Archive for ‘Home Connections’

November 25, 2014

Cultivating Attitudes of Gratitude: Teaching Thankfulness Through Nature

by Melissa Harding


How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of  having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!

So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.

Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

DSC_1465Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather than materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.

However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.

Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:

1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.

To learn more about the ever-growing science of gratitude, check out this article by The Greater Good or this one on the benefits of appreciation. Or read the full article cited above.

To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.

The above photos are taken by Science Education staff.

November 4, 2014

The Nature Cure: Creating More Self-Disciplined Kids (and Adults!)

by Melissa Harding


“With self-discipline, most anything is possible.”
– Theodore Roosevelt

Self-discipline is not a fun topic to talk about; most people experience various lapses in self-discipline all time, whether it is sneaking an extra cookie or eating half of a cake. We tend to feel pretty guilty about them, as if it shows a weakness in our collective character. Truthfully and thankfully, research shows that the mechanism within us that helps us to be disciplined, to delay gratification or to concentrate on a boring project, can only take so much before it snaps. This “mental muscle” needs to be renewed after a long period of use, like a day at school or work. Unfortunately, self-discipline is the skill we use to achieve our goals, stay out of trouble and generally be more thoughtful about our words and deeds. It turns out that we really need it to get the job done. Luckily, there is a cure for this mental fatigue: nature! Research has shown that views of nature, as well as actually being in and interacting with it, can help us to restore our powers of focus and determination.

To begin, what actually makes us self-disciplined? It turns out that there are three main components to this trait: concentration, inhibiting initial impulse, and delaying gratification. These are each distinct forms of self-discipline that help us to over-ride unhelpful tendencies in favor of something better. Concentration requires keeping the mind from wandering and being able to focus despite being bored, frustrated or tired. When we are too mentally fatigued to concentrate, we can spend hours trying to accomplish a task and never truly finish it; this is true with children who stare at books for hours and never really learn. Inhibiting initial impulses requires the ability to ignore our first response to a problem and consider alternate solutions. It makes us more prudent; impulsivity is considered to be linked with risky behavior. Delaying gratification requires overcoming impatience and the tendency to favor short-term rewards over long-term goals. These three aspects of self-discipline are also linked with the ability to control anger and deal with conflict.


Research suggests that these three forms of self-discipline can be renewed by time spent in or around nature. This is not a new study, but the applications are timeless. Scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign ran a study on underserved urban youth, trying to figure out what influences their self-discipline. Outcomes such as academic underachievement, juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy are risk factors for many underserved youth and can often be predicted by levels of self-discipline, so understanding how to increase this skill among teens is very important. For this study, researchers focused on residential views of nature; they measured the self-discipline skills of a sample of urban youth that had either views of nature or views of the built environment near their homes, examining participants separately by gender. The results show that, for girls, near-home nature was systematically related to each of the three forms of self-discipline; girls showed significant improvements in their testing scores over those with views of the built environment. Boys showed no significant relationship between near-home nature and any of the outcomes.

Why this relationship between nature and attention? Certain elements in the environment are effortlessly engaging and draw our attention involuntarily, such as moving objects, bright colors, etc. For things that do not involuntarily engage us, we use our powers of direct attention. Since natural settings often draw our involuntary attention, it assists in the recovery of the mental muscles that direct our attention. Exposure to nature and natural environments in multiple forms has been shown to be restorative. Research has also been done showing that children with attentional difficulties perform better than usual after participating in activities that take place in natural settings. The same study found that the greener a child’s usual play setting, the less severe their attention problems were rated in general. Taken overall, this evidence suggests that regular contact with nature is crucial to self-discipline and restoring directed attention in both children and adults. The disparity between girls and boys within the featured study has no definite explanation, though researchers strongly suggest that boys need more direct contact with nature to receive the same benefits as the girls.


Increasing the amount of nature that your child encounters daily is a great way to get the benefits that this study suggests. Children deal with stress and anxiety all the time; they are also expected to be able to sit still and process huge amounts of information all day long, then go home and do homework. This is a lot to ask of anyone and knowing how to restore their minds is an important skill for children. Additionally, children with greater self-discipline are more apt to resist negative peer pressure and achieve academically. Understanding how our brains work – and how to help them work at their most optimum level – is helpful to children and adults alike. We all can use a little nature in our every day; make sure that both you and your family get a daily dose of nature and keep your brain working at its best.

Here are some ways to increase your family’s exposure to the natural world:
1. Go outside: The best way to get the benefits of nature is to be in it. Play games outside as a family, read a book under a tree or just explore. Being outside together with family and alone are both great experiences for kids.
2. Bring the outdoors in: Views of nature can happen inside as well. Invest in some beautiful houseplants, try your hand at forcing bulbs, purchase or pick some flowers, or hang some nature-inspired art (or even make some together). Bringing a bit of the outdoors in is a good way to put a smile on anyone’s face.
3. Green your yard: You don’t have to be a professional landscaper to green up your yard. Even the smallest yard can be improved with a tree or some grasses. Consider adding a shrub or two to attract birds and other critters to your yard. Live in an apartment or other non-alterable space? Try adding some window boxes with flowers or stick a bird feeder to your window – every little bit of nature makes a difference!
4. Visit your local park or green space: Take a family field trip to your local park or other green spaces near your neighborhood. Don’t know where to go? Check out this great resource from Nature Rocks to find all the green places near you.
5. Read about nature: Get lost in a good book – visit the library as a family and check out some of these nature-themed classics: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, or Hatchet by Gary Paulson.
6. Advocate for natural views from schools: Nature views outside of schools are important as well. Advocate for courtyard and classroom plantings, volunteer to plant flowers in the spring, and get involved with your school’s parent association. The best way to fight for nature in schools in with other like-minded parents.

Read the featured study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and learn more about how nature refreshes our self-discipline skills.

Learn how a connection to nature creates confident, successful kids.

These restorative views of nature were brought to you by Science Education and Research staff.

August 27, 2014

Home Connections: Sensory Play for Young Children

by Melissa Harding


Our senses are how we learn about the world. When we talk about “observation skills“, we are really talking about using our senses to understand what is going on around us. In fact, observation is the foundation of all science; it causes us to ask questions and seek answers through experimentation. Observation skills are important. That is why we work so hard to make sure that our students are spending their time observing the natural world and why we care so much about promoting observation skills in this space. One of our favorite ways to help young children learn to use their senses is through the use of sensory bins. Sensory bins are common in any early childhood settings, from pre-schools to nature centers, and provide children with a tactile way to learn about color, shapes, plants and animals.

We have developed a variety of sensory bins for different age groups, based on what is appropriate and safe for children in different stages of development. Here are a few of our most successful bins:

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Little Sprouts (ages 2 and older)
Children ages 2-3 are still learning many gross and fine motor skills. They are not yet able to articulate well with their hands, grasp objects with care or perform detailed actions. With this mind, sensory bins for this age group are meant to stimulate the senses and give children practice stacking, building, drawing and molding shapes, and just generally manipulating objects. Adding fresh scents, bright colors and pleasing textures makes these bins fun for older children as well.

Day 4 003Cloud Dough: Cloud dough is a great way to add texture and scent to your sensory bins. Made with a base of flour and vegetable oil, the resulting “dough” is both crumbly and holds a shape, rather like wet sand. Try adding cookie cutters or shaped ice cube trays to the bin.

To make cloud dough, you will need: 7 cups any type of flour and 1 cup vegetable oil. Mix it all together until the oil is evenly dispersed throughout the flour. Use your hands.

Tracing Salt: Tracing salt is made with ordinary table salt and essential oils. A thin layer of this scented salt is put in a shallow bin for manipulation; this bin is great for promoting literacy and creativity, as children can trace letters, numbers or pictures into the salt and then erase it and start again. It’s a fun tool to use when practicing letters, shapes, or numbers. We like to add feathers and paint brushes to give our students something to make shapes with besides their fingers, but anything soft and stiff would work.

To make tracing salt, you will need: 3 cups iodized salt and 5-7 drops essential oil. Place one cup salt in a bag and add 2-3 drops essential oil. Close bag and massage the contents to mix. Add essential oil to achieve the scent you desire; remember, less is often more with strong oils. Follow these steps until all salt has been scented. Add drops of food coloring to the salt for optional color if desired.

Salt Dough: Salt dough is a great go-to staple. All children love to play with salt dough or other play dough. Salt dough is made with flour, salt and water; the resulting dough is moldable and will even dry into permanent shapes if left out for a few days. However, this dough is able to last for up to a month in a sealed sensory bin. Try adding herbs, spices, food coloring, grains and even glitter to create extra-special dough.

To make salt dough, you will need: 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt and 1 cup water. Mix salt and flour, gradually stirring in water until it forms a dough-like consistency. Form a ball with your dough and knead it for at least 5 minutes with your hands, adding flour as needed to create a smooth texture.

Dance Scarves: Dance scarves are perfect for sensory play: they come in a rainbow of colors, they are soft and floaty, and they can be made into a costume. They are fun to twirl with, to throw up into the air like fall leaves, and to pile up and lay on. Children will pull them all out of the bin and play with them for hours.


Seedling Scientists (ages 4 and older)
Children ages 4-5 are learning more fine motor skills, spatial skills, independence, and the ability to self-regulate. They need to practice manipulating small objects, whether pouring things from one container to another or nesting differently sized objects into each other. These bins are not appropriate for younger children, as the objects in these bins can cause a choking hazard to young children who like to put things in their mouth during play.

IMG_0010Seeds: Seeds of all shapes and sizes fill the seeds bin; some seeds, like corn, are recognizable and others, like lotus seeds, are odd and interesting to children. This bin gives children a chance to observe and identify a variety of seeds, as well as fun material to fill up containers and serve as tea. Children like to run their fingers through the pleasant texture of the seeds and pick out seeds of different size and shape. Add some measuring cups, funnels, wide tubes and other containers in odd shapes to help children manipulate the seeds.

Caps: While a bin full of empty bottle caps seems like an odd choice, this repurposed material is perfect for early learners. Caps of all shapes, sizes and colors fill our bin. Children love to stack them into towers, fit them inside each other, and use them for pretend play.

Colored Rice: Rice is another material that feels silky against the skin and makes a pleasing sound when poured from cup to cup. Color your rice with vinegar and food coloring, or use spices and botanical dyes, to create a rainbow of beautiful colors. Rice also makes a great base for small world play, whether you are hiding plastic bugs in green rice, pretending your blue rice is an ocean, or using yellow rice to simulate the desert.

To make colored rice, you will need: 1 cup of rice, 1 tsp of white vinegar, and several drops of food coloring. In a bag or bowl, mix rice, vinegar and food coloring and shake/stir to combine. Place colored rice on a piece of aluminum foil to dry before use.

Dirt: What kid doesn’t love to play in the dirt? Potting soil is a safe, clean way to play with dirt. Add kid-sized shovels and rakes, buckets, and plastic bugs to make this bin into a mini garden patch. Be sure to use sterile dirt, rather than dirt from your yard, as soil from outside may contain insects, fungus or bacteria that could be potentially harmful.

Adding scents: Adding essential oils is a natural and safe way to add a variety of scents to your bins. Additionally, many essential oils are naturally antibacterial and can keep your bins both clean and sweet-smelling. Consider using lavender as a calming scent, mint for stimulation, or citrus for a fresh scent. As a fun alternative, try adding herbs like fresh lavender blossoms or rosemary leaves for added texture and scent.

About choking hazards: For children under the age of 3, choking can be a danger when dealing with small objects. Any object smaller in size than a toilet paper tube can be hazardous if ingested and cause children to choke. For this reason, always supervise your children when they are interacting with sensory bins and choose materials that are appropriate for their age and level of development.

Remember, these are just a few sensory bins suggestions. There are many objects that you have in your home already that would create wonderful sensory experiences for your child. Shaving crème, water and bubbles, mud, and play sand are items that would make some delightfully messy sensory bins as well.

For more sensory bin ideas, check out these great websites:

The Imagination Tree
Teaching Preschool
Happy Hooligans

To learn more about the importance of observation, check out this post!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman. 

August 16, 2014

Home Connections: Creating Curiosity Through Observation Skills

by Melissa Harding


While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.
Sigurd Olson

Observation is how people learn; it involves using the senses to gain a deeper understanding of the world and to start asking questions about it. While this is a necessary skill for all successful adults, from scientists to artists, it is important for children as well.  Active observation sparks curiosity and a sense of wonder to ask more deeply probing questions. This is a natural way to begin to understand the scientific process, by asking observation-based questions and seeking answers through simple experimentation. One question often leads to another and soon children find themselves connected to their world with a deep sense of place. The end result is a child that approaches the world with an open mind and a curious heart. Sigurd F. Olson, renowned environmentalist and writer, believed that approaching nature with love and curiosity is the only way to truly create a lasting environmental ethic, and thus to create civically engaged citizens. “What civilization needs today,” he wrote, “is a culture of sensitivity and tolerance and an abiding love of all creatures including mankind.” It may sound simple, but it all starts with learning to effectively observe the world.

At Phipps, while we often call it “being a plant scientists” or “solving a nature mystery”, but what we really mean is using observation skills. There are many ways that we encourage the growth of these skills; often, we create “tools” that allow us to turn learning a skill into a game. We make these tools out of repurposed materials, so they are both sustainable and easy to create at home. We encourage parents to duplicate these items and use them to work on observation skills at home with their child.

Here are some of the ways that we use these tools in our programs:

View Finders
Using a view finder is a way to narrow and focus your eyes on a particular thing. Often used in teaching art or photography, looking through a view finder teaches students to look closely at a small area. View finders provide a frame and give children a defined space to observe. We make view finders out of repurposed cardboard; there couldn’t be anything simpler – just cut a 3″ square out of cardboard and then cut a 1″ square out of the middle and you have a view finder. We challenge our students to use view finders to observe and draw small squares of nature or to take “mental photographs” of what they see. Students can share their favorite “photographs” with the group and then use them to draw pictures, write stories or create art.


Our version of binoculars is really more of a fun view finder for toddlers. The same principles are true – narrowed and focused field of vision – but the idea is simpler; using binoculars is a way to encourage small children to use their senses with awareness. Very small children are natural observers, as this is a large part of development, but using a tool like binoculars is a way to teach the idea that we use our senses with purpose to observe. Even without any real context, they are fun tools; kids feel like explorers and love pretending they are on a safari. We make our binoculars out of repurposed toilet paper tubes and yarn. To begin, punch a hole in one end of each tube; glue the two tube together side-by-side, keeping the ends with the holes facing up; cut a piece of yarn to fit over your child’s head and tie one end into each of the holes; go play.


Color Matchers
Color matchers turn observation exercises into a game; our students carry a color matcher through the Conservatory, trying to match the colors of the plants they see to those in the tool. We make our color matchers out of paint chips – simply gather the colors that you want and then punch a hole in the corner of each, attaching with a ring clip. We make version for younger and older children; for our youngest, we use chips of a single color and create a rainbow and for our oldest we create a rich palate of different nature colors for them to choose from. We also have some with brighter colors for matching with flowers instead of foliage. These are a fun companion to take on nature walks or even just into backyard.


Colored worms
We use colored “worms”, pieces of yarn or string, to teach about observation and adaptations. Worms can be made out of anything; we use donated yarn in various colors, but pipe cleaners, ribbon or string would also make great worms. We scatter our worms in the outdoor flower gardens and have children find them. To make this more fun, we have the children pretend to be mother birds who need to find worms to feed their babies in a “nest” that is carried by an instructor. Our oldest children even get clothespin “beaks” to make the task harder. Some worms are harder to find than others, based on how they blend into the garden, and this teaches an easy lesson about camouflage. For our toddlers, we scatter lots of bright colored worms and just have them find as many as they can. You can make this activity difficult or easy, based on your child, and can use it in the context of a lesson or just for fun. Any way that you use them, colored worms can help children learn to look closely and improve their observation skills.

Un-natural nature trail
An un-natural nature trail is an old nature center game that works well with older children. This take some preparation time, but can really be done anywhere outside – a yard or a trail both work. Gather a number of man-made items, from big to small, and scatter them around a prescribed area. Anything will work as long as it is obviously man-made; choose smaller items to increase the difficulty of the challenge. Tell children that they will be looking for things that don’t belong and have them spend a significant amount of time observing the site to find all the objects. This can be done numerous ways; children can count as many objects as possible, pick them up as they find them, or only look for a period of time and have to remember. This is a fun activity for a large group and could be a great party game as well.

Using tools is a helpful way to increase your child’s observation skills, but they are also pretty fun to use! Playing and learning together outside with your child is a great way to connect both of you to nature and to each other. To quote Olson, “Awareness is becoming acquainted with the environments, no matter where one happens to be.” Use your own sense of wonder and curiosity and spend some time outside with your child; it will have a lasting impact on your family and you world.

To read more about the importance of observation, check out our blog post.

Learn more about how we repurpose cardboard, plastic, and glass.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman and Christie Lawry.

August 12, 2014

Home Connections: Making Refrigerator Pickles

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_Cooking (3)

Cucumbers are everywhere this time of year. They are growing wildly on trellises or stretching wildly all over the ground. We love using cucumbers in snacks at camp because they are mild tasting, yet still have a satisfying crunch that our students like. We slice up and serve them with dip, turn them into cucumber tea sandwiches and, most fun of all, turn them into Kid Pickles. Much like many of our other camp snacks, Kid Pickles are a milder, more child-friendly take on what can be a rather adult taste. While some kids don’t care for conventional pickles, often because they are too vinegary or garlicky, they like Kid Pickles, which are mild and slightly sweet.

Making Kid Pickles is a great activity for children; it requires harvesting, measuring, slicing and pouring, all of which help students build skills. Pouring is a fine motor skill, whereas measuring and counting help with math. Cooking in general is a wonderful activity to get kids learning and practicing hard things; in particular, pouring is an especially difficult skill for young children to master. Making pickles also allows children time to wander through the Edible Garden and gives them the experience of harvesting produce right off the plant. Also, much like Kid Salsa, this recipe is more of an art than a science. The recipe below if more of a starting point than an ending; experiment to find out what taste you and your family prefer.

Here is how we make Kid Pickles in camp:
*You will need 1 lidded quart-size jar to make this recipe

1 English cucumber, sliced thinly
2 tsp salt
4 TB white vinegar
1 tsp organic sugar
2/3 cup water
1 sprig dill (fresh – too taste)

1. Thinly slice cucumber into 1/8″ rounds
2. Pack cucumber slices into the jar
3. Add salt, sugar, water and vinegar to jar; add lid and swirl to combine. Don’t worry if there is not enough liquid to cover the cucumbers; they will wilt over time and add more liquid to the jar.
4. Open jar to add sprig of dill; close and shake again.
5. Place jar in refrigerator. Every time you open the fridge, invert the jar to shake.
6. Pickles will be ready in as little as 3-4 hours, but will last up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.
Just as the urge to doctor up Kid Salsa is strong, so it will be with these pickles. However, adding pickling salt, garlic cloves or other herbs will only result in a mixture that will potentially be too strong for your child. While not every child is drawn to mild flavors, it is a safe place to start when introducing young children to new foods. Serve these pickles with sandwiches, cheese or alone for a fun treat. Your child will love to help you make this easy, nutritious snack!

To learn more about cooking with young children, check out this post. 

To learn about how we make Kid Salsa, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Science Education and Research staff and interns.







August 9, 2014

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…It’s a Child in Costume: Dramatic Play for Early Learners

by Melissa Harding


Over the years, Phipps has been visited by many important dignitaries; besides the President of the United States, we have also been honored by visits from Batman, Spiderman and a variety of princesses. Of course, those last few have come to us in the form of children in costume. As any parent can attest, children love to dress up, especially for summer camp. Both boys and girls enjoy wearing costumes, no matter how make-shift, and taking on the persona of that person or animal. While it may seem like just a phase that young children go through, it is actually rather critical; whether pretending to be superheroes, royalty, animals, or anything else that strikes their fancy, dressing up is a core part of play for early learners. Costume play is a form of imaginative play, acting out the stories and emotions of others; this kind of play is important to both cognitive and social development. Research has found that imaginative play can increase language skills, as well as a child’s ability to express both positive and negative emotions. It can also increase their empathy for others and help them to better self-regulate their own emotions and behaviors. (Self-regulation, a form of executive function, has been addressed before in this space). When children use toys and costumes to engage in dramatic scenes, they learn communication and problem-solving skills as well.

Clearly, dramatic play and dress-up are important parts of both childhood and child development. In fact, dramatic play makes up the majority of all types of play for children ages 3-7. This type of play is open-ended. While watching TV and playing video games are alluring, if passive, activities that children enjoy, toys and even ordinary objects provide a more active, creative experience. Other examples of dramatic play besides costume play are puppetry, role-playing and fantasy-play. This can involve re-enacting a scene from either their real lives or a story they’ve heard. It can also take on fantasy elements as children start to make up their own stories. This is how children learn to make sense of the world around them and how it relates to their lives. Much like reading fiction helps children explore new people and situations, so does dramatic play.

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While many children naturally play pretend with anything around them, others may need more encouragement to use their imaginations during play. Creating an environment that supports imaginative play is a good way to help those children learn to develop creatively.

Ways to promote imaginative and dramatic play for your child;
1. Set-up a role-play corner in your home or classroom: A play kitchen, post-office, classroom, grocery store or other location can help children feel like they have a “stage” to play on. This stage will encourage your child to act out more dramatic scenes. It can also help children to learn desired behaviors and skills; for example, stocking your corner with placemats, play dishes and silverware can help your child learn to set the table. If you don’t room for a permanent play space, allow your child to set up temporary play spaces, such as creating blanket caves and pillow forts that can easily be put away at bed time.
2. Provide materials for play: Even if you don’t have room for a corner to be devoted to a larger dramatic play set, you can still create small collections of items that your child can use to play: pots, spoons and an apron; envelopes, old greeting cards and stickers (or “stamps”); a small chalkboard, chalk and books; a toy cash register and clean, empty food containers. Try to provide items that children can pretend to read or can write on, as this promotes literacy. While younger children rely on realistic materials, older children will start to substitute, such as using a piece of rope for a fire hose or a stick for a sword. This material substitution shows that the child is learning abstract thinking and use of symbols.
3. Read more stories: Parents who read or tell stories at bed-time are more likely to foster imaginative play.
4. Make costumes together: Making costumes with your child is a fun way to promote learning about specific animals, plants and people.  However, don’t feel like they need to be works of art and built to last a lifetime. We create simple animal and insect costumes for our students to help them better dramatize the actions of our lesson topics without ever touching fabric or a needle. Simple wings can be made from poster board and yarn, or antennae from cardboard and pipe cleaners. You don’t need to know how to sew to create fun costumes that your child will love!
5. Provide lots of play time: Give your child uninterrupted time to play pretend. It can take children some time to stage their pretend play, especially when several children are playing together.
6. Let children control the play: While your child may want to play pretend with you, it is important that you let them control the play and take your cues from them. Remember, when adults are telling children how to play, it’s not really play.

The good news is that children will find a way to play pretend in just about situation. The best way to support this important developmental activity is just to let them do it.

To learn more about the benefits of imaginative play, check out this great article by Early Childhood News.

Read this post to learn about the importance of play to child development.

Check out The Importance of Play and get practical ideas for creating play-positive environments over at The Imagination Tree.

The above photos were taken by Science Education and Research staff and interns.

August 7, 2014

Home Connections: Making Kid Salsa

by Melissa Harding


At summer camp, one of our favorite topics is teaching about where our food comes from, plant to plate. We teach our campers how seeds turn into plants, how flowers are pollinated to become fruits, and how to find “hidden” plants in their favorite foods (hint: spaghetti is made of plants). These lessons naturally lend themselves to themed snacks, especially ones made of vegetables and fruits. However, as we all know, young children can often be picky eaters. No matter what our best intentions may be, sometimes all they want to eat are pretzels and chicken nuggets. Fortunately, we have kid-tested some great snacks that both meet Phipps healthy nutritional guidelines and our lesson themes. One of our most popular snacks is Kid Salsa; we tell our students that it is rainbow salsa, made from a rainbow of different colorful veggies to help them grow big and strong.

Making Kid Salsa is easy to do with kids, as it has few ingredients, and is beloved for its mild taste. There are three main ingredients in this recipe: tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and sweet onion. While these ingredients are not always individually liked by kids, they come together to create a pleasing taste that even young children can appreciate – especially if you spoon it on some whole wheat pitas. Additionally, they are easy vegetables to harvest from our Edible Garden, which is a great sensory experience that helps children connect their food to the plants that make it.


One of the ways that we turn this snack into an activity is to make it with our campers, rather than for them. While using sharp knives is not an option with early learners, there are some interesting devices that help us to turn vegetables into salsa without ever using an exposed blade. Our favorite item it a veggie chopper with its blades encased in a plastic circle; children can place it over a small piece of pre-cut onion or tomato and press a button on the top that raises and lowers the blades to chop the vegetable underneath. The children are nowhere near the blades, but have the experience of “cutting up” the salsa. As a bonus, this particular machine pulverizes the tomatoes into a pulp that is ideal for salsa and gives it a soup-y texture. A way to emulate this experience at home would be to use a food processor.

Here is how we make Kid Salsa:

6 tomatoes
2 bell pepper
1/2 sweet onion
1 pinch salt (optional)
1 small bunch cilantro (optional)

To make: Dice tomatoes, peppers and onion into  1/8″-sized pieces; use a knife, food processor or veggie chopper to turn veggies into very small pieces. Mix together in a bowl until combined. Using clean scissors, cut cilantro directly into the bowl to taste. Stir to combine. Add an optional pinch of salt to taste.

Serve with whole wheat pitas, pita chips or tortillas.

The urge to add more flavorful ingredients – garlic, hot peppers, cucumber – can be strong, but don’t give in to it. While these give a more grown-up and complex flavor to the salsa, kids will not like it. There are plenty of delicious salsas for adults; this one is just for kids. Many children express trepidation when it comes time to try the salsa; they worry it will be hot or spicy. This salsa always surprises them. Though it is basic in nature, it appeals to the simple and often picky palette of even our youngest learners.

To learn more about cooking with young children, check out this post. 

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.



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