Friday, December 12, 2014

Gift Traditions and Ideas

Holiday season is upon us and it can be stressful, so I am going to keep this post short and sweet. Possibly it will help you reduce your stress level because it is chock-full of ideas. Many families have a tradition of gift-giving. So what about gifts for young children? What are some ideas for gifts that support their development and don’t train them into the consumer culture that is all around us? Are there gifts that could make our children happy that are not “tech toys” or toys based on popular media culture (i.e. Elsa stuff, ultra skinny princess dolls, toy weapons and Disney items of all sorts? I am going to give you all a quick ramble through a bunch of ideas and I hope you find it helpful.

The first thing that comes to mind is creating a family tradition of helping others who may not be so comfortable and financially able. One idea is to involve your children in “adopting” a family in need and gathering gifts for them. And bring your children along when you volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Or make food and put it in containers to give out directly to those in need. You’ve surely seen folks at highway exits and major intersections with signs asking for food and help. Make food to give away!

Now as far as gifts for the children, I like to think of things the children can make and do (by themselves). How can we help our children grow up to be makers and doers? One way in to encourage that by providing them with material and tools. Depending on the age and abilities of your child, some ideas include tools (hammers, saws, screwdrivers, tool box, etc...) and wood and nails and screws. Depending on your particular child - scissors, threads, needles, sewing box or basket, and fabric. 

Art supplies are another idea. Watercolor paints, crayons, scissors, glue and of course (recycled) paper. Or thick colored pencils that don’t break so easily.

Books are ALWAYS a great gift. Read through the book before purchasing to make sure it is what you want to read (over and over) to your child. You can read some of my past blog posts for specific book ideas.

What about a cloth crawl-through tunnel. Remember these? So good for sensory and motor development. And if you search you can find one without media images.

A wonderful tradition you can create is making food gifts with your child for other people. Like jams and sauces. Or breads and cookies. It’s fun. It makes your house smell so good. And you are providing an example to your children (and your family and friends) of making. DIY is the way to go!

What if YOU made your child a gift? There are some many things you could make and the fact that you made it makes it so special for your child. Ideas include a doll, dollhouse, doll clothes, wooden wagon, wooden blocks, playhouse, felted animals, wooden animals. Or knitted hats and sweaters, slippers and socks.The possibilities are endless. And you CAN do it. Start now - there is still time. What are you able to do? Sewing? Woodworking? Felting? Learn some new crafts. The only obstacle is you. You can do it and there is enough time.

Happy holidays to you and your family, whatever your tradition. May this be a peaceful time of family and friends and joy. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Finding your expert

Often I hear parents and teachers asking, “What should I do?” in regard to various situations involving young children. It would make life much easier if there were specific answers to those questions. It would make things easier if there was a recipe book for interacting with and raising young children. There is no PDR for any aspects of early childhood. There is no ‘one way’ to do it in a given situation.

I learned a secret a long time ago. The secret is that there are 7 billion different types of human being. Each one is unique and different. No rules apply to all. No recipes can be general.

That leaves us with a big challenge. The challenge is how to figure out what is the best option in any given situation in which we find ourselves and our young ones. 

The situation for adults in our time is much different than the past. Our grandparents had a different set-up, and a harder time getting all the information that is so easily available to us. Not so long ago, multi-generational families lived in close proximity to each other. New parents had handy and experienced grandparents nearby, maybe living in the same home. And parenting methods were handed down by example from one generation to the next. Family members were born, lived, and died without traveling very far from home. The situation for new parents today is different!

New parents often are aware of methods and habits (see last post) their own parents used that these new parents do not want to repeat. They want different advice, different parenting methods and philosophies.

And for new parents of today there is so much available advice. Countless books and print magazines are available to explain and instruct in all aspects of parenting and educating young children. And then there is the internet. Instantly accessible advice is available at all hours of day and night from wherever you are. There are websites, blogs, e-books, lectures and classes, webinars and more. Don’t forget FaceBook, Twitter and all the other social media. And the perspectives are many. So many perspectives are at odds with each other, polar opposites in fact. There are many people who obsessively look to website after blog after website to find the answer to their questions only to find conflicting advice.

I just read an article by an exhausted mom describing the variety of advice she received about sleep issues and babies - it’s funny but a sad commentary on our times. One snippet - “You should start a routine and keep track of everything. Don’t watch the clock. Put them on a schedule. Scheduling will make your life impossible because they will constantly be thrown off of it and you will become a prisoner in your home.” 

Every “expert” has a different solution and, of course, the one and only right advice. So much advice that it can all make you crazy.

We live in a time of trusting the experts. It is a cultural norm to find an expert for any problem. They are ‘professional’ and know more than we do. We entrust our health care to experts. We have experts come and fix, install and replace our appliances. Experts build for us, fix our cars and bicycles and tell us how to cook. Experts train our pets and clean our windows. We need consultants for this and advisors for that. Experts know how best to raise and educate our children, how to help them through conflicts, how to eat, how to potty train and how best to relate to sleep. We have been led to believe that humans are specialists who each have an area of expertise, limited though it might be. Any confidence we might develop is thwarted by a culture that convinces us we simply don’t know enough and don’t have enough experience.

I say ‘hogwash’ to that. I am a human being which means I can have a wealth of information, skill and capacity to do most anything. And the things not yet in my skill set I can learn. I can confidently work things out to the best of my abilities and capacities, and I can see where I need to ask for support.

With so many conflicting suggestions coming from our peers, family, so-called-experts, physicians and educators, your voice - your true inner knowing - can get lost in all the noise.  

Do you know where the "best parenting advice" comes from? 
YOU. You are the foremost expert on your family and your child. 

It helps to learn about child development. When do certain aspects of physiology, and especially neurology develop, and what does that mean in the life of a child? When does a particular child truly relate to the world around her as separate from her self? What is the level of consciousness development in my child at this time?

With those as a basis, we can add in an attempt to discover our own habits and stress reaction patterns. What unconscious strategies do I use and are they helpful or hindering to truly resolving situations. Can I learn to become more responsive and less reactive?

It isn't what happens around us that matters as much as how we respond to what happens. When we can be responsive to situations and hold our understanding of the true needs of our young child in the forefront, we will know what to do. We can become confident in knowing that we know how to figure things out for ourselves. The BEST parenting advice always comes from within.

I know that I act as if I know things. In the telling folks about my ideas and observations I risk speaking as if my ideas are ‘the one and only way’ to think. I can come across as sounding like an expert about everything. 

I do not want to offer any recipes. I do want to offer my ideas and experiences, and choices I have made to help people learn to think for themselves with confidence. I wish for all of you, the readers, to choose for yourself what to do. I hope that my words can stimulate you toward thinking for yourself and having reasons for your choices. The best choices always come from thinking it through for yourself, and truly responding to the situation at hand. 

There can only be one expert in that situation - YOU!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Turning off the Autopilot

We all have habits. One study showed that more than 40% of our daily actions are habits. 40% of the things we do are done habitually, without conscious awareness and thought. That is a lot of our time spent in autopilot mode. Now, there are some benefits to this. When we are acting from habit we free part of our consciousness for thinking, planing, reviewing and so on. Do you notice how much thinking you do in the shower? It is because nearly all of your shower activity is habit. You don’t have to think about it and therefore your mind is free to wander.

Many habits are created as a strategy to meet a goal. Once the strategy proves successful we repeat and repeat until we just do it without thinking. That is a habit. We are not born with our habits, we develop them in response to experiences. Usually habit forming is not intentional - there is no conscious choice made to form the habit.

Imitation is the central learning tool of young child. Through imitation the young child learns walking, speaking, and stress response patterns and so much more. All habits.

With very young children, many of their habits are created by imitating those around them. Habits are also created by babies attempting to get their needs met and discovering certain strategies that are successful with the adults in the baby’s environment. They try it. It works. They repeat and repeat and repeat. So by the time we are adults, we have many habits including ones for dealing with stress, challenges and not getting our needs met. Often these strategies are not helpful and are unproductive for social harmony and true problem solving. 

When you get stressed do you ‘check out’ and fall into your habit reaction pattern? You can be honest here. No one can hear you. We all do it. What is your particular, unique stress reaction? Do you yell and stomp around? Throw things? Tell someone else it is their fault? Freeze up? Withdraw? Fall silent and walk away? When we start to see those habits, those behavior patterns, then we have a chance to change them. Habits in themselves aren’t a problem. There are habits that need changing though, the unproductive, ineffective and unhealthy ones. 

First step - see your habit patterns, your reaction style. The next step is to use your free decision-making capacity to choose the habits you want to change. It takes the power of will to start the new habit started, but once the new habit is really running strong we can ‘fall asleep’ and let the new habit run itself. 

Now why am I thinking about habits so much? Because the habits of adults strongly affect the children around them! Now here is a weird thing about our brains. We have a certain kind of brain cell called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons ‘fire’ both when we act and when we observe an action performed by someone else. In older children and adults, mirror neurons help in understanding the actions of other people. For young children mirror neurons function in the learning of new skills by imitation. Our habits are being transmitted by our example to our children who are imitating them. So it is incumbent on us to try and deliver habits to our children that we want them to have. 

I want young ones to develop the habit of washing hands before eating, so I model that activity for the children. I want young children to develop habits of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ so I use those phrases myself whenever appropriate. I don’t want my daughters to take up my habits of dealing with stress by withdrawing, so I try and model engagement and conversation when I am in a stressful situation.

When breaking and forming habits, we need to know that change is possible. 


The basic mechanism for learning and development is the will. What is the will but our capacity for doing, for taking hold of the world around us through activity. All education is education of the will, both in the adult and in the child. In the adult there is much more possibility for intention to be part of the equation. The primary way the will functions in the young child is through unconscious imitation - the learning modality for the young child is imitation. What we do, what we say, and who we are, as adults standing before them, is of utmost importance. The basis of all of this is the exercise of our will which in adults is our capacity for freedom, the capacity to respond rather than react. When we present the example of changing ourselves, that possibility is implanted deep in the child’s neurology and psyche as a possibility for their own future changing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What About Manners?

You probably would like it if your young children would develop “manners.” Do you want your 4-year-old to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you?’ Wouldn’t it be great if your 5-year-old would apologize when someone gets hurt by something he did?

The secret learning method for young children is imitation. Instructing, explaining, scolding, threatening, bribing and moralizing are not effective methods and in fact the young child doesn’t learn at all from these methods, though they can be ‘trained’ or ‘conditioned.’ True learning only happens when the will of the individual is engaged. When the initiative for action is coming from inside the person then there is a possibility for learning to arise. We only learn when we do it ourselves.

Imitation is the young child’s modality for taking hold of the world around her. The impulse for imitation is external - what is sensed by the child all around her. The will of the child is what takes hold and does the imitating.

So...manners. If you want your child to be polite, you have to model politeness for her. I have to interject that manners and politeness are not universally consistent. What could be considered ‘good’ manners somewhere could be considered rude and discourteous somewhere else. So you have to choose the manners that you are aiming to transfer to your child. And then use your manners. In interactions with your child, in interactions with your partner, in interactions with the cashier at the grocery store, and everywhere.

You don’t need to bring it to your child’s attention - you simply do it. You don’t need to say,”Honey, did you notice how I said ‘thank you’ at the coffee shop? I’d like you to say thank you’ too when someone hands you something.” In your interactions, use kindness, courtesy and politeness and your child will likely follow suit.

Additionally, you can magnify the possibilities of imitation by speaking courtesies on behalf of your child. For instance, 4-year-old Tommy says, “Give me more raisins.”
So, while handing him some more raisins, you say, “Please can I have more raisins?” 

That way you are planting a seed for his own will to take up in imitating your example. You are speaking the words you would be happy if he used. In contrast, Tommy says, “Give me more raisins.” You say, “Tommy! Say ‘Please’ and then I’ll give you the raisins.” Tommy won’t actually learn anything from this method. He will do as he is told because he wants to be ‘rewarded’ with the raisins. I won’t be from Tommy taking in kindness and manners and enacting those out of his own actions. 

Similarly, if we notice our 5-year-old daughter knock over another child. One response could be, “Sally! Say you’re sorry.” And she probably will because we are demanding it. If instead the adult says, “Susie is hurt. Is there anything we can do for her?” then Sally is free to take action out of herself. Her own will can engage and she can offer help and comfort to the injured child in her own way.

So instead of ordering your child to use manners, instead of demanding they say certain words, I suggest considering how best to utilize the learning mechanism of imitation to achieve your goals for manners and kindness. We adults can create situations where the will of the young child can take hold of the wonderful examples we offer through how we say and do things. Try it and see what happens. It works, it really works!

P.S. If you try this method out, please let me know how it goes for you. I’d love to hear.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Finding the Little Engine that Could

Something Margret Meyerkort (longtime kindergarten teacher and mentor) said again and again resounds in my head as a sort of watchword of my personal striving. “Unless I develop myself, what right do I have to stand before the children?” One reason she said that is because the basic learning modality of the young child is imitation. Young children imitate what we say, what we do, and even more, how we are in the world. I am a teacher of young children, a parent, a grandparent and more. I want to be worthy of ‘standing in front of the children.’ 

Alongside Margret’s voice, in my head I hear the voices of self-doubt and unworthiness. They are the voices of fears and inadequacy. I don’t want to see how imperfect I am. Our fears keep us from truly looking at ourselves. We all have shortcomings and don’t live up to our own standards, and we all need the courage to take an honest look at ourselves. I need courage to look at myself especially if I might (and will) find inadequacies and shortcomings. How else can I change for the better if I don’t see what needs to be changed?

When I find the things in me that I want to change it can be overwhelming. I do not like what I find, and there is so much to change. I can only keep up my search to know myself if I can find the enthusiasm to keep at it. I need to be passionately persistent in my inner search for self knowledge to be able to carry on with more and more and deeper and deeper discoveries of what I need to change. And I need this fire, this enthusiasm, this passion to make the changes. I need a wellspring of inner strength. (see previous post by Rick Hanson) Waking up is not easy. Making the changes is not easy.

I truly want to develop myself to become a free human being. What I mean is I want to be able to be free to respond in any situation, not to react based on my own lifelong patterns and conditioning. Becoming free requires diligent and persistent work, the hard work of truly waking up.

Meadows says, in A Sleep of Prisoners (by Christopher Fry):
The human heart can go to the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no dark winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.
Where are you going? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake....

And then that nagging voice of self doubt arises saying that it is just too hard to change, it is not possible. How can you change the way you are, they way you have always been? But again, that voice is the voice of conditioning, the voice from our culture of shame that says you are simply not good enough. 

We can connect with our can-do voice, that fire of will to make changes lives in each of us. The Little Engine that Could is a part of each of us. I think I can, I think I can... Maybe it is hibernating, so it is time to stoke the fire, the enthusiasm for taking hold of your self. We do not have to be stuck in the habits and shortcomings that are revealed when we seek to know our self. We can use our inner strength and begin to make the changes we choose. 

Working on your self to make the changes is one step. Allowing your self to see the changes you create in yourself is an act of creative thinking. Create a new self image based on the changes you make. Unwind the old tapes and think for your self in each moment, true thinking. Digesting, contemplating, considering, what comes to you, integrating it with what has gone before, synthesizing, allowing your self image to move and change and be alive in you. 

One part of how-to is a practice that involves a daily looking at yourself. At the end of each day, when you are feeling peaceful and are not distracted, take a few minutes to review your whole day. Quickly review your day in your mind as an objective observer. In your review, when you find a moment in the day when you had lost your patience, had become reactive, take a few extra seconds. Look closely at the events just before you ‘lost it’ so you can observe what set you off. Judging yourself harshly is not helpful. Look at the events as a story, and know that you can rewrite the story. The important first step is to notice, simply notice what was the ‘trigger’ for you. And then continue with your review of the rest of your day. If you can do this practice every evening before bed you will begin to see your reaction pattern and your ‘button.’ Eventually this practice will result in your sudden awareness in the moment that you are in one of those situations where your ‘button’ is being pushed but it isn’t causing the reaction pattern to set in and you can choose your next words or action. In that moment you have broken out of your conditioned reaction pattern. It might not last, but you have experienced that it is possible. So you continue the daily evening practice and take some steps forward, and fall back some also. 

The ancient Greeks wrote over the door to their Temple in Delphi, a temple dedicated to the ancient mysteries, Know Thyself. That is no easy task, yet to become worthy of the imitation of the young children we have to again and again walk through the door of that temple. Find out who you are and what you are made of. Life will give you plenty of opportunities for self discovery. For it is in the challenges, the difficult situations that we can truly meet ourselves and are given opportunities to develop new capacities in ourselves. 

To me, this is a true spiritual self education. It means I recognize that there is a part of us that learns, not the math and language skills, etc, but the lessons of our life. That we can develop ourselves is the essence of what it is to be human. 

What is this 'spiritual' thing? The spirit in me is that aspect of myself that does the developing, that learns from the challenges, that attempts to see what needs changing and then has the will to change it. That is what is spiritual - that part of each of us that does the developing. The spirit in me is trying to become truly human. 

We all have shortcomings yes, but we all have a great gift to share with the world. The world is waiting for these gifts. The children and everyone around us benefit when we try to develop our self and become more present and awake. 

P.S. For more guidance and support and practices in this realm, I recommend looking into the work of Brene Brown, Tara Brach, Rick Hanson and Rudolf Steiner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grow Inner Strengths

Having the resilience, the inner strength to meet challenges that arise in your life is a useful and even essential quality for everyone, perhaps especially for parents and teachers. Thanks to Rick Hanson for permission to re-use this post (you can learn more about Rick at the end of this post) who offers some tips on creating a wellspring of inner strength. Rick has a vast array of articles on his website and this one originally was published September 2013 in his 'Just One Thing' newsletter.

Grow Inner Strengths written by Rick Hanson

What would make a difference inside you?
The Practice: 
Grow Inner Strengths.

I’ve hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

I’m using the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contributions to others.

The idea of inner strengths might seem abstract at first. Let’s bring it down to earth with some concrete examples. The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze-so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating-so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work-so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around-so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner-so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self-awareness.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act - both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations-is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety, but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them. To me this is wonderful news, since it means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.

Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain-for better or worse.

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be to say that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?
In effect, what you pay attention to-what you rest your mind on-is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention-such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry-on the whole you have a lot of influence over where your mind rests. This means that you can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape your brain for the better.

This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you – and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways. Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it a dozen seconds or more in a row, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it.
(My book Hardwiring Happiness gets into the details of this process.)

In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. And see for yourself what happens when you do.

Rick Hanson is neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence(in 14 languages), Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 25 languages), Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 14 languages), and Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, his work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, CBC, FoxBusiness,Consumer Reports HealthU.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has 100,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites. For more information, please see his full profile at

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

10 Stories to Nurture Nature Connection

Last week I had the good fortune to be able to attend a Rosemary Wells talk. She spoke to a packed house of people of all ages at the oldest independent bookstore in my area. (Remember to support our few remaining independent brick-and-mortar bookstores.) She introduced her newest Max and Ruby book, and answered many questions. I am a big Rosemary Wells fan, and even more, I am a lover of children’s books. My last few posts have been about children’s books, and I’m going to do it this one more time. Today I am writing about children’s books that support a connection with nature and the environment. So here are 10 stories to foster connectedness and caring in your young children with the natural world.
The Lorax by Dr. Suess has to be on this list! Published in 1971, long before “going green” was a fad, the Lorax spoke for the trees and warned of the dangers of exploiting the environment. In classic Dr. Suess rhyming style, we meet the Once-ler, who comes to the valley of Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots. The Once-ler sets about harvesting the trees and destroying the forest.
Wildflower Tea by Ethel Pochocki and illustrated by Roger Essley.
In this lovely book, we meet an old man who lives alone. Through spring, summer and fall, he is out in nature gathering berries, blossoms and herbs. When November rolls around, he knows it is time to brew his “special tea” from all the gleanings and he sits by his window and watches the snow fall.
Ethel Pochocki developed her passion for books and writing while working at the New York City Public Library. While raising her eight children, she did her writing in the early morning hours.
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
A girl and her father go out to try and see owls on a moonlit winter night. Dressed warmly, they trudge through snow. The hidden animals watch them pass. Pa makes the Great Horned Owl’s call and they wait for a reply. This story tells of a nightime adventure in wintry nature of a father and daughter. It is told simply, not too many words, and it evokes the feel of a snowy night. Wonderful for the wee, little children.
The Girl in the Golden Bower is another wonderful story by Jane Yolen and is suited for older young children. This fairy tale-like story is suited for the 6 and older crowd. Beautiful illustrations by Jane Dyer add to this wonderful story. I highly recommend this one!
Herman and Marguerite by Jay O’Callahan and pictures by Laura O'Callahan. I first heard this story on the car radio one day. My niece and nephew and I were spellbound. Jay O’Callahan was telling and he quickly became one of my favorite storytellers. He turned this story into a book. 
A shy earthworm and a lonely caterpillar become best friends. Through learning how to believe in themselves, and working together, they sing their dying orchard back into life. 

The Dragon and the Unicorn written and illustrated by Lynne Cherry. Ms. Cherry gives us a story of a princess who learns about the important natural co-dependance in the life of the ancient forest from her friends, a dragon and a unicorn. These two friends love their forest and the peace that abides there. That peace is shattered by men cutting down trees and destroying habitat on behalf of the princess’ father, the king.
The pictures accompanying this story are extremely detailed, and the beautiful borders are filled with even more details. And the characters are depicted with brown skin, an unusual feature that I wish was more common!

The Land of the Blue Flower by Frances Hodgson Burnett The author of The Secret Garden, and many more classic chapter books also wrote a ‘fairy tale’ suited to 6-and-ups. This longer picture book tells us that there is much to learn from the beauty of nature, from the stars and the earth.
Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon with pictures by Charlotte Voake. Elsie Piddock is a natural rope-skipper. By the time she’s seven years old, she can even outskip the fairies. When she is 107, she returns to her home town to try and save the children’s beloved skipping grounds from the greedy, factory-building villain. 

River Song by Steve van Zandt with the Banana Slug String Band, illustrations by Katherine Zecca. This story is a song set to pictures. It describes the cycle of water from snow melt into streams, and rivers and eventually to the sea. And it is accompanied by a cd recording of the song.

Two books that I have included in previous posts deserve repeat mention here. In Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, we meet the ‘Lupine Lady.’ who traveled the world, and to make it more beautiful she planted lupines wherever she went.

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema describes the interconnectedness of life on the African plains, and the mutual dependance on water. This cumulative story is perfect for the little ones!

How about you? Do you have any suggestions for stories that nurture our connection with nature? Please let me know.

Rosemary Wells 
and yours truly.

P.S. I always appreciate it when readers share this blog with their friends.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Stories for Difficult Times

Story works to help us through challenging life situations. Stories can live in our soul and accompany us through the various ups and downs of our life. Stories speak to the heart, and eventually work their way to the head. 

Over the years I have been asked many times how to help young children either prepare for, or deal with, death and illness. Death is a subject our culture tries to avoid. We just don’t want to talk about it. And yet, it is inevitable and simply a part of our life’s cycle. My advice to parents is to speak about death openly when it comes up. Young children certainly do not need details of someone’s illness or passing, but the acknowledgment of death and illness is important in helping the child begin to embrace these aspects of life. 

An effective tool for helping people of any age begin to move through grief and towards a grasp of death is story. For young children there are many wonderful stories depicting life endings and illness in imaginative ways. I think these stories can be read to children at any time, not only when there is a death in the family. That way the child is internalizing the picture or the idea of the cycle of our lives and more prepared when the inevitable occurs. And when there is a loss, these stories can support the grief process. Additionally, a story might offer a vocabulary that you can use with your young child when discussing death and illness - a vocabulary that allows them to live into the pictures rather than an intellectual explanation of what is occurring.

There are tree stories that speak to this theme. Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel is the story of a beloved tree in the yard of one family that they name ‘Steve.’ “Yes. right there in the center of our yard, this weird looking tree grew to become the center of our outdoor life.” Steve participates in their family life over many years, gets ill and has a visit from the tree doctor and finally comes crashing down in a big storm. 

Gentle Willow by Joyce C. Mills tells the story of a tree that develops a sickness that even the Tree Wizards cannot cure. Beautifully done in language young children can digest, this is a must read for anyone wanting to find ways through the serious illness and dying of loved ones toward an embracing of life and love and change.

Another one is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Freddie’s questions and fears about dying are answered by his wise leaf friend Daniel until he eventually feels the peace of being part of nature’s cycle of the seasons and life and death.
At my local public library I found a wonderful book called Thank You Grandpa by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft. It tells the story of a girl and her grandfather who enjoy many walks in nature together over years as Grandpa and the girl get older. He teaches her about gratitude and accepting death as it comes to the creatures of nature. And when Grandpa dies, she walks alone in the forest and knows just how to be thankful for what she and her grandfather shared. This book has beautiful images of nature. It shows the joy grandfather and granddaughter share and their acceptance that death is part of the natural cycle of life. This one is a simple story, not too wordy, that is perfect for young children. 

Butterflies offer us a great opportunity for observing and experiencing transformation. Their life cycle is widely used to help develop a grasp of metamorphosis and renewal, probably because caterpillars are earthbound crawling things, and butterflies are beautiful flying creatures. The difference between the two stages is extreme. 
Prince of Butterflies is written by Bruce Coville with amazing watercolor illustrations by John Clapp. This book seems made with slightly older young children in mind, perhaps 6-years-old and up. It tells the fictional and fantastic story of a boy who loves butterflies and grows up to be a scientist who tries to preserve their habitat. There is a wonderful scene when butterflies come en masse to the then elderly man and take him away on a flight. 

A wonderful tale of aging and dying is The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola. It is a retelling of the legend of a Renaissance era juggler who gets old and eventually gives one last performance - his best ever - and dies knowing the gift of his last performance had made a difference.

There are many more picture books that I think could be helpful on this theme. I’ll just mention a few more:

Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaolo
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
The Story of Jumping Mouse by John Steptoe

A great online resource is the Healing Story Alliance. HSA explores and promotes the use of storytelling in healing. Their goal is to build a resource for the use of story in the healing arts and professions. On their website is an article related to the theme of this post called Seeds, Mirrors, Hands and Keys: Stories to Support Mourning by Gail Rosen. Ms. Rosen takes us through the stages of grief accompanied by story suggestions. Read her article and remember to adapt her suggestions to the developmental level of your young children.

What other books are out there for young children to begin to grasp death and illness? Please comment with your suggestions. This can be so much help for families in need of support during times of grief.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

10 Essential Picture Books for Young Children

I was reading a ‘picture book’ to my 5-year-old granddaughter yesterday. We had just started and she interrupted and said, “It should start with ‘Once upon a time.'”

It made me think about stories and the timelessness of them. And I know that for some folks the idea of telling a story (without a book) is daunting, let alone make a story up. I think it is so important for young children’s lives to be filled with stories. I also think if you want your children to become readers, you need to read to them so they have something to imitate. And when they ask for the same story again, and again, and again for weeks on end, overcome your own desire for something different and support the child’s natural healthy instinct for repetition. It builds brains!

For this post I decided to share some of my favorite picture books with you all. I love stories and books! But which stories? There are so many to choose from.

Recently someone at a workshop I gave mentioned a book that I had to get. Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt describes the imaginative use of books in family life, and in it she also has lists of book suggestions. 

Ms. Hunt asks; What kind of books? Stories that make for wonders. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir one within with and understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence; stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.

Further she says, “Cruelty, evil and greed come into clear focus against kindness, truth and honor in a well-written story. I say well-written because nothing offends a child more than having to be told when something is mean and base or noble and good. The painful spelling out of what one is supposed to learn from a story evidences the author’s inability to create valid characters in a real-life plot. And it insults children. (p. 82)

So here is a short list of books that are extra special for me.
1. Some people have never heard of Wanda Gág. She wrote and illustrated many books for children which include Millions of Cats, and Snippy and Snappy. Both of these have that quality of repetition so important for young children’s developing brains. Her black-and-white illustrations have a magical quality with so many little details for the children to get lost in. After Disney’s Snow White movie was released, she translated and illustrated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a reaction against the "trivialized, sterilized, and sentimentalized" (her words) Disney movie version.

2. Two more repetition stories - The Apple Pie that Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson, and illustrated by Jonathan Bean, takes us through the process of making an apple pie. The illustrations are simple yet rich and in the end you can just about smell the pie. A wonderful story for the autumn. 

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema is a lovely cumulative retelling of a Kenyan folktale. It describes the cycle of water and life on an African plain told in simple language that hooks you right in.

3. Barbara Berger is one of my favorite author/illustrators. Some of her books I read to my daughters literally hundreds of times, and eventually I memorized Grandfather Twilight. Grandfather Twilight is an elderly man whose daily task is to walk through the woods as evening approaches and set the moon up in the night sky. The pictures are magical and the story is a rich yet simple poem. Two of my other favorites by Barbara Berger are The Donkey’s Dream and When the Sun Rose.

4. Rosemary Wells is a must on my list. She wrote and illustrated three Bunny Planet stories about a young bunny whose day doesn’t go quite the way he wants it until he goes to the Bunny Planet where Queen Janet makes everything okay again. Ms. Wells also offers Only You which is a love poem from a baby bear to his mom describing the things that only a parent can do. This is a picture book for grown-ups about connecting with young children.

5. Pete Seeger’s storysong Abiyoyo was made into a book with illustrations by Michael Hays. This retelling of a South African folk tale is enlivened by the multicultural community depicted in the pictures. A wonderful story of courage accompanied by a simple song. It is such a favorite of mine that I included it on one of my own story cds.

6. Miss Rumphius written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney tells the story of a little girl who wants to make the world more beautiful, and how she did it. My daughters simply loved this book and call it ‘the lupine lady book.’

7. Eric Kimmel’s Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins is for the older range of pre-first graders. It tells how, with cleverness and courage, Hershel overcomes the goblins and their spell on his town.

8. I like stories describing real, archetypal work and these two are right up that alley. How a Shirt Grew in the Field is the story of making linen from flax in picture book form. Ox Cart Man by with illustrations by Barbara Cooney tells the story of the seasons and the work that is needed therein for this 1800’s New England family.

9. Mushroom in the Rain is adapted from a Russian story by Mirra Ginsburg. It is a fantastical story of animals getting out of the rain under an ever expanding mushroom illustrated with whimsical pictures. Like The Mitten by Jan Brett, there is almost always room for more friends to come on in and be warm and dry.

10. To round off my list of 10 (I know. I cheated already) I include a story from my childhood. The Contented Little Pussy Cat by Frances Ruth Keller tells about Abner who is always happy and care-free. The other animals wonder how he can be so easy-going and when they find out his method they know he is on to something. This is also a profound story for adults about the path of spiritual development toward true presence in the moment.
Another of my favorite authors is Jane Yolen Besides all the wonderful stories she has written, she wrote a book about children’s literature. In Touch Magic, Ms. Yolen takes into the world of folk and fairy tales. She says; The best of the stories we can give our children, whether they are stories that have been kept alive through the centuries through that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation we call oral transmission, or the tales that were made up only yesterday - the best of these stories tough that larger dream, that greater vision, that infinite unknowing. They are the most potent kind of magic, these tales, for they catch a glimpse of the soul beneath the skin.
Touch magic. Pass it on.

P.S. What are your favorites? Post them and share!
Touch magic. Pass it on.