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July 29, 2020

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“How was your day?”

“Fine.”

“Did you… hang out with Nathan today?”

“Yeah.”

“What’d you have for lunch?”

“Pizza.”

“Ah… cool.”

Ok, this isn’t my reality yet, but I’ve been kind of dreading the likely day when it will be. While my kids are still 100% at the WE LOVE MOMMYYYYY!!! phase of childhood, bless their little hearts, I remember all too well the distanced teen I was to my own parents, and have already tried to brace Future Me for the inevitable emotional distance that older kids can bring.

But maybe there are ways to make that time a little better. Heck, there are days even now when the kids don’t have a lot to say about their days, even when I know exactly what to ask because I’m there for pretty much all of it, whether I really prefer that or not. Sometimes, I think it’s less an issue of unwillingness to talk as it is being out of practice.

Knowing how to share meaningful tidbits is like using various muscles: As a P.E. teacher, you wouldn’t only work with your kids on the the sit-and-reach all year and then expect them to excel at running the mile, sit-ups, and pull-ups during the testing. In the same way, if we keep asking kids the same question about their days, you can’t expect them to produce the really well-rounded, telling glimpses into their minds and hearts that you’re hoping for.

Can’t I just ask my kid a bunch of different questions, then?

I remember a while back my Pinterest feed was flooded with lists of alternative questions to ask kids at pick-up: What is something that made you laugh today? Who is someone that made you smile? Who did you sit next to during lunch time? What did you play during recess? Did anything make you feel scared today? Brilliant! I thought, Surely these will tease some more interesting answers out of my child. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that my daughter’s responses still bordered on half-hearted and uninterested. I just need to think of the right question, I would think, as I tried to probe and sniff around any possible topic of interest. Most of the time, I didn’t get much.

Now, I look at those questions, and I see that they are shots in the dark. The direct question, “Did anything make you feel scared today?” might be exactly the right question if you ask it on the day when your daughter got bullied during recess. Or, you could have asked it yesterday (and therefore skipped it today)… and instead asked about the contents of her school lunch, completely missing the opportunity to hear about something you’d really want to know about. Just because you asked the right question on the wrong day.

Teach your child to SIFT through their day

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to give your children the opportunity to sift through their brains and give interesting, nuanced, and unexpected pieces of information about the things they experienced and thought about during the day? An open-ended prompt instead of a yes/no or short-answer response? A response that paved the way for natural conversation and follow-up questions that your child would be eager to discuss more together?

So, even though it seemed a tad bit too good to be true, I was pretty excited when I came across a new idea in The Whole Brain Child, a book my friend had recommended. First of all, this book was super interesting and completely worth the read. It gave me another framework from which to understand my child, my child’s tantrums, emotional outbursts, and intellectual development.

One idea from the book that has really stuck in our family is the practice of SIFT-ing through our days. This is a time when we all pause and think back on our days and SIFT through all the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts that took place. When we are through, we have each learned something interesting and oftentimes unexpected about each family members’ day. I love it.

So how, exactly, do you SIFT through your day?

We start by sharing a sensation we can remember from the day. I tell my kids that a sensation is a “body feeling,” or something that happens in or to your body, such as feeling the wind blowing, getting really hot and sweaty, getting a paper cut, or feeling your stomach rumble when you are hungry.

By paying attention to their physical sensations, for example, children can become much more aware of what’s going on inside their bodies. They can learn to recognize stomach butterflies as markers of anxiety, a desire to hit as anger or frustration, heavy shoulders as sadness, and so on… Simply recognizing different sensations like hunger, tiredness, excitement, and grumpiness can give children a great deal of understanding and ultimately influence over their feelings.

– Siegel and Bryson, The Whole Brain Child

Asking about sensations has given me insight into annoyances like a new bug bite, risk-taking moments like climbing that big hill, and stamina-building decisions like building calluses from the monkey bars. I’ve been given access to sweet treasures like knowing my son likes to rub the smooth, satiny part of his Bear-Bear’s belly, and that my daughter really, really enjoyed the lemonade I made for her.

After sharing our sensations, we share images that we remember from our day. These can involve imaginary images (like a nightmare they had) or real ones (seeing a friend get a bloody nose at school). The authors elaborate, “When a child becomes aware of the images that are active in his mind, he can use his mindsight to take control of those images and greatly diminish the power they have over him.”

Next we SIFT for feelings we have experienced. My kids still need a good amount of coaching on this one, but being home together all the time has given me lots of fodder for “feeling” lessons. For example, my husband described to me how scared my son felt while climbing up a hill earlier that day at the park, and later we were able to recall that moment with him and help him recognize and name that feeling. We were also able to describe the triumphant feeling he had after conquering his fears! I hope someday when he is off at school, he will be able to recognize these feelings and be able to name and have more power over them. I would also love if he could remember and name his feelings so he can share about those difficult or celebratory parts of his day with us!

Finally, we share a thought that we had during the day. The authors explain, “They are what we think about, what we tell ourselves, and how we narrate the story of our own lives, using words.” For young kids, this can be something as simple as, “I thought about how to build my Lego creation,” to random, profound thoughts that cause you to exchange that raised-eyebrow look with your spouse.

In our family, we go round-robin, one letter at a time. I’ll be honest, until fairly recently, my four year old would harumph and pout when I said, “Let’s SIFT through our days!” I think the process of reflecting and really combing through his day was still very challenging for him. But remember, consistency is key! The more we kept at it, the less he grumbled, and almost every time, we ended up having interesting chats about the things that took place in his mind and heart and body that day. These days, he’s the one who remembers first and exclaims, “Let’s SIFT!!!” at the dinner table, and everyone enthusiastically joins in. I dunno how long that peppy attitude will last, but I’m loving it right now!

Conclusion

Back when school was still in session, I got angles into their school and social life I could never have asked my way into. It took a very specific path to very specific parts of their inner workings–their sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts–to learn about specific moments in their days I could never have known to ask about otherwise. It’s an excellent acronym, as the action of sifting through their brains is a great verb to describe it, and yet each of the letters stands for a truly interesting and unique aspect of their experience that I want to hear about.

My hope is that my kids will not only be willing to share about their days, but that they would have the words and ability to access the big and seemingly small moments that make up their day. I don’t need to know everything, but I love getting glimpses of these moments that made their days, whether happy or unpleasant.

March 17, 2020

This post is part of a series where I’ll be sharing “bite-sized” ideas and activities for parents to try with their kids. I hope to offer easy, economical, educational, and engaging ideas you can feel good about your kids doing, while buying you some down time. This content may use referral links. Read my disclosure policy for more info.

Last week feels like another life: school was still in session, stores had milk, the weather hit the mid 70’s, and it almost felt like summer. We were out at a creek with a bunch of other kids (another occurrence unique to last week) and the kids were given little plastic jars with a magnifying lid viewer: Bug catchers!

The kids ran to the other side of the creek, which was teeming with these bugs (beetles?). Normally, I’d be totally squeamish about seeing so many of them flit about in the hundreds, and so would the kids. But something about holding a bug catcher empowered and excited them. They fearlessly approached the beetles and tried to catch them in the clear jars. Sometimes, they would catch two at the same time!

It was a simple and fun activity. They searched and explored their outdoor surrounding with fresh eyes, scanning for movement and detail in a way they never had before. They approached the creatures with a new confidence and excitement, and they were so proud when they successfully caught something. They felt safe holding it close in the jar and examining it closely, and were able to see details they had never been able to see before. Of course we freed all of the bugs in the end.

The whole process of searching, capturing, and observing was a really fun way for them to interact with the outdoors and the creatures living in it. I imagine this would completely change the way they see and approach bugs inside the house (hello, spiders) and give them a nice outdoor activity to do in the backyard during this unprecedented and long “shelter in place” period. I just ordered two of these bug viewer boxes for the kids:

My plan is to take them out for a walk or send them to the backyard to hunt for bugs (or snails or worms–it’s been raining over here!) and try to catch one. If I’m feeling teacher-y, then we can extend the activity and record observations in their science journals (i.e. 10 pieces of computer paper that I folded in half and stapled together), draw pictures, count the number of bugs caught and make graphs, etc.

Stack ten sheets of computer paper together, fold in half, and staple. Add a sheet of construction paper to make a cover if you’re feeling fancy!

Or, we can just let the bugs go and do it all over again and again.

It’s easy, economical (you can get the same one we did for $6.58, or get an 8-pack of smaller ones for about the same price!), engaging (hopefully!), and educational. It can be a nice break from the screens, and give them a chance to run, stoop, jump, and play outside in a new way. And maybe, just maybe, if they are busy catching bugs, then they won’t bug you for a few minutes while you get some work done!

October 23, 2019

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I quietly tiptoed down the hallway, away from my son’s room. As soon as I was in the clear, I raced, exuberant, to the dining table where Ben was sitting at his laptop, and blurted out: “HE ASKED ME THE QUESTION!”

Ben looked up, quizzically, “What question?”

“THE. QUESTION. HE ACTUALLY ASKED IT,” I breathed, “AND I ANSWERED IT… CORRECTLY!!!!!!”

He tilted his head sideways. I was elated and could hardly even get my words out straight.

“I was walking out of his room to get him some water when I heard him say, ‘Do you love me better than my sister?’ and I panicked for a moment and kept walking, to buy myself some time. When I got back to his door, he repeated the question,” I said, wide-eyed.

“So what did you say??” Ben asked.

What DO you say? It’s the question every parent dreads, and the first response that probably comes to mind is something like, “I love you both the same!” or “I love you equally!” Seems safe enough, right? It’s probably what I would have said, if I hadn’t read this gem of a book that has changed my parenting game from the day that I picked it up. Seriously, if you have more than one child, you need to get your hands on this book!

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t tell him I loved them the same. Instead, I took a breath and paused to remember all the things I love about him. The way he hopped over the cracks on the sidewalk today, the way his little legs paddled as he sped around the playground on his balance bike earlier this evening, the way he cackled so hard milk came out of his mouth.

Then I pulled him close so he could hear me breathe, and I slowly said, “You are so special to me. I love the way you run, with your hands at your side. I love the way you ride on your bike, your legs paddling on the ground so quickly. I love the way you hop, like a frog-“

“Like a wabbit?” he asked.

“Like a rabbit. And how you laugh so hard and make everyone else laugh.” I squeezed him tight, and as I tried to conjure up more images of this little boy I adored, I found that what I had said was enough. He hugged me tight and then said, “But today I spilled my milk.”

“It’s okay,” I reassured him, “Even I spill milk sometimes. Your little hands are still learning to hold things steady.”

. . .

I’m not always winning at parenting. If I were, I’d probably be blogging a whole lot more than I have been lately. But this was definitely a victory. It went just the way the book said it was going to go, and I said what he needed to hear to know: not that I loved him better, but that he was special to me and I loved him dearly.

He knew that he was precious to me in a way no one else could be. In Siblings Without Rivalry, the author offers the example of a young wife that asks her husband, “Who do you love more? Your mother or me?” …Wow, what a trap! But the story continues:

Had he answered, “I love you both the same,” he would have been in big trouble. But instead he said, “My mother is my mother. You’re the fascinating, sexy woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“To be loved equally,” I continued, “is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely–for one’s own special self–is to be loved as much as we need to be loved” (70).

The book includes this really helpful illustration to drive the point home:

From Siblings Without Rivalry

I see myself making mistakes left and right every day. But if there’s one thing I need each of my children to know, it is that they are deeply, truly, and uniquely loved, with an unconditional love that I will spend the rest of my life trying to demonstrate to them. Hopefully this tool will be one way you can communicate that kind of love to your children, as well!

June 18, 2019

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I love it when I have a gift idea for kids that is delightful for the recipient, is practical and not too messy/big/annoying/noisy for the parent, has any educational or STEAM value going for it, and brings me joy to give. Bonus points if it is at a reasonable price point! I was able to check all of those boxes last week when we were invited to a casual joint birthday party for two sweet preschoolers. My daughter and I put together a festive little craft kit for each of the two birthday kids, and soon after we left the party, the moms both sent happy snapshots of their kids putting their new crafting materials to use! It was a hit with the moms and kids: HOORAY!!

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March 9, 2019

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I was meeting with some moms one night and couldn’t help but gush over the book I had just started, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. These were the same authors who had penned my recent parenting favorite, Siblings Without Rivalry, so I knew they would have practical, doable, and effective parenting strategies. I had only read one chapter, but there was already so much to digest I had to put the book down to give myself a chance to process and practice it before moving on.

“Ok, so what’s ONE thing you got from it so far?” asked the mom to my right.

“Hmm… well, my biggest personal takeaway so far has been empathy. Mostly because I’m so bad at it. But even saying something as simple as, ‘You’re very upset that your brother isn’t sharing well. That’s frustrating!’ can go a long way in helping her process her emotions and move forward, without much or any further intervention from me,” I replied.

This wasn’t the first time the authors had emphasized the importance of empathy. The first book I read from them also had a lot to say about this, which I shared about last week, but clearly I needed to hear it again.

“But that was just one of the four strategies they presented in the first chapter! I was a little skeptical when reading some of the other ones at first–some sounded pretty bizarre–but as I finished looking through the examples I realized it did make sense and probably would help them feel better. I just would never ever have thought of it myself,” I continued.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Hm… like, giving kids what they want… in fantasy,” I said. I waited for the weirdness of this statement to sink in.

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February 25, 2019

It was in November that I started to go crazy. Our school district gives the kids an entire week off for Thanksgiving, so I got to spend all day every day with both kids. This hadn’t happened since summertime, and back then, my two year old was still young enough to be content with parallel play, or basically playing by himself. My four year old was not yet stressed out with the complications of adjusting to a big class in a big school, and everything felt easier. But sometime in the three months between, they both grew up a little.

My son now wanted to play with everything his big sister had. My daughter was frustrated with this immature boy who didn’t know how to take turns or share properly. Thanksgiving break found me exasperated and frustrated as I endured the endless bickering between the siblings:

“Mommmmyyy!! He won’t give me my toy back!” 

“Mommmmmyyy! He threw my creation!!!” 

“I’M NOT PLAYING WITH YOU!!!”

“MOMMMYYYY!! He HIT ME!!!!”

It was an endless stream of fighting, bickering, and tattling.

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November 23, 2018

Earlier this month, we threw my daughter an epic unicorn birthday party! I love having an excuse to get super creative, and my little girly girl has brought out a pastel, sparkly side of me I never knew I had until I became her mommy. It was super fun trying to brainstorm fun, yummy, pretty things for her! I had started planning it months ahead of time, and the week leading up to it was definitely crunch time. I prepped or completed some food item every day until the big day, and of all the things I made, this might have been my very favorite. I called them Magical Unicorn Horns:

It’s a yummy s’mores snack mix served in rainbow-decorated cone treat bags! These are EXTRA special because I think I might have come up with something ORIGINAL to contribute to the beautiful unicorn world of Pinterest!!! That’s a pretty big blogger accomplishment! At first, I was just looking for an excuse to use those colorful pastel marshmallows since they looked pretty. I was searching along the “Unicorn Poop” theme, but nothing really stood out to me as something pretty and yummy-looking. I guess it doesn’t help that I don’t actually like these fruit-flavored marshmallows.

Then I gave up on making “unicorn poop” and decided to just make some yummy snack mix with marshmallows and Chex in it. I mean, you can’t really go wrong mixing marshmallows and Chex, right? So I searched and searched for the perfect looking recipe, and eventually threw together my own combination of s’moresy snacks inspired by this snack mix recipe that I found:

They were a hit! Not only did they look great in the “horns” that I displayed them in, but the kids could not stop snacking on them all throughout the party. In addition to the unicorn horn display, I had set out an open bowl of the same snack mix with little snack cups for easier access. Even with a unicorn cake, chocolate-dipped marshmallow wands, banana cream pie and Pirate’s Booty on the table, they kept coming back for more of the s’mores snack mix.

So back to the pre-party prep: I was trying to think of a fun way to serve these up. Pretty cups? Bags? Ooh, maybe cone-shaped bags turned upside down to look like horns?? I ordered these cone-shaped bags, decided to experiment with some washi tape, and came up with this:

Once we got the Chex mix in, it was just a matter of getting them to stand up straight like horns. I tried righting them in muffin tins, but the sides weren’t high enough and they kept tilting. Then I remembered these cupcake wrappers I’d picked up at Home Goods a while back. They are sturdy little cups you can put baked cupcakes into after they’re all done and baked–kind of like wrapping paper for cupcakes (not to be confused with cupcake liners)

Mine were a simple yellow color, but there are some really cute ones online! Once I twisted the bags closed and pulled the cellophane back, they were very easy to put into the cupcake wrappers and stood up straight the way I wanted. Hooray!

At the party, the magical unicorn horns made for a lovely display and take-home snack, and the extra bowl of the same s’mores snack mix was the most popular snack by far. Later that week, I made some of the same snack mix for the parents in my son’s co-op (minus the marshmallows) and people came back for seconds and emptied the bowl in no time. It’s pretty addictive! So whether or not you’ve got a unicorn theme going on, this snack mix is sure to be a favorite at any event you go to. Who doesn’t like a mix of crunchy, salty, and cinnamony s’more sweetness to snack on? It’s easy and it’s yummy, give it a try!

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November 17, 2018

My daughter had only recently graduated from stick figures to drawings with some real weight on them, so when she presented me with this exquisite drawing of Elmer the Elephant, I knew it was something special. It was one of the most detailed and complete drawings she had ever made of an animal! Little did I know that in a few weeks, a magical elf would transform this drawing and bring it to life!

Isn’t this amazing?! When she opened her eyes and discovered that her special drawing was transformed into a real, squishy, squeezable friend to have and to hold, she hardly had words. Her shining eyes said everything, and I knew it would be one of the most treasured and special stuffed animals she’d ever have!

The “magical elf” is actually a company named Budsies, and they are amazing! They can take ANY artwork and turn it into a REAL PLUSHIE!! I first heard about them when my friend Kristen sent me this adorable photo of her niece holding a cute drawing of a smiling rainbow with a crown and wings in one hand, and a GIANT adorable plushie version of her drawing in the other. My heart skipped a beat. Wait… a drawing… turned into a real-life, huggable creation?! NO WAY. That was too good to be true! Kristen shared, “My sister and I gifted it to her for Christmas and she’s slept with it every night since she got it :)” I don’t blame her, it was the most adorable rainbow I have ever seen! 

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November 3, 2018

My daughter started writing stories recently. I worked with her individually to teach her to read, but I’ve more or less left her on her own for writing. She likes to go to the paper shelf, grab the first sheet of paper she could find, and then start: Onc upon a time… 

I love her stories. I love that she even likes to write, and I love gushing over them. But I have to admit, I get kind of annoyed when I find loose sheets of construction paper scattered all over the house. The construction paper is arranged in the order of the rainbow, and she has systematically worked her way down the colors and now we don’t have any red, orange, or yellow paper left. Also, she’s been into gel pens lately, but since I bought a cheap set from Costco, you can hardly even make out the glittery words, especially when she uses her favorite shimmery gold pen on a yellow sheet of paper. They’re not very pigmented, so even when she uses it on pink or blue, it barely shows up!

Here is an example of her glitter pen + construction paper combination. Her little brother was sad that there were no new episodes of his favorite TV show, Stinky and Dirty, so she took it upon herself to ask them to make more. SO PRECIOUS. But man it was hard to read! It took a few tries but at the right angle with the right light, I was able to capture this gem before mailing it off:

To: Stinky and Dirty, Dear Stinky and Dirty, My brother would love if you made my brother a new Stinky and Dirty [episode].
Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you

I realized she was going to keep writing. But I needed her to use white computer paper. And I wanted it all in one place.

Not only did I want her to have a place to collect her stories, but she struggled to write in a straight line and she would often have to draw her pictures on the back of the sheet. Which is fine. But all of this could be solved with a simple sheet of lined paper made for preschool and kindergarten sized letters! I went online to quickly purchase a notebook for preschoolers, but at nearly $10, I figured I could just print up some pages myself! But when I searched for templates, I came across a few obstacles. For example, I would have to pay for the download. Or I had to create an account before I could download it. Or it didn’t have the space for a picture, or it didn’t have a line at the top for a title. Too many lines. Too few. Why doesn’t anyone just offer a simple FREE sheet of dotted lined paper for big letters and space for a picture? C’mon Internet you should have been on this years ago. 

Okay maybe there is a lot available and I’m just really picky specific. Well, I’m going to tell myself that maybe you are picky in exactly the same way as me and now I am providing the perfect solution for us. You’re welcome.

So I remembered I am part of the Internet so I decided to add this to the www mix. Here ya go. Story templates for preschoolers, for those in kindergarten and first grade… paper for grown-ups who want to make cute stories for their kids :). Just print up 50 of them, punch holes, and put them into a folder with fasteners, like this one:

Before long, your little writer will be drawing pictures of pumpkins and writing sweet thank you notes to family members (okay it was once, but I’m so glad the precious note is saved in this makeshift notebook!!).

Dear Daddy, I am so thankful that you always go to work. Love (daughter). Dear (brother), I love how whenever I ask for something you always give it to me. Love (sister). *heart* *star* *smiley face*

And here is the four year old dropping some informational writing, y’all!!

Yes, I am a proud mama 😀 Though I’m not sure about that pumpkin cider…

Without further ado, the printables:

Dotted Line Story Paper Printable for preschool/pre-k/TK/kindergarten

Dotted Line Story Paper Printable for first and second graders

October 25, 2018

It was a innocent mistake. She was having too much fun playing with her cousin and then *crash* the water glass full of chocolate milk tipped over and went all over her dinner… and her daddy.

Uh-oh.

Her adorable tutu skirt had gotten wet, but the milk had soaked through Ben’s suit. He was not pleased.

She froze, and then immediately tried to hide her face as everyone looked on. She was embarrassed, scared, full of regret and doing everything she could not to start bawling at the wedding. I quickly pulled her away to give her some space, and also to clean her up. I wanted to give her a safe space to cry–something I’m not super familiar with, as I grew up trying hard not to cry much myself–but she kept working to hold it in despite my encouragement to let her feelings out.

Finally, she said she wanted to go home, so I started walking her back to the table. We were passing the photo booth on the way over and she seemed interested, yet not quite in the mood. I wasn’t going to push it. But later, her cousin went over to take pictures, and she wanted to join in. Sort of. But not really. But really, she did. But she was still sad.

We decided to wait in line to see if her mood would improve, but she continued to hold a long face and wouldn’t make eye contact with anybody. They say the best way to get a kid out of a mood like this is to distract them. I tried to joke with her. Then I tried telling her a story. She just turned her face away from me. I tried to reason with her (hah!). Then I tried a little trick that worked really well just earlier that week, with a different group of young kids:

“Hmm… well, let’s get ready for pictures, girls!” I called out. The girls looked at me curiously.

“Puttttttttt your fingerrrrrr onnnnnnnnn youuuuuuuuuurrrrr… NOSE!” I cried out, while proudly sticking my finger on my forehead.

“HEYYYYY,” they giggled, “THAT’S NOT YOUR NOSE!!”

“Yes! I said NOSE! See, this is my NO–waiiiiiiit a second!” I cried, in mock disbelief, “I meant… my… NOSE!” I said, pocking my chin.

“NOOOOO!!” they shouted out gleefully, “THAT’S YOUR CHIN!!!”

“Ohhhh. Right, right. Here is my nose!” I continued, finally placing my finger on the right spot. “Now, stiiiiick your finnnnngerrr onnnn…”

They waited, giggling in anticipation.

“Onnn… yourrr…. EAR!” I called out, stabbing my closed eye with my finger.

“MOOOMMMMMMYYYY THAT’S YOUR EYE!!” my daughter cackled.

“No, of course not! It’s my EAR–WAIIIIITT a second!!” I said, confusedly, “That ISSSS my eye!!”

 

Well, you get the idea. I did it a couple more times and then moved on to jumping with your hands in the air. For some reason, kids can’t seem to jump without smiling, so it was an easy way to segue from a lifted mood to sheer happiness as we moved forward in the photobooth line. By the time it was our turn, the girls were both all smiles and ready to ham it up for the camera.

It’s a trick I use all the time. The week before, I was asked to substitute for a group of five and six year old kids. When I could feel myself losing their attention, I started doing this little trick and it was a quick, fun, and easy way to grab the attention of even the most antsy child. They giggled, they laughed, and we got a little bit of our wiggles out. It works best with kids who already know their body parts who also are starting to understand jokes. I’d say ages 3-6. If the kids really like you, you might even be able to pull it off with slightly older kids! Have fun and try it out sometime!

How about you? What’s in your bag of tricks for nudging a child from moodiness to smiles? I am always looking for fresh ideas!