Play and a Happy Holiday to You!

Mom (and this Blog's Editor) with Author, Jennifer Miller circa 1976-ish
Mom (and this Blog’s Editor) with Author, Jennifer Miller circa 1976-ish

In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.

– Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Since Christmas is the holiday I celebrate in the coming week and toys are filling my head and attic, I thought it appropriate to focus this article on the importance of play in a child’s life. In our household, we’ve decorated the Christmas tree with ornaments that remind us of vacations, happy times, Christmases and relatives. My husband and I, in addition to wrapping up work, are busy getting gifts, baking cookies, writing cards and hosting gatherings for all of those friends, teachers and colleagues who have played a meaningful role in our lives this year. We are also busy thinking about, planning for and buying gifts for our son that will give him joy and engage his imagination. We – like many – hope for a magical Christmas in which our family feels a sense of joy in giving, in our connectedness as a family and in an appreciation of the good life that we have.

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Dad and Author, Jennifer Miller, Christmas 1980-ish

A good part of my child’s happiness is centered around play. Play is the vehicle through which some of the most fundamental developmental leaps of learning take place. It is the central vocation of childhood. And toys are the tools of the trade. In some developing countries where toys are not readily available, children play with the tools of the household imitating the adults around them to learn how things work. While I cook on the real stove, Ethan bakes a batch of cookies in his play kitchen set. Development, moving from one level of thinking and ability to the next, takes place when a child is in a window of time in which he/she is ready (developmentalist Lev Vygotsky called it the zone of proximal development). Play moves a child toward those next steps when they are ready. And interaction between a child playing with a more competent adult or older child can help facilitate those developmental jumps.

When does a child stop playing? When does play stop enhancing a person’s development? It doesn’t ever have to stop. Teenagers engage in play with video games, puzzles, board games, novels and social fantasies. As adults, though we have less opportunity for play, we do engage in creative endeavors that often times are the most fulfilling because they come from our intrinsic desires to express ourselves.

So my holiday wish for you is that you take time to play. Get down on the floor or if you have back troubles like my husband, sit in your comfy chair. Play can take place anywhere with many toys or none at all. You could be on a bus, a train or an airplane and if you’ve brought your imagination along, the sky is the limit. Here are some easy ways to engage in play this season.

Just do it. Get down on the floor and play. Engage in the interests of your child and see where it takes you. Build a new track system for a train. Rearrange a dollhouse. Build a fort of pillows.

Take a mental trip. Read a book together or if you feel particularly creative, close your eyes with your child, decide on a destination (the beach, Grandma’s House or Outer Space?) and describe your incredible journey to get there and what and who you encounter when you get there. Include details of the experience from your five senses and you will help transport you and your child.

Build a story. Look back at photo albums from former trips and vacations. Make up a story together set in your favorite location.

Buy toys that engage the imagination. Costumes are a terrific way for a child to engage in pretend play. You can likely find some dress-up clothes in your closet. But toy stores also sell a variety of occupational dress-up clothes (chef, police officer, fire person, postal worker, train conductor, princess). Any play sets that involve characters (people, animals, trains, cars, fairies) engage the imagination. Toys that are household tools like blenders, screwdrivers and vacuums are ways that children can play grown-up. For young adults, games, chemistry sets and art supplies can be both fun and engaging.

Reap the benefits of one of the greatest gifts your children can give – attention and presence in the moment. Children naturally have the gift of mindfulness, being aware of what’s going on at the moment it is happening. They learn in time from the adult world to multi-task and become distracted and scattered. But inherent in children is the ability to focus on something they are truly interested in through their creativity and imagination. Take advantage of that gift and experience a sense of timelessness, of “flow.” Turn over rocks in the garden and see what’s there.

I try to “walk the talk” so after I wrote the draft of this article, I played with my son for an hour before it was time to make dinner. I let him lead and cars zoomed off cliffs. The big yoga ball came out for some crazy rolling. Tickling ensued and Daddy joined in. I laughed until my belly ached. So that is my wish for you this holiday. Play! May your belly ache with laughter!


What Can I Do about Sandy Hook Elementary School?

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Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.

–       Elizabeth Stone

And this is the very reason why the events of Sandy Hook Elementary School have shaken us all to the core. Because it is our very exposed heart that has been wounded. It’s inconceivable that innocent children’s lives have been taken in what is supposed to be a safe haven, a daily environment in which we entrust our most sacred heart. The friends and family that I’ve spoken with about the occurrence have consistently said, “I have to do something. It’s not enough to be horrified and sad. I have to take action.” And so what can anyone do to make a difference – to heal a gaping wound and to prevent something like this from happening in the future? I too am eager to do something. Here are some ideas to get started.

Begin at home. Make sure you are really connecting with your children daily. Disconnect to connect. Iphones, pads, and other devices have become vehicles for connecting with everyone except those we are physically with – typically our most intimate family. Because the beeps, light flashes, and constant press of these machines bring our attention back to the device, it requires great discipline to put them down, turn them off, and tune in to our children. Set a timer for yourself if you need to but give your children your full, undivided attention even if it’s only for a short time each day. Find out what’s going on in their heads and hearts. Laugh together. Talk and, most especially, listen well if they are scared or upset. Be patient if deep connection doesn’t happen immediately. If you’ve been disconnected, then it takes time to build trust. We can see now that that connection is critical in keeping them and others safe.

Partner with your child’s teacher. Ask if there are ways you can support your child’s teacher in building community amongst classmates. Teachers are often open to parents coming into the classroom to share experiences, read stories or give presentations on their careers. Making a personal connection with your child’s teacher will enhance communication, develop a trusting relationship and create a stronger alliance between the school and your family. Take it a step further if you are interested and able and volunteer as a teacher’s aide in the classroom regularly (weekly or monthly). Research shows that students perform better in school when parents are involved. But in addition, students are safer if parents are directly involved with the teacher and the classroom.

Partner with your school. It’s likely that your school is reviewing their crisis management plan and communicating it to parents. If they aren’t, then they should be and you can advocate for that to take place!  You should be aware of what they plan to do in an emergency including a situation like Sandy Hook. How you will be notified and what role you can play? That plan should be in writing. It should include a plan for communications amongst school staff but also, with families and with students. How will students be directed in an emergency? How will a tragedy be talked about with students after it has occurred? Is there a forum for conversation that is a safe, trusting space? But in addition, make sure that there are conversations and a clear plan for prevention.

Advocate for school-community supports. What supports are there for students who need more than the school can offer? In schools, these are typically referred to as “intervention supports.” If the response you receive is “We have academic tutors for those students who are not performing academically.” That’s not enough. What supports are there for students who need emotional and social assistance beyond what the school personnel can directly address? The students you may be thinking of are the 5-10% of a school population who act out and demonstrate clearly anti-social behavior. Certainly there need to be supports for those children. But in addition, nearly every child in a school at one point or another during their school career needs additional emotional support that a teacher likely will not be able to provide. My parents separated when I was in sixth grade and I needed to see a counselor during that time. I hadn’t needed outside supports my entire school career. But I needed it then. So considering that many children will need additional support, the following questions need to be addressed.

  • How do you identify students who are in need of outside assistance beyond what the school can provide?
  • Who is responsible for working with the students and families in order to seek assistance?
  • Is that staff person aware of, in communication with and able to refer students and families to adequate mental health services in the community for those that are in need of it?

The schools with which I work have a social worker or counselor who is primarily responsible for cultivating trust between families, students and the school. They work closely with teachers to identify those students who are displaying risky behaviors and ensure that students who need more support than a classroom teacher can reasonably provide, get that support in the community. Parents confide in that person when a relative dies or a family member is admitted into rehabilitation. The social worker guides the family through the support-seeking process so that the intimidation or embarrassment is reduced and the family gets the help they need.

Promote school-family-community connections. Preventing a crisis from occurring also involves connection. Families need to feel connected to the school. Students need to feel connected to the school and each other. Teachers need to feel connected to students, parents, the principal and the larger system. Research-based positive school climate, social and emotional learning and character education initiatives all have the potential to build a sense of connectedness between all individuals in a school community if this is seen as an explicit goal. Greater communication among caring adults means that problems are identified quickly and at the start so that they can be addressed before they escalate to the point of a crisis. The profile of individuals who perpetrate school shootings is typically that of an introvert, sometimes, the victim of bullying, but often, a student that goes unnoticed. In schools with which I work, there is no child that goes unnoticed. Every person – staff and students – is greeted each morning through a Morning Meeting. Each student gets the opportunity to share something about themselves daily. This – connectedness in school communities – is the way that we turn this problem around in the long term. But it requires work and commitment on everyone’s part to make it successful and sustain the change for the benefit of all.

Organize and mobilize parents. I know of two committed parents (in two different states) who, through volunteerism and advocacy, have created a focus on social and emotional learning to prevent bullying and other violence in their respective districts. One such individual in Strongsville, Ohio, a member of their PTA (Parent Teacher Association), noticed that the state PTA organization was not talking about the need for social and emotional learning in schools.  She developed and proposed a resolution for the Ohio PTA to focus on “maximizing student potential and achievement through positive school climate and social and emotional learning.” It now serves as a national model for other PTAs. It happened because of her persistence. She continually asked questions, enlisted experts and other parent supporters, believed in the importance of her cause and pushed the agenda forward until her voice was heard and the resolution was adopted. In my experience working with numerous policy and practice issues with school districts over the years, if a small group of parents exert their influence and assert that something is essential to the education and well-being of students that is not currently being addressed, schools and school districts have no choice but to take notice and respond. That famous quote from Margaret Mead rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Advocate for policy and practice change. Though social and emotional learning in education has made great strides in influencing the way schools operate in the past 20-30 years, there is still much work to do. The conversations around education nationally continue to focus on the three Rs (Reading, Riting and Rithmatic) and seem to often neglect and marginalize the other critical three Rs (Respect, Responsibility and Resilience). That must change. The national conversation on educational essentials must include our current realities. Students need to be prepared for the global knowledge economy with creative and critical thinking skills, collaborative abilities, strong communication competencies, respect for differences, and the ability to think responsibly and ethically in their decision making. Those same students need to be self aware and become practiced in controlling their impulses and managing their emotions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Write to your local politician, your Congressional leaders, your President and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of U.S. Education. All these individuals need to hear consistently that addressing the social and emotional development of kids and promoting connectedness in schools is not a “nice-to-have” but has become an essential for the education of our citizenry.

Of course, sending positive thoughts or prayers to the families affected by this tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is something we all can do. I hope you will make a commitment to taking action in your own way. If you need support in doing so, please call upon me or the following organizations to help you along the way. Though all of them are located in the United States, many of them will have resources that extend globally.

Organizational Resources

Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., Educational Consultant

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

CASEL was founded in 1994 by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, educator/philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller Growald, and a group of distinguished researchers and practitioners. We are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning.

Responsive Classroom

The Responsive Classroom approach is a widely used, research-backed approach to elementary education that increases academic achievement, decreases problem behaviors, improves social skills, and leads to more high-quality instruction.

Edutopia – The George Lucas Foundation

Edutopia is dedicated to transforming the learning process by helping educators implement the strategies below. These strategies — and the educators who implement them — are empowering students to think critically, access and analyze information, creatively problem solve, work collaboratively, and communicate with clarity and impact. Discover the resources, research, experts, and fellow Edutopia members who are changing our schools. Join us in reinventing the learning process!

National School Climate Center

Our goal is to promote positive and sustained school climate: a safe, supportive environment that nurtures social and emotional, ethical, and academic skills. NSCC is an organization that helps schools integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction. In doing so, we enhance student performance, prevent drop outs, reduce physical violence, bullying, and develop healthy and positively engaged adults.

Educator’s for Social Responsibility

Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) works directly with educators to implement systemic practices that create safe, caring, and equitable schools so that all young people succeed in school and life, and help shape a safe, democratic and just world. Founded in 1982, ESR is a national leader in school reform and provides professional development, consultation, and educational resources to adults who teach young people in preschool through high school.

Character Education Partnership

Character Education Partnership (CEP) is a national advocate and leader for the character education movement. Based in Washington, DC, we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian coalition of organizations and individuals committed to fostering effective character education in our nation’s schools.

National Center for Learning and Citizenship

Part of the Education Commission of the States, The National Center for Learning and Citizenship (NCLC) assists education leaders to promote, support, and reward civic education and service-learning as essential components of America’s education system. The NCLC’s mission is to: 1). Identify and analyze policies and practices that support effective service-learning and civic education; 2). Disseminate analyses of best practices and policy trends; 3). Convene national, state, and local meetings; and 4). Network to share information about service-learning and civic education. The NCLC also works closely with other national, state, and local advocacy groups in order to contribute to a collective public voice in support of the civic mission of schools. The NCLC complements the mission of the Education Commission of the States with a unique level of expertise and collaboration within the fields of civic education and service-learning.

Social Development Research Group

For over 30 years the Social Development Research Group (SDRG) has sought to investigate and promote healthy behaviors and positive social development in youth and adults. SDRG is a recognized leader in the field of prevention research. Our efforts to understand how risk and protective factors influence development have resulted in hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed journals and led to the development of tested and effective interventions.

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Mental Health in Schools

We are a center for policy and practice analysis. Because we know that schools are not in the mental health business, all our work approaches mental health and psychosocial concerns in ways that integrally connect such efforts with school reform and improvement. We do this by integrating health and related concerns into the broad perspective of addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development. We clarify the need to restructure current policy, practice, research, and training to enable development of a comprehensive and cohesive approach that is an essential and primary component at every school. We stress that without a comprehensive component for addressing barriers to learning many students cannot benefit from instructional reforms, and thus, achievement scores will not rise in the way current accountability pressures demand.

Wisdom from Mister Rogers – “Look for the Helpers”

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

— Mister Rogers

Thanks Bzz for a Cause and Jill Smith for sharing this!

Sending my love to families in Newtown, Connecticut

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It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.

– Aristotle Onassis

My heart goes out to all in Newtown, Connecticut and particularly the families effected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I am sending out my candle of light to you in this time of darkness. No words can adequately express the collective sorrow for your loss.

The Joy of Giving

the joy of giving illust 001Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.

– Lao Tzu

The holiday season is an ideal time to help children learn about the joy of giving. When parents teach children to think about their giving, it teaches critical skills in self awareness.  For example, the gift giver must think “What talents or abilities do I have that could be utilized to create a special gift?” It also teaches social awareness. Children gets lots of practice making wish lists, looking through toy catalogues and generally, itemizing the many things they want. But thinking about and planning for gift giving also gives them practice in thinking about what other people like and enjoy. The thought process also involves children in a form of problem solving since they need to use their creative thinking to generate ideas for gifts. Don’t get discouraged if a child initially comes up with gifts for Grandma that resemble or are identical to what the child might have on their own wish list. That’s part of their learning process. Grammy likely doesn’t want a Lalaloopsy doll for Christmas or a Lightening McQueen car for Chanakuh. However you can begin to help guide their thinking process to come up with ideas that might resemble something a bit closer to what Grammy might actually like or be interested in.

Here are some simple ways to teach the art of giving.

Think Aloud

…about your own giving. You likely thought aloud often when your child was a baby. As you were going about your daily activities, many parents naturally narrate their lives to help a baby come to greater understandings about their environment and also develop language skills. This may feel awkward at first but remember those baby days and utilize that strategy as ready teaching tool. “I know Aunt Sue loves to knit so maybe I’ll get her some new yarn and knitting needles.” “And I need to buy a gift for Grandpa Bob. I know he fishes and works on his boat. Maybe I might find something for him at the sporting goods store?” Just articulating your own natural thought process in front of your child will help him or her begin to think in terms of what others interests might be.

Ask Good Questions and Wait

…for a response from your child. What do we know about Grandma Helen? What does she like to eat? Wear? Read? How does she spend her time? Ask guiding questions about the gift recipient (take one person at a time). Unless a child’s idea about a person’s taste and interests are completely outlandish, go with it! By accepting your child’s ideas as valid, you will be encouraging them to think more about giving. If your child comes up with expensive ideas, think about ways you might alter them to make them possible. If your child knows that Grandma really needs a new car, maybe your child could draw a picture of a new car she might like. Or maybe you could think about an inexpensive item that she could use to spruce up her current car. As a small child, I knew my Mom liked rings so I cut out a bunch of paper rings and put them in an envelope for her for Christmas. I know it touched her and she keeps them to this day. Adults in your child’s life will appreciate the thought that went into your child’s gift for them.

Draw upon your Child’s Talents and Abilities

…to create a homemade gift for those you love. Is your child a good photographer? Put together a photo collage. Can your child play an instrument? Have a recital or prerecord a song for a loved one. Does your child enjoy art? Have your child draw a portrait of the gift recipient. Has your child learned to write a short story in school? Have them write a short story including the person you are considering. Encouraging children to use their talents creating a gift builds their self confidence and teaches them that often the best gifts are ones that come directly from the heart of the giver.

Find a Chance to Give When You Won’t Get

…any gift in return. One easy opportunity to involve your kids in giving when a gift will not be expected in return is to give a gift of appreciation to a teacher. Teachers typically do not have the resources to give gifts to each individual child. And there is a clear reason to give a teacher a gift thanking them for the daily contribution they make to your child’s life. Create a gift from the heart for a teacher and it will be appreciated. For example, bake goodies, make a pencil holder out of a jar and construction paper, or frame a class photograph.

You can also involve your child in service to your community. Many opportunities exist this month if you plug into them. Pick out food together and take the donation to your local food bank. Adopt a family through an agency and buy necessities and presents. Donate coats to an appropriate nonprofit organization. UGive is an online volunteer matching organization that provides specific opportunities for students and for parents in the U.S. Kids at Pitt River Middle School in Coquitlam, British Columbia began the “Breakfast Club.” They anonymously perform random acts of kindness throughout the school. Watch the powerful YouTube video and grab your box of tissues. The kindness in the school changed the quality of the relationships and the culture of the school. People felt more connected to one another. You can do this in your family life too. Make service a part of your holiday tradition and it will enrich your entire family.

The beauty of using your own giving to create teachable moments is that it doesn’t have to take a whole lot of time, energy or planning. Just be sure to include your child in gift giving discussions as part of your routine for the holidays and see what emerges. I suspect you might have a child who experiences the joy of giving.

Holiday Marathon

holiday marathon illus 001This is it! Don’t get scared now!

–          Kevin McCallister, Home Alone, 1990

This morning I woke up with nervous butterflies uncontrollably circling in my mid-section. I dreamt that I had entered a race but in the midst of many familiar faces, could not find anyone who knew the starting location with only a few minutes left until the starter pistol was to be shot. Ready or not, we are off to the races with the start of the holiday season. No matter which holidays you celebrate – Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or another, you likely have a full calendar of events this month with responsibilities to go with it. Because it’s easy to anticipate that life will be more chaotic, you can also anticipate that children will feel the pressure and be more emotional this month. There may be more upsets, more anger and more frustration and since there will be less time to deal with it, children can get overwhelmed more easily. We all can! Knowing this is the case, what can you do in preparation?

Anticipating Needs 

In the hustle, bustle and excitement of the season, a meltdown can sneak up on a child. Hunger, tiredness or frustration with crowds and chaos can boil over at a moment’s notice leaving a child feeling helpless and out of control. First and very practically, keep a protein snack in your car, travelling bag or purse at all times (peanut butter crackers, cheese crackers). You may feel like you are constantly eating over the holidays but children are much more interested in playing and experiencing the excitement of all of the people around them. They may eat less rather than more. Also, sugar will be abundant in its many tantalizing forms so having some quick protein on hand can indeed save the day when a child’s attitude and blood sugar plummet.

Late nights and lots of time out and about can be exhausting for everyone. Be sure to look for opportunities for a little extra sleep or rest time in which children can be quiet. If you need to, schedule a quiet time each day. It doesn’t have to be long. Model and benefit by making a cup of tea and sitting down with a magazine or good book yourself. For the child, set up a stack of library books, puzzles, or a short pre-selected video. Those moments of down time can boost endurance for the big holiday marathon.

Promoting self awareness

In addition, you can help children become more emotionally self aware. Talk about all of the ways that your body physically experiences frustration, anger or upset. Does your face get red? Do you feel hot? Do you breathe faster? Do you feel shaky or unsteady? Discuss this in a quiet moment when kids are calm. Talk about these telltale signs. You can help them picture a volcano with lava bubbling and boiling. How can you prevent the lava from boiling over? Here are some leading questions you can ask your child:

  • How does your face feel when you are getting upset?
  • How does your body feel?
  • What happens if you stay in the situation that’s upsetting you?
  • What could you do if you feel those signs (face getting hot) to slow down and stop from getting more upset?

Through your questions, work together to identify ways to deal with the feelings in the moment. Ideas may include practicing slow breathing, holding a favorite toy or “lovey” or moving to a quieter place. If they cannot help themselves, they could consider going to an adult for help. A great way to involve your child in the solution is to create a signal (hands on the cheeks like Mcauley Culkin in Home Alone?) that is private for only the two of you so that you know when she’s getting upset and needs a break. This agreement may save you both from embarrassment and make your holiday more joyful.

Preparing a family game plan

Be sure the whole family has a game plan for dealing with the chaos. Having a discussion in advance of holiday plans with your parent partner about how you can work together when challenges arise will ensure that there’s not an additional meltdown between the two of you. Here are some key partnership agreements that will allow you to coordinate as a team.

  • Agree on a response when a child gets upset during a party or in the middle of a shopping mall. How will you both handle the situation? Which one of you will take the lead in dealing with it? Will the other distract the siblings to help? Will you designate a meeting place after you’ve addressed the issue? Will you decide instead to leave?
  • Agree with your partner in advance of a party how long you are going to stay and then stick to the plan. Who and how will you set the childrens’ expectations and give them warning so that there is only cooperation when it’s time to leave?
  • Decide upon family signals that feel natural in a circumstance. Between partners, it’s helpful to find a signal that signifies that one or more of the children needs a break and it’s time to leave before there’s a problem.

Just the simple act of talking about what to do in stressful circumstances can set all family members’ minds at ease. Expectations are set. Agreements are made. And all know what to do in case of difficulty. The holidays can be the “most wonderful time of the year” but acknowledging the stress that accompanies the season can go a long way toward alleviating some of it and creating more opportunity to fully experience your family being together and the many moments of joy along the way.

On Edutopia

Thanks to Maurice Elias, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, Author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, and Edutopia Blogger, Confident Parents, Confident Kids is featured today on Edutopia, the George Lucas Foundation’s website. Check out the blog article below and then, check out this excellent website with loads of valuable resources.


Photo credit: aSIMULAtor via flickr (2)

Parents: Make Bedtime a Social-Emotional Moment with Your Kids

Education consultant Jennifer Miller has launched a wonderful, valuable new blog site for parents, Confident Parents, Confident Kids that I think merits the attention of anyone working in social, emotional and character development…


On “What’s Hot” Radio Show

Jenn on radio illust 001Confident Parents, Confident Kids was featured yesterday on the radio talk show What’s Hot on Cincinnati’s 55-KRC. The feature is ten minutes long. Skip the first five minutes to get right to it! Check out the podcast.

Gifts from the Heart

It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.

Mother Teresa

Many of the major magazines are publishing gift guides with lots of smart ideas to make holiday shopping easy. That’s fine for presents that cost money but here are some ideas for gifts from the heart. They will not require much expense. They will, however, require some time, thought and effort. For example, as a child I labored over a potholder to give to my Mom. Thirty plus years later she still uses it and claims it’s her favorite. The pastel colors boldly clash with her red kitchen but it’s precious to her because it was from me and from the heart. Certainly the following gift ideas will be appreciated by the receivers because they are all personal and promote connectedness. All of the gifts can be put together with help from children.

Picture Collage

Have you ever laid out a puzzle and had your family contribute to putting together over time? A picture collage could be done in the same way. Use a single sheet of thicker paper stock or cardboard as a base. Have a stack of your best family or friend photographs from the year printed. Lay out magazines to use photographs and pictures as well for background. Ideally, pick ones from each season. Place them on a table with glue sticks and scissors. Recruit your family to contribute. Cut and paste! Place in a nice frame with all family members’ signatures and the year on the bottom or back and it’s ready for wrapping. This is a terrific gift for any family member or friend.

Treasure Box

Purchase or make a beautiful box big enough to hold a pack of pencils. Type or write on fortune cookie-sized strips of paper all of the things you love about the person for whom you are creating the gift. For example you might write “You have a wonderful smile.” Use one strip of paper per affirmation and fill the box. This was made for me once and has become a true treasure that is a go-to when I need a spirit lift.


Your children grow and change so quickly, it’s easy to forget how they sounded, looked and talked at various ages and stages. Do a recorded interview with your child. Prepare questions in advance like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Who is your favorite superhero?” “How do you think the stars got up in the sky?” “What is your favorite song?” If your child will squirm or not participate with video, then just use an audio recorder. This will be a treasured gift for a partner parent or grandparent.

Family Story

In every family there are moments and situations that are recounted because they are so familiar, funny or signify an important turning point. Why not record these stories for your family on paper? Photo stores/sites offer easy ways to make books with photographs and text. Or you can utilize good old construction paper, cut and paste photographs and use your own creativity. Write the story in a way that can be read aloud.


Do you have any dishes, clothing, trinkets, stationary or other items (it doesn’t have to be expensive jewelry or the good silver) that was given to you by your mother or father or grandparent? Is it something that the next generation could enjoy now instead of inheriting when you are gone? Tie a beautiful notecard to it with a ribbon in which you write down the history of the item. If you can find out, include the date it was bought, where it was from, who used it and how. That object may be currently in a forgotten drawer in your home but could serve as a real and usable treasure for the gift receiver and a regular reminder of you.

Parent’s Night Out

Plan a full evening out with your partner. Buy gift cards, pick a date and make reservations (if needed) to ensure that all details are pre-planned and part of the gift. Arrange for a grandparent, friend or sitter to watch the children. Be sure to include plans for dinner and some kind of activity. Ice skating? Bowling? Gallery hopping? If you choose a movie or listening to live music, be sure that a portion of the evening gives you the opportunity to really talk and connect.

Think about the most favorite or precious gifts you remember. Maybe it had to do with receiving something expensive that you had longed for. But often times the gifts we love that have lasting value for us have to do with the investment of the giver in the thoughtfulness and love put into the gift. No matter which holiday you celebrate this season, consider giving a gift of the heart.

Waiting Games

I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.

–       Bob Hope

Waiting can try the patience of the most even tempered adults. If you have to wait with children, it can be a downright painful or embarrassing experience as little ones grow bored quickly and can start to act out. It’s Black Friday so you may be standing in line today. Next time you are waiting in a line at Target, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the airport, the post office, or any other place where there are a number of people, try the following games of skill to pass the time. They are fun, require no materials and offer valuable practice in social and emotional skills.

For children 4-8 years old

I spy interesting people.

Identifying feelings is critical for each child when he or she is trying to become self aware to be able to communicate her needs and challenges and to develop into her own best problem solver.

This is a spin on a favorite game.

I spy with my little eye a person who is… happy

… sad

… bored

… frustrated

… excited

… silly

Try to expand a child’s feelings vocabulary by adding in creative or lesser discussed emotions such as disgusted, peppy, or inspired (my son likes “lovestruck”).

ResourceHow are you feeling today? Poster by Jim Borgman

For children 9 and up

What’s the story?

The ability to understand and articulate someone else’s perspective is a challenging skill even for adults. Understanding another’s perspective is a critical part of problem solving and helps a person become more empathetic in any number of circumstances. As with any skill, children will become more adept with practice.

Find a person in the crowd on which to focus. Now just from her appearance and facial expression, decide what she is thinking. What she’s feeling. Why is she feeling that way? Try to make up either the craziest, silliest story, or the most realistic reason for her feelings. This is a good exercise for teens who attempt to do this all of the time as they size up their friends and classmates.

For children 5 and up

Who Done It?

Mystery lovers will enjoy this game. It teaches skills in careful listening and communicating information in an accurate and concise way. It also stirs a child’s creative thinking.

Pretend that your precious pet turtle – who was, coincidently waiting in line with you – was stolen by someone in the crowd. Describe what that person looked like taking cues from a variety of people around you. “He wore a plaid, flannel shirt and had a large forehead.” “He was carrying the turtle in one hand and a flashlight in the other.” You must include 10 details about the appearance of the turtle-napper. Try repeating those ten details twice for your listener. The listener must be able to repeat all 10 descriptors in order to solve the mystery. Happy sleuthing!

Store these ideas away in your memory so that the next time you are in a situation that necessitates waiting, you can enjoy the time you are spending with your children. Instead of feeling impatient and anxious, you’ll be using the opportunity as a valuable teaching moment, making you feel productive and accomplished, connecting and having fun with your kids, and in no time, your wait will be over.


Who Done It? Adapted from Robbery Report in Nia-Azariah, K., Kern-Crotty, F., Gomer Bangel, L. (1992). A year of students’ creative response to conflict; 35 Experiential workshops for the classroom. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Peace Education.

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