What our kids learn when we butt out…

I saw this the other day and loved it because it is so true.

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My favorite times watching my children play are totally organic. Not lead by me. Not in a group classroom. Not during an activity I’ve signed them up for. Not while doing anything I’ve paid for. Not when they know I have a camera hiding around the corner, hoping they won’t really notice enough to stop their magic.

Why? Because that sort of play is the best brain building kind! It’s the kind that is naturally multisensory, usually socially engaging. and belly laughing, child shrieking fun.  It is THE BEST way to really KNOW my children, because they are worried that an adult watching has expectations. They are free to express themselves at the developmental stage where they are and get all those feelings out, let all those creative ideas flow, and pretend they are whoever they wish to be. Yep, magic.

My favorite thing about social media is seeing the children of my friends and family.  I’ll publicly admit that while my parent friends are fuming and post photos of some huge mess, my mind thinks in the way of the child that made the mess. Maybe this is against the parent pact? Like this doozie from my dear friend Jen (Warrior Mom of 4), who shared this of her child’s “artwork” a few months ago.

 

Jen had just cleaned the couch. She was likely thinking, “Someone is gonna die.” I thought as her son and in my mind said, “I’m learning that this cool address stamper works on things besides paper. And it leaves a mark wherever my hand goes. And that doing this really had my mom engage with me.” Of course my mind also thought “Poor Jen,” and “Been there sister,” and “Rubbing alcohol takes ink out of fabric and toothpaste takes it off tables.” (Parent pack renewed).

As parents, we hear these messages.

“Sign them up, and they’ll learn.”

“Take the class, and they’ll learn.”

“Do the worksheet, and they’ll learn.”

Those messages are so loud at times that the message our gut tells us (that “PLAY BUILDS BRAINS! AND PLAY IS THE BEST TEACHER OF YOUNG KIDS”) is often brought to a whisper. Suddenly, it JUST seems like play instead of the many learning opportunities that go on during play. Instead of the magic.

I believe that if WE as parents, teachers, therapists, child care providers, family members want to turn the tide on the message sent to young children and those that love and care for them regarding play, then we need to start SEEING PLAY THROUGH THEIR EYES. Doing so, will not only make us better at our work, but will change the conversation. It s our job to defend play as a right of children.

I’m not suggesting you let your children color all your walls and furniture. I am suggesting, we consciously set the scene, make supplies available, create safe environments that support creative expression and concrete learning, and then we BUTT OUT (sometimes). More on why – HERE.

Yes, a child needs adults to love to them, read to them, nurture them, comfort them, and play with them. They also need time to play alone and with their peers. I’m also suggesting that when we get the gift of being able to peek in on the magic, we remind ourselves to take a deep breath, look past the mess (briefly), and think, “what is he/she learning?” Yes worksheets or classes led by another adult that we sign up for or pay for are cleaner, safer, and easier (and there are benefits to them as well), but child led, child driven play is the BEST way a young child learns.

As an exercise in this, I started searching for some of my favorite pictures of this sort of magical play and decided to caption them accordingly as a self exercise. Here they are…

 

Will you help us change the conversation for kids?

We’d love to see your photos!  Post them to our Facebook or send through Twitter with the caption “I’m learning…” and the hashtag #playbuildsbrains

For more on why we believe in play and ways to encourage early learning through play using 1-2-3 Just Play With Me take a look around this website!

 

Avoiding the label – and why it matters

When I was a graduate physical therapy student at West Virginia University, I was blessed with some incredible professors. I learned from, worked side by side with, was challenged by, and inspired by some amazing professionals that taught my classmates and I about the many basics and specialized area of the practice of physical therapy. This morning, I was thinking about of my favorites. Dr. Mary Beth Mandich was (and is) the chair of the PT department and is a pediatric specialist. She inspired me through the research she did, the collaboration and influence she had on the NICU department at our university’s medical center, and her deep knowledge in many pediatric interventions. And while I remember all of that, it is something different that I remember most about her. Often times, when discussing a case, or teaching, it becomes automatic for a therapist (or other medical professional) to describe the patient by their diagnosis. For example, “I had a 54 year old right hemi,” to describe someone who had a hemiplegic stroke. This was a NO-NO in Dr. Mandich’s code of ethics. I remember her passionately explaining to us, that these people, OUR patients, were people, not diagnoses. She firmly but passionately explained that “that hemi” could be a father, a son, a golfer, a dreamer, a wood maker, a friend, and a sports fan. Labeling them by their diagnosis lessened their individuality and lessened the focus on WHY it was so important for us to do the best job we could to rehabilitate them. When someone would slip and label their patients by diagnosis, Mr. Mandich wouldn’t lecture or belittle us. She, like a seasoned Mom, would give us “the look” until we caught our own mistake and corrected ourselves. That lesson of love has stuck with me for 13 years of practice.

I am married to an occupational therapist. This is helpful when we can support each other with knowledge and experience in out own fields and quirky and weird when we have conversations on the beach about people’s gait deviations as they walk by. Yes, most couples might comment, “Wow, look at those abs!” Brent and I say, “Wow, what an antalgic hip…it needs replaced!” Strange, I know. Anyway, Dr. Mandich’s lesson has even permeated our marriage! When my husband comes home and says, “I had this below knee amputee today,” I now give him “the look,” and he quickly corrects to “I had a man today who had a below knee amputation.” He’s gotten pretty good at avoiding the label over the years himself!

So I was thinking about Dr. Mandich and labels today. Is it human nature to label people? Is it easier for us if we can put them in clearly defined little boxes? I think it might be. We do it all the time, but it doesn’t mean it is a good thing. We label other mothers….”Type A, Anti-vax, homeschooling, drill sargent, stage mom, granola cruncher”…whatever. We do it to professionals in our lives…”the grouchy teacher, the inattentive doctor, the crazy post lady.”  We even do it to our kids! “This one is lazy. That one is high strung.”

Here’s the thing. It’s true that these labels might be ONE describer of an individual (or maybe not). But would you want to be identified by just ONE word? I would not. Especially this morning because it would be GRUMPY!

So here’s my Monday morning challenge to myself…and to you.  When you encounter people this week, anyone from the clerk at Target to your spouse, the child you work with to your own child,  try to avoid the label…even in your mind.  And together let’s see what consciously doing so does to change US!

Need a visual inspiration to do so? I love this one!  Have a great week!

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What Can You Do With Ribbon, Marbles, Golf Tees and Pom Poms? We Have Some Ideas for YOU!

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Going into homes to serve children can be tricky when it comes to engaging them.  Therapists can be tempted to take in their own toys because the child will quickly join in the fun when a new toy is presented.  But we certainly don’t want parents to feel pressure to purchase the toys we bring into the homes.  Contrary to popular belief there is no magic in our toys!  So it is often best practice to play with what is available in the home and sometimes that is very little.  It can be heartbreaking to be in homes with not even a single book or stuffed animal.  Until I worked as an EI therapist I thought EVERY child owned at least one of each of those.  So in order to help these children have access to developmentally appropriate toys we often help families create toys out of everyday items that can be found in their homes.  At the request of another early intervention therapist we are posting this blog with photos of a few homemade treasures you can share with the families your serve or your own family at home!  I think creating homemade toys is a great way to engage children and their imagination and drives home to parents that it is not the toy that matters but the “PLAYING” with it that does!  We hope you find an idea here you like but if not be sure to visit our Pinterest DIY PLAY board for more ideas.  And certainly refer to 1-2-3 Just Play With Me for more fun PLAY at home ideas paired with developmental milestones for kids ages birth to three.  PLAY BUILDS BRAINS people!  Spread the news!

 

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Create crazy creatures with plastic golf balls and pipe cleaners

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Putting pom poms into a plastic bottle with the bottom cut off or a paper towel roll tube. Then pull up the bottle/tube for an explosion of pom poms! The mirror adds an element of interest as the little one can watch what they are doing.

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Use a lidded plastic container and a few ribbons. Have the child pull the ribbons through the lid.

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Color matching with play-doh and colored Q-tips.

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Fine motor work with golf tees and marbles. To add more difficulty have the child use tweezers to place the marbles.

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Make a Munchy ball by cutting a slit in a tennis ball. This could be used as a reinforcer as well as work on fine motor strength.

What I learned from a real life superhero without a cape

A few weeks ago, amongst the CRAZY of end of school year activities, we traveled to our state’s capital Charleston, WV.  My youngest daughter won our county’s Young Writer’s Contest for her age and with that came an invitation to spend the day on the University of Charleston’s campus with published authors in writing workshops. Charleston is a 5 hour drive from our home and the event was on a Friday, but there was no way she was missing this one. My mom is an English teacher and literary nut and so for the two of them this was the Superbowl.  So my husband and I and both our mothers (super grandmas) escorted her to the event. Here’s a few pictures from the day.

At the awards ceremony at the end of the day, the winners from each division were chosen to read their entries from the stage into the microphone. As the host of the event gave us an overview of what we were about to hear, my ears (and heart) perked up when he said that the 3-4 grade winner had Autism and would share his entry that gave us a view of what living with Autism is like. My protective therapist nature kicked in and I immediately was concerned for the boy I did not know. Inside my head I thought,

“This room is filled with hundreds of people.”

“They want him to speak in a microphone?”

“There’s an echo in here and loud clapping, will that overwhelm him?”

As Sawyer Hinton from Mingo County approached the microphone, my worries all melted away. This was a composed, bright, confident boy. His thick Appalachian accent required me to intently focus to clearly hear each word, but his message was as clear as could be.  His goal was to share what he knows about Autism as an advocate not just for himself, but for others. He doesn’t consider himself to have a disability, but a superpower. As he finished, the whole auditorium stood and clapped for several minutes. I couldn’t stop the tears just like those around me – men, women, kids – all blubbering. It could have been a scene from a movie.  I was as proud of this kid as I have ever been for my own and I didn’t know him!

My daughter was blessed to be given the opportunity to spend the day with many inspiring teachers and authors, but we were all blessed to hear Sawyer Hinton, who in my opinion had the best sense of himself and the world around him  than any other elementary kid I have ever seen. I only wish I had had a video to show you the incredible moments.

Autism now affects 1 in 68 children in the US. You likely have a relative or a friend with Autism or someone you know has a child with Autism. Sawyer’s goal was to use his day to spread awareness. We’d like to use our blog to help him as he helps others. This boy will do big things in the world. Enjoy! (and please share!) And thank you Sawyer!

Superhero Without a Cape

by Sawyer Hinton

Grades 3-4 winner, Lenore PreK-8, Mingo County

Did you know that not all superheroes wear a cape? I have a superpower that makes me very special. I am completely different from every other 8-year-old that I know. The thing that I call my super power is what most people call Autism. I know that it is normally seen as a disability. But I look at it in a different light. I would much rather call it a special ability. Autism allows me to process everything in the world around me differently than the average child. My family has helped me cope with my diagnosis. So hopefully after reading my story, you will discover that there are superheroes all around you. They just don’t wear capes.

I have been called some really ugly names for being different. But being peculiar is just who I am. I want to explain how you could always turn a disability into a superpower by just looking at things in a different way. Take my obsessiveness of order routine for example. Most people consider that a disability. I, on the other hand, just think that I am more organized than everyone else. Now doesn’t that sound more positive by just changing the words? I prefer to be alone most of the time. But I really have more time to think, read and dream. I come around people in my own time and at my own pace. Is that not how most people get to know one another? I just take a little longer. My brain is larger than normal. Seems to me that is a positive trait. I have room to learn more. One of the stigmas placed on people like me is that we are mentally retarded. That could not be farther from the truth. I am a genius when it comes to certain things. Putting what I know on the outside is what I struggle with. However, the ability to retain information by just hearing or reading it once is definitely a perk. So, has it become more apparent that I am super special? I cannot bear the thought of certain textures, smells, tastes and things that have to do with sensory perception. Guess I am just set in my ways. But isn’t every single person that way? I am a little extreme but still not disabled.

I have not mentioned all the quirky things that I do. But what superhero reveals all his secrets? I just hope that I can make a difference to someone else like me. I urge you to take the time to look at the things that make you different and embrace them. Never accept something as a disability, look at it as a special superpower that makes you unique! Hopefully now you can see the superheroes living all around you.

– See more at: http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140510/GZ05/140519982/1101#sthash.4ocuBaXx.XD82HGUW.dpuf

The Day My Little NINJA Drop Kicked the ANGEL on My Shoulder – MY MESSY BEAUTIFUL

Like so many others my life is MESSY and BEAUTIFUL but I wouldn’t want it any other way.  As a speech-language pathologist I am privileged to serve young children in their homes getting to know their families on an intimate level.  It’s incredibly rewarding to work so closely with those who want to impact their child positively and celebrate every ounce of progress they make.  It is BEAUTIFUL.  And then there are families I work with who are afraid and unwilling to accept their child’s unique challenges, have misinformed and unrealistic expectations for their baby and are dealing with more than just a child with developmental delays, like relationship woes, financial hardships and/or personal illness.  It is MESSY.  But in my 10 years working as an early intervention therapist I have come to love both the MESSY and the BEAUTIFUL.  Because often times in the middle of the MESSY emerges the BEAUTIFUL.  And I am beyond proud to be a part of that!

 

My life as a mom to my 3 children can be somewhat like my work.  BEAUTIFUL are the days I feel confident in my job as their mom, days when everyone is happy, I’ve played with them, everyone is fed and clothed and dinner is made and on the table (somewhat close to dinner time!).  MESSY are the days when I raise my voice too often, days when I feel incompetent, guilty and tired, days when I go to bed at night feeling defeated.

 

The jaws of MESSY about to swallow O and I up!  *Notice the clueless smile on my face!

The jaws of MESSY about to swallow O and I up! *Notice the clueless smile on my face!

 

You know that saying, “You’re preaching to the choir”?  That’s how I feel most days.  Inside my head is the therapist voice saying, “You know they shouldn’t watch more than 2 hours of television a day,” “They need at least 90 minutes of exercise everyday to regulate their sensory system, of course they’re acting up because you didn’t take them outside,” “Why are you yelling, AGAIN, you know that method of discipline isn’t effective”.  The voice that won’t stop!  The voice is like an angel on my shoulder reminding me of what a “good”, well-educated parent should do in each tough situation according to the textbooks.  This voice adds to my guilt and makes me feel my parenting is nothing near BEAUTIFUL but just a hot MESS!

 

My second child, my Owen, challenges me beyond my wildest expectations.  He makes the angel on my shoulder shout even louder, “Why can’t you figure this child out?”  “Where is your expert knowledge now?”  Which in turn makes me feel like I am failing as his mom.  But there came a time in my journey with parenting Owen when even the angel didn’t know what to say.  It was as if my little ninja boy had dropped kicked her right off of my shoulder!  My mommy instincts and my therapist knowledge were both stumped.  With the look of a deer in headlights I thought, “What now?!?!”

 

At my wit’s end, realizing I no longer had any more tricks left in my (parent or therapist) bag I humbly turned to my family, friends and coworkers.  What I saw as only MESSY, my failure to know what to do with my own child, with time and lots of help turned into something BEAUTIFUL.  I struggled to get out of bed, afraid to face another difficult day of battling Owen’s strong will and control seeking behaviors…MESSY.  My coworkers offering their expertise out of the goodness of their hearts, giving me behavior modification and sensory strategies to make our days easier, allowing me to enjoy my son again…. BEAUTIFUL!  Being scared to take on the challenge of beginning a new diet that may or may not help Owen’s behavior, attentiveness and health…MESSY.  Being encouraged by friends that I could do anything for 30 days, council and guidance offered freely by friends who had tried the diet…. BEAUTIFUL!  Navigating the new diet with every outing, birthday party, school and church function so that Owen wouldn’t get anything he shouldn’t have…MESSY.  Owen’s preschool and Sunday school teachers offering to serve snacks that were approved for his diet so that he didn’t feel excluded…BEAUTIFUL!  The guilt that I had messed up and there was no fixing it, that my failure as a mom to my son had ruined him forever…. MESSY.  Kind words from family and friends that we all do the best we can, that we all learn along the way and are forgiven…BEAUTIFUL!   Taking the chance, putting in the extra time to consult with others, the effort required to follow through with suggestions, the headache of staying strictly on the diet to test its effectiveness…hard and MESSY.  The fact that all our hard work paid off, our family has less stress as a whole, and I have been given the unexpected opportunity to personally relate to other moms….ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL!

 

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BEAUTIFUL!

 

In the BEAUTIFUL MESS of my life as both a mom and a therapist I have learned over and over again that we are all in this together, that we all belong to one another, and together we can do hard things.  It was difficult for me to share with others my struggles with figuring out my own kid despite my education and training as an early intervention therapist.  I feared judgment; I felt like exposing my MESS would make me look like a failure as both a mom and a professional.  But once I began putting myself out there to ask and accept help, once the feeling of vulnerability melted away, I felt proud, honest, authentic and more at peace.  Feeling alone, denying yourself the opportunity to be helped by others, pretending to be something you’re not feels MESSY.  Reaching out, accepting help and forgiving yourself feels BEATIFUL.  My hope and prayer is that my confession of my MESSY BEAUTIFUL life will inspire others to embrace their own MESSY BEAUTIFUL life.  That they too will forgive themselves enough to see that from the MESS comes something BEATIFUL if they will only give it a chance.

 

My BEAUTIFUL MESS!

My BEAUTIFUL MESS!

 

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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“The Look” And What It Silently Says to Me From A Sibling Of A Child With Special Needs

Last week I got the opportunity to speak at career day at my daughter’s school.  I drag my big therapy ball, some thera-band and thera-putty, my anatomy coloring book, a baby doll, and other interesting goodies that I play with every day into the school every time I am asked to do this.  The “regular grown ups” (aka lawyers, mortgage brokers etc.) laugh kindly.

 Last week, I had 20 minutes to share what I felt was most important about the profession I love. And then I did it again 3 more times. 100 4th graders and me. I gab on and on about how Physical Therapy is repetitively listed as one of the “happiest” professions, how great the job outlook is in coming years, and what I love about my job. I share that interested students need to like sciences, can’t be repulsed by touching people, and need to enjoy social interaction with many kinds of people.  I am a total nerd, but I get misty eyed sharing about how I love the teaching part of my job and what a blessing it is to motivate parents who get such satisfaction and joy when they get to be the ones who teach their child to roll, crawl, or walk!

I’ve done this for years for elementary, middle, and high schoolers. Without a doubt, when I ask for questions at the end, I get the same ones every single time – no matter the age.

“Did you ever work with an NFL player, NBA player…Professional Wrestler?”

“What’s the grossest thing you have ever done?”

“How much do you get paid?”

“You dissected a real human in school? Ew. Were they alive or dead? Was there blood? Did you cry? Ew.”

As consistent as these questions are, I am always ready for them. And there’s another one that happens every time as well. Usually when we are almost out of time, a child will somewhat sheepishly raise a hand and when I call on them will ask…

“Have you ever worked with someone with Downs Syndrome?”

 

or

 

“Have you ever worked with someone with Cerebral Palsy?”

 

or

 

“Autism?”

 

No other comments. But none are needed. I get the look and I know. This is the sibling of a child with special needs. No words are needed because the look is enough.

The look says, “I know you get it.”

The look says, “Someone like you has been to my house every week and knows us.”

And, “You know how hard my family works for small things that people take for granted.”

And, “You know how sad it is for us when people make hurtful comments.”

And, “You know that I am often expected to be more patient that most kids my age, and that that isn’t easy, and sometimes I’m resentful, or wish for more attention, and jealous. And you know that I feel bad about that but I still can’t help it.  And you know that despite these sometimes “yucky” feelings, nothing makes me feel more proud than when my sibling overcomes and obstacle or learns something new…because they don’t do it alone…my whole family does.”

Career day is a joy. It’s a day that recharges me with excitement about my job and my calling in this world. But, the sibling “look” gets me every time. 

Sometimes I wonder if those kids can silently read my “look” back to them. If they can, I hope they read,

“You are brave. And strong. And important. Not just because of the kind of sibling you are, but because of who YOU are. All alone. As YOU.”

And I hope they hear, “What you are learning from your sibling experience is compassion, and empathy, and a patience, and an awareness, and gratitude greater than average people will ever even know. And it is a gift. And it will make you do great things in your life.”

And I hope they know, “Your parents love you for you. Not because of what you do to help but for who are you are. Are for the special gifts you yourself have.”

And finally, I hope my look back says, “I get it.” And even though I don’t know you, “I’m proud.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the kid that asked that question last week and the kids who have asked that same question in the years before.  April is a month dedicated to Autism Awareness, Child Abuse Prevention, Mesothelioma, Children’s Footwear Awareness, National Minority Health Month, and Genocide Awareness & Prevention among others.  All are so important.

But I’m here to say, let’s let every month be awareness of siblings with special needs month….awareness of their own special needs. 

How can you celebrate?

Do you know a sibling of a child with special medical or health care needs?

       Take them out for a special day celebrating just them..doing something they love and often can’t do.

       Better yet, volunteer to watch their sibling so their own parent can do the same.

       Make a donation to the many camps that offer attention and love to these super siblings so that a child can attend. Financial costs are often a struggle for families. Sharing your resources to help a sibling attend camp, or play a sport would be a gift!

       Simply be aware of the challenges with families you know or don’t know. Offer help if you feel comfortable. Offer a smile. A “we are all in this together” wink. All can go a long way.

       Teach your child compassion and friendship by modeling it. Siblings of children with special needs have their own special needs – quality friendship is one!

 

Do you have a child with special medical or developmental needs? How do you feel their siblings are best supported? What are their needs? Join our conversation!

 

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Are The Shoes We Are Asking Them To Fill Simply Too Big? How What You Know (or Don’t Know) About Child Development Could Be Affecting Your Child

This article is currently running in the 2014 Annual Family Resource Guide Edition of Child Guide Magazine. Check out the entire issue online at: http://www.childguidemagazine.com/too big

 “Stop running,” says the mother to the 4 year old. “Sit still,” the embarrassed father whispers sternly to his toddler at story hour. “If you don’t know these sight words by Friday, your teacher will be upset,” warns the anxious parent of the new Kindergartener.  We’ve all heard these threats. In all honesty, most of us have made them, or something quite close to them. But if we could take a moment to pause and consider if the demands we place on our children are developmentally appropriate would we continue to make them?

 

As a pediatric Physical Therapist, I help families determine the functional and developmental skills that their child has challenges with at their current age/stage. Then I provide them with play-based strategies to help them achieve the goals we’ve set together for their child.   Parents help their children meet these goals through practice during play. This method of helping children learn makes perfect sense, yet it is barely used in the context of teaching children at any age or with varied abilities. 

 

Why do we, as parents and educators, ignore that small voice inside that instinctually KNOWS what our child should learn or how they should behave at their given age in favor of unrealistic goals?

 

It turns out, it’s not entirely our fault. Society has a lot to do with the faulty message that parents are receiving.  Although the reasons why the message to parents are numerous and complex, there seems to be 3 strong motivators.  First, not surprisingly, is financial.  Toy and “educational” product manufacturers are aware of the pressure parents feel to have their children keep up with the swift race that childhood has unfortunately become and can capitalize by offering products that meet that emotional need, despite the fact that many of these products are not developmentally appropriate.  A prime example of this are the “Baby Reading” Programs that teach young children to identify the shapes of words and match them to the actual word through repetition without actual literary learning.

 

Second, is a trickle down effect from the education system. As college entrance levels become competitive and our nation falls behind in international educational rakings, panic rises, and pressure increases to “get ahead.” Yet, once again, instead of relying on what solid research says about how young children learn best (through hands on play and in context through multisensory experiences – especially in the first 5-6 years of life), we turn away from methods other countries are using and turn to drill work and standardized tests for younger and younger children. I love the saying that “Kindergartners should be blowing bubbles not filling them in.”   And at the end of the day, knowing that this educational standard is looming in the years ahead, parents of preschoolers and even babies automatically turn to activities that will “prepare” their child for school without regard to developmental need.  A recent poll showed that 65% of parents feel that “flashcards are very helpful in helping 2 year olds develop intellectual intelligence.” Unfortunately 65% of those parents are wrong. Yes, a flashcard can help your child learn to memorize that the letter printed on it is a “B,” but running around a room and sounding out starting letters of various toys and throwing those that start with the letter “B” into the bucket with the “B” on it is an example of REAL learning, in the context of play.

 

Third is the current belief, held by many adults, that the end product of a child that is gifted in many ways – academically, athletically, artistically, musically etc. is more important than the actual process of childhood.  Think about it. Are you gifted both creatively AND analytically? Me neither. Expecting your child to be sets an unrealistic standard. Filling the schedules, of particularly young children, with lessons, and structured experiences to try and meet that unrealistic standard denies them what is most important for their learning – unstructured playtime.  The consequences are tragic.  Mental health statistics in our young children, particularly tweens, are on the rise, not fully, but in part to a lack of opportunity to “blow off steam” through unstructured free time.   Eating on the go to rush from lesson to game to tutoring and decreased physical education and recess time in our schools have led to the staggering statistic that 1 in 3 American children are obese.  

 

We need to wake up. By understanding how children learn best at each stage and what is developmentally and neurologically typical, we can foster quality learning for healthy children. I know it sounds overwhelming. Here’s some easy ways to start:

 

·       Understand Development. Speak to pediatricians, early childhood specialists and educators who have specialized training in what ages children’s bodies are made to learn certain skills. Did you know that the average brain is not ready to accept literacy in the form of actual reading until 6 years of age? This is why it’s not taught in Germany until 1st grade.  Why do pre-K parents feel like a failure if their child can’t read BEFORE they go to Kindergarten? Tune out what the media, the mainstream retailers, and what the “academic preschool” is telling you. Listen to your inner voice and those who have done solid research on child development. Einstein Never Used Flashcards by Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, Play by Murphy, and Brain Gym by Dennison are great places to start if you are interested in the stages and ways children learn specific skills.

·       Understand What Actually Will Make Your Child Smarter. Interestingly, straight IQ is not a measure of future success. Psychologists now talk about “multiple intelligences” as the best measure of true intelligence, with consideration to things like impact emotional intelligence, such as empathy, self-discipline, and interpersonal skills, in addition to analytic abilities. What impacts these? One of the highest indicators is language – especially vocabulary. No matter the age of your child, read to them. Visit the library. Let them read and write to you when they are able. Tell stories and sing to each other. Have dinner conversations.  Also, the environment your child is in matters and can affect IQ as much as 15-20 points. Your encouragement, involvement, and affection matter. 

·       Keep Expectations Real. Once you know what to expect from your child at their current age (or more importantly stage of development if they tend to show delays or have unique patterns in development) and focus on what they are able to do and enjoy doing.  Keeping appropriate expectations will allow your child (and yourself) to be less stressed and more engaged with what they are motivated to learn about. Continuing to challenge your child to learn just outside of their comfort zone will keep them engaged and eager to learn. It is equally important to embrace their given abilities. Only 1.5 out of 10 people will have an IQ over 117. In fact the large majority of people, 86%, will score between 84-116 on an IQ test. Why is “normal” no longer celebrated or embraced but seen as a weakness?

·       Know Your Child And Be An Advocate. This might be the most challenging but the most important recommendation! We all learn differently. Is your child a visual or auditory learner? Does he or she work best independently or in groups?  Is he/she a quick worker or need more time? Keep learning styles, preferences, and abilities in mind when teaching your child and choose activities and preschools that line up with what you believe is best for your child.  Communicate these observations to teachers and coaches. Yes, if you chose formal education or community sports, your child will have to play by the rules set for them, but a great educator and coach will help them do that best by knowing how they learn best.

·       Don’t Stop Playing. Ever. Fred Rogers once said, Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” If we take the opportunity to play away, we take away a child’s ability to practice all that they are learning. In today’s world, this might mean saying “No” to an activity or actually looking at your calendar and penciling in down time. Embrace it and swim up that stream. Your children will be happier and healthier because of it.  You are their best example, so remember to allow yourself to play and have downtime as well!

 

It’s not odd to wonder, “How did we even get to this place?” Before the 19th century, childhood wasn’t formally recognized. Children were viewed as miniature adults, preparing themselves for their eventual adult roles. Photographs and artwork of that period even depict them as small adults.  At the end of the 19th century child psychology was born, children were studied, and experts in the field emerged.  These experts, such as Dr. Spock, became influential as more mothers worked outside the home and wanted to make sure that in the time they had with their children, they were doing all they could for them. Today, we dress children as adults. We expect them to sit, be still, stay quiet, read, write, and score well on standardized tests before they are developmentally ready to do so, and we fault them  (and ourselves) when they can’t.  They are stimulated incorrectly mentally and stifled physically. We have turned them into miniature adults again, abandoning much of what we have learned about our children through the years. Are we ready as adults to give childhood back to our children?If we have the courage to do so, I think we’ll find we will have happier, healthier, smarter, and more engaged children.  And nothing makes a parent happier – than a happy child.

 

Nicole M. Sergent, MPT is a Pediatric Physical Therapist. Because she believes in empowering parents to understand and embrace their child’s unique development and in jumping in and engaging with them through purposeful play, she co-authored a unique tool for families of young children called 1-2-3 Just Play With Me. It is her effort to help give childhood back to children by helping parents understand development and pairing it with play. Find out more at: www.milestonesandmiracles.com

 

 

 

 

 

Can you feel the LOVE tonight?

It’s February.  The month of love! Is love in your air?

Love is on my mind. I’m not talking “romantic sweep me off my feet hubby love” (although I do love that kind!) Also not talking about “stare at my beautiful sleeping children in awe and adoration and forget how crazy they made me today love” (yep, guilty of that sometimes too.)

I am talking about love of life.

I had planned on blogging about magnet play today. We’ve been collecting and playing with some really cool magnets (and I promise that post is to come), but the thoughts of loving one’s life has been right in front of my face no matter where I turn for the last few weeks.

I’ll share a few examples.

A few weeks ago, our church took a turn hosting WATTS guests. WATTS is a brilliant idea of love turned into action – that helps churches in our community take turns housing the homeless through the coldest nights of winter. But “housing” seems like a generic word because what people do is much more – they cook, sweat, share, sleep, eat, and visit with guests. In a simpler explanation – they become vulnerable to what happens when we allow ourselves to have deeper exchanges than a casual “hi” as we walk by someone on the street. You know what happens when we open ourselves up, right? We usually get scared, but we also usually receive more than we anticipated. Example #1 – Lulu – with her megawatt smile, who shared the most soulful version of “This Little Light of Mine” with us in the kitchen as a thank you gesture for the meal we shared. As you can guess – not a dry eye.  Example #2 – another guest – we’ll call him “Jim” who was brave enough to show up for our fairly traditional church service for weeks after his stay with us and sit next to a majority of fairly well dressed folks. He beamed as he smiled with pride and shared with me in the hall that this was his “second week here.” He was so proud.So happy.

LOVE.

That same week my husband Brent came home with tears in his eyes.   He is a home health Occupational Therapist and had just left the home of a family where the husband has a terminal illness. He is fed through a feeding tube and kept alive by breathing with the help of a ventilator. That night before Brent left their home, the wife was preparing to tube feed her husband, but first they stopped to say grace and say thank you. They stopped to say thank you.. for a feeding tube – because it help sustain his life. This week, while we all complained about the never ending cold, snow, and ice, he was late coming home because he helped prepare her to use a generator that their friends had gifted them with in case the electric went out – so that she could keep the ventilator going, and he could keep breathing.

LOVE.

 

I talk and write often about the love of my patients and the many gifts they have given me. One special little person I have written about in the past is a friend of mine with Spinabifida. You can read more about his incredible journey HERE. When I first met him, through referral to the early intervention program that I work for, I also met two other little boys with various forms of Spinabifida. They were all born within 4 weeks of each other and all were referred to me at the same time. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. (side note: in the 5 years since then, I have only had 1 referral for a child with Spinabifida). 3 Families with 3 different initial levels of acceptance to their sons’ diagnoses, 3 different sets of questions, expectations, hopes, and dreams. I could go on forever about this and all they taught me, but what stands out most today is the memory that one of the fathers had a long list of blunt questions regarding his then 4 weeks old infant – Will he walk? Drive a car? Play baseball? Date?.  Of course, I did not have all the answers, but promised we’d do our best together to make him as independent as possible. Fast forward 5 years. These boys are school aged. Many peers their ages are starting activities and sports, and while some activities (like music, art etc) and wonderfully accessible, all sports are not. These sports loving dads did not throw in the towel. They did not accept limitations. They are starting a wheelchair basketball league. They are recruiting, finding practice space, and even finding old adult chairs so they can play with their sons.

LOVE.

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These 3 examples are some of the purest forms of love.

Love of sharing any gift you have. Love of being welcomed and looked at as a person for the first time in a long time. Love that comes from sticking with something for the first time in a long time. Love strong enough to care for another full time. Love of a child in the highest form – acceptance.

Many kinds of love that all have one thing in common – LOVE OF LIFE.

Love of their lives.

Right where they are.

Without complaint.

Without hesitation.

Sure, there might be a wish for something different – permanency, stability, or health – but those wishes don’t threaten that intense love of life.

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It’s been cold, and icy, and snowy here for weeks. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the sun. We’ve been inside – allll together – for a reaaaaalllly long time. It’s easy to fall into winter blues and want for more. Or different. Look around. Find the bright spots  – like Lulu, and “Jim,” and Brent’s patient and his wife, and my brave Dad friends.   In my twenties, looking at these examples would make me feel bad or guilt ridden. I won’t lie – the day he came home, I thought, We can’t even remember to say grace every night for our healthy, warm, homemade food, that we have the luxury of chewing, tasting and swallowing….and they remember to be thankful for a feeding tube.  The difference is – that in my 30’s instead of feeling bad, I feel inspired. I look to those who are bright spots to me and to my family and instead of hearing “You should do better,” I hear, “I want to try harder” and “I want to love like they do.”

As parents, and grandparents, and teachers, and therapists…like it or not…we are the example that has been given to our children. Will we choose to teach them through example to wish for more and hope for different than what we are fortunate to have? Or will we find favor with each day and be the bright spot they will remember to model after?

Go Shine friends! Spread the LOVE!

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You Really Are What You Eat & So Are Your Children: The Effect of Nutrition on Development

This article was originally written & published for Child Guide Magazine, which provides excellent resources and activities for families. The January 2014 issue can be found in it’s entirety HERE.

You are what you eat. How many times have you heard that? As adults, we certainly have considered this when considering our own food intake, but what about our children?

One local family has been considering every bite of what enters their son’s mouth.  Finn Csordas is 2 ½ years old, who is affectionate, silly, and quite the charmer to his 3 older adoring sisters, but this was not always the case. Shortly after his birth, his parents, Jennifer & Alex, noticed how frequently Finn was fussy. His original pediatrician initially felt this was simply colic, but as Finn grew older, his parents’ concerns also grew. Finn spit up more frequently than other babies.  He had frequent hives in many places on his body that the family was told were eczema patches. He was fussy more than he was content and could not find a way to self-soothe or to be soothed by his parents. More concerning, Finn seemed “spaced out,” and had significant delays in social, language, and motor skills that became more noticeable the older he became. The most alarming observation though, was head banging.  It started at night when Finn would bang his head against his crib to fall asleep but progressed to banging throughout the night, and then even during the day, while playing.  Finn would find the corner of the wall and bang his head until a bald spot appeared and didn’t seem concerned by the discomfort.

 

Jennifer & Alex persisted in their belief that these symptoms had to be more than eczema or colic – but their journey wasn’t an easy one.  After switching pediatricians, they began a search for what was going on with Finn. He started medication for acid reflux, which helped somewhat with spitting up, but not with other symptoms. Because he did have a history of reoccurring ear infections, he had tubes placed in his ears.  Shortly after this procedure, he did start to walk, but the communication and social skills continued to become more delayed and the head banging intensified.  The Csordas’ worked with a team of early interventionists from West Virginia Birth To Three, including speech, physical, and occupational therapists that offered strategies from sensory integration and balance activities to teaching basic imitation skills during play as a basis for eventual language development.  A developmental specialist with experience in behavior observed Finn and worked on providing self soothing options and deterring techniques for the head banging. A service coordinator helped link the family to specialists to help find a solution. When sensory strategies weren’t very successful, an MRI of Finn’s brain revealed no concerns, and he passed a detailed screening for Autism at Children’s National Medical Center, the team called on a registered dietician through the West Virginia Birth To Three Program.

 

Finn was evaluated by a gastroenterologist to determine if he had an allergic inflammatory condition of the esophagus called Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE). When it was clear that he did not, a final referral to a pediatric allergist was made. After blood testing and 3 days of extended patch testing, the Csordas’ finally got their answer – Finn is allergic to soy, wheat, dairy, oats, and has a significant phenol intolerance (Phenol is a chemical found in many natural foods and in common artificial preservatives).

 

While some of their larger fears were put to rest, Jennifer & Alex had a whole new world to learn about.  Finding foods that were safe for Finn and that he would actually eat while maintaining the required calories and nutrients for his age is no easy task, but was one that they took on without reservation. Jennifer shares, “To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure that I believed all the diet changes would help, I prayed that they would, but deep down I was skeptical. To think a handful of goldfish crackers or a couple grapes could cause him to struggle for days and completely alter the course of the entire family is something I would have never thought possible, had I not lived it! “

 

After 2 weeks of eliminating the foods Finn was allergic to, there was a dramatic change in his demeanor and development. His mother recalls, “We had food journals and had to document everything he ate, all his skin reactions, behaviors, and try to make sense of all the parallels. About two weeks after we had changed his diet, he went from having about 5 words to over 70 words, and no longer needed weekly speech therapy!” Within 5 months of changing his diet, Finn has made over a years worth of progress with development.  He is walking, running, and climbing, talking in complete sentences, initiating social greetings, and is most importantly – he is a happy 2 ½ year old. While his speech is still slightly behind for his age and the head banging still remains in smaller amounts (it is likely more a learned behavior, which was originally caused by the allergic reactions), Jennifer and Alex are thrilled that they can finally get to know the little boy he actually is and not the one who could only react to pain & discomfort.

 

Finn is not alone in his diagnosis of food allergies. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control, food allergies increased 50% from 1997-2011. And while the number of people who have a food allergy is growing, there is no clear answer as to why.  And while many “traditional” allergic symptoms, such as facial swelling and hives, are well known and well recognized, those such as the ones that Finn experienced are often misdiagnosed as something other than a food allergy or intolerance.

 

Georgeann Freimuth, MS, RD, LDN, is the Registered Dietician who spearheaded solving Finn’s developmental puzzle. Freimuth, a Licensed Dietician Nutritionist and a part time professor at Shepherd University, works with children and families through the West Virginia Birth To Three Program and privately through consultations.   She sees more and more children having behavioral and developmental consequences from what they eat. When people question the relationship between the two, Freimuth jokes, “Think there’s not a gut to brain connection? Come have a glass of wine with me!”  In all seriousness, the connection of nutrition’s affect on the body should not be ignored. Freimuth says, “The gut to brain connection should not be overlooked when dealing with a child who is sensitive to emotion anger, anxiety or who has behavioral concerns. This is important because the brain and the gastrointestinal system are intimately connected. Certain foods and food intolerances or allergies can adversely affect a child’s behavior and attentiveness, while certain nutritional deficiencies can cause aggressiveness disorders and behavioral disorders as well as subtle and occasionally dramatic effects on the child’s behavior.”

 

Some food allergies are severe with defined noticeable reactions, like Finn’s, but others can be subtler.  Either way, nutrition should be included in the complete list of possibilities when assessing a child’s well being. Freimuth says,  “Food allergies or food intolerances can affect the nervous system causing the brain to have alterations in brain chemistry which then can affect a child’s behavior. Understanding if a child has food allergies and/or food intolerances along with nutritional imbalances could be helpful when trying to help a child’s behavior or development.” Often elimination diets (where certain foods are removed one by one) are suggested to determine what is the potentially offensive food.  However she cautions, “It is recommended if a parent wants to try a trial and elimination diet at home to see if their child’s diet is related to their behavior they should consult a Registered Dietitian. The caution used with trial and elimination diets are sudden nutritional deficiencies when certain food groups are removed.”

Jennifer Csordas agrees. “Before we knew all Finn was allergic too, it was like having a toddler with colic. He was always unhappy and no matter what we did, we couldn’t change that. Now he smiles all the time, laughs and plays, things that I took for granted when my girls did them. It takes a lot of planning and can be a challenge at times keeping up with his diet, but to know he isn’t in pain is a huge blessing. “

While eliminating aversive foods can be helpful in some cases, increasing particular nutrients and minerals that are lower than typical are necessary in others. For example, in some cases, increasing zinc levels can improve symptoms associated with ADHD.

As the trend for extremely busy families continues in America, so will the market for convenience foods, which are often full of too many ingredients to count and enough preservatives to frighten any parent. While it does take pre-planning and self-packaging on the part of parents, ensuring children have whole foods (ones your great grandmother would recognize. Yes to the apple. No to the bright orange cheese puff) is a great place to start.  Remember that whether your child has a diagnosed condition or developmental concerns or not – foods that we all eat certainly affect us in some way.   The effect of nutrition on an individual is certainly more far reaching than allergies alone. An individual can have developmental or behavioral concerns from intolerances to certain foods or reactions to the chemicals and preservatives found in many foods children are fed, or from low levels of essential vitamins and nutrients.  Freimuth advises, “Intolerances to foods, food additives or looking into food allergies may have a crucial role in your child’s behavior. Behavior and cognition in children and adolescents can be influenced by what they eat and their nutritional statuses.”

While nutrition is not the culprit for all developmental or behavioral concerns, it certainly is a possibility. If you have concerns about the role nutrition is playing with your child, speak to your Pediatrician or a Registered Dietician who specializes in pediatric care. Prepare for the conversation by logging 3 days worth of everything your child eats to share specific intake (including medications) and list frequently observed behaviors or developmental concerns for discussion.  Each parent may have individual standards for what they are able and comfortable to provide their child to eat, but all parents wish for happiness and health for their child. Let’s help our children live out “You are what you eat.” We can do this first by remembering that what they put in their bellies has a huge impact on their brains.  We can also start with small changes to provide nutrition that helps them to be happy and healthy for many years.

 

Georgeann Freimuth is dedicated to helping families learn more about the gut to brain connection and how it could be affecting their child. She can be reached at: georgeann.freimuth@yahoo.com The author thanks her and the Csordas family for their contributions to this article.

 

Nicole Sergent, MPT is a Pediatric Physical Therapist & co-author of 1-2-3 Just Play With Me. Her favorite processed food is a Reese Cup, but she feels happier & knows she is smarter when she eats her many favorite non-processed foods – especially nectarines & brussel sprouts!

 

 

Growing Your Own Virtual Village

I’m a big believer in the concept that a village raises a child. Whether it’s your Mommy Posse of friends that become family or your actually family, in my mind, the more people loving a child, the better for that child.

My family is big (in numbers and personalities). Growing up I believed it typical that everyone’s grandmother watched them daily (along with most of their cousins) and cooked dinner for 10 or more people many weekday evenings, 15 or more on weekends, and 40+ on holidays. Everyone does that, right?

Growing up, I also knew there were MANY eyes on me. Eyes that read me stories, eyes that smiled when I had a birthday, a sporting event, or a good report card, and eyes that were watching if I chose to make a bad decision. It was like having many sets of parents — the good and the bad parts (coming from a child’s view) but now, as an adult,  I know it was all good.

My mom has a much younger sister (a surprising joy to our family) and her children were born when I was in my late teens. They moved to Canada but that did not stop the family village. We spoke regularly enough to know, celebrate, discuss, & analyze most of their childhood and teen years – from first steps and words, to first dates, to first day of living in new college apartments. We drove them crazy, but I loved really “knowing” them, despite the geographical distance. (p.s. my hunch is – they will agree with me one day).

As our family grows – and grows – and grows (our next baby is coming in February!), and spreads out across this beautiful world, it could be harder to stay in “the know” with the family, but it hasn’t been…because of the two miracles we call FaceTime & Skype.

As ignorantly irritated as I get when I don’t have wi-fi or our home server is down (how impatient and obnoxious is that?), I am incredibly awed by the fact that I can share a conversation with my cousin Tania in France while she gives her baby a bath at night and I prep dinner. I adore the fact that we get to see Halloween costumes and Christmas gifts live with my cousin Nina’s boys in Colorado. We are able to see my newly married cousin’s exciting house renovations and weigh in on tile and paint choices. I’m amazed that my 83 year old immigrant grandmother spends many hours a day warmed by the virtual presence of her cousins across the globe (literally).  Years ago, they might be luckily to have 1 phone call a year!

And as a mother now myself, I am so thankful that my family stays connected with my daughters and that they learn what life is like all over the place in a “real time” way. My cousins in Kuwait have shown them sand storms out the window of their home. Australian cousins have shared their view of winter even though it is blazing hot summer here in WV at the same time (this BLOWS the kids minds!). My Teta (grandmother) shares live cooking shows of what she is making. My girls read books and share art projects and lost teeth with my in-laws. My Aunt Lisa watched my daughter’s entire 4 year old birthday party via her laptop (yes she’s awesome). Skype and Face time bring those we love and miss right into our living room and next to us at the dinner table.

The aspect that I love the most about the endless opportunities of “virtual visiting” is when it comes to babies. I LOVE my family and I LOVE their new babies even more. It’s actually painful at times not to be able to scoop up those babies, bring over a lasagna and do a load of laundry, or babysit in a pinch when distance forbids it. But visiting through the web is the next best thing. I want the babies in my family to KNOW me and my family. I want to be a part of their village. I want to be the eyes that celebrate, love, and watch out for them.

Our newest baby for the moment is sweet Lilie Rose, who lives in the lovely South of France (lucky her).  (Side note: if you are interested in how having a baby in France differs from the US — Read HERE – it’s our personal family observation). We saw her last April and won’t see her in person again until July.  She has and will change incredible since then, and thanks to Face Time, I haven’t had to miss much. I’m sure I drive my cousin crazy at times, but when I Face Time with her I also do some of the same things, (most of which are act like a total lunatic) because I want her to recognize and know me too. I always sing her the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (it’s our thing) and she now smiles as soon as I start despite the fact that I am a HORRIBLE singer. Family loves you no matter what, right? Here is Lilie and I sharing some time together (excuse the appearance – ehh – It’s because of the time change 🙂

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Banana Phone Call For Miss Lilie Rose

 

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Imitation – she can open her mouth like me (luckily she is not as scary!)

 

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Washed the Spider Out! (her favorite part!)

 

If you have family (or friends that are like family) spread out, do you spend time visiting them via the Internet? What are fun ways you engage with them? If not, I encourage you to give it a try. There are many ideas to connect and play with babies and young kids even if you can’t be in the same room.

Here are some to try:

  • READ – chose the same bedtime story to share repetitively (make it YOUR thing) or introduce new ones.
  • SING –  (even if you are bad – like me). Young children love songs and finger plays (and they really enhance language development).
  • BABBLE AND PLAY – babies learn imitation before they learn conversation (more on that HERE). Be a part of the team that uses purposeful play to start that first conversation.
  • SHARE – Your meal, your home, your yard, your day. Children learn through exposure. Your environment is certainly different that theirs, so play show and tell online!
  • QUESTION – if they are old enough to talk, ask questions. How was their day? Where is their favorite toy? Can they jump yet? Ask them to show you!

Need more ideas to enhance purposeful play in person or online? Click here! (We ship for free and can include a personal gift card when sent as a gift!) 

 

I am Physical Therapist. I don’t have extended formal training on how the minds of young children emotionally develop. I am not a child psychologist, but I am a daughter, a mother, a niece, a sister, a granddaughter, a daughter and sister in law, a cousin and a BELIEVER that growing the number of people who love and are involved with your child can only be a good thing.  It was for me. I know it will be for my girls.