.
With as much as we enjoy our family walks outside, I shouldn’t be surprised when my son tells me recess is his favorite part of the day. In fact, children across cultures highly value their outdoor play time according to another recent study. This study interviewed four- to six-year-olds in Canada and Tanzania about what they personally valued at their school. In both research sites, children placed a high importance on their outdoor time, for both its physical and social components.
While I can barely get my son to tell me what letter he practiced writing, he will typically regale me for the entire walk home about how fast he ran from the slide to the swings, who he played pirates with, and other vital playground information. And he might be on to something. His favorite part of the day may very well be the most important, benefiting his cognitive and social development as well as his physical health. Perhaps it’s time that parents and teachers start placing the same importance on recess that children do.

Kids Try Harder When They See You Make Mistakes, Research Finds

A new study reveals that it is actually helpful for children’s development if they see their parents make mistakes and struggle to reach their goals.

I always dread when my children receive a new toy that requires some real high-level skills to put together. Removing the toy out of the package, let alone assembling it, causes the sweat to pour down my face. I feel so much pressure to be able to do everything right for my kids, even if I have no idea how to. It’s not like I majored in toy removal and construction in college!
Why do we stress so much to be perfect in front of our kids? Well, fortunately you can scratch that concern off your list right now because a new study reveals that it is actually helpful for children’s development if they see their parents make mistakes and struggle to reach their goals.
The new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was published in the September 21st edition of Science. The researchers set out to explore how young children learn to decide when to try hard and when it is not worth the time or effort to do so. The specific question they asked was “Does seeing an adult exert effort to succeed encourage infants to persist longer at their own challenging tasks?” This concept is so important to understand because a child’s perseverance and value of hard work can help predict academic success in school and beyond, even more so than their IQ.
The experiment involved 15-month-old babies who participated in a series of tasks. First, they watched an adult perform two challenges: removing a toy frog from a container and removing a key chain from a carabiner, a metal loop with a spring-loaded gate. Half of the babies watched the adult quickly complete the task three times within 30 seconds. The other half saw the adult struggle for 30 seconds before accomplishing the task.
Next, the babies were shown a musical toy with a button that looked like it should turn the toy on but it actually did not work at all. There was also a hidden, yet functional, button on the bottom of the toy. When the baby was not watching, the adult turned the toy on to show that it played music. Then the demonstrator turned it off and gave it to the baby. Each baby was allotted two minutes to play with the toy. During this time, the researchers recorded how many times the baby tried to press the button that seemed like it should turn the toy on. They found that babies who watched the adult struggle with the toy before succeeding pressed the button nearly twice as many times as those who saw the adult easily succeed. They also pressed it twice as many times before asking for help or giving up and throwing the toy aside. Those infants were more willing to try hard and struggle to reach a goal because they saw their mentor work hard.
The researchers also found that direct interactions with the babies made a difference in how hard they worked. When the adult said the infants’ names, made eye contact with them, and talked directly to them, the babies tried harder to accomplish the task than when the adult did not directly engage with them.
From these observations, the researchers concluded that babies who watched an adult struggle with the tasks ended up trying harder at their own difficult task, compared to babies who saw the adult complete the task easily right away. Therefore, the researchers suggest that it is beneficial for children to see their parents and other adults work hard to achieve their goals. Struggling – and even failing – in front of our children at times will help them learn the value of effort and improve their own work ethic as they go through life.

Practice for Discipline and Enrichment, Not Perfection

Practice is only one of many other personal factors that predict how much kids learn.

Practice makes perfect as the old adage goes, yet cases of failure abound, despite copious practice. Science now suggests that while practice will definitely make your kid better, it won’t necessarily get him to perfection.

A recent study analyzed the performance of more than 11, 000 participants in music, games, sports, and educational and occupational domains, and found that those who regularly practiced performed better than those who did not. However, the researchers also found that practice was only one of many other personal factors that predicted just how much was learned. Here are a few tips to help your kid make the most out of practice.

1 | Practice, yes, but the right way

Practice will always produce results. There is no doubt that practice will improve your kid’s performance. However, the type of practice makes a lot of difference.

A recently concluded study suggests that how we practice matters as much as how often we practice. The study examined over 800, 000 gamers to determine how practice affected their gaming performance. The researchers found that, despite practicing for the same amount of time, some players performed better than others. In other words, these players learned more efficiently than others. It was found that high performers spaced out their practice better and used more varied approaches to practice.

A different study came to the same conclusion. It found that kids performed better in math when problems were spaced out and mixed. In other words, learning was optimal when students were presented with problems drawn from different lessons rather than practice problems on the same topic. According to the study, mixing problems (many practice sets and problems on different topics) helps kids learn better because it’s more demanding and requires that kids pay greater attention to the problems presented.

2 | Don’t forget the “space effect”

Spacing out practice sessions also helps, as many studies have demonstrated. Evidence suggests that spacing reduces the rate of forgetting over a wide range of ages, settings, and tasks. Spaced practice improves retention, problem-solving skills, and the ability to assimilate new knowledge more easily. Instead of scheduling two-hour practice sessions, schedule four 30-minute sessions over a longer time frame.

3 | Not everyone will be perfect in the same thing

In a recently published study, neuroscientists examined the brain activity of 15 young adults and found that practice did not account for all learning. In other words, the researchers found that individual talent had a significant impact on how much was learned. After examining participants’ brain structures, the researchers were also able to accurately reveal those who learned quickly and those who didn’t, irrespective of practice. The study found that participants’ predisposition largely affected how they learned.

A different study came to similar conclusions. After analyzing chess players and musicians, the researchers found that it takes more than deliberate practice to become an expert, and that practice accounted for only about a third of observed differences. In other words, hard work can make us good, but it will not necessarily make us great.

The researchers suggest that accurately assessing people’s abilities and whether or not they are able to achieve their goals given their abilities gives them a realistic chance of becoming great. In other words, working from your kid’s abilities and interests will lead to greater success than forcing kids to consistently practice for something they have neither the skills nor the interest to undertake. Although encouraging your kid to practice her violin lessons will improve her performance, it will not make her perfect if she’s not inclined to the violin.

4 | Work on your kid’s self-confidence

A study published earlier this month examined the extent to which kids self-perception was linked to their performance over time. Drawing from a large-scale data set, the researchers found that kids who had a positive view of their ability in math and reading performed better in these two domains. In other words, the kids’ concept of their ability had a significant impact on both their motivation and performance. (Self-concept is defined as the perception of the capability to succeed.)

Much evidence suggests that kids who are confident in their abilities generally perform better than those who aren’t. When kids are motivated, they also perform better socially, academically, and psychologically. Motivating your kid is, therefore, the first step toward helping him develop his self-concept of ability. What does he know? What is he capable of doing? How do you set reasonable expectations? How do you ensure those expectations are being met? These are some of the issues that can help you guide your kid toward greater performance.