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Getting kids school ready in the time of COVID

By paediatric Occupational Therapist Debbie Isaac, a Melbourne-based practitioner with many years experience with young children in the preschool and school years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our 2020 plans for six.

Children starting primary school next year and their parents are no exception, with some parents concerned that their child may not be ready for school, with disruptions to preschool programs this year.

Yes, preschool plays an important part in the transition to school. But parents do too – as our children’s first (and in fact, forever, teachers). Teaching our kids to communicate, play, get dressed and eat independently as we ordinarily do puts children well on the way to being school ready.

In this post I identify three important areas that parents can focus on to get their child ready for school, supplementing whatever preschool experience they have had and typical home-based preparation. Some practical examples and ideas are also included.

But first a word on preschool…

Preschool

Preschool is exactly what it sounds like – preparation for school.

Accordingly, parents need not be concerned to have their child learning things in their preschool year that they will be learning at school. For example, learning how to write letters. Children do not need to learn how to write letters before school. While some children are keen to know the letters of their name (and I have no objection to this), engagement in drawing and being able to draw a variety of scenes and imaginings is more relevant preparation for school.

Drawing to promote school readiness

Drawing is a leading activity in school preparation, as the expressive tool that comes before writing, and an eye-hand task involving imagination. It does not always come naturally to children, but it is worth working on.

COVID school readiness blog - Rachel drawing

An important starting point is to find a drawing tool that suits the child’s hand. Short stubby or round crayons or pencils that fit neatly into a little hand work well. Comfortable grasp means that the child is more likely to produce a controlled mark on a piece of paper.

Some children might need help starting a drawing. In my clinical practice, I have found that an adult joining in can encourage engagement. Try starting them off by drawing something that interests them and then encouraging them to finish – add the wheels on a car or a tail, eyes, mane and legs on a horse.

Another tip is to mix up drawing tools and materials – rotate using coloured paper, paint sticks, pastels. New materials can inspire new ideas – blue paper may lead to an underwater scene, black to the night sky.

covid school readiness blog - Silas image

Fine motor and gross motor activities to promote school readiness

So many day-to-day activities count towards school readiness. If you are playing with playdough, making bikkies and building Lego at home, you’re well on the way to doing what is needed in this area.

Activities using two hands are important to encourage finger dexterity, strengthen arms and promote language and imagination. Try also sand play, planting blubs and seedlings, ripping paper for a collage and threading beads.

Cutting with scissors is an everyday two-handed activity that is important for school. Building scissor skills can take place in a practical way – in opening food packets and cutting out pictures in catalogues. The goal is for the child to develop consistency with a scissors hand and a helping hand. Look for scissors designed especially for children.

COVID school readines blog - Construction by Evie

A common concern of some parents of preschoolers is that their child does not have an established hand preference. This is a variance in maturation and often runs in families. From observation, the 6-9 months before school are a time of rapid physical and emotional growth and skill acquisition, with resolution of hand preference being one aspect.

Exposing children to a wide range of physical experiences encourages strength, confidence, balance and body awareness. Important skills include:

  • learning to catch or kick a bouncing ball (basketball size). It is easier to learn to kick a ball than to catch one, and round balls are easier than Aussie Rules footballs. Kick at a target or knock down some skittles. Try novel games like cricket with a tennis racquet and a beach ball.
  • climbing.
  • galloping and skipping (in that order). Try skipping together – hold your child’s hand and move together in slow motion – step, hop, step, hop.

Knowledge of right and left can be reinforced with these activities. Show the child they can make an “L” with the left thumb and forefinger as a guide.

Self-care tasks to promote school readiness

 Competence in everyday tasks develops the child’s confidence that they can look after themselves. School relevant tasks to practice at home include:

  • getting a drink of water from the tap, preparing a bowl of cereal and buttering toast.
  • carrying a backpack on outings with a drink and snack they can open themselves.
  • getting to the toilet in time.
  • dressing skills – at school the key tasks are getting a jumper on and off, managing clothes when toileting and taking shoes and socks on and off – socks without a heel are a big help.

Wrap up

Children recognise that starting school is a step up from being at home, with a sense of pride in this achievement. As parents, it is our achievement also.  Despite interruptions to the preschool year, what happens at home sets the foundations for learning and is not to be underestimated.

Yes: your child can do it!

Yes: you can too!

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Best Drawing Tools for Kids – Christmas Gift Guide by Squiggle Kids

Looking for something for your child’s Christmas parcel that will stimulate creativity, learning and fun? Drawing tools like paint sticks, crayons and chalk are our pick, naturally!
While there is a range of drawing tools marketed to young children, not all tools are created equal. Making good tool choices for young children helps support, stimulate and extend a child’s drawing experience.

What we look for in drawing tools for children starting drawing up to early primary school age are tools that are:

  • comfortable to hold in little hands
  • easy and effective to apply (kids get so much joy and stimulation making bright and strong marks)
  • thoughtfully designed to reduce mess or are easy to clean up (helping Mum and Dad feel more comfortable with their use around the house means they in fact get more use!)
To help you navigate your way through the field of options, here are the Squiggle Kids top drawing tools for children starting drawing up to early primary school age for 2020.

Put one or a collection of these under the tree this Christmas and you’ll be ticking the box on learning, fun and play and creativity!


1. Little Brian Paint Sticks

Available in three ranges – Classic Colours, Day Glow Colours and Metallic Colours and in a range of pack sizes (6, 12 and 24 sticks), Little Brian Paint Sticks provide a bright and engaging painting experience minus the mess! Operating just like a glue stick, the paint winds up and down inside a plastic tube, meaning little hands get less messy. And the beautiful, vibrant colours glide on with ease, giving little drawers the thrill of making exciting marks on a page.
Available from a range of independent toy stores in Australia as well as online. See, for example, www.toygalaxy.com.au.
Little Brian Paint Sticks

2. Honey Sticks crayons

Available in three sizes – Originals, Longs and Thins, these crayons feel great in the hand and smell a treat too! Originals fit nicely in the palm of a young child’s hand and suit children 12 months and up. Longs and Thins have the same great feel, but suit an older child with a bigger hand – perhaps 2.5 years old and up.
Honey Sticks are hand-made in New Zealand, are non-toxic and made with food grade and natural ingredients. And, unlike a lot of other crayons which are marked as not suitable for children under 3, Honey Sticks suggests their range for children from 12 months of age.
Available online from Honeysticks and some Australian retailers.
Other crayons to look out for that are also made for small hands and readily available in some of the major stationary retailers in Australia are the Faber Castel “Grasp Crayons” and the Faber Castel “First Grip” crayons.  Note in both cases the manufacturer advises that these are not suitable for children under three.
Honey Sticks crayons

3. Watercolour paints and brushes

When your child asks “Can I paint?” are you gripped with fear? Lauren: That was me until I discovered watercolour paints earlier this year!
Watercolour paint splashes and marks wash off easily with a damp cloth.
While nothing fancy is required to set up your child’s painting space (grab a plastic take-away container with a lid – the container itself is good to hold the water, the lid makes a great palette), we do recommend you purchase a separate brush in place of any you might get as part of a paint set. Paint set brushes are usually thin, flimsy and not dense enough to soak up enough paint to allow your child to make effective marks on a page. Brushes that are thicker (eg those pictured from Micador and Educational Colour brands) are easier for a small hand to hold and soak up more paint. Your child may also enjoy the painting experience more if you “prime” the paint with water before they begin to use it.
Lauren: At home we are currently using the Mont Marte Studio Series 26 piece watercolour cake set. While I do set out all 26 colours for my kids to use, you can take each paint cake out of the case to reduce the number of colours used at a time. The set we bought earlier in the year has proven durable and long lasting even though my daughter (3 years) sometimes immerses entire paint cakes in water!
Watercolour paints and paint brushes

4. Twist crayons or colour sticks

With luscious colours that are easy to apply, twist crayons or colour sticks are a real thrill for young drawers to use as their soft waxy crayon glides on smoothly and thickly. The plastic twistable barrel controls the amount of crayon used, keeps fingers and hands clean and reduces breakages. As they go on thickly, squiggles that run off the page can be harder to clean up. Therefore we recommend these for older children. To keep clean up manageable, we encourage using them outdoors or on newspaper or hard floors.

Try Mont Marte Studio Series – Twistable Colour Sticks (pictured). They come complete with a fantastic carry case!

5. Chalk

No home drawing set up for young children is complete without a bucket of chalk! We love chalk because it allows families to take drawing outside on sunny days and everyone can get involved. Being a larger format drawing tool that washes off in the rain or with a hose, some children may especially enjoy this drawing experience because there’s less pressure to get their drawing “right” and feel more open to experimenting.
Chalk is also inexpensive, including because there’s no outlay for paper or another canvas!
Micador Early Start Egg Chalk (pictured) is easily managed by a child of 18 months, although the manufacturer recommends it for children from 2 years up. There are a range of other options, with the Crayola brand offering a wide range of colours. Cheaper options with more limited colours are also available from large retailers eg Kmart and Big W.
Chalk

6. Micador Early Start Purse Pencils

We love these pencils for “on the go” drawing activities for young children. With soft leads, the lovely assortment of colours apply easily on the page and, being short and stubby, fit easily into a little hand. The manufacturer’s guidance suggests children from two years and up can use them, although we think children from around 3.5 years are likely to get more enjoyment out of these pencils. Markings on each pencil gives the child a cue for where to put their fingers for a tripod grip. The barrel of the pencil also includes cute animal pictures and a great durable case means they really are perfect for a purse or handbag on the go!
Micador Purse Pencils

Paper (waiting in the wings!)

While we’d never suggest you place a roll of paper or a blank project book under the Christmas tree (Lauren: my kids would certainly exclaim “Muuuuuuuum” while frowning in immense disappointment), we do have a couple of go-to products that we suggest you have ready to go for when they open their new drawing tools:
  • blank project books – these are ideal for side by side (parent + child or sibling + sibling) drawing activities and offer a bigger format for drawing than A4 computer paper. Project books are widely available from most newsagents and stationary retailers. Choose a book with a reasonable paper thickness (from 90gsm) so that your child can use both sides of the paper without too much bleeding through
  • roll of big paper – big paper helps reduce the mess! Again, choose a paper with a generous thickness for the above reasons. We like the “Mala” paper from IKEA best for it’s thickness. It comes in a 30 m roll (45cms wide)
  • a few pages of coloured paper or card. Mixing up the paper you use can stimulate new drawing ideas (black paper could be used for a space theme or fairy lights; blue for an ocean drawing).

Please note

  1. While in some cases reference is made above to manufacturer’s recommendations about the suitability of drawing tools for certain age groups, we have not comprehensively referenced these and suggest you make your own inquiries before purchasing.
  2. We are grateful to both Little Brian Paint Sticks and Honey Sticks for gifting us their products for our review. Rest assured, we wouldn’t tell you about them if we didn’t love them!

 

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School readiness: trust your gut instincts, parents!

Is my child ready for school? A blog about school readiness.

While the kinder year has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not itself a reason to hold a child back from school. This post covers school readiness considerations for children in general and not just in the time of COVID disruption.

 

Four years ago parents Damien and Lauren Gardiner (LG) met with Debbie Isaac (paediatric occupational therapist) (DI) to talk about whether their son, D, was ready for school.

LG: Our middle child, D, is a February baby. I wish someone had told me the trouble  with that earlier!

DI: In my clinical practice the school readiness question comes up with children:

  • with a birthday between January and April
  • with delays with motor, language and play skills
  • with an identified difficulty such as ASD, or a genetic disorder that challenges social and motor skills

School readiness – some broad markers

LG: We started D in 3 year old kinder just before his fourth birthday. He was on track to start school two years later, aged 6. He was very interested in learning – wanting to read his brother’s readers, forming letters when drawing, confident socially, loved the school environment and was tall and robust. We began to worry about whether two years of kinder would dampen his interest in learning.

DI: Some broad markers of school readiness include:

  • Self-care – open a lunch box, get a drink, toilet independently (including clothes), take shoes, socks and jumper off
  • Gross motor skills – manage stairs, walk around a playground, manage a range of playground equipment, kick and throw a ball
  • At kinder – can sit on the mat and listen to a story, join in singing and actions, engage in cutting tasks, hold and control a pencil, manage messy play, engage with construction toys
  • With peers – share toys, play in parallel as well as interact with another child in shared play
  • Own play – play independently with toys of interest
  • Showing interest in starting school

School readiness – navigating conflicting views

LG: We spoke to the kinder about D’s readiness. The kinder recommended he complete his 3 and 4 year old kinder years.

DI: The decision can be particularly hard when parents and educators, even extended family and neighbours, have conflicting views.

I strongly believe that parents need to:

  • trust their gut instincts and recognise that they are the experts on their own child
  • consider the position of the child in the family – younger siblings are aided in their readiness for school with an older sibling at school, and are already familiar with the playground and school activities such as readers and assembly
  • consider the child’s social confidence and height. It can be hard to hold back a tall five year old – they stick out in the preschool group. However, they also need the social confidence to manage beginning school

LG: Damien and I also had different perspectives. I had read widely on the topic. Not being totally certain of his readiness, I felt that less harm could be done holding D back from school. Damien, who had started school at age 4 and is an April baby (so he was 4 well into his first year of school), felt that if D was ready, he should go to school.

DI: Readiness for school should be determined on the individual child, not rigid rules. If a child is ready, they should go to school, bearing in mind the State’s prescribed rules on school starting age.

In my clinical practice, I use a developmental assessment that looks at gross and fine motor skills, including pencil control and scissor skills, following instructions and accepting directions. More careful assessment is required for children with language delay, social immaturity, or a formal diagnosis.

Starting school – a change for children and parents

LG: As well as considering readiness, I also wondered whether I was ready to let him go.

DI: The transition from preschool to school is both a physical and emotional change for children and their parents and brings with it a mixture of joy and sadness.

Parenthood is a constant process of enabling our children’s independence, and with the move to school, comes exposure to a range of influences from other adults and children. There is some anxiety in the letting go process.

As a parent I was excited for my children to move on to the wider world, having clearly outgrown kindergarten. But I felt sad too – the reality of less time together to go on adventures and play in the garden. Starting school also makes obvious the passing of time, from the baby and early childhood years. Parents can feel a sense of loss.

Acknowledging mixed emotions and how parents’ own experience of starting school can play a role helps retain some objectivity about school choice as well as child readiness.

Is the school ready?

LG: Some people suggest we should be asking if the school is ready, rather than the child. Our school principal told us that whatever decision we made, the school would support it with extra help for D etc if required. He urged us to do the same. I think that was a really powerful message – that rather than having one chance to get it right, the decision was actually just one of many in D’s school career!

DI: Yes, absolutely!

It’s also helpful to be open to repeating Prep or another year in early primary school where the decision to send a child has been difficult. I’ve supported families in this situation. In practice I’ve seen it work well when children have repeated Prep, Grade 1 or Grade 2, sometimes at a different school.


PS

Activities to do at home to help get your child ready for school

There are a range of activities to do at home to supplement the COVID-19 interrupted kinder year in our last post “Getting kids school ready in the time of COVID”. See the post below.

FREE Drawing Activity Book for children starting school

“Squiggle Pop goes to school”, a Drawing Activity Book for children starting school, is FREE when you subscribe to our email list. Simply submit your details below and you’ll receive an email with the book shortly after you subscribe. 

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Want more screen-free fun that encourages drawing, a leading activity in school preparation?

We have a range of printable drawing books for children from around 3 and up, starting at AUD $1.95. Check them out in our video below and here.

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Becoming Mrs Mum: Strategies for at-home learning with primary children

Mum and child drawing with chalk

Three years ago I was a parent to a newly minted prep boy.  I was a prep mum the year after too.

Afterschool learning activities during those first years of school – practicing readers, learning high-frequency words and some finishing off – were difficult, especially with my eldest boy.

My requests of him to do these things were met with refusal or a reluctance that saw him grudgingly do the task quickly and with little care. It was difficult keeping my own emotions in check as well, with increasing frustration and a track of “I can’t do this” playing in my head.

Three years on, with our boys now in Grades 2 and 3, the difficulties and frustrations are far less frequent.

In this post I share strategies that have worked for me for both afterschool learning and homeschooling (we had a stint of that just prior to the Term holidays).

In the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that most parents will need to facilitate some form of learning at-home in place of school for at least part of Term 2. In my home state, the government has just announced that children who can learn at home will be taught remotely for Term 2.

I hope the strategies in this post can help with that.

3

At-home learning is different to school

One of the greatest challenges to creating an effective at-home learning environment is that home is a child’s safe zone and parents’ are a child’s safe people.

Home is where our kids get grumpy and throw tantrums. Our children say “no” to us in a way they never would to their teachers.

Some of the strategies in this post will help with this dynamic. To the extent they don’t, I think it’s important to accept that at-home learning is not going to be perfect and to be kind to yourself and your children as you work together and do your best.

Agree and display a written schedule

This was a very successful strategy for both our afterschool reading practice and our recent week of homeschool because it:

  • took the focus off me as the source of the program
  • created a structure and boundaries (most children respond well to these)
  • avoided confusion and arguments about what was meant to be happening at a particular time
  • allowed the kids to be part of the decision-making, bolstering their enthusiasm for the activities and making it harder for them to refuse to participate
  • provided something to look forward to (whether a special activity or just the end of the program for the day)!

But, while structure is good, it’s also important to be flexible, particularly if you’re like me and juggling school and younger children. Many a reading practice session at our house has been cancelled due to a toddler meltdown! Allowing room for spontaneity and variation may also allow you to develop your child’s learning about things that catch their attention (and cope with things that don’t!)

Be prepared for younger children

Younger children are another major challenge for afterschool learning activities or homeschool.

To help cater for everyone’s needs, I suggest:

  • having activities the younger child can do beside your school children, eg, blocks, dolls, playdough, drawing, books
  • preparing snacks and a water bottle in advance

Your younger child may feel put out with his or her older siblings home and less time alone with Mum and Dad. Try to dedicate some one-on-one time for your younger child. For that, I love bathtime and stories before bed!

Enlist others

This was a masterstroke in our quest to get our particularly reluctant reader to practice reading at home and gave me a rest from having to be the organiser (also chief nagger). Our reading practice schedule included a read to Dad session every Sunday night and, in the event of visitors, we enlisted them to listen to our children read too.

Applying this strategy in the COVID-19 pandemic comes with its challenges of course – but your children could read to their grandparents over Facetime or video conference. And, what about enlisting grandparents to read a chapter book to your child over the phone? Grandparents might not have all the modern titles on their bookshelves, but they might be able to dust off a classic or two. The Famous Five or some of Enid Blyton’s books, perhaps.

Read aloud

Reading went from being a chore to a captivating adventure for my particularly reluctant reader after a Summer holiday during which we read a number of chapter books pitched perfectly at young boys.

Even with my school boys’ now in Grades 2 and 3, we still read to them most days – at bedtime and at any time we need to change the pace a bit!

Audiobooks are another great option for helping kids get interested in books and reading. We have memberships to a couple of libraries and get access to audiobooks for free.

Learning opportunities are everywhere

So your learning activity (perhaps even the whole day!) doesn’t go to plan?

Yes, I’ve had a few of those!

Get your kids to help make dinner and make it a lesson in reading, maths and science. Or, show them how to peg clothes out or fold washing – they’re going to need those skills in the future too!

A break for the subbed-in playmate

If your kids are learning at home in place of school and you have a particularly social boy or girl (as we do!), you may find yourself being asked to play more than usual.

Try to give yourself a break each day – otherwise the program of teaching/supervising, parenting and play can be all-consuming.

For me at the moment that comes in the form of putting on the TV.

Paid work from home with kids in tow

Doing all this and doing paid work from home at the same time is another level again.

I worked part-time for a number of years after having kids and had some days working from home with kids in tow. I’ve taken phone calls in closets and worked while my kids watched TV all day. These experiences were not fun for any of us.

While it depends on how old and independent your kids are (mine were little at the time and not very independent), my advice on adding paid work into the juggle is that to the extent you can, push your work to kid bedtimes and early mornings. With daytime work commitments, tag team with your partner and use TV when you can’t.

Good luck and may the force and these ideas be with you for Term 2!

 

 

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Go bush: for one and all!

Government and media campaigns are encouraging us all to visit fire-affected and other rural communities to help support local economies.

But getting out to rural areas across the state, indeed across Australia, is not just good for rural communities.

It’s good for us and our children too.

And not just because of the incredible festivals some of these places put on, the local markets with locally grown produce or the award-winning sausage rolls baked in the ovens of local bakeries.

Getting out into rural areas is good for us and our children because we can learn first-hand about the hardships our fellow Australians face, but also see how they adapt and cope with them. The resilience of these people and these communities is inspiring and sets a wonderful example for all of us.

IMG_4081 (002)

As the green of Melbourne fades in the rear view mirror and is replaced by crisp dry grass or bare rocks and soil, school is in. This is what our family learnt from approximately 6000kms on the road this summer:

  • Australia is a huge country and subject to a vast range of soil and climatic conditions. Our trip up the middle of New South Wales and into Queensland on the Newell Highway showed us a wide range of land – from prosperous farmland to dry, desert-like conditions. For some Aussies, it’s home.
  • The conditions are volatile too. Australia is indeed a place of “drought and pouring rains”. Much of our trip through the barren landscape up the Newell was in 40+ degree heat. In those conditions it’s hard to imagine that it ever rains there. In fact, marking the sides of much of the highway are flood markers, suggesting that it not only rains, it floods. And a mere four weeks on since our time there, many places have flooded.
  • Australians care about each other. In late December we met two inspiring women in Lightning Ridge – a mother and daughter duo. Over breakfast at a local cafe they heard us deliberating about our trip that day to Goondiwindi and piped in with their local knowledge to help plan our trip. As we shared our story and they told us their’s, we learned they were accepting handouts from local businesses to keep food on their family’s table. They didn’t know how long they would be able to stay on their farm, which had been in their family for generations. But not only did they go out of their way to help us navigate the next stage of our trip (including recommended food stops and landmarks), they talked with deep concern for the people affected by the bushfires.
  • We are resilient too. To me there is no better symbol of resilience in the face of brutal conditions than the silo and water tower art in many outback towns (for where you can find them, see www.australiansiloarttrail.com/). We visited the silos at Thallon (population 257) in Southern Queensland. At Thallon, the Grain Corp Silos have been painted to showcase icons of the area and the presentation is simply stunning (see top photo on this post). The signs providing background to the project state:

“The Silos mural project means a great deal to the Thallon Community as the town has suffered many setbacks over the years with population decline and business closure. We believe this project marks a turning point for the community.”

There are less obvious symbols like these too all over the countryside – the Christmas displays along roads (often featuring a piece of discarded farm machinery and some tinsel) and in rural townships. And, of course, the locals themselves, like the women in Lightning Ridge.

So definitely go bush – go fishing, hiking, camping or searching for the best sausage roll or potato cake. Take a look around you too – see what it’s like to live outside a capital city if that’s where you’re from. And talk to the locals – hear what it’s like to live a vastly different life to your own. Their story might give you a new perspective. It might inspire and uplift you too.

Yes, your trip will be good for local communities.

And it will be good for you too.