cognition

How to include your child in the kitchen

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. in neuroscience and Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

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I know, I know....the first thing you thought of when reading the title was, "this will get messy!". It's true. It will, I won't lie, but what I am here to convince you of today are the benefits of including your child (as young as 1) during meal preparation. Here are a few tips to help guide you and to help your child begin their wonderful journey of learning, exploration and confidence building. 

Step 1: Familiarize your child with their new environment.

This can start very young. You simply want them to "hang out" with you. When you are cooking, you can place their high chair in your kitchen (or as close as possible). If your child likes to move around, have a few cupboards or drawers that are "safe" for them to explore. I have a drawer filled with children's plates, cups, bowls, facecloths and Tupperware. My children know they can play in this drawer. The double benefit is that my daughter has learned to get her own dishes for a meal since she can reach them and my 8-month old knows he can crawl there and empty it. I have a cupboard door that is filled with more containers and the bottom 2 shelves of the pantry have safe items they can also reach for and play with (which usually means throwing them on the floor). 

Step 2: Create their space.

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 I first had my daughter in her high chair. As she got closer to 2, I started sitting her on the kitchen island. You could also buy a learning tower that allows children to stand at the level of the counter. Or you can make this super cool Ikea hack that I found on the Happy Grey Lucky blog (I have added this to my husbands "to do " list but he doesn't know it yet!). You can also get a small table that you place close to your kitchen and have them work on their tasks at their own level. As long as they know they have their own space. Having their own space gives them a sense of belonging in your kitchen and if you place them in a location that is safe and not in your way, it removes some stress from you as well.

Step 3: Give them responsibilities.

It can be as simple as having them add salt and pepper, top off the meal with shredded cheese, place the food on a pizza, placing the pieces of vegetables you cut off into the garbage bowl, or breaking a banana into pieces and adding them to a blender for a smoothie. There are even knives that children can use nylon knives for kids. They only cut soft food items such as fruit, boiled eggs, and soft cheese. I noticed that the more roles and responsibilities I gave my daughter during meal preparation, the more she built her pride and confidence. She enthusiastically waits at the table for all of us to try our first bites while waiting for our reactions. 

As your child builds on their skills, their roles will grow. Before you know it, you will be making homemade bread and pasta with your children! I will read the recipe wit my daughter and she helps me gathers the food we need. She breaks the eggs, whisks, stirs and uses the teaspoons and measuring cups. Measuring spoons and cups are still a work in progress though. I think I end up with more rice or flour on the floor than in the cup!

We must also be cautious in the kitchen. I introduced my daughter to the word "danger" around 15 months. I explained that the knife was "danger" to help her understand not to touch it or to put her hands down on the cutting board. As she spoke and understood more (closer to 2 years), I taught her to say "STOP" when she wanted to eat something from the cutting board (i.e. if I am cutting a vegetable or cheese that she would like to eat). When she says "stop" I place the knife to the side of the cutting board and she takes her piece. 

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Step 4: Pretend you are filming your own cooking show.

Make it fun! Especially if they are babies and are just "hanging out" with you. This step is great for language development. They will learn new words and learn that it's fun to be silly. I would literally start cooking by saying "Hi, I'm Cindy and today we are cooking pasta!" I would take each ingredient and show it to my then 1-year-old daughter, allowing her to touch the food. As she got older I asked her to hand me over the items I needed. She became my sous-chef! If you have an older child, have them talk through the recipe and describe what they are doing. If they get used to this, later on when they start school, they can relate to this for oral presentations and public speaking (i.e. if they fear their oral presentations you can say "just pretend you are on a cooking show like you have been doing since you were 4! You are great at it!". 

Step 5: Relax, everything will be ok and your child will build important skills.

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Yes, meal preparation and clean up will be longer, however, you do not have to include them every day. Obviously, week days are tough, but on weekends we can include them at breakfast, lunch or supper. If your child, is older and can cut on their own, including them during the week can help speed things up. Through this experience with my kids, I have learned to let lose a little in the kitchen. Messes can be cleaned and changes to the recipe are not the end of the world. Your child will build on motor skills from cutting, learn to take risks as they get older (by experimenting with recipes), build a sense of pride and confidence which will follow them throughout their academic life, and they will build important executive function skills when following a recipe such as planning and organizing (you will be grateful that they have these skills when you are not stuck completing their school project due to difficulties in planning and organizing!).

Have fun cooking!! Please share your experienesof cooking with your children with us and any tips you might have for other parents! 

 

Some child-friendly recipes we enjoy.

Here are some recipes to help you get started: 


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Game: Smash the Lego tower

The first few months after giving birth to my son were not only challenging for me but for my daughter as well. Our day-long play dates had been taken over by a small baby who needed lots of "mommy time". I had to be creative in order to entertain her while also nursing, changing diapers or getting my baby to fall asleep. Now that my baby is 6 months, I noticed a spike in his interest to play with his older sister and I have been trying to think of activities that I can do with both children.

In fact, my son is now on the move and his mission is to take anything and everything his sister plays with! Until now, reading books, singing, and playing with puppets were the main activities we did together. These activities stimulated both my daughter and my son. However, the other day I got an idea from watching my son smashing his sister's Lego towers. This could become a game! We all had lots of fun playing this game and now my daughter will ask me to play "Smash the Lego tower"!

I hope you enjoy playing this game with your children as well!

 

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Target Age:

A baby that can play on their tummy and a child who can build Lego Duplo towers.

Materials:

Lego Duplo blocks and a Lego Duplo baseplate. (Baseplate can be bought at the Lego store)

Activity Layout:

Have the older child build a few Lego Duplo towers and have them place these towers to the side of a Lego baseplate (the green baseplate in the picture). We built about 10-12 towers. You could even ask them to build some towers of the same colour and others with mixed colours.

Place your baby on their belly (or sitting if they can) beside the baseplate and have your toddler say "1 2 3 GO". At "GO" you and your toddler (or only your toddler if you want to be the referee!) have to place ALL the Lego towers on the baseplate BEFORE your baby knocks down a single tower. You might have to model the sense of "speed" and winning for your toddler if this concept is new to them (email us at info@curiousneuron.com if you need help with this). Encourage your toddler to move quickly and if your baby isn't smashing the tower show them how to do it. The first person to reach 5 points wins. You can model the points using the single legos. You can ask your toddler if they are winning or their sibling is by looking at the "Lego point system". Ask them which one has more points (see picture). 

Point system to help toddler visualize who is winning. 

Point system to help toddler visualize who is winning. 

When we first started playing, I would place my towers closer to my son. As he began to understand the concept, I started placing them further away from him. 

If this becomes too easy for the older child, you can even blindfold them or have them place the Lego towers with their non-dominant hand. 

 

 

 

 

WHICH DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES AND SKILLS DOES THIS ACTIVITY PROMOTE? 

In this activity, we are targeting Social/Emotional and Cognitive milestones for both 6 months of age and 2 years (see images below).

We are also targeting executive functions skills for 2-year-olds. This activity fits in the "Active Games" category for executive functions where a child is required to speed up, slow down or even "freeze" (see image below). 

Developmental Milestones: 6 months

Developmental Milestones: 6 months

Developmental Milestones: 6 months 

Developmental Milestones: 6 months 

Developmental Milestones: 2 years 

Developmental Milestones: 2 years 

Development Milestones: 2 years

Development Milestones: 2 years

Have fun playing with you kids!

Cindy Hovington, PhD

Founder of Curious Neuron

3 Important tips for selecting books for your children

Written by Cindy Hovington, PhD. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada.

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I recently gave birth to my second child and I have enjoyed seeing this brand new little person learn something new every day. I often hear people say that an infant "just lies there", but I don't see it that way. Their brain is taking in everything they touch, see or hear and reading to them is one of the best ways to stimulate them at this young age.

Reading books as of birth helps many aspects of brain development. With my own children, as of 3 days old, any moment they were awake became "reading time". Especially with newborns who still can't grab anything to play with, reading to them should be the main learning activity to stimulate them while they are awake. You might only be able to read a few pages to them at first but slowly you will increase it to a book or even a few books in a row. Reading to them as infants will help them develop their language skills, build their visual skills, reading skills, develop their attention span and more.

Here is a list of some of my favourite books along with suggestions of how to engage your child as you read:

0-12 months:

TIP #1: Look for books that have you mimic animal sounds, give you the opportunity to point to objects. and that have very short sentences.

  • Moo, Baa La La La is a simple book that is a great starter for infants and has animal sounds.

  • With Dear Zoo, you can also make the animal sounds and have them lift the flap.

  • Good Night Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar are great to point to objects and use their finger to point to it.

  • As your child develops the ability to grab, take their hand and have them turn the page as you ask them to "tun the page". Eventually when you will ask them to turn the page they will do it on their own.

  • As your child approaches the age of 1, you can ask them to point to an object. For example, you can ask them to point to the "red balloon" in Goodnight Moon. I also have lots of fun taking my babies index finger and placing it in the little holes of The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. While making a "munching sound" I pretend their finger is the caterpillar eating the fruit.

12 months - 24 months:

TIP #2: Look for books that have fun rhymes and words that a child can easily learn to pronounce. Some repetitiveness is also great to help them remember and learn. 

  • Little Blue Truck is one of our favourites in our house and I love that it teaches kids to be kind to one another. The rhymes and animals sounds are fun for kids. 

  • Flip, Flap, Fly is fun to read, and I always have my child tell me which animal is coming up on the next page.

  • With Blue Hat, Green Hat, kids love it when you exaggerate the "OOPS" part.  I have lots of fun emphasizing the one right before the "OOPS". For instance, I would read the first page as follows, " Blue hat, green hat, REEEDDDD HAATTTTTTTTTT OOPS! When saying "red hat" I use a funny voice. With time, my daughter began anticipating that the OOPS was coming and it became a fun game. Using different voices is a wonderful way to engage children in reading.

  • Happy Hippo, Angry Duck also provides an opportunity to do this. Also, as a child gets closer to the age of 2, where they are learning to understand and deal with their emotions, this book becomes an important catalyst for dialogue on emotions. 

2 years and over:

TIP #3: Fun rhymes remain important since they are still learning to speak, but at this point, the story is also important and can create conversation between you and your child.

  • Start asking the question "why" with your child. Why did the sheep give the bear a pillow (The Very Cranky Bear), or why did the mouse tell The Gruffalo that everyone was afraid of him?

  • You can use the lessons learned from the book during their everyday life. For instance, believing in yourself even when you think you are not good at something (Giraffes Can't Dance).

  • A certain repetitiveness is also great to build their language skills. The Pout-Pout Fish and Room on the Broom do a great job at this.

One of the most beautiful aspects of reading to your children as of a young age is watching them independently get a book one day and handing it over to you to have you read it. Even if they can't talk yet, that action is loud and clear. It is a great way to spend quality time with your children. Eventually, you can start creating stories with your child and build on their creativity. Especially now, in my situation, reading to my toddler is a great when to include her while I am feeding the baby.

In my next blog post I will discuss how I use some books along with puppets to entertain both my baby and toddler. The possibilities are endless. Happy reading! 

 

 

Activities that will teach toddlers skills and prepare them for school

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada.

Flip, Flap, Fly!: A Book for Babies Everywhere Board book

Flip, Flap, Fly!: A Book for Babies Everywhere Board book

Thinking of preparing an 18 month old for school might seem odd at first, however both brain and education research has shown that there are certain skills that can help prepare a child for school, and that these skills need to be developed early on. I previously blogged about the importance of executive function skills in students, but today I thought I would discuss ways we could help toddlers develop these skills by providing you with activities I do with my toddler at home. Keep in mind that there are no apps or battery operated toys that can replace the parent-child interaction. These skills are best developed when we play with our children. 

I recently read an article from the Mind, Brain, and Education journal that stressed the importance of developing executive functions skills (memory, inhibition, problem solving and attention shifting) and emotion regulation in children at a young age in order to help prepare them for school. The following tips and activities focus on toddlers and focus on these emotional regulation and executive function skills. 

Memory

My daughter and I love to act out songs we sing, for example: "Head and shoulders, knees and toes", "The wheels on the bus" and "I'm a little teapot". These types of songs with movements are great for memory. After a few repetitions, she begins to incorporate them as I sing. As a bonus, once your child becomes familiar the songs, you can also sing them in the car to keep them occupied if they start to become restless! 

Books like Flip, Flap, Fly! can also help with memory. Before seeing what animal shows up on the next page, you get a partial glimpse on the previous page. So before turning the page, I ask my daughter which animal is coming up. Memory skills, especially working memory skills (this is when you need to keep some information in your head for a short period of time), have been linked to the development of language, spelling, writing, reading comprehension, counting and mathematics (Epsy et al. 2004). They are especially important in math.

Sustained attention

Not only is this a great activity for motor skills, you can also use it to match and sort (beads of the same size or colour) and it helps them learn to stay focused.

Not only is this a great activity for motor skills, you can also use it to match and sort (beads of the same size or colour) and it helps them learn to stay focused.

Children don't automatically know how to stay focused for a long period of time. I often meet parents concerned about their child's trouble focusing and worried it may be an attention disorder. Children need to develop their attention skills. Reading books on a daily basis not only helps with language development but also helps improve their ability to focus. Interactive books such as lift-the-flap books are a great way to maintain their interest. I love using the Elmo collection of lift-the-flap books. There are an abundance of flaps, which keeps my daughter engaged. I also use it as a "search and find" book, asking her to find "Big Bird" or "Grover". If your toddler has difficulty sitting through an entire book, this book might be a good way to start.

Since she is too young for bead and lacing activities, I created my own version with pipe cleaners instead. Using large beads and pipe cleaners, which aren't as flimsy as laces, we create bracelets together (see picture).

Don't forget that sustained attention is not very long for most children. As a rule of thumb, it is estimated to be equivalent to their age in minutes. So if you have a 4 year old that stays put for 4 minutes, you are off to a good start! Build on it and don't forget to congratulate them after they've been focused for a while! 

 

Emotion regulation  

Ah yes, the toddler years... a time when children express their emotions and parents discover emotions of their own they never knew they had. It is a normal path for children to follow, but as parents, we need to help them deal with their emotions and learn to regulate them. If my daughter is upset about something, I try to help her understand what she is feeling, empathize with her and explain why I am asking her to do something she doesn't want to do. For example, if she cries because she doesn't want to get into her car seat, I would say: "It looks like you are angry, I know it's not always fun to sit in your car seat, but I need you to sit down so that we can go to the grocery store"... sometimes it takes a few attempts before it works, but being consistent with this really helps. As this handout from Harvard University states, going about it this way helps them learn to regulate their emotions and engage their executive function skills. A book that really helped me learn this method is called "No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame" by Janet Lansbury. Interestingly, recent education research has suggested that emotions and social skills also play a large role in school readiness. Children with stronger socio-emotional skills are able to build better relationships at school and have more control over their emotions in the classroom.

Sorting and matching

Placote - Le loto des petites phrases

Placote - Le loto des petites phrases

My daughter is my partner when it comes to house work. I fold the clothes, she tosses them on the floor. I clean the floor and she somehow gets food back on it within 5 minutes. One thing we enjoy doing together is sorting socks. It has become a fun game we play. I pick out 2 socks that are clearly different and ask her if they are the same; or I pick 2 matching socks and ask if they are the same. We also play with beads and buttons I picked up at Dollarama. I have her help me sort them in a muffin tin.

I recently discovered a language development game that requires the child match action cards to pictures. For example, parents can ask the child "Where is the dog that is sleeping?". Once the child finds the appropriate card and places it in the correct spot, the parent can reinforce their understanding by repeating the sentence ("The dog is sleeping") and attempt to also have the child repeat this. The game is called Placote - Le loto des petites phrases, found on BB.ca

 

Following directions 

We love playing dancing games where we walk around and I sing "clap your hands", then "stomp your feet" or any action movement you can think of. At some point, I will say "FREEZE" and we need to stop in place.

We also have fun cooking together. I place her on the counter where I am preparing food and give her a task. If I cut some vegetables, I ask her to place them in a bowl. If there are stickers on the tomatoes, I ask her to peel off the stickers and place the tomatoes on the counter. Giving 1 simple instruction or even 2 at a time will develop their executive function skills.

Imaginary play can also help develop these skills. If you are playing with a tea set or play food, you can ask them to "bring the milk and sugar" or "give you a banana and apple". Developing the skill to follow directions also  emotional-social skills?, which I can't stress enough with regards to their importance for school readiness. Children who enter kindergarten with stronger social-emotional skills have more positive attitudes towards school. 

Stay tuned for more activities in our upcoming posts to help toddlers develop all the skills mentioned in this post. Make sure you sign up to our mailing list!