Saturday, January 31, 2009

Simple Things

Today, my boys' favorite toys are yarn, clay and plastic cups.

They have spent hours wrapping each other in yarn and creating intricate "spider-webs" all around the house. The sounds of their laughter tickle my heart as I see the joy they've unleashed with their imaginations. Simple thread -- yet to my boys, it's all the need for active and creative play.

Same thing with the clay and plastic cups. I came downstairs after my shower to the sound of something crashing into the cups and cups cascading to the floor. The game? Bowling. My eight-year-old and five-year-old had gathered a bunch of our plastic cups and arranged them on the dining room table, bowling-pin style. Then, using the clay they'd been messing with all morning (previously, the clay had been a "snowman"), they crafted a "bowling ball." And again, with their imaginations, created an indoor bowling alley far cheaper than those they coveted in a Christmas catalogs.

Boxes are another long-time favorite. Boxes have been everything from snowmobiles to forts to rocket ships. (I will never forget my then-three-year-old's disappointment when his "rocket' failed to launch after his 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-0 countdown.)

Of course, my sons take part in more technological pleasures as well. They LOVE playing Command and Conquer on the computer and spend hours playing Star Wars Legos on their Wii. But sometimes, the simple things are best.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Fragile Male

Sandra Dodd's response to my post got me thinking about prenatal influences. The science of fetal programming is relatively new, but provacative. The basic idea is that things that happen to us in utero have lifelong effects. For instance:
  • Gestational Diabetes – If a mother has gestational diabetes during her pregnancy, her child is at increased risk for obesity, glucose intolerance and diabetes
  • Birth Weight – Men who weighed less than 5 ½ pounds at birth have a 50% greater risk of dying of heart disease than men who weighed 9 ½ pounds at birth
  • Stress – Children of women who experience extreme stress during pregnancy (whether due to financial, housing or safety concerns) are more prone to allergies and anemia

I'd also read that male fetuses are more vulnerable than female fetuses, so I looked for more information. Here is what I found. (The article is rather long, but definitely worth the read)

Did you know, for instance, that male babies are physiologically less developed at birth than female infants? Or that boys are more likely to be negatively affected by maternal postpartum depression than girls?

I love the author's conclusion: "If parents were more aware of male sensitivity, they might change the way they treat their sons. "

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Another Thing to Consider...

when naming your sons.

A new study has found that boys with unpopular names are more likely commit crimes than boys with popular names.

True, the idea that a name can have lifelong implications is not new. But the idea that these study results should be used to "identify individuals at high risk of committing or recommitting crime, leading to more effective and targeted intervention programs" (so say the researchers) is completely disturbing. Isn't that profiling? Expecting the absolute worst of someone based on an absolute intangible, something he has no control over?

I vote for strengthening families, fighting poverty and building communities instead.

I Hate Reading

Ok, I don't hate reading; I happen to LOVE it! Reading, in fact, is one of my all-time favorite past times. But far too many boys hate reading.

According to the research:

  • boys take longer to learn to read than girls (Interesting note: According to the book Why Gender Matters, the area of the brain that handles language develops, on average, SIX YEARS later in boys than in girls)
  • boys read less than girls
  • boys don't value reading as a leisure activity
  • the older a boy gets, the more likely he is to consider himself a "nonreader"

Now, two young boys have capitalized on boys' almost-universal dislike of reading. Ten-year-old Henry Bacon and his brother, twelve-year-old Arthur Bacon, have written a book, I Hate Reading: How to Get Through 20 Minutes a Day of Reading Without Reading.

The book was born -- obviously -- of their dislike for the 20 minutes a day their school required them to read. And while the book itself is funny, the story behind it is not. Two bright boys -- who were so disenfranchised with the idea of forced reading that they wrote a whole book about how not to do it.

I'm not a fan of forced reading. I'm not a fan of forced anything. I much prefer to let children come to what interests them, and to give them the time, freedom and opportunity to explore those interests.

In the case of reading, that may mean waiting until they're ready. That may not be possible if your kids are in public school, but even so, consider the developmental science. Most boys' brains are not ready to handle reading in kindergarten, and forcing them to do so before they're ready only leads to feelings of frustration and inadequacy, which can later turn into -- you guessed it -- a hate of reading.

Work with your schools, if you must, to promote developmentally appropriate curriculum. And in your own home, provide an array of reading materials. Boys, far more than girls, prefer comic and non-fiction books. Stock your house with magazines, comics (even the Bible comes in comic form now, and there are plenty of comic-style history books), and all kinds of non-fiction. In the meantime, read aloud, anything your boy wants to hear. I personally am sick of reading Bulldozer over and over, but my three-year-old loves it, and I'm determined to keep his love of books alive.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cool Cards!

The queen of "strewing" (the leaving about of interesting things), Sandra Dodd, has a great blog, Thinking Sticks. Check out yesterday's posting, Playing Card Animation, for a super cool video animation that will appeal to boys of all ages. There's playing cards, building, a battle and destruction! What's not to love? :)


Playing games is a big part of our homeschool. Our latest fascination is Qwirkle, a match-the-colors-and/or-shapes game that involves more than a little Scrabble-like strategy. It's the perfect game for a multi-aged household: younger kids can enjoy simply handling and sorting the colored blocks (while learning their shapes and colors), while older children and adults develop strategy and critical thinking skills in a fun environment.

A great game, for me, is one that meets 4 criteria:
1) It's fun
2) It's simple to learn
3) It's educational (but not overtly)
3) Set-up and clean-up is quick and easy.

Qwirkle meets all 4 criteria.

I'm willing to make some exceptions, of course -- I love playing Life, Monopoly and Risk. But these games are not quick to set-up and play, so alas -- we don't play these games nearly as often as the boys would like.

Think, for a minute, about all the skills boys learn from board games. Counting. Sharing. Colors. Adding, subtracting and multiplying. Spelling (Scrabble). Specific facts, depending on the game. My boys love a game called the Lewis and Clark Adventures game (all about the Lewis and Clark expeditiona) and Scrambled States, about United States geography.

Disney has compiled a list of 5 classic board games for boys. Take a look and then tell me: What are some of your favorites?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Climbing Walls

Here in Wisconsin, we're waking up to below 0 weather. -2 degrees Farenheit, to be exact. Add in wind chill, and it feels more like -13. If we're lucky, it might get all the way to 12 today.
Weather like this is not exactly conducive to outdoor play. And when boys have been cooped up in a house too long, watch out! That physical energy has to go somewhere.

My five-year-old son has figured out an innovative way to deal with cabin fever. He climbs walls. Literally.

For the longest time, he's been able to climb one side a door jamb by grabbing on to either side with his hands and using his hands and feet to shimmy up like an island native climbing a coconut tree. Now, howere, he's figured out a new technique. He stands just inside a doorway and spreads his legs, so that his feet are touching both door jambs, one to a side. He spreads his arm out overhead -- again, reaching out to both sides -- and uses his arms to steady himself. Then he "walks" his feet up the door jambs, using the friction of his feet and his incredible balance to stay in place.

It's not exactly a typical indoor activity, but you know what? It keep him happy, active and healthy. Staying physical indoors when the weather boxes you in is a challenge, but think outside of the box. Try letting the kids slide down the front stairs, or race around the house. Strap cardboard to their feet and let them "skate" on the carpet. Plan a scavenger hunt. Build a fort. Have an old-fashioned pillow fight. Let them jump on the beds and stage dance contests in the living room.

And when it's time to unwind, remember that boys are also highly tactile. Playdough has long been a favorite in my house. My eight-year-old likes to sculpt creatures and cars, while my three-year-old LOVES to run his little cars and trucks over the "roads" he makes in the playdough. Here, then, is my all-time favorite playdough recipe:

Fruity Playdough
2 1/2 cups flour (plan to add much more when mixing and kneading)
1/2 cup salt
2 packages dry unsweetened drink mix (Koolaid, etc.)
2 cups boiling water
3 Tablespoons cooking oil
Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. Mix liquids together and pour into dry ingredients. Stir until mixture forms a ball. At first it will appear as if it will never make a smooth playdough mixture. Add more flour if necessary. As the mixture cools and becomes less sticky, take it out of the bowl and knead until smooth, adding flour until it reaches the right consistency.

This recipe makes A LOT of playdough -- perfect for a family! Store it inside a sealed plastic container (think an old margarine tub) and it'll last for months.

So how 'bout you? What are some of your favorite indoor activities?

Monday, January 26, 2009


My boys (ages 3,5, 8 and 11) fight constantly. Don't believe me? Check out this excerpt from my article in the January - February issue of Home Education Magazine:

"Battles are part of our daily existence. Some are imaginative recreations of light saber battles or elaborate pirate swordfights. Others are purely physical explosions of energy (think wrestling on the living room floor). Still others are verbal, the natural tendency of boys to one-up each other. Whether it's handstands of fishing, countning or singing, whatever one of our boys can do, another claims he can do it better. Then, of course, there are the disagreements: Who gets to use the computer first. What channel to watch on TV. Whose turn it is to feed the cats."
My husband reassures me that fighting is a perfectly normal part of being a boy, but I just don't get it. I, of course, am a woman. I've never felt the need to tackle someone, just because he was nearby. And so I worried. After all, I want my boys to grow up to be productive members of society, and productive members of society don't wrestle each other at the first sign of a disagreement.

Then I read Why Gender Matters, a ground-breaking book by Dr. Leonard Sax. Boys, he writes, fight a lot -- in fact, boys fight 20 times more than girls, according to one psychologist who spent a year observing elementary schoolchildren at playgrounds. But the fighting doesn't seem to be destructive. The same psychologist found that boys who fight each other usually end up being better friends after the fight.

It turns out that human boys are not the only young mammals with a proclivity toward physical violence. Primatologists (scientists who study apes and monkeys) have long known that young male primates are far more likely to fight than young females. Some of this tendency towards physical aggression appears to be training for adults roles; among primates, males are far more likely to hunt and kill prey than females.

But it seems the aggression is also an important part of socialization, at least for males. "Wrestling and fighting with other males teaches them the rules of the game," writes Dr. Sax. "If young male primates are deprived of the opportunity to fight with other males, those males grow up to be more violent as adults, not less."

Looks like there's some hope for my boys after all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Need for Naps

Naptime -- euphemistically known as "Quiet Time" -- is an essential part of our day. The younger kids nap, the older kids enjoy some quiet alone time and Mom gets some time to relax and unwind.

But apparently, there's more to it. Did you know that proper sleep is an essential component of learning? Sleep helps us secure memories and learn new skills. For children, proper sleep may even be more important. One study shows that sleep-deprived sixth graders perform at the level of fourth-graders.

Getting boys the sleep they need is no easy task, though. My almost-three-year old has discovered the world, and finds crawling in and out of bed and onto his dresser far more amusing than taking a nap. My eleven-year old would rather stay up and read.

They both probably need more sleep than they're getting. According to the experts, my three-year-old should be sleeping at least 12 hours per day; my eleven-year-old, 10-11 hours per day.

That's where naps come in. Far from being optional, naps help children (especially infants and toddlers) meet their daily sleep quota. Look at it this way: naps are at least as important as any other learning activity. According to renowned sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley, "naps – or lack of naps – shape all twenty-four hours of your child’s day. The quality and quantity of your child’s naps influence his mood, behavior, health, and brain development. "

Having trouble getting your little darling to take a nap? Check out Pantley's new book, The No-Cry Nap Solution.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Learning 'bout Lakes is the latest learning tool in our house. My oldest son, the fishing fanatic, found it on the recommendation of an adult fishing buddy. The site lists fishing conditions at area lakes, including ice thickness and fishing activity, and for a budding fisherman like mine, is a goldmine of information.

But yesterday was the breakthrough. Yesterday, he found information about Mayville pond -- upper and Mayville pond -- lower, parts of the Rock River he fishes regularly. He found stocking information, and within a few hours, his view of the river as a "carp-infested rat hole" had changed. He realized there WERE good fish in the river. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized it was his fishing tactics, not a lack of fish, that were the cause of his less-then-stellar catches. At 11:00 last night, as I was getting ready for bed, he burst into the bathroom to inform me that the problem was HIM! That fishing mid-day and in just a few feet of water is no way to catch the big fish.

Finally, it was all coming together: all the years of fishing, the fishing books he's read and the hours he's devoted to watching fishing shows on TV. was the source he needed to pull it all together.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Boys ARE Different

Lightsabers are the big thing in our house today. It's 20 below zero and the boys got new lightsabers yesterday, so why not? One boy is in a Jedi costume, another is Darth Vader and the click of lightsabers smashing together has been rattling my head all day.

On the one hand, lightsabers seem like a crazy invention: Plastic swords practically scream, "Hit each other!" On the other hand, that's their genius: Can you think of a toy more likely to appeal to boys? A lightsaber is a chance to test your limits, to be physical, and yes, to swing things in the house.

Swinging a lightsaber around might not seem like a sanctioned homeschool activity, but look a litle closer. The boys are imagining. They're telling stories in their head. They're learning to work together, and how to resolve differences. They're learning to share and take turns and consider other people's wants and needs. And they're burning energy. All day long, the boys have been on the move.

And if you know anything about boys, you know they don't often sit still.