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Embracing Motherhood How Children's Brains are Wired for Learning

How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning

As a former elementary school teacher and now mother of four young children, I have always been fascinated by the brain and how it works. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned and observed with my own children is the how capable they are of learning at a very very young age with just little nudges in the right direction when they are ready (i.e. teaching in the zone of proximal development).

We often think of children being ready to “learn” when they are old enough for formal schooling, but by the time children are old enough for kindergarten, the frameworks of their brains are pretty much set for life. The crucial window of brain development begins at about 6 months and peaks at 2-3 years of age. I think this is a window that is largely ignored, but if can recognize its importance and provide stimulating experiences during this golden opportunity of time, we can help our children to develop their best brains.

Romanian Orphans

Before we start getting into some of the nitty gritty about how the brain works, I wanted to point out what happens at the other end of the spectrum when it doesn’t work. In this example, you’ll see what happens to childrens’ brains when they are ignored, neglected, abandoned, and mistreated.

In his NPR article, “Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain“, Jon Hamilton explains how when the corrupt Romanian government was overthrown in 1989, the world was shocked to learn about the more than 100,000 children in government care that were left alone in their cribs, wallowing in their own filth, and with nothing but the white ceiling to stare at and the cries of the other babies to keep them company…for days and days and days. There was no one there to soothe their cries, no one there to hold them and give them affection, and no one there to talk to them and help them to interact with their environment.  The result was stunted growth and a range of social and emotional problems.

The odd behaviors, language delays, and range of other symptoms suggested problems with brain development, and so researchers began studying the children using a technology known as electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain. What they found were disturbingly low levels of brain activity. As the children grew, there were able to conduct MRIs on them, and it showed that their brains were actually smaller and that they had a reduction in grey and white matter. (The grey matter is near the outer part of the brain and is mostly all of the neurons bunched together. The white matter is on the inner part of the brain and is mostly the myelinated axons that connect the neurons together.)

fresh brain sliced open to show gray matter and white matter

White Matter and Grey Matter – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2007) Suseno

In another experiment conducted after the orphaned children had been adopted, it showed that their brains could not discriminate the face of a stranger from the face of their adoptive mother. Because their brains were not able to identify with a loving caregiver at a young age, that part of their brain wasn’t developed, and then when someone was ready to give them love, they didn’t know how to accept it.  This is called reactive detachment disorder, and with lots of patience and love, it is possible to rewire the brain, unfortunately it’s just not very probable. Today, the system in Romania is still corrupt, and there are currently 70,000 children waiting for adoption. 🙁

How the Brain Works

Okay, so now that we’ve established that the environment is a crucial factor in brain development, let’s take a look at why that it. I love this video clip below because it shows how the brain is an interconnected web of not just the neurons, but the connections (synapses) that are between them.

Neural_signaling-human_brain

How the Brain Transmits Signals – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2013) Gif created from Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease

Understanding Neurons

When you look at an individual neuron, you’ll notice that it’s made up of three main parts.

parts of a neuron

Diagram of a Neuron – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2005)

  1. Cell Body: This is the main part of the neuron, It’s where the nucleus is and it directs all activities. This is what makes up most of the gray matter in the brain.
  2. Dendrites: These short fibers sticking out of the cell body receive messages from other neurons. If you were to zoom in close to look at the tip of a dendrite, you would see that it never actually touches another neuron, but connects via a synapse (more on this in a minute).
  3. Axon: This long single fiber carries messages away from the cell body to other cells. It might send a message to a nearby neuron or to a far away muscle fiber. Axons that are used over and over get coated with a myelin sheath which helps messages to transmit faster and is what makes up the white matter in the brain (more on this in a minute too).

Synapses are Where It’s At

Neurons on their own can’t really do much, but when they are connected, that is what creates brain activity. When neurons connect, they actually don’t ever touch each other, but instead communicate across a gap called a synapse. One single neuron can have anywhere from hundreds to thousands of synapses.

Chemical_synapse_schema_cropped

How Synapses Work – Wikimedia Commons (2009) US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging created original

How Synapses Work:

  1. First, A neuron fires an electrochemical signal from its cell body that travels through the axon and out to the tip of the dendrites.
  2. From here, neurotransmitters cross the synaptic cleft and are met with receptors on the other side that welcome it to the next neuron.
  3. This happens from one neuron to the next in a sort of a domino effect.

Synapses As We Age

We are born with about 100 billion neurons, which is pretty much the same number of the neurons the brain will ever have. The number of synapses, however, is a number that does change over time. In the first decade of life, a child’s brain can form trillions of synapses. The number of synapses peaks at about 2-3 years of age. (source)

When children are born, they have about 2,500 synapses per neuron and by age 2 or 3, they can have about 15,000 synapses! (source) From the time a child is about 6 months old until they are about 2-3 years of age, there is a SYNAPTIC EXPLOSION!!! Because children are not very mobile or explicitly expressive about what they are learning and what they need in addition to the fact that parents are often overwhelmed with sleep issues, teething, and other parenting concerns (With four children 5 and under, I am WELL aware of this! :), I feel like the importance of this learning period is often overlooked and undervalued.

There are an ENORMOUS amount of connections that are being formed at 6 months and 2 years of age. Click here to see a really cool chart showing the synaptic explosion happening between 6 months and 2 years.

Experiences Make Neural Connections

Genes provide the basic framework in the brain, but experiences determine which neurons are used and which pathways are formed and strengthened. When children are very young, their brains are very “plastic” (malleable), meaning that they are easily able to learn something new through experience, but this changes over time and the brain becomes less “plastic” and it becomes more challenging to learn something new from experience.

Click here to see a really cool graph that shows how when we are 2, experiences are easily able to shape the brain, but the ease with which this happens declines with age. When we reach our 20s, we’re kind of at an even plateau, and then as we age from there it gets progressively harder for the brain to change from experiences.

The reason why it’s easier to learn something new at a young age is because the brain is like a blank slate. This tabula rasa allows for children to shape their brains about their environment and experiences, but as we age and our brains become more established, learning something new requires rerouting the information through existing pathways rather than simply creating new ones.

Myelination Speeds Up Connections

Neuron

Structure of a Neuron – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2011)

It wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized the true importance of myelination. Myelination can be seen as the white matter in the brain and is comprised mostly of the fatty substance called myelin that coats the axons. This myelin sheath is made out of schwann cells that over time and with continued use wrap around the axon like a spiral. (Check out a cool video here to see this in action.)

The myelin sheath serves two functions:

  1. It protects the axon so that it doesn’t lose the electrical impulse.
  2. It increases the speed at which the electrical impulse travels. In an unmyelinated axon, the electrical impulse travels in a wave, but in a myelinated axon, the electrical impulse sorts of hops through it.

The first time a child tries to walk, the pathway hasn’t been myelinated yet, so he only takes a few shaky steps and then falls down. But over a long period of time and lots and lots and lots of repetition, he will take two steps, and then three, and before you know it, he’ll be running everywhere! The pathway that controls walking becomes myelinated so that he doesn’t even need to think about it anymore, it just happens. It’s why they say, “You only need to learn how to ride a bike once.”

Whatever experiences a child has over and over and over again will determine which pathways will become myelinated. The myelinated pathways are the ones that will remain, the rest will become pruned away.

Synaptic Pruning

Much like a painter likes to work with more paint than is needed for the job and a builder likes to construct with more materials than is needed for the project, a child’s brain is provided with far more neurons and synapses than are functionally needed and/or preferred. Synaptic pruning is the process by which these extra neurons and synapses are eliminated. This is what increases the overall efficiency of the neural network.

The entire process begins to happen at a significant and rapid rate when a child is approximately 3 years old. By the time, a child is 10, most of the synaptic pruning has occurred. In fact, when a child is 10, 50% of the synapses that were present at 2 years of age have been eliminated.

We talked about the synaptic explosion earlier, but now let’s take a look at what happens when the synapses are pruned. (Click here to see a graph that I wish I could include, if only it were on Wikimedia Commons!) When you look at the brain of a 2 year old, it kind of looks like a jumbled mess compared to the brain of a 4 year old. In the 4 year old’s brain, there is more organization and cohesion. The neurons that exist and the pathways that have been used over and over again to connect them are making the brain more efficient. This continues to be more obvious in the 6 year old’s brain.

By the time a child is 10, the framework for the brain is pretty much set, and the brain continues to focus on specialization. The adult brain is similar to the 6 year old’s brain but with fewer, yet stronger, neurons and connections. (Click here to see another image I wish that I could include!)

In one of my education classes, my professor explained it by saying that the brain is like a giant house with hundreds of rooms. Whatever rooms the child goes into over and over and over again, those are the rooms that will remain, and the rooms that are unused will become closed off and die.

So what rooms does your child want to go into over and over again? What experiences and opportunities will you help to provide repetitiously? I believe that every child is different and that every child’s brain should be given the freedom and opportunity to develop as it is meant to. For me as a parent, that means that I provide multiple opportunities for all of my children to achieve this goal.

In Conclusion

This “use it or lose it” concept is fascinating because it gives so much more meaning to the younger formative years as the brain is forming. People assume that because little babies aren’t physically able to engage with their environment, that they are not mentally capable of it. But that’s just not true. Before babies start talking, they are immersed in language and exposed to it over and over and over again. Their brains are busy forming pathways before they even speak!

In this way, each child’s brain becomes specifically wired to adapt best to the environment that he or she is in. If the child is to grow up in a stimulating environment with lots of learning possibilities, then they need a brain that is primed and ready to thrive in that type of environment.

I think that by just being aware of how the brain functions, it can help us to better understand what is going on in the minds of our children. By providing a loving, nurturing, and stimulating environment full of lots of learning opportunities, we can help our children to develop their best possible brain.

To see how to put this information about the brain into practice, check out some of my other articles:

Resources for Further Research

Throughout this article, I’ve linked to my resources where appropriate, but I also read the following articles and watched the following videos that helped me to get a broad understanding of this topic. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend checking out some of these videos and articles.

embracing motherhood how to raise children who want to read by surrounding them with books and cuddles

How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read

Teachers, librarians, parents, politicians…we’re all guilty of saying it. Our intentions are noble and so we say, “Read, read, read!” Or, “The more you read the better you’ll get!” But it’s not about setting a timer to read for 15 minutes every day, it’s not about filling up a monthly reading calendar to get a prize, and it’s not about reading because someone told you to. It’s about igniting a passion within your children for reading so that they will be inspired to read because of their own intrinsic motivation. It’s about getting them to choose reading on their own because it is something they want to do.

In order to build a positive relationship with reading, we need to create memories of reading that evoke emotions of love, joy, and happiness. By following these steps, you can ensure that your child will build a positive relationship with reading.

1. Start Young

As soon as they are old enough to hold their heads up, stick a book under them! I started doing this with my not even three month old, and I was flabbergasted when he started to smile and look at the book. I use the same two or three books when he does tummy time, and he loves it!

3 month old baby looks at a book while doing tummy time

3 Month Old Julian Looks at a Book

Babies are definitely ready for some real reading routines by six months old. (Check out my blog :How Children Really Learn to Read to see how you can teach your baby to read.) We have always enjoyed incorporating story time before bed at around this age. This is also when we really start talking about letters, watching word videos, playing with ABC toys, and sitting them on our laps for story time. (Check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think to learn about one of the biggest precursors to learning how to read and Tips, Tricks and Resources for Teaching the ABCs to learn about how to give your child the foundation of reading.)

2. Go to the Library

It is very interesting to me to watch other families at the library who don’t share the same love of reading as we do. They come into the library with a very specific agenda, they let their child check out two books, and then they are out of there as quick as can be. With us on the other hand, going to the library is a special event! We get comfortable and enjoy the library atmosphere by playing with the magnets, using the chalkboard, playing with blocks and puzzles, and snuggling up in the chairs to check out a few favorite books. (Our library is VERY small, but we still enjoy it to its fullest!) Meanwhile, I am combing through each aisle finding books that I know my children will love.

Ophelia Playing with Magnet Letters at Our Library

Ophelia Playing with Magnet Letters at Our Library

Elliot is Busy Searching for Books

Elliot is Busy Searching for Books

Ruby Reading at Our Library

Ruby Reading at Our Library

I like to find short books that will appeal to all the kids for bedtime reading, longer books to read while snuggled on the couch, and books for all levels and interests of the readers in our house. When my children are ready, I help guide them towards picking out their own books. I teach them how to look at the spine for the title, how to choose interesting books based on the cover, and how to flip through the pages to make sure it’s a “just right” book. When our bags are full of the maximum number of books (35, but sometimes they let us go over), we check out. Also, I’m not afraid of a few late fines or lost or damaged books; it’s a small price to pay for such a wonderful service.

3. Build a Library of Books

Going to the library is fun in order to get some new books to read, but even better than that is having an eclectic collection of books at home that you can read over and over again. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming to start a home library, but you have to start somewhere! My favorite place to get books is at thrift stores and garage sales (that way you don’t have to worry if they get ripped, damaged, or torn…which they will). I love it when I can find garage sales where the people are transitioning away from younger children and are getting rid of everything in one massive dump. Getting piles of quality books for 10 cents each is the best, and I totally stock up! The collections you’ll find at thrift stores are more hit or miss. It definitely helps to have an agenda and know what you are looking for here, but sometimes you just want to add a little “bulk” to your library and this is a great place for that.

bins of books for children

Building a Home Library Full of Quality Books

Once you know what kind of books really intrigue your children, you can start building Amazon wish lists for birthdays, Christmas, and anytime you have a few extra dollars. You can even buy used books on Amazon that are in pretty good shape. (Although I’d recommend staying away from the used books if they are the lift the flap kind, I haven’t had the best luck in this department.) For some book suggestions, check out my Amazon stores: Best Books for Babies, Best Books for Toddlers, and Best Books for Kids.

4. Make Books Accessible

Once you have books, you’ll want to make them easy to access! I love having books on bookshelves, but those are easier for storage and for adults to access. Kids like to see books displayed in a way that makes the books easy to see and easy to reach. My favorite method of storage is baskets. Here are the wicker baskets that I like to use. They are a nice way for me to keep the books organized with the covers facing out, and then I can strategically place them in places where the kids like to read. I love putting baskets next to little chairs and couches, near their little potty chairs, by their beds, and at little coffee table reading stations throughout the house. I’m pretty sure that every single room in our house has baskets and piles books!

toddler reading to herself from a bin of accessible books

Making Books Accessible

I have also screwed gutters (found at Lowes or Home Depot) onto the walls to store books. They looked really cool, but didn’t get used as much as I thought they would. Plus, the kids would sometimes pull or hang on them and they weren’t super sturdy, but if put a tacking strip behind it and found some studs, it would probably hold up really well!

Using Gutters as a Bookshelf

Using Gutters as a Bookshelf

gutters as a bookshelf

3 Year Old Elliot Loves His New Bookshelf

There are also some cool book storage racks that display the book covers all facing forward. I liked having things like this in my classroom when I was a teacher. You’ll have to find the perfect way to make your books accessible based on the needs of your children and the design of your home.

5. Make Reading Time Special

During the day, we love snuggling up on our big soft couch to read piles of books. I store new library books in our coffee table and I keep baskets of books nearby. But I will usually set up a little pile of their favorite books that I know they will want to read before I sit down. Then I track down their silkies, pacifiers, and anything else they like to snuggle up with. Sometimes I’ll grab some milk and cookies or some other tasty treats before we begin reading. Then, we all snuggle up close together and enjoy some fun cuddles and special reading time.

reading cuddled up with mommy and baby

Reading Time is Special

Before bed at night, we always read books in our oldest daughter’s room. We have a big full size mattress on the floor that is covered with blankets and stacked with pillows. There are baskets and piles of books strategically placed nearby and we all enjoy cuddling up at night while Daddy reads stories.

Bedtime Reading Routine

Bedtime Reading Routine

I have some old Christmas lights stapled near the ceiling that create a nice soft glow perfect for night time reading. After that, we read to our older children (or they read to us) while they are tucked into bed, and then we read to our littlest ones in rocking chairs before putting them to bed.

Reading Rocking Chair

Reading Rocking Chair

6. Carve Out Time for Reading

I am always ready to drop everything and read books when my children are ready, but I also like setting aside special reading time during the day. Either mid morning or after lunch are my favorite reading times. I like to read after my kids have eaten, had play time, and are changed, dressed, and ready for the day. We enjoy cuddling up for nice long reading time and it’s really fun. I know that our days can get busy, but I think that just like we make time for eating every day, we need to make time for reading every day too. If you always read books at bedtime, you’ll always have reading as at least the end part of your day. Reading before bed is one thing that we never ever skip. If we’re in a hurry, we have a basket of little mini books that we can read in a hurry, but we never skip reading time.

7. Pick Interesting Books

When you sit down to read with your children, start by reading the books you KNOW they will enjoy rather than introducing something new. After you’ve read a few favorite books and you’re in the rhythm of it, then you can introduce some new books.

Each of our children have been into different types of books at different ages and stages. Our babies have really liked Sandra Boynton, touch and feel, ABC, and lift the flap books. When both of our girls were younger, they REALLY liked Dora books, and our son has always enjoyed books about superheroes and anything funny or gross. Whenever we know that our children are really into a particular type of book, we look for it at thrift stores, garage sales, Amazon, and the library, and we keep those favorite books stocked nearby. These are the books they gravitate towards and start to read independently. The cutest thing is seeing our toddler picture read the books we have read over and over.

8. Have Fun With It

If you get books that you really enjoy and really truly have fun while you read, your little ones will be able to tell, and it will make it a fun experience for them too. When I was taking classes while in pursuit of my teaching degree, I had one class about teaching reading that really stuck with me. The teacher did something truly remarkable and seemingly unorthodox…she read to us! And she didn’t just read the words on the page, she made them come alive. It felt so strange to sit in a class with a bunch of young adults and have a children’s story read to us, but I felt myself getting lost in the story as she read using different voices for the different characters and read with lots of expression and passion. Ten years later, I still remember the first book she read to us. It was Buzzy the Bumblebee. I bought that book, a nice hard cover copy, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it to my class and then later to my children. Because I love it and read with lots of expression, they love it too.

9. Involve Your Children

Children love to be involved in reading. Before we start reading a book, I like to spend a minute looking at the cover. We read the title, look at the cover illustration, and make predictions about what we think the book will be about or what will happen in the book. As we are reading, I like to involve the children in little ways by having them help me turn the pages, lift any flaps, or point out simple things that they notice in the pictures. For more of a challenge, I ask the them open ended questions about what they think will happen next, why they think a certain event happened, how they think the character is feeling, or if the story reminds them of anything that has ever happened in their lives.

I also like to involve my children by getting them to read parts of the text whenever I can. One of my favorite ways to get them to do this is with books that we’ve read over and over. I pause at certain words I think that they’ll know or at the last word in the sentence (especially if there is a rhyming pattern) and let them fill in the blank. This is a gradual release to the time when they will be reading independently.

10. Be Silly

Most of the time, we read the books as they are written, but sometimes, it’s fun to make the book silly. We do this by making up words to make the story silly. Potty humor always gets a big laugh (Poophead!) and so does saying the opposite word that will give the meaning a silly twist. We also like making songs out of some of our favorite books and using silly funny voices. Our kids beg Daddy to read books the “funny way” especially when it’s bedtime; using humor is a great way to get through any tired fussy moments.

11. Don’t Force It

The worst thing you could do is treat reading like a mandatory time of the day that you must “get through” in order to reap the benefits of the results. If you’re not feeling it one day, skip the reading. If you’re skipping the reading every day, figure out what needs to change in order to make it a fun part of your routine. Are you feeling uncomfortable and unsure of your reading abilities? Don’t worry! Your children won’t judge you, and the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel. Are you having a tough time getting your children to sit still long enough for story time? This happens with my rambunctious son from time to time, and so I have found that he LOVES it when I read books with interesting figures like these Basher Books and make them “come to life”. I kind of skim and scan the book and make the characters talk to him and he interacts with them. This even carries over into his imaginative play. Do whatever works for you!

In Conclusion

If you make reading a priority in your life, and if you make it fun, your children will grow up having a love of reading that will last a lifetime. I think it’s also really important for kids to see that you enjoy reading as well. My husband really enjoys fiction and he’s always introducing our kids to his favorite books. Right now he is listening to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with our oldest daughter on their way to school every morning.

I personally like reading nonfiction and doing research for my blog, and I love sharing what I am learning with our kids. Reading is an amazing and wonderful skill, past time, and family event. If you help teach children how to read (Check out my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read) and show them how fun it can be, you will be amazed to see what they choose to do with their love of reading as they grow. One of my favorite things in the world is seeing our children choose to read on their own. When you see this happen, you know you have succeeded!

toddler reading to herself

Ophelia Loves Reading

3 year old reading to himself

Elliot Loves to Read

5 year old reading to herself in bed

Ruby Loves to Read

Check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think to learn about one of the biggest precursors to learning how to read and Tips, Tricks and Resources for Teaching the ABCs to learn about how to give your child the foundation of reading.

Embracing Motherhood How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

When I was an elementary school teacher and now as a parent of four young children, I have always believed that creating an environment conducive to learning was one of the most important things I could do (after making my students and children feel loved that is.)

quote-i-never-teach-my-pupils-i-only-attempt-to-provide-the-conditions-in-which-they-can-learn-albert-einstein-282667

Before I became a stay at home mom, I taught at an I.B. school that focused on backwards design and the inquiry model of instruction. These are two things that I believe in strongly and have carried over into my parenting philosophy. In my classroom, I worked very hard to create an environment and a system that could almost run itself. We would spend the beginning of the year going over rules and expectations, and then I would gradually release responsibility and encourage them to become independent learners as I guided them to find their individual intrinsic motivators. In the pictures below, notice the cooperative learning modules, the comfortable little nooks and learning areas, the use of the wall space, the vibrant colors, the plants, and the clean, organized, and warm environment.

third grade classroom

Front of the Room Teacher Station

third grade classroom

Looking Out the Windows in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Looking Towards the Back of My Classroom

third grade classroom

The Back Corner of My Classroom

third grade classroom

Chalkboard Area in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Learning Wall

IMG_0506

Vocabulary Wall and Plants

third grade classroom

My Students Learning with Laptops

third grade classroom

Kids Working with Pattern Blocks

third grade classroom

My Mom Dissecting Hearts with My Students

third grade classroom

Dressing Up for a Reader’s Theater Play

In my home, I have tried to create the same warm, nurturing, organized, creative, and stimulating environment that will promote independent learning at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, I love cuddling with my kids and finding teachable moments to help guide them towards new understandings, it’s just that I don’t see them as empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever wisdom I can pour into them. I believe that they are embarking on a journey of self discovery and I see myself as their guide; the one who will shepherd them along and help them to find the right path. Listed below are the things I like to do in my home that help to create and facilitate an environment that promotes and encourages independent learning.

1. Organization Behind the Scenes

As the facilitator of my children’s learning, I need to have everything ready to go at a moment’s notice. Whenever one of them is inspired to paint, I want to be able to pull out all of the painting supplies lickety split. Or whenever I see the need to improvise a new learning station, I want to be able to quickly pull out materials and create something. I don’t have the luxury of lunch breaks and planning time anymore, I need to be able to guide, create, build, facilitate, and enjoy at a moment’s notice.

kids playing with creative manipulatives at a moments notice

Creative Play at a Moment’s Notice

That is why I love, love, love my cupboards that came with this house. I have my flashcards, construction paper, extra crayons and markers, board games, teaching tubs, craft supplies, and more neatly boxed, labeled, and organized so that I can get to what I need at a moment’s notice. (See my Amazon Store for my recommended Best Teaching Items.) The other day my parents spent the night so that my husband and I could have a Valentine’s date, and the next day my Mom and I spent the entire day reorganizing my cupboards. In doing so, it gave me the ability to continue creating at a moment’s notice in the future. I need times like that to completely reorganize everything. It feels so good!

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible

Depending on the age and “mess propensity” of my children, I keep different materials accessible at different levels. Our toddler has just discovered markers and loves coloring on the walls, refrigerator, tables, etc., so I’ve decided to keep those materials out of her reach. My oldest daughter and son, on the other hand, love being able to have the freedom to color and create on their own, so I have set up a table in my “homeschool room” that has coloring books, blank books, blank paper, colored paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and other odds and ends to allow them to have the freedom to create and design on their own.

organized table with craft supplies

Organized Homeschool Table

In my cupboards I keep the things that I want my older children to be able to access I keep on the lower shelves. That way, when inspiration strikes, they can take out what they need. I also have a bookshelf with book making supplies, reusable stickers, stamps, and more coloring books for them to use.

computer table and shelves organized with learning supplies for kids

Shelves Organized with Learning Supplies

Everything within reach of my toddler are things specifically designed for her. She can do the things that the older kids can do with guidance, but the things at her level are things that she can do independently.

3. Create Learning Stations at Tables

My “homeschool” table is the most versatile station that I have. It can be used for just about any project that we have in mind. We used to only have one table in our home, but I LOVE having this table set up just for arts and crafts. We have another table in our kitchen (it only seats three) that we use for eating and activities. On this table, I have a few coloring books, some crayons, markers, books, and some dry erase boards, books, and markers that the kids can do while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. In the kitchen we also have a little table with three little chairs. Sometimes my kids eat here, sometimes they do projects here, and sometimes I use it to set out some food for them to graze on. We do have a family dining table in the dining room that we keep cleared off and use just for family meal time.

kitchen table with learning placements and activity bins

Our Kitchen Table

kids using dry erase boards at the kitchen table

Kids Working at Our Kitchen Table

little kid table in the kitchen with learning strips and a cardboard bin of books

Little Kid Table in the Kitchen

I have a few others shorter coffee tables set up around the house as well. In our multipurpose room I have a coffee table set up that I rotate with different books and activities. Right now it has ABC blocks, a box with Basher books, a box with homemade books and cards, and a place for sheets that I’m working on with our toddler. I also made a short table by our homeschool table to house different activities. Right now it is winter, and our water pouring station has been an absolute favorite for our toddler. I have another table in our quiet room that has puzzles and ABC game boards. Even the coffee tables in our living room are learning stations. With posters on top, books underneath, and little chairs or a little couch to sit in, they are great for eating or doing projects.

kids using ABC learning tablets at a coffee table sitting on little stools

Coffee Table Learning Station

using little cutout figures for learning activities at a coffee table learning station

Coffee Table Learning Station

homemade table magnet learning station

Magnet Station at the Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at a Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at the Little Homemade Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

toddler pouring water using little fancy cups

Indoor Water Pouring Station

toddler stacking at a coffee table learning station

Ophelia Stacking Letters at a Coffee Table Learning Station

4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations

When I create learning stations around the house, I want them to be interactive, fun, engaging, and have some element of learning. The simplest learning station might be some ABC games on a coffee table, and a more complex learning station might be a box with dry beans, cups, and shovels for some fine motor skill work. I like to place small chairs or stools next to the table so that the children can sit if they’d like. I find that my older children like to sit and the younger one likes to stand. When she stands, it’s just the right height!

toddler standing and Coloring at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ophelia is Standing and Coloring at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

child Sitting and Writing at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ruby is Sitting and Writing at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Some other things the kids have enjoyed as a learning station are puzzles, stacking cups, markers and coloring books, dry erase boards and markers, board games, themed books, and more. To help me organize materials for these stations, I save our Amazon boxes and label them with white stickers. Basically, anything I have a lot of can become a station. For example, we collect all birthday, Christmas, and any other type of cards we get in the mail and save them in a little box called “Cards”. The kids love reading through them all.

5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play

Right now, all of our children are five and under, so they all pretty much can enjoy the same toys. One of their favorite things to do is to play with little houses and figurines. These are things I have picked up at garage sales and thrift stores over the years. They love using their imaginations to bring their characters to life and have them interact in these different scenarios. At times, I play with them to give them some ideas for what their characters could do, but this is something where their imaginations take over and they could play alone or with each other for hours. I like to organize the different baskets of characters that we have a lot of and keep them in different rooms. So for example, you’ll find baskets of dinosaurs, My Little Ponies, and big robots separate from the rest.

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

child playing with little figures and a batman house

Imaginative Play with a Housing Type Structure

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

road rug defines play space with bin of cars, train tracks, and little reading chair and books

A Road Rug Defines this Play Space

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

treehouse used for imaginative play

This Type of Housing Structure is Perfect for Imaginative Play

little toy figures used in imaginative play

A Bin of Little Figure Toys Perfect for Imaginative Play

6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing

I also like to use closet spaces for stations as well. The kids LOVE our dress up station. I am always hitting up thrift stores around Halloween to get the best costumes for our collection. I’ve also found some pretty good garage sales that were getting rid of a lot of costumes for $1 each. The kids especially love this little nook in this closest where I’ve hung all of our hats. Being able to display things attractively makes them that much more fun to play with!

hats hanging on a wall in the corner of a closet for dress up

Little Hat Station Tucked in the Corner of a Closet

dress up costumes for a boy

Superhero Dress Up Clothes

7. Tips for Organizing Toys

Rather than having one big room for all of the toys, I like to spread them around the house. In doing so, part of each room is designated for both adults and children, and we can all enjoy ourselves no matter where we are! This also really helps with cleaning because I can get the kids distracted by a project in another room while I clean up the mess from the room they were just in! I very rarely buy anything new. I’m always looking for good baskets at thrift stores and garage sales to organize things and many things simply get housed in old Amazon boxes! When getting baskets for toys, make sure they are low. Kids only like to play with the toys they can see.

If things are buried, they will not get played with. Every toy has a home. I arrange all of the little houses and figurines in sets and keep them together. This requires a little sorting from time to time as things tend to migrate from room to room, but it is worth it.

little bin to organize little figure toys

Little Figures Organized in a Bin

baby toys organized in a box

Baby Toys Organized in a Box

8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations

Yes, we have a bookshelf, but it’s basically a storehouse for books. The baskets of books that I strategically place around the house are what actually gets used on a regular basis. I like to set up little chairs and baskets of books around the house to encourage reading at any given moment. I also like to put books by any beds in the house and near any couches. Whenever you sit down and get comfortable, it would just be the worst if you didn’t have something to read! I like to go through all of our books on a semi regular basis. This is a time when I can repair damaged books, re-shelf books that aren’t being read, arrange the books so they all neatly fit in the baskets with the covers facing out, and organize the books based on where the baskets are and who is reading them. (Check out my blogs How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read and How Children Really Learn to Read for more information about teaching children how to read. Also, check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think for some ideas about helping your child with one of the biggest precursors to reading.)

books being sorted into different baskets for kids to read

Reorganizing Kid Books into Various Baskets

little couch and table with map placemats in the living room with basket of books nearby

This Little Couch Gets a Lot of Use

toddler sitting in a chair and independently reading from a basket of books

Accessible Books get Read Independently

IMG_3982

Reading Before Bed is a Special Nightly Routine

These little chairs and basket of books make an instant reading station anywhere.

Little Chairs and a Basket of Books

9. Use Your Walls

It’s more than just slapping a poster on the wall, it’s about creating a space on the wall where kids can interact and learn. I am constantly rearranging my wall space based on what they kids are interested in and what they interact with. If I have an ABC poster on the wall, and I never see anyone using it to say the ABCs, I will move it to a better location or change it out with something else. Sometimes, kids need to see what it looks like to interact with the walls and so I’ll sit down with them from time to time and we’ll look at things together.

IMG_3897-e1415817528499-225x300

Letter Magnets on the Fridge get Used all the Time

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

hand made alphabet poster on the refrigerator

Using Chart Paper to Make My Own Posters

10. Rearrange As Needed

It’s not about getting the perfect set up and leaving it that way indefinitely, it’s about keeping things fresh, new, and engaging. When I see that an area or a station isn’t getting used anymore, I’ll rearrange it with something new. Sometimes just seeing things in a new configuration can be exciting. Especially during these long winter months, I know that I need to keep this indoor environment as exciting as possible. Every few weeks or so I like to find something to rearrange. It could be something simple like changing a learning station or moving some toys around, or it could be something drastic like moving the furniture from one room to another.

11. Why I Don’t Believe in “Playrooms”

I know that it can seem tempting to designate one room in the house as a “play room”, a place to keep all of the children’s things, a place where the door can be shut on the mess and hidden out of sight from company, and a place where the kids can go to create a mess. But there are several reasons why I disagree with this concept. First of all, part of creating an environment that stimulates learning is that I don’t need to be right there by my children’s sides as they play, learn, discover, and grow. But even though I don’t need to interact with them every single second, I like to be close by so that I can be there to give a gentle nudge when needed. I may need to solve a disagreement between siblings, help a child who is frustrated with a certain activity, be there at an opportune teachable moment to provide guidance, or assess what they are capable of doing independently as I think of new learning stations.

All Together in One Room

All Together in One Room

Having a playroom that is segregated from the other areas of the house may encourage you to be separated from your children more than you’d think. As much as it would be nice to just stay in the playroom and be with your children giving them your complete and undivided attention, I’m sure you’ve got stuff to do! As a busy momma with clothes to fold, dishes to do, a blog to write, and more stations to organize and create, I like to be near my children as they play, learn and discover while also tending to the things that I need to do. I love it when I can multitask by folding clothes while checking in on my toddler at her water station, putting the dishes away while helping my four year old with his Starfall game, and spelling words for my five year old as she writes a mini book while I prepare dinner. In addition, it’s not good for kids to hover over them constantly while they play. In order to learn how to be independent, they need to have independence in a guided situation.

In Conclusion

By creating an environment that stimulates learning and creative play, you will always have things to do at the drop of a hat. The other day, my oldest daughter’s school was suddenly canceled due to the weather. She had a blast staying at home going from one learning station to the next. It was so easy for me to keep her, my four year old, and my toddler all busy and engaged with different activities while I tended to the baby, prepared food, cleaned up, and guided each child along with their activities. To be honest, I was surprised at how much I got done and how engaged they were throughout the day. Putting in the time to create all of these learning and play stations really makes everything very manageable. With a little planning, a keen eye at garage sales and thrift stores, and some time set aside for organization, you’ll have your own independent learning and play stations ready to go, and you’ll be so glad you did!

Click here to read my blog about the importance of creative and imaginative play, and here to read my blog about Tools of the Mind, which is a preschool and kindergarten program that centers on play.

*Click here to see a video tour of our house. I’m always rearranging and changing things around, but you’ll notice all of the little play areas set up throughout the house.

Embracing Motherhood Keeping the House Clean with Four Young Children...Is it Possible?

Keeping the House Clean with Four Young Children…Is it Possible?

Keeping the house clean with one or two kids can be a little extra work, but when you have four children five and under and one of them is a new baby, it can be especially challenging! After our fourth child was born, I wasn’t even sure if it would be possible to keep the house tidy enough for my type A personality, but lo and behold, I found a way! This is how I do it.

1. Have an Organized System

I am very mindful about where I put certain toys and how I organize the children’s playthings. I love using baskets and boxes to sort and organize things so that similar toys stay together. I have baskets for the little figures used with the castles and treehouses for imaginative play, bins for cars, blocks, and train tracks, tables with trays of paper and pencil boxes of markers for arts and crafts, baskets with books in every room, and places for all of the stuffed animals. Everything is strategically set up to encourage play and in a way that’s easy to manage and clean. If I notice that a particular set of toys is creating a huge mess but not utilizing a lot of play time, I’ll either reorganize it or pack it away for another time. Rather than having one “play room”, I have found it beneficial to have out just enough toys in each room. I only keep out what gets used.

Our Living Room

Our Living Room

Organized Toys and Books

Organized Toys and Books

Play Space in Our Homeschool Room

Play Space in Our Homeschool Room

Organized Bins of Toys

Organized Bins of Toys

2. Make Sure Everything has a Home

I know that it’s the little things that add up and make my house feel cluttered. Every single toy, book, and marker needs to have a home or it will end up as clutter somewhere. So when I see some dolls, cars, or magazines laying on the floor, I ask myself, “Do they have a home?” If not, it’s time I found them one! I like to keep a TINY bowl on the counter for little things that need to be put away. That way I’m not running around every time I find a little hair tie on the floor. But once that little bowl is full, it’s time to put the contents away.

3. Spend Time Organizing

The key to keeping everything looking neat and tidy on the surface is to keep everything neat and tidy behind the scenes. This means that when I open up the cupboards, I can easily find my canned beans, AA batteries, and a light bulb for the night light. This also means that when I open up a drawer, I’m not searching through a pile of junk before I can find a paperclip, a pad of paper, and a working pen. To accomplish this, I know that I may need to devote an entire afternoon or even a whole day to reorganizing things. Whenever I have a hard time finding something, I know that it’s time to do some serious organizing! The bonus is being able to get rid of some of the clutter in the process. I am always throwing out things that are too junky or not being used anymore. I will save a few things if I KNOW that they will get used in the future (like hand me down clothes and baby toys from the older kids), but I am very careful not to pack things away “just in case”. Things that get packed away and forgotten just add clutter.

Organized Cabinets

IMG_3382 Organized Cabinets

4. Every Time You Move, Move Something with You

I try not to leave a room, pass by a mess, or stoop down without picking something up in the process. For example, if I’m sitting in the living room and I need to go to the bathroom, I’ll pick up all of the cups and drop them off in the kitchen. On my way back, I’ll pick up the random toys on the floor and put them on the counter. The next time I walk by the counter, I’ll pick up the toys and drop them where they go. If I don’t have time for that, I’ll at least put them in my pocket to put away later. I love working in layers and cleaning little bits here and there until the job is done.

5. Clean Every Room You Are In

Instead of having a designated cleaning time, I like to just clean as I go. At the end of the day, there is always a mass pick up and put away time, but I like to minimize that as much as I can throughout the day. When I wake up (or more like when my baby wakes up), I make my bed. It doesn’t have to look perfect, I just make it look decent. When I get the toddler up, I make sure her crib is tidied up. When I’m playing with the kids on the floor in the living room, I’ll pick up the stray toys and arrange the pillows on the couch. It only takes me a few minutes here and there, but by the end of the day the house is in fairly decent shape.

6. Distract the Kids

I love waiting until the kids have moved on to another project before sweeping in to clean up a messy room, because there is nothing more frustrating than cleaning a room that continues to get messy. I also don’t really like the kids to see me clean. I like them to think that things just magically go back to their spots! But seriously, I think that if they see me cleaning, they expect me to clean up their messes, but if it’s just done, they don’t really think about it. It’s also a bit frustrating to clean one room to perfection only to find that the next room is completely destroyed. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, I like to make sure that the kids are engaged in a non-messy activity in another room (even if it means parking them in front of a TV or ipad) while I get everything cleaned. I know that it can seem like a good idea to leave their toys out “in case they want to come back to play with them”, but from my experience, they have way more fun making a new mess rather than delving into an old one!

7. Keep a Mental List of Things To Do

Time is precious, especially with four little ones, and I try to make the most of every minute. One thing that helps me is keeping a mental checklist of the things that I want to get done. When I’m sitting there nursing my baby, contemplating the moments of freedom that I’ll have when he (hopefully) naps for anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours, I start to think about all of the things that I want to get done. Even if I know that I’ll only realistically get to one or two items on my list, I still like to think about items three through five that I might be able to get done if I have the time. That way, when the time comes, I don’t waste any time on hesitation.

8. Prioritize the Messes

Once I accept the fact that not everything will not get done on my to do list, I reduce my stress level by at least half of one percent. 🙂 When I’m faced with messes and chores of gargantuan proportion, I know that at any minute the baby will start to cry or someone will want to cuddle, and so I have to choose what things are the most important and what things I can let go of. If the living room is completely trashed and the kids are playing quietly in the next room, then the living room might take top priority. But if lunch time is approaching and the kids are starting to get a little cranky, I know that cleaning the kitchen and preparing lunch must take top priority.

9. Keep a Visible Checklist of Big Projects

I love keeping a white board and dry erase marker on the fridge and keeping a running checklist going of the big and little projects that need to get done around the house. This is especially helpful for my husband on the weekends so that he can see what things need to get done without me telling him what to do. It’s also nice for anyone who visits too. When people come over, I put them to work! 🙂

10. Let Some Things Go

When my husband and I were a couple of DINKS (dual income no kids), we would do all of our major cleaning on the weekends. We would scrub the toilets, wipe down baseboards, vacuum the house, wash the sheets, clean the windows, dust the furniture and a whole list of other ridiculous things. But now we have learned what things are important and what things we can let go of. Our number one priority is keeping the kitchen clean and the house tidy. Everything after that is a bonus. Sure, we may clean our sheets, it just might only happen four times per year. 🙂

11. Spread out the Big Cleaning Projects

Now, just because I don’t clean my toilets every day doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate a clean bowl! It’s just that instead of cleaning them every Saturday, I just clean them when they are getting so disgusting I can’t stand it anymore or if I know that company will be coming over soon. 🙂 I do the same thing with vacuuming, dusting, windows, and any other cleaning project that I don’t tackle on a regular basis.

12. Kids and Cleaning

My four kids are five and under, so at this point, I don’t have any huge requirements for them to clean. From time to time when the mess is small and manageable, and I am there to support them, I will enlist their help. For example, if we’re not in a rush to go anywhere and there’s a basket of dinosaurs on the floor, I will say, “Can you help me put these dinosaurs away?” Then I’ll make it fun by making them talk and say things like, “Please put me with all of my friends, I’m so tired and I want to take a rest! Oh thank you!” But for the most part, I believe that it is their job to play and my job to clean and organize. Gasp! Can it be true??? I believe that if I were to make my little children clean up every single mess that they made that it would a) Take forever and never be done to my specific liking b) Discourage them from making a mess in the first place which is part of the learning process, and c) Encourage them to become mini adults instead of curious, imaginative, and playful children. Because I keep things so organized and tidy, my children are accustomed to everything having a place and I see that they prefer it that way. They don’t usually make a mess just for the sake of making a mess, and if they do, I hold them accountable. The cutest thing was seeing my four year old put away his new toys after his fourth birthday. He had received a big dragon and some robots and he said excitedly, “I know where these will go!” and he proceeded to put them in the big bin with all of the other robots and dragons. This is exactly what I had hoped to encourage! And I didn’t have to beg, cajole, threaten, or punish in order to get it done. 🙂

Elliot's Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Robots

Elliot’s Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Robots

In Conclusion

Having children has changed my standard of clean, and I couldn’t be any happier! I love the messes and I love my job as master organizer. In order for my mind to be able to function and think about bigger things, I need to keep my home neat and tidy. I know that some people may have a higher mess tolerance than me, but in the end, it’s about what’s best for the kids. When my kids see neat tubs of organized toys, they are way more purposeful and engaged than if there was a big messy pile of chaos. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about…being purposeful and engaged in all that we do.