Let’s Close the Word Gap

Ready to learn about the Word Gap?

I love to sneak learning into all parts of life. I’m a curious person, I can’t help it! My son asked if we could go on one vacation without learning things, and I answered with a maniacal laugh and a deep, sonorous NO. In this family, we love to learn!! And we talk about what we learn!!

Seriously, learning does not have to be boring. Learning can be fun if you do it the right way. And the right way is to make it into a game.

On car trips, when our kids were very little, we played rhyming games. They are all now school age so we will often play ‘Spelling Bee’ and give our kids funny words to spell at their grade level. We also keep a small but mighty trivia book tucked in a seat pocket and take turns passing it around and answering questions.

But let’s say you’re not on vacation and want some fun learning games for young kids. My first recommendation is BINGO. Yes, the classic game of Bingo is perfect to start playing with young kids (and older kids).

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Learning Numbers

When my oldest started kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to volunteer and help out. So as we neared Halloween, his wonderfully patient and experienced teacher invited me in to play a game with the class. I brought in our Bingo game set, complete with rolling ball and playing cards and red plastic markers. I started calling out letters and numbers and my son (and maybe a few other students) marked their cards. But most of the kids didn’t know what I meant when I called out double-digit numbers.

I felt embarrassed, but I also knew these kids could learn these numbers and that a game like Bingo was the perfect way to help them. We had been playing Bingo with our kids for a long time. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I could have written the numbers on the board and helping the kids look at their cards and match them up. I also could have done peer teaching and paired kids up.

Learning Words

It’s really important that kids learn their numbers, but it’s also important that they master our language and learn the parts of speech. Having a strong and varied vocabulary increases our ability to explain ourselves and understand others, to express complex thoughts and build connections between concepts and create new ideas. And that’s where Mad Libs comes in.

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Yes, Mad Libs. That old school paper book (not an e-device) that asks players to write in verbs, adjectives and nouns. The one where you couldn’t resist writing “butt” and “poop” at least a few times. It works.

My friend took a Mad Libs story into her son’s fourth grade class as a part of a holiday party and she was surprised how few kids could provide suggestions for the parts of speech. Standards in third grade already covered adjectives, adverbs and proper nouns! By fourth grade, students should be able to provide appropriate suggestions for those parts of speech. But even if they struggle, Mad Libs is a fun, non-academic way to encourage them to think about what kind of word is both grammatically logical but also hilariously out of place.

The Word Gap

Thinking about Mad Libs brings me back to the Word Gap. Simply put, kids from low income families are hearing and learning fewer words than kids from high income families. By age 3, kids from low income families are hearing 30 million fewer words. 30 million. And the discrepancy only increases as the kids age. It impacts these kids in terms of school success, which in turn impacts their chances of continuing education, job readiness, and the cycle of poverty.

A lack of words? It’s totally unfair.

It seems so bitterly unjust to me, someone who loves to talk and learn, that these children are already behind due to a lack of words. I try never to talk ‘down’ to children (or adults). But lots of people aren’t aware of this and say they aren’t sure what to say to kids. And sometimes when I take my children’s writing to more general critique groups, I get comments that my vocabulary is too high and I need to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘make it more kid friendly.’

But now you and I know being kid friendly means offering them more words, not less.

There are some amazing ideas out there. People are working to increase the number of words kids see, hear, read, learn and say. I’d love to contribute in some way to reduce the Word Gap. I’m going to keep thinking about it and I’m going to ask my kids what they think would work.

How would you reduce the Word Gap?

 

More tips for picky eaters!

Boy eating whole wheat bread

Boy cannot live on bread alone.

Looking for more tips for picky eaters? If you have a picky eater in your family, you are probably familiar with the feeling that you’re in the middle of a food fight. You’ve prepared food but your picky eater won’t try a bite. Let the battle of wills begin! But I found that getting into a food fight with my picky eater left us both feeling defeated and angry. I want my children to have a healthy, curious attitude about food. And I don’t like arguing at every meal. So I looked into ways to work with my picky eater.

One important change was the creation of My Food Notebook. Not only did it help my child remember what foods he had tried and liked, it helped me remember if he liked foods prepared a certain way or with a certain condiment, which we call a “Flavor Buddy.” I also did a lot of research on techniques to that make it easier for kids to try new foods. Some of those tips are available here. But if you need additional ideas, here are five more tips to help create a win-win situation at your dinner table, too.

 

More Tips for Picky Eaters

1. Family Style – Instead of giving each person the same size serving and preparing plates in the kitchen, bring your food to the dinner table in family style bowls or platters and let your dining companions, young and old, choose the size of their serving. You may be surprised how many vegetables your children consume when they are allowed to serve themselves. And for those picky eaters, starting with a smaller portion is a lot less intimidating that facing a huge mound of spinach.

2. Choices – Whenever possible, I offer two or more vegetable choices at our family style dinners. I remind my children that a healthy meal includes some protein, some carbohydrates and a large serving of produce, then I let them choose. I highlight the nutritional benefits of each vegetable in language my kids can understand. We talk about Vitamin A in carrots and how it helps your eyes and Vitamin C in sweet potatoes and how it helps you fight off germs. But giving them a choice usually means they will eat more of their chosen food than if I have forced them to eat a certain vegetable.

3. Sticks – Putting food on sticks is like waving a magic wand for many picky eaters. Foods on sticks, whether it’s a kebob stick, a toothpick, or a really cute bento box mini-fork seems to make trying that food so much more fun.

4. Faces and fun – Since kids eat with their eyes and many children prefer to touch their food before putting it in their mouths, I often let them create faces and have a little fun with certain foods. Especially if we’re building a salad, creating a little monster face or cartoon character out of the salad ingredients can take the pressure off of trying new foods.

5. Be consistent –  There will be times when your picky eater is completely resistant to all tactics. Maybe they just aren’t hungry or aren’t in the mood to have fun. That happens here, too. But we don’t let our kids off the hook, they are required to have one bite of a vegetable – any vegetable they choose – at dinner. We call it our hop-down bite. You can’t hop-down from the table until you’ve taken the bite. And we never waver on this rule. Stick to it and the arguments and testing will fade. Do not give in. Not even once.

My Food Notebook helps picky eaters

My Food Notebook helps picky eaters

Once you’ve started using these tips to work with your picky eater, don’t forget to keep track of the foods they’ve tried in your very own copy of My Food Notebook. And let us know what foods become favorites – or not.

Check out MORE tips for picky eaters here!

New articles published

I am excited to announce a few new articles are now published and ready to be read!

In August, my article “Make Your Open House a Hit” went live on PTOToday.com.

In September, my article “Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in School” went live on SchoolFamily.com.

And in October, my article “What to Do With Poo” came out in the November 2014 issue of Odyssey Magazine.

Odyssey magazine

Attention grabber!

The Mom Con in Pittsburgh

the mom con Pittsburgh

Nov. 15 – Don’t miss this!

There’s buzz, no doubt about it, surrounding The Mom Con happening in Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 2014! It’s going to be a great event this year and although I’m not able to attend as a vendor for family reasons, I have to say I’m excited to still be involved and learning from the organizers.

The theme for this year’s event is “Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering” and frankly I’ve felt all of those things even before going to the event! I’ve been learning about the businesses and vendors that will be there and I’ve been inspired by the founding moms. I’ve connected with other moms at pre-Mom Con events. And I’ve felt empowered to reach out and try some new events outside of my comfort zone.

Check out this list of speakers  and the schedule. There are still tickets available and if you haven’t gotten yours, I suggest you get them soon!

 

 

Why Farm to Table is Great for Kids and Families

 

Farm to table Pittsburgh

March 21-22, 2014

This weekend is the 8th annual Farm to Table Conference in Pittsburgh! I am really excited to be involved in this year’s event again. The theme for this year is Food Sources and the conference again offers lots of excellent activities for children. The conference has always been family friendly, but a new feature of this year’s conference is the special Kids’ Track of programs! Both Friday and Saturday there will be programs and speakers just for kids and families. The Kids’ Track is a great way to introduce kids to the joys of eating healthy, local food. And if you’re not already convinced to bring your kids downtown, remember that kids under 12 are free!

We are so lucky to have this event in Pittsburgh. I recently spoke at the Parenting Expo here in Pittsburgh and discussed how helping children experience food with all of their senses increases their comfort level with foods and can help them learn to try new foods. Growing foods, shopping at farmer’s markets, attending events like Farm to Table and seeing gorgeous photos of fresh foods being grown, even meeting our local farmers, are all positive ways to help children develop a willingness to try new foods.

I’m so excited to be a part of the Kids’ Track on both days. On Friday, I’ll be hosting a special Tasting Party for kids, and on Saturday I’ll be hosting the Super Fun Local Food Challenge School Assembly! Both of these programs are available as school classroom workshops or assemblies and work with the Social Studies standards for Pennsylvania schools.

Of course in addition to these programs there’s the Local Food Tasting on Friday night and the Saturday Networking Breakfast. Both events are hugely popular. By the time I got to the Saturday breakfast last year all of the food was gone – it was so good no one left a crumb!

I’ll have an exhibitor table again and I’ll offer an encore to last year’s very popular Pizza on a Stick Tasting Party. My boys love coming to Farm to Table and roaming the tables, trying everything from local honey to local cheese, pickled vegetables, fresh milk, apples and more. This year I have decided to get one of those mushroom logs. I love mushrooms and Pennsylvania is the nation’s leading producer of these tasty fungi!

Looking forward to seeing you at the 2014 Farm to Table Conference. Bring the kids, stop by and say hello!

 

How to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables

how to get kids to eat vegetables

Give kids a choice

The secret

The secret to getting kids to eat vegetables is really quite simple. Give them the choice. Before you click away saying, “My kid would choose not to eat them,” hear me out. I didn’t say give them the choice whether or not to eat vegetables. Give them the choice of which vegetables and fruits.

There is real scientific evidence to back this up, but let me begin anecdotally. The photo above is from our Pittsburgh-area elementary school cafeteria. How does our school get kids to eat vegetables and fruits? They offer a choice.

And when my boys buy lunch, which is about once a week, I tell them they need to choose a fruit and a vegetable, but it’s up to them what to choose. I offer them a choice.

My second son, who is a bit picky, usually sticks with applesauce and carrots.

My oldest son almost always chooses grapes and the crunchy vegetable mix of cucumbers, celery and carrots. Choices within choices.

The science

Now for the scientific evidence. This study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that offering kids a variety of vegetables and fruit and letting them choose which ones to eat led to them eating more fruits and vegetables!

The researchers observed that “children chose some pieces in 94% of snacks with variety and in 70% of snacks without variety” and “Providing a variety of vegetables and fruit as a snack led to increased consumption of both food types in a childcare facility. Serving a variety of vegetables or fruit as a snack could help preschool children meet recommended intakes.”

Think about your own eating habits. I am sure you prefer to have more than a little choice in the matter. We all love some control over what we eat. So if you are looking for ways to get kids to eat vegetables and fruits, offer a choice.

Have you given your kids choice in their foods? Has it helped? 

 

 

 

Fun Food for Your Picky Preschooler

I know it’s tough to to the parent of a picky preschooler. They are not at the age when you can reason with them and their tastes change so quickly, it can feel so frustrating. But there’s another way to approach the challenge: make it fun.

I was so lucky to visit a Bright Horizons class this summer and bring one of my Tasting Party workshops. There was more than one picky preschooler in attendance. I was bringing some new foods to them to try so we decided to make it fun. Making pizza on a stick all by themselves was a delightful adventure. Take a look at these brave little faces!

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Do it yourself – it tastes better!

 

 

 

Fun for these kids means hands-on and the opportunity to examine the food options as much as possible before tasting it.They looked closely at the food, smelled it, touched it and then finally nibbled and tried! More than one child tried tomatoes for the first time. Not everybody liked them but they were giggling and chatting and no one whined! Can you imagine that kind of dinner?

picky preschooler

No one can resist food on a stick

How Can We Raise Healthy Kids if Parents are the Problem?

logo for Let's Move Pittsburgh, healthy kids

It’s never too late to inspire change.

I attended a fantastic meeting yesterday discussing ways to support healthy kids hosted by Let’s Move Pittsburgh. Any event at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens puts me in a good mood, but this topic is dear to my heart. I not a perfect parent but I do value resources that help me and my community raise healthy kids.

We heard inspiring information from Healthy Armstrong, a community partnership that has made great strides in the past ten years. But no one had any illusions about how much more needs to be done. As I listened to the excellent ideas Healthy Armstrong had implemented in schools to help kids eat healthy and be more active, like Monster Salads (who can resist eating a monster-faced salad), I had a specific question waiting.

“Did any parents object to these changes?”

“Yes,” our speaker acknowledged. “Ten years ago when we took fries on the menu, there was a boycott. But it’s not like that any more.”

I thought about my own school district where parents objected strongly to the removal of 400 calorie cookie from the snack items available for purchase at lunch. I thought about the subtle ways my school district has blocked concerned parents from working with school staff.

Other attendees noted that they’ve hosted events for parents to learn how to cook healthier, buy fresher food, eat better.

“No one comes,” they all agreed.

Why aren’t more parents willing to eat healthy?

At more that one school, parent groups will host fundraisers selling junk food items in an attempt to support the school. Our school district hosts a fundraiser that puts teachers behind the counter at a fast food restaurant and the school administrators actually called parents at home to encourage them to bring the children to buy food.

What are these activities teaching our kids?

Thankfully, some kids are learning the right messages and making changes on their own. Chef Mike from the City Charter school shared a moving story that showed kids may be the key to encourage parents to make some changes.

“We had a student who loved a menu item we made, and asked for the instructions. But I got an email from the parent saying ‘don’t send this home with my kid, I can’t afford these ingredients.’ Well, next time we did the menu item we showed the student how to make it and what to buy. He used money from his own part-time job to get the ingredients. He made it for his parent and the parent emailed me and said ‘thank you.’ They finally realized it wasn’t that bad.”

Let’s Move Pittsburgh focuses on children birth to age 8. That’s key because as Healthy Armstrong knows, even with their changes, 35% of kindergarteners come into school obese. Something needs to change at home.

Has your child ever inspired you to adopt a new healthy behavior?

A Little Magic Helps Picky Eaters

 

Do you adore grocery shopping and cooking?  Who doesn’t love making your way down the same old aisles of thestore, grabbing the few standard ingredients needed to tackle the next chore of cooking and then suffering the whines of our kids as they complain and push their plates away?

Re-discover the magic of choosing and preparing food.

Cooking is like magic – you transform separate ingredients into a complete meal. And we learned that we could transform our picky eaters into willing taste-tests by including them in the grocery shopping and cooking. While it seems like a chore to most adults, to kids it’s brand-new and gives them a chance to experience aspects of food that adults take for granted.

Many times, picky eaters are simply scared of the unknown. We have found that when our kids can choose which bunch of broccoli looks “most delicious” at the store or which “new flavor of cheese” they want to try, they are less intimidated.

It was the Irish Soda bread that opened our eyes. Would our pickiest eater ever touch this? No way – there were 


raisins in the bread! But thanks to his cooking class at our Kindercare, he participated from start to finish and loved the bread so much he had trouble sharing it. He knew what was in it and I believe he felt more comfortable trying it!

At home now, we try to include our kids in as much grocery shopping and cooking as possible. Dylan is now quite skilled at making scrambled eggs from start to finish. It’s one of his favorite foods and I love that he understands how much work goes into preparing food.

We try new recipes together, like the very simple process of making homemade tortillas or family favorites like pizza bagels. Starting with something simple and offering options like pesto or black olives is a great way to encourage tasting new foods, too.

Inspired by this discovery, My Food Notebook has a Notes section that allows kids to record what they would like to buy at the grocery store and paste or write their favorite recipes. My older son likes to use the Notes section to invent menus for different restaurants he would like to open. I’m not sure about some of his ideas, but I promised him I’d at least give his recipes a try!

Moms of Grumpy Kids – You’re Not Alone!

I’m the mom of a grumpy kid. Like other moms, I look for ways to help my grumpy kid not be so grumpy. In the search for a way to help understand that he could choose to be grumpy or choose to be happy during his days, I told him a little story.

What started as a story just for my son Dylan turned into the children’s book The Bumpy Grumpy Road. And now other moms are telling me it’s helping their grumpy kids, too.

After I wrote it and read it to Dylan, I mentioned the story to a few close friends. They shared it with their kids and told me the idea helped them, too. So, I wrote an essay about our family’s struggle and slow road to success and sent it to one of my favorite magazines, Family Fun It was a delight to learn they also enjoyed the story and published it in their April 2012 issue. [The story has since been republished on the Parents website.]

Not long after the issue came out, I received notes from other moms who said reading my essay felt like they were reading about their own families. I received emails, Facebook messages, even a handwritten note from a mom!  It was a relief  for all of us to know we’re not alone, and that’s something I try to remind my own children – they are never alone when they feel sad, angry or frustrated. We’re always there to help them find their way back to the smooth, fast road.

“Steering Clear of Grumpiness” April 2012 Family Fun