Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What is normal toddler numeracy?

In a previous post I talked a bit about literacy activities suitable for toddlers, with some examples of what we were doing and some of the research I'd found on early literacy, and how we often identify letters when we go for walks or to the shop.

It is not only letters that she will identify.  She likes numbers too.  So much so that we have to stop at every letterbox on our walks, and when we leave, she always says 'more?'

That's lovely, but I can't help wondering: does she actually understand what the numbers mean?  Or does she just know that a certain shape is called a 'three'?

When we do the washing, I have tried asking her to hand me one or two pegs.  I usually get one peg, and no prompting or demonstrating what 'two pegs' means can get her to respond with two.  If I say, 'How many is that?  Let's count!  One, two, three...' she seems to understand this as a ritual, and when playing with her toys will spontaneous point repeatedly at them saying 'two, fwee, fwee, fwee' or something along those lines.

I thought she might have grasped the concept of 'two' the other day, when I pointed to two balls and said, "How many?" and she said, "Two!"

Then I thought about it a bit more and showed her one ball, and said, "How many?"  and she said, "Two!"  And I showed her six balls and said, "How many?" and she said "Two!"

So nope, no concept of numbers whatsoever.  The closest she has to an understanding of quantity is being able to identify "more" and "no more".

Which got me wondering: what is normal toddler numeracy development?

Number Sense

It turns out children have an innate 'number sense', but that it is not really operational at birth.  At some point the number sense switches on, and a child will start to be able to systematically and correctly identify 1 vs 2 objects.  It can take months before they are then able to distinguish 1 vs 2 vs 3 objects, then 1 vs 2 vs 3 vs 4.  During this stage, 20 objects are much the same as 35 objects.  Then sometime round the age of 3, they suddenly become much better at distinguishing different quantities - they seem to develop an understanding of the concept of precise numerical quantities in an abstract sense (Wynn).  It makes no difference if the children can count to ten by rote, until they develop their number sense, asking for six objects is just as likely to get you ten or three.

So when does a child's number sense switch on?  The answer is that the age varies by about two years.  Some children can accurately understand numbers before the age of three, meaning they can produce the correct number of objects as high as they can count.  Others, at age four, are still struggling to accurately produce two objects on request.  It seems that the number sense process, then, normally starts sometime between ages 2-4 (Gunderson and Levine).  Hence why, at 17 months, Bethany cannot hand me two pegs on request.

When parents say their 1 year old can count, what they typically mean is that their one year old can say something like: 'one two three four...' but probably not that their 1 year old can successfully identify and hand them four objects.  The number of numbers in a child's counting sequence probably is a good indication of their memory for language rather than their number sense.

Number Sense vs Counting to Ten Using Symbols

A recent study looking at how 4-7 year old Indigenous children in remote communities in the Northern Territory respond to numeracy tasks if they don't have words for the numbers concerned.  These children spoke the Indigenous languages of Walpiri and Anindilyakwa, in which children are taught words for 'one' 'two' 'few' and 'many', but are not yet privy to adult ritual words which include the numbers up to twenty.  The non-English speaking Indigenous children were compared to English speaking Indigenous children, and asked to complete various numeracy tasks that did not depend on knowledge of English terms.   For example, children were asked to match objects to the sounds made by banging two sticks together, or shown a number of counters being placed on a mat then (after the mat was hidden) asked to 'make your mat like hers'.  Hence if the sticks were banged 4 times, the correct response was to produce 4 counters, or if 8 counters were placed on the mat the child had to remember and replicate this on their own mat.  The study found that children who only spoke Walpiri or Anindilyakwa did as well or better than the English-speaking children on numbers up to 9.  The real noticeable difference was based on age, rather than language, with older children doing noticeably better than the younger children (Butterworth et al).

This goes some way towards upsetting one hypothesis that children need to develop symbolic representations for numbers (eg. words, symbols, or signs) and without them will remain oblivious to numerical concepts.  Number sense seems to have a certain innate quality that is not dependent upon language.  The strong influence of an innate number sense has been found on maths ability right through schooling - where people who can distinguish more quickly between different quantities using a non-verbal test easily tend to have stronger maths skills as measured in the classroom (Libertus).  Reaction time and accuracy on these kind of tests have been found to explain up to 20% of the variance in maths ability throughout schooling, even after controlling for age, vocabulary size, intelligence, memory etc. (Libertus).

On the other hand, there are correlations between the amount that parents talk about numbers and children's development of number sense.  A 2010 study looked at the frequency with which parents mentioned numbers in front of their children and their children's development of early math knowledge, and found that parents that engage in more number talk tend to have children with better early math knowledge (Levine et al).  In a follow up study, forty-four children were followed from 14-30 months, with data video-taped in the home for 90 minutes every 4 months while children and caregivers went about their normal activities.  The tapes were then evaluated not only for the frequency of the number words spoken, but how frequently the words referred to a tangible quantity the child could see, and whether the numbers counted were less than four, or four or more.  (Four was the dividing line because the studies by Wynn mentioned above seem to suggest that once children acquire an understanding of how to identify 4 objects, they have the principle of numeracy, rather than just being able to differentiate between very small exact quantities).  Then, at almost 4 years of age, the children were tested for their understanding of numbers (Gunderson and Levine).

The study found that number talk referring to present objects ("You have five fingers." or "How many bees?  Let's count them: 1, 2, 3")  was significantly more important for the development of number sense than number talk in the abstract (eg. "I'll be five minutes" or "Let's play hide and seek, I'll count to ten: 1, 2, 3... etc"), and further that number talk that discussed 4 or more present objects was more important for developing the principle of counting than number talk limited to three or less present objects (Gunderson and Levine).

How can we reconcile these results with the innate number sense displayed by Indigenous children? Well, one thing that should be noted is the way in which Gunderson and Levine tested the 4 year olds' numeracy.  They gave them 16 questions that involved presenting the children with two sets of objects, such as 3 squares and 5 squares, and then asked them either to 'Point to 3' or 'Point to 5'.  Unlike the tests in the study with Indigenous children, this test inherently requires an understanding of verbal symbols for numbers as well as a 'number sense' for the concepts behind those symbols.

Bearing this in mind, we might conclude that perhaps the toddlers whose parents did a lot of number talk in Gunderson and Levine's study just had better vocabularies generally or other advantages conferred by socio-economic status (which would probably also relate to the amount of educational number talk).  However, the study controlled for parental socio-economic status (including education), parent's general talkativeness, and the child's vocabulary, and still found that specific and concrete number talk to toddlers was significantly correlated to those children's ability with the number task at age 4.  The number talk about present objects still accounted for 15.7% variation over and above those other factors (Gunderson and Levine).

The hypothesis I would suggest might follow from these studies is that children have an innate number sense, but that the confidence with which they learn to match their innate sense of, say, 'fiveness' to the word 'five' and to the symbol '5' depends on the extent to which these connections are reinforced by hearing and seeing the words with the examples present.  Hence, when they come to be tested with the question 'Point to 5', a child who has developed a strong association between the symbol and the concept will be more likely to give a correct answer than a child who has a weak association.  Correctly identifying a 5 requires a working 'number sense' but an incorrect answer does not show that the number sense is not yet working, but perhaps just shows that the association with the symbol is not yet strong enough for the child to perform well on the test.

Of course, unless school curriculums have changed greatly since when I went to primary school, I daresay classrooms are not teaching basic numeracy in terms of matching counters to the number of sticks banging together, but are heavily focused on teaching and assessing the use of spoken and written arabic numerals.  It is therefore no surprise that kindergartners who score highly on the kind of test administered by Gunderson and Levine tend to have an ongoing advantage in terms of understanding maths throughout their schooling (Gunderson and Levine).  I also suspect that children who enter school with the skills to do well on these tests are explicitly or tacitly given a message that they are 'good at maths' and acquire a motivational advantage through confidence compared to the children who are given the message that they are not good at maths.  This view is reinforced by other studies which have found that nonverbal calculation abilities are less sensitive to socioeconomic status than are number problems in 'story form' (eg. 'Joe had three pegs and then he went to the shop and bought five more pegs.  How many pegs does Joe have?') (Jordan et al).  

One issue not explored by the Gunderson and Levine study that I would love to know the answer to is whether number talk at the early toddler stage (when number sense is perhaps just starting to develop) is in itself important to the results, or whether that parents who engaged in early number talk continued this number talk as the child grew older and more receptive to it, and it was this later absorption of information that was important?  After all, if Bethany cannot conceptually understand what I am doing when I count out 5 pegs, how is that different (from her perspective) to me counting to 5 in the abstract?


Statistically, boys do better at maths than girls.  Significant differences have been found between boys and girls on number sense tasks as early as kindergarten (Jordan et al).  In particular, kindergarten boys seemed to have an advantage on nonverbal calculation tasks.  This may suggest that number sense generally develops earlier or more strongly in boys.  Also, any non-verbal tests devised to test early numeracy require good spatial reasoning, and spatial reasoning tends to be stronger in males (Jordan et al).  It may be that number sense is itself linked to spatial reasoning, which is a crucial skill for correctly understanding, storing, retrieving and comparing different quantities of objects.  It would be interesting to know whether activities that develop spatial reasoning skills assist in the development of number sense.

Early Numeracy Skills

Drawing on this discussion, what skills are needed for early numeracy?

Number sense - an awareness that sets of objects can be grouped by the quantity in the set.  There is a good chance that when and how this switches on may be genetic, however, it may be that the right environmental conditions for fostering a strong number sense have not been measured.  

Counting skills - This has been described as mastering a set of five principles, known as:
  • The one-one principle: each object in a set is counted once and only once.
  • The stable-order principle: when counting, one must use a set list of symbols in order - if you count 2, 4, 6, 3, 1, it doesn't work.
  • The cardinal principle: the last number you say is the number of items in the set.
  • The abstraction principle: abstract things can be counted as well as tangible objects.
  • The order-irrelevance principle: when counting objects, it doesn't matter which object you start with or end with, the answer is the same.
For a slightly more elaborate summary of these principles, see The Principal Counting Principles by Ian Thompson.  I can see right now that Bethany does not have an understanding of any of these principles yet.  When she pretends to count she often points to the same object twice and skips objects, her count list is sometimes 'two three three' and sometimes 'two two two', and if I count for her and then say how many, she still says 'two'.

Number-specific symbols - in particular, how to recognise and say the words 1-20, and how to recognise and write number symbols.

The count sequence - memorisation of a specific list of symbols in a particular order that can be used for counting objects (eg. one, two, three, four... etc.)

General language and cultural concepts - General language and exposure to concepts such as currency, shops, dividing an object to share are all used to convey number stories which are an important part of early mathematical learning.

Linear number sense - while an innate number sense has been demonstrated in respect of numbers up to 9, it is not clear whether we innately have a good sense of much larger numbers, or whether this develops by association and an understanding of symbols that allow us to retrieve that information to make estimates.  In experiments where children of various ages (starting from kindergarten age) are given a number line that starts in 0 and ends in 100, they are asked to guess where on the line specific numbers would fall (eg. "where is 25?"):

0 <--------------------------------------------------------> 100

A kindergartner will typically spread out numbers 0-20 along about the first half of the line, then group all the other high numbers somewhere randomly up the second end.  By contrast, a seven year old will produce pretty accurate placements if using numbers 0-100, but if asked to do this task with numbers 0-1000 will produce a more logarithmic answer, similar to the kindergartners doing the 0-100 task (Booth and Siegler).

Children who have a good linear sense of numbers learn to manipulate the numbers (eg. how to add them together to produce a new number) more easily than those who do not (Booth and Siegler).  This linear model gives us a good ability to estimate numerical answers, even when the quantities are much larger than perhaps our innate number sense can deal with.

So what can you do with your toddler if you want to foster numeracy?

You can count objects ('let's count the steps as we walk up them') and identify numerical sets of objects (eg. you have five fingers) - this would illustrate counting principles and teach the count sequence and number-specific symbols, even if the numerical meaning is lost on your toddler at this stage.  You can expose your toddler to cultural rituals involving numeracy, such as going to a shop or dividing a cake into pieces to share.  You might encourage spatial awareness, talking about objects being 'next to', 'above', 'on top of', 'beside', 'in' other objects etc, and identify that objects can be on their own or in groups.

Product reviews

We have two products that are related to numeracy.  The first is the Leapfrog Chat and Count Phone (approx $25 from Big W).

We bought one of these for Bethany as something to give her when she wants to play with out mobile phones.  When you press one of the numbers on it, it says the number and shows the number symbol, then shows a visual of that number of objects.  The difficulty is that the speakers produce a voice that is not very clear (Bethany does not seem to identify what it is saying, even though she knows the number symbols and what to call them) and generally very young children do not pay as much attention to disembodied voices as to real persons.  There is a substantial delay between when she presses the '6' to when the six items actually appear on the screen as they appear through a very slow animation.  The quality of the image is very poor - a pixellated grey and black image on a tiny screen.  That said, the phone keeps her entertained for short periods of time (like, a couple of minutes maybe once a week), and for those few minutes she enjoys the fact that when she presses a number a matching number appears on the screen, and sometimes that a 'woof' (dog) appears.

The other product we have is a simple wooden puzzle with pieces in the shape of the digits 0-9 (I don't know the brand, it's unmarked).  However, it looks just like this and cost $10:

There were no representations of quantities of each number, so I drew the right number of dots on the puzzle pieces and in the spaces where they are placed.  Bethany responds to the puzzle with significantly more interest than the phone.  She will happily stick at the puzzle for about half an hour, then come back to it several times in a day.  She does regularly get frustrated by her inability to get a puzzle piece in, yell out, and chuck a mini-tantrum, but there are other times when she persists with it.  At any rate, frustrated or not, she keeps returning for more, and for a couple of months now it has been one of her favourite toys.


Booth and Siegler, 'Magnitude Representations Influence Arithmetic Learning' (2008) Vol 79(4) Child Development 1016.

Butterworth et al, 'Numerical thought with and without words: Evidence from indigenous Australian children' (2008) 21(4) Philosophical Psychology 443 (see press release from University College London at l, or pdf of study)

Cho et al, 'How does a child solve 7 + 8?  Decoding brain activity patters associated with counting and retrieval strategies' (2011) Vol 14(5) Developmental Science 989.

Gunderson and Levine, 'Some types of parent number talk count more than others: relations between parents' input and children's cardinal-number knowledge' (2011) 14(5) Developmental Science 1021.

Jordan et al, 'Number Sense Growth in Kindergarten: A Longitudinal Investigation of Children at Risk for Mathematics Difficulties' (2006) 77(1) Child Development 153.

Levine et al, 'What counts in the development of young children's number knowledge?' (2010) 46(5) Developmental Psychology 1309.

Libertus, 'Preschool acuity of the approximate number system correlates with school math ability' (2011) 14(6) Developmental Science 1292.

Wynn, 'Children's acquisition of number words and the counting system' (1992) 24 Cognitive Psychology 220.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

So wrong... 12 Things We Won't Be Getting Bethany For Christmas

I’ve been looking at the internet lately, trying to think of Christmas present ideas for Bethany.  I haven’t found anything I definitely want to get her, but I have found a few that we will try to avoid.

There are a few 'shocking toy' lists floating round the interwebs.  Initially I was just going to link to another one of these lists, but I found that most of them included toys along the lines of the breastfeeding doll (which... Gasp! might encourage your child to imitate breastfeeding - quick, stop them, they might learn that breasts have a non-sexual, nurturing function) or a cleaning set (which... OMG! Might encourage your child to clean) etc. The fact that so many people are up in arms over children having toys which depict normal, healthy activities that most children probably see every day is probably even more disturbing than the following list.

Although this list is pretty disturbing...

12. Adolf Hitler Doll 

Comes with removable Nazi uniform. 

11. Aqua Dots 

They look innocuous enough. You wet them and they stick together so you can make exciting pixellated pictures.  Only problem is that if you swallow them the chemical coating on the beads turns into the date rape drug gamma hydroxyl butyrate, which can induce seizures, unconsciousness, coma and death. 

 10.  The ‘Laugh A Lot’ Doll 

Creepy, no?  Otherwise known as ‘Chucky’s Psycho Younger Sister’.  
Apparently laughs with maniacal hysterical laughter. 

9. Pee and Poo 

I mean, I know we’ll be doing toilet training in the near future, but this is one step too far for me. 

8. Little Red Riding Hood 

I don’t know what version of Little Red Riding Hood this is, but probably not one sold outside of SexyLand. 

7. Childbirth Barbie 

Yes, childbirth is natural and normal, but this doll definitely is not.  Of course, it would be great for re-enacting scenes out of Alien. (I don't know who manufactures this doll - I suspect it's not technically the actual 'Barbie' brand.)

6. The Sunburnt Village People Doll 

This doll raises more questions than it answers… like: Why is he sunburnt?  And why is there a sad face on his chest?    Unlike some of the others in this list, it’s not creepy and weird.  I just can’t stop wondering: why? 

5. You Can Shave the Baby

Apparently this doll was a work of subversive art from the 1960s, not for realz.  Thank god. 

4. Aspirational T-Shirt

*Sob* I’d be so proud.

3. An Epidermit

This doesn’t just look odd, it is actually made out of genetically engineered human flesh.  Like any other toy made from human flesh, you need to store it in the refrigerator. 

2. Russian Roulette Game 

Don’t worry, kids!  Not real bullets.  You hold it to your head and hippo legs just spring out and smack you in the face when you least expect it.  It’s random – just like real Russian Roulette!  Good to play after Xmas dinner before sitting down as a family to watch The Deer Hunter.

1. Stripper Doll

Style!  Interesting!  Music!  Flash!  Up and Down!  Go Round and Round! 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Exploring letters with a 1 year old

I realise that teaching letters to a one year old is neither necessary nor mainstream, but it is something I do with Bethany (now 16 months) and I thought I'd do a blog post about how we do it and why.

Other mums seem to have one of several reactions when I talk about it: a) good on you, but I couldn't be bothered; b) oh no, am I a bad mother for not teaching my baby letters?; c) um... why? it's not like she'll understand;  d) you are a pushy parent and you may be damaging your child; and e) but won't she then be bored at school?

So, let me talk about the why and what I understand of the research on this topic.  After that I'll describe some of the ideas I'm trying and why I feel comfortable with these ideas in light of the research, but here's a quick summary response for those who don't want to read through this entire lengthy blog post.


I could find little research on the effects of teaching literacy skills such as letter recognition to very young children.  Most of the research focuses on 3+ yo's.  That said, a couple of points seemed to emerge from the research I did find:

  • young children with more unstructured, experimental play (ie. not sitting down and drilling them with letter worksheets) tend to have statistically better literacy results once they reach school than children who did not have much of this kind of play - it is extremely important to not to neglect this kind of play, it is how children process their world;
  • learning effectively at school requires much more than knowing things like the alphabet - the ability to self-regulate emotions and behaviour and to handle abstract concepts have a big impact, and these skills are not taught through very adult-directed 'educational' activities;
  • the more engaging literacy activities are, the more interested children are, and interest and motivation has a strong predictive effect on literacy skills;
  • literacy ability in early primary school is affected positively by doing activities prior to school that focused on hearing (phonological) and written (visual) letter discrimination; 
  • what is taught in the school classroom accounts for very little of a child's literacy ability; and
  • literacy ability may have a very large genetic component.
In short, fostering letter knowledge certainly doesn't do any harm, but it is only one small factor in later literacy development.  Letter activities can have a damaging effect when they are part of so many structured activities they child has no time to develop through free play, when they make a child feel judged, humiliated or incompetent, or when they create a negative attitude towards literacy activities.

Drawing on this, my approach with letters is to use structured activities with letters as a springboard for unstructured play so that Bethany has the opportunity to explore letters through unstructured play, and the activities invite exploratory play that use all her senses.  All letter play is kept fun and stops as soon as Bethany shows a lack of interest.

The Why

The biggest reason why is that my parents played letter games with me from when I was very young and some of my vivid and most happiest memories of early childhood feature them.  I remember sitting on the kitchen bench when I was about two while my mum was baking bread and talking to her about spelling my name.  I remember my father holding me up over his head so I could reach an alphabet frieze in my room at around the same age, and playing a game of finding the letters and pictures.  I remember having a very serious and satisfying conversation with my three year old kindy friends about the spelling of 'milk', and I remember when my parents brought home some early readers from kindy and asked me if I'd like to learn to read - and I was so excited because I thought that reading was magical.  And as I learned to do it, I fell in love with stories and the ability to dip into them any time I chose at my own will.  

The way my parents approached literacy, it was never a chore.  They never pushed me faster than I could go myself.  My father in particular was so passionate about reading that he read to me at night well into my teens.  By the time I was six he had read me the Chronicles of Narnia, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and a many books about classical myths.  I was halfway through the Narnia books myself when I started primary school.  I imagine I didn't read every word, but I read enough that I could follow the stories by myself.  

This was a blessing and a curse at school.  Some teachers took it into their heads that I couldn't possibly be reading at that level, and one made me start with 'Here is a cat' level readers, and another took it upon himself to publicly humiliate me.  On the other hand, being able to read the instructions on a page was an advantage in nearly every school subject.  Instead of struggling through the letters, I could focus on the meaning.  (As for the students, they weren't fussed whether I could read or not).  But how my teachers reacted was in no way as important to me as the intrinsic pleasure I got from reading, and have continued to get from it my entire life.

I play letter games with Bethany because I want her to share some of my joy.  The joy is the focus here, not the skill of recognising letters or being able to read early.  The games we play are fun, and they come easily to me because I remember playing them when I was young.  It is something we can share together - in the same way I imagine that mums who enjoy cooking try to cook with their kids etc.  But I am also conscious that reading was fun for me because when it came time to learn reading, everything already looked so familiar.  I remember that when my parents asked me about trying to read, I was nervous - but my dad said to me: 'You know, I think you already can read.'   And he was right.  The letters just sprang off the page with meaning, and I quickly felt confident that the awesome, magical, mystical business of reading was something I could actually do.

I didn't realise how different my experience was from some other kids until many years later I decided to study Mandarin Chinese at university.  I had no prior knowledge of Chinese whatsoever, and what I found incredibly frustrating was that for months I could not 'see' at a glance how the characters were different, or which characters were which.  It was only after I spent months and months copying 'radicals' (the component symbols of Chinese characters) that the differences started to register for me.  It occurred to me at that point how much of an advantage it was to recognise letters really, really well before you start to read.  

Of course, this does not, by any stretch of the imagination, require them to be taught at 16 months.  But I personally reached the decision that I would teach them to my children before primary school, because my experience of the way they were taught in primary school was using rote learning, endless copying of worksheets, and generally lessons that rarely involved the whole body or all the senses.  I don't think this is a very effective or enjoyable way to learn anything, let alone something as abstract as letters - and for some children might demoralise them and turn them off literacy altogether.  My gut feeling here seems to be supported by the research, which suggests that only 25% of children's print knowledge is attributable to what they learn in the classroom, and 82% of that depends on the kind of interaction they have with their teacher (McGinty et al).  This does suggest to me that what you do at home has a huge impact, and leaving literacy to your child's school teacher might be a bit of a lottery depending on the quality of the teacher, and the teacher's capacity to engage with your child.

As to when we'd do letter games, my answer was that I'd do them when my child responded with interest to them.

The Research

Many of the criticisms surrounding teaching letters to a young child concern putting too much pressure on the child or inhibiting the child from undertaking more creative 'free play'.  

A number of studies have found that the experimental nature of free play helps children to effectively learn key concepts that underpin later learning, such as understanding shapes and space, patterns and numbers found in their surroundings.  Children figure out how things work through play and resolve ambiguities in their understanding that may not be addressed by more adult-structured activities.  Imaginative play develops the ability to handle abstract concepts, perspective taking, creativity, intelligence, memory, language, and literacy.  It is particularly important for developing the ability to manage one's own emotions and behaviour (Fisher et al).  One study in Michigan in the US looked at the effect preschool experiences had on literacy found that certain skills such as letter knowledge are positively affected by time spent in preschool, but that time in preschool had no effect on vocabulary growth.  The ability to self-regulate behaviour and emotions, which is very important for school readiness, was not enhanced by current preschool curriculums which focused on quite directional, structured learning (Skibbe et al).  The ability to handle abstract concepts alone has had a demonstrably strong effect in promoting early literacy and numeracy - as strong as specific training in literacy and numeracy (Pasnak et al).

Research has shown that children who have lots of exposure to child-driven, exploratory, playful learning environments in a warm, encouraging atmosphere showed 'showed superior social behaviors, fewer conduct disorders, enhanced academic performance and retention beyond children who experienced didactic instruction and play-learning' (Fisher et al).  In particular, play should emphasise child driven exploration and foster the child's natural curiousity (Fisher et al).  

It is not surprising that the emotional and behavioural control gained through exploratory play should have such a strong influence on academic ability, when one considers how important these skills are to absorbing knowledge in a school setting.  A study that looked at a child's emotional and behavioural competencies to participate in classroom learning (eg. to sit still, word independently etc.) found that such difficulties had a consistent, significant impact on literacy outcomes (Bulotsky-Shearer and Fantuzzo).  Another study showed that a child's temperament, particularly their attention span, activity level, and level of negative emotionality had a signficant impact on their literacy and numeracy skills (Coplan et al).  However, it's important to note that this study may not reflect the capacity of a child of a particular temperament to learn literacy and numeracy, but rather their capacity to learn it in the current school classroom environment.

In one study, the kind of activities classified as exploratory, child driven play include: using child-sized play sets (like kitchen sets etc), going outside to run around or use a playground, playing with balls and other objects, playing with stuffed toys, playsets, dolls, stuffed animals etc, dressing up, using everyday objects as toys, playing with building blocks, playing with other children, drawing and crafty activities, exploring things inside and outside the house, playgroups, and running around for no particular reason. By contrast, reading, listening to music, going on trips to the library / museum / zoo, coming along on a shopping trip, and doing chores around the house alongside an adult are considered structured, adult-led play.  Things like using flash cards, watching TV, and most electronic toys are obviously structured play. (Fisher et al).

To my mind, this is a bit of a confusing list.  After all, I can sit down with Bethany and provide a very structured environment for playing with a kitchen set by directing all the 'cooking', or she can accompany me while I do the washing and occasionally hand me a peg but mostly run around and amuse herself.  I could be wrong, but I tend to think that while certain kinds of toys lend themselves to exploratory play (paint, for example), and certain kinds of toys lend themselves to structured play (electronic games, for example), for the most part the quality of the play would have to depend on the way the toy is used and the freedom the child is given to initiate exploration as opposed to following directions.  I am baffled as to why exploring around one's house is 'unstructured play', but going to the zoo is 'structured'.  Surely it depends on what you do at the zoo when you get there?

Another ambiguity in the research is as to the interdependency of child-directed and adult-directed play.  Child-directed play may be immensely valuable for developing problem-solving ability and emotional self-control.  But quite a lot of what is classified as child-directed play must necessarily be preceded by an adult exposing a child to certain situations and objects.  I can't imagine a child would make believe they are a fairy unless somewhere, at some point, some adult had exposed them to a story or a picture or some inkling of what a 'fairy' is.  To some extent, I would think that the structured experiences in one life must provide foundation knowledge and skills for undertaking unstructured activities, even though perhaps this knowledge is not effectively processed without being explored through unstructured play.

It is not so much that structured activities are necessarily 'bad', but that a good amount of exploratory, child-driven play is a very good idea, and care should be taken that structured play does not 'crowd out' unstructured play.  It is also easy to overestimate the importance of learning vocabulary, or how to identify shapes and letters etc., because such knowledge is easy to identify and quantify.

Unstructured play may have positive results for literacy, but so do structured activities.  For literacy in particular, phonological processing (the ability to hear and interpret sounds), phonological memory (the ability to memorise sounds and recall them in response to particular stimuli), and visual processing ability play key roles.  But it is not just processing any sounds and images that is important, it is the ability to distinguish between the particular sounds of one's own language and the ability to distinguish between letter-like shapes.  For example, in one study, general visual processing ability was controlled for by a task involving matching patterns using blocks, and a relationship was still found between reading ability and the ability to distinguish between particular letters (Brunswick et al).  

Letter knowledge itself has been found to be one of the most important predictors of subsequent reading ability (Denton & West, Mann & Foy, Molfese et al - ref'd in Brunswick et al).  Brunswick et al also make the point that while phonological awareness is seen as key to early reading, early visual letter work allows children to explore how the sounds and visuals of letters are related - and many studies fail to control for the pre-existing effects of early reading on phonological ability.   There is a strong argument that writing, reading, and letter-naming activities help young children to 'grasp and manipulate language concepts' (Diamond et al quoting argument by Bloodgood), although the age at which this effect has been studied is amongst 3 and 4 year olds.  Appreciation of letters has been argued in one study to be an important precursor to literacy activities such as learning to recognise words, and that this skill is not enhanced by reading stories as children focus on the pictures rather than the print in books (Levy et al).  Writing activities, which involve using the body to engage with the letters, have been found to be particularly important in developing literacy skills (Diamond et al).

My own thoughts are that toddlers these days learn to recognise brand logos and characters like Dora and Elmo from baby age, because this is what jumps out to them from the stimulation they are exposed to.  Kids in a traditional society might learn to recognise different kinds of plants and animals.  I don't think there anything inherently different about learning to recognise different letters.  The question is whether focusing the child's attention on letters is a worthwhile exercise.  I tend to think it is regardless of whether she actually learns the letters any time soon, because talking about letters with Bethany sends the signal to her that I believe they are worth spending time talking about, and having fun with letters gives her the experience that they can be fun.

I also think it stands to reason that children can be responsive to learning some visual language at this age, given that many children (both deaf and hearing) learn visual sign language at much the same rate as a hearing child learns spoken language, provided they are exposed to it. 

Are literacy skills nature or nurture?  I found one twin study on the extent to which literacy skills are hereditable, and was surprised to find that this study tended to lean towards the conclusion that they were substantially influence by genetics.  This study suggested that the extent to which reading, reading comprehension, and spelling is affected by genetics is something in the order of 70%, although for the acquisition of vocabulary it is much lower (around 40%).  This genetic factor appears to be substantially independent of genes which affect general intelligence (Byrne et al).  It should be noted that this study showed more variance from 'nurture' with those twins in a culture where reading was not taught in preschool and differences would be picked up from a home environment, and this variance levelled off once formal literacy tuition started.  If the school environments the separated twins were placed in were substantially similar in their teaching approach, it may be that the lack of variance does not reflect the potential of other teaching approaches to have a significant impact.  It may be that it is not literacy skills which are hereditable, but something more akin to temperament, or the ability to learn literacy skills in a standard school environment.

One fairly recent study found that children's literacy was in a huge part driven by children's interest in literacy.  In particular, children's interest drove more literacy-oriented activities by their mums, and the children were in turn more responsive and more interested (Deckner et al).  This study stated:
"We agree with recent admonishments that highly didactic interactions with very young children are developmentally inappropriate; as Piaget argued, the work of children at this age is play.  Subsequently, we think that literacy efforts that allow children to follow their sense of play will be most successful.  In this light, we suspect that the mothers in the current study who successfully used metalingual utterances to guide their child's attention likely had children who were primed for such interactions by their interests, and that intervention efforts incorporating shared reading should look for ways to promote children's interest in addition to modifying caregivers' behaviour."
Another interesting study looked at the effect between parental discipline styles and reading and language comprehension skills.  The study looked at the difference between 'nondirective' discipline practices that invited a dialogue between the child and the adult (where behavioural issues were seen as shared problem-solving opportunities, and children were offered explanations of why they could not engage in a particular activities) and 'directive' discipline (which emphasises obedience, where parents set all the rules and behavioural issues are seen as needing correction by punishment).  Consistently higher literacy skills were found for parents who used non-directive discipline.  The study proposed three possible reasons for this: firstly, it is likely that parents who engage in dialogue in a discipline context will engage in it in literacy activities and this may promote better understanding; secondly, parents who use non-directive discipline may use it because their child is receptive to it and such a child has the kind of self-regulation that makes them better equipped to learn literacy skills; and thirdly, children who have been raised with non-directive discipline may be more willing to listen to their parents, seeing discussion as an opportunity for learning rather than punishment (Gest et al).

The How

Letters are everywhere.  The very first things I did with her was finding letters when we were out and about.  This was initially because I had a toddler baby to keep entertained while shopping, and pointing out letters was a fun activity that could be done almost anywhere, particularly while waiting in queues.  The 'big blue W' was so much of a winner that I could comfort her on the way to the shopping centre by telling her we'd be going inside to see the big blue W soon.  From about 12 months she loved to match similar objects, so if we found one 'W', then we tried to find another 'W' and another 'W' and so on.  She initially took a particular liking to 'B', 'W', and 'S', so I just ran with that, and ignored all the other letters.

Because she loved finding and matching up letters, I decided she was old enough to get some letter games.

Alphabet in 3D Space

I have an alphabet on the wall using removable vinyl wall stickers that goes around one half of Bethany's room.  When looking for an alphabet wall chart, I wanted something where the letters were easily identifiable.  Finding this was harder than I expected - as there are a lot of artsy fonts or letters covered in pictures or patterns that make the actual letter almost unrecognisable.  This one is actually Australian made and designed (hence, I assume, the K for koala), and has clear pictures and both upper and lower case letters.  It is made by Bright Star Kids, and while at $59.95 it is a toy that is not super cheap, it will provide hours of entertainment for years to come, and unlike pieces of paper I have previously sticky-taped to her wall, she does not rip them off.  I am comfortable I have already got my money's worth.

Standing on her mattress with the alphabet wall stickers.

The advantage of wall stickers over a book or even a wall chart is that I could create something free flowing that really gets Bethany moving in the space, and which can be redesigned if it ever gets boring.  The wave pattern I have used here shows the alphabet is a sequence but it also gets her reaching up high, crouching down low, looking around and moving up and down the length of the room.  This is great for a toddler who loves to move about and who is learning to navigate the 3D world.

There is so much information in the wall stickers, though, that I tend to only do up to 3 letters at one time.  Otherwise it gets a bit boring and repetitive.  But with three letters we can talk about what sounds the objects make, the shape of the letters, the colours, act out concepts etc.  With K for koala, for example, we did lots of cuddling her stuffed koala toy and making the connection.  The idea is that the letter provides a springboard for communication and some games, not that I expect her to correctly identify letters.  I do say: 'Can you see the Y?' but if she's unsure or gets it wrong, I just cheerfully say, 'Oh, you found an Z for Zebra.  See this one over here?  Here's a Y!  Y for yo-yo.'  (At which point she does the cutest version of 'wro-wro' imaginable.  I point to Y a lot just to hear her say 'wro-wro'.)  If she's not interested, she wanders away and does something else.  If it starts to get a bit serious I initiate something more fun like a tickling game.  I don't want her to feel any pressure.  And one of the nice things about doing letters early is that there is absolutely zero pressure.  I'm not worried that she has to keep up at school, or pass NAPLAN tests.  So what if she doesn't recognise the letter J for another 4 years?  It doesn't matter.

Occasionally I sing the alphabet and point at the letters, but not much.  She's not very interested in the song, and I don't think it's all that useful until you're learning to put things in alphabetical order.  Until then, I reckon all it teaches you is that 'elemenopee' is a word.

Alphabet puzzle with 3D letters to manipulate

Essentially, this activity is a shape sorter.  I picked it up for $10 at the Nightcliff Post Office.  Bethany is right at the age where she loves shape sorters.  When she does this puzzle she gets to feel the letters in her hands, engaging with their shape using multiple senses.  The nature of a shape-sorting puzzle draws her attention to the shape.  However, this is as much a fine motor activity and an exercise in matching as it is about letters.  The letters are incidental.  This puzzle is reasonably fiddly - too fiddly for her to do without some assistance - so I am on hand to help when she gets really stuck.

Lower-case wooden letter puzzle.

However, what I like about it more than most of the other alphabet puzzles I've seen, including easier ones with knobs, is that the puzzle pieces are exactly the shape of the letters, not abstract blobs with the letters painted on.  This means that she really feels the shape of the letters.  She feels that some of them can be worn on her fingers like 'rings'.  She is fascinated by the way a 'w' can become an 'm' when turned upside down, and because this is a lower case puzzle, p's and d's and q's are also very similar.

She will usually do the puzzle for a while then initiate other activities, like putting all the letters in a bag and shaking it to hear the sound it makes.

Putting the letters into a bag - is this not the cutest outfit ever?

These days, every object is turned into a phone and put to her ear with an: 'Arro!' and letters are no exception.  So I run with this, and when (for example) she hands an 'm' to me I say something like, 'An m phone!  Wow, that must be an m phone for mum.  Is it a phone for me?  Can we call a marvellous mouse on this phone?'  I put it to my ear and say,  'Hello, marvellous mouse!  I might mumble, emm, emm, emm...'

I also try and mix activities together, so I might pick up a letter from the puzzle and say, 'Hey look, it's a Y.  Can you see a Y on the wall?  Can you put this Y with the other Y for Yo-Yo?'

Matching the wooden 'y' with the 'y' on the wall.

I keep the puzzle in a clip-seal bag and we put away all the letters when we've finished with it, because otherwise they will be captured by the block-sucking black hole that apparently exists in my house.

Squishable, Edible Letters

I found this box of cookie cutters, which includes shapes, letters, numbers, holiday shapes etc.  It was a bit pricy at about $45, but I figure it can be used for everything from making cookies to playing with playdough to tracing and other crafty things for many years to come.

I made a batch of cookie dough - I kept the sugar and butter quantity fairly low, used rapadura sugar (as it has actual nutrient value), and replaced about a quarter of the flour called for with almond meal.  Once I rolled it out, I got Bethany to help me find the letters and to cut out the cookies in letter shapes.  Mostly at this stage she can help me press the letters down, but the rest is a bit fiddly.  Unfortunately, I couldn't let her really play with the cookie dough as it contained raw eggs and she just wanted to eat it.  While the cookies were cooking, I sliced some apple thinly and cut out some letters out of the apple slices.  I found this worked better when the slices were about 2ml thick, as the apple wasn't strong enough when thinner, though I imagine this relates to the brand of apple you use.

Bethany then got to play with the letters, rearrange them on some plastic plates, and eat them.  Here are two photos taken before cookie crumbs and plates went everywhere:

The ever-popular letter 'B'.

Yummy letters!

It was interesting some of the ways she spontaneously explored the letters.  She picked up a 'Q' and showed me and said 'O' - and I said: 'That's a Q.  It's like an O but it's actually a Q' and pointed at the extra bit that protrudes on the Q.  So she ate that bit and looked delighted and showed me and again declared 'O'.  Then she ate some more and was fascinated to see the 'O' turn into a 'C'.

Afterwards, we had more letter fun with washing up, by which I mean Bethany takes all the dishes I have already washed, holds them under a tap, plays with a sponge, and tips water everywhere.  Running water play is one of the luxuries of living in the tropical north of Australia.

I wish we had a learning tower or similar 'safe stool' for her to stand on, but can't quite bring myself to pay so much for it, or buy something that large that has to stand in the middle of my kitchen and can't be packed away.  I have been looking into options to make one or import a Kitchen Helper from the US, but more on that another day.

Basically, there is a lot of fun you can have with letters, although what you will notice about all these ideas is that none of them involves expecting a toddler to keep still, pressure to identify letters correctly is kept low, and the structured activities lead into opportunities for unstructured, exploratory play.  The priority is to developing a positive relationship with letters and to encourage exploration and play second - developing actual familiarity with the letter shapes and sounds as a third priority.

I didn't find any research on the effectiveness of teaching young children about letters, but I will say that my experience here is that Bethany is learning them.  She can accurately point to about half the letters in the alphabet about 80% of the time, and now that she has started speaking, some of her favourite letters (particularly 'O' 'A' 'B' and 'Yo-yo') are some of her first words.

And finally, a cute story...

Each afternoon after work I have been trying to go for a walk with Bethany.  On the way, we usually pass a number of road signs.  She is particularly taken with the one that says 'Mindil Beach' as the first word begins with a 'Mum' as she calls an 'M' and the second with a 'B' (for Bethany and Baby etc).  We go up to it and she points at the letters she doesn't know and asks me what they are.  We found the 'I's with the dots', and the 'e for egg' and the 'a for ant' (which was a good one given there were ants crawling all over the sign).  

Then she pointed to the 'l' and I said 'l for lion grrr', which she looked moderately confused about.  She pointed to it again and I said 'l for love'.  She looked at me, her face lit up, and then she gave me a big cuddle and kiss - which is a good reminder that no matter how much fun letters are, there are other things to learn which are far more important, but playing with letters does not have to get in the way of those other important things.


Brunswick et al, 'Early cognitive profiles of emergent readers: a longitudinal study' (2012) 111 Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 268 (yes, I know it's still 2011, but I assume the ref is for the upcoming issue of the journal)

Bulotsky-Shearer and Fantuzzo, 'Preschool behavior problems in classroom learning situations and literacy outcomes in kindergarten and first grade' (2011) 26 Early Childhood Research Quarterly 61

Byrne et al, 'Genetic and environmental influences on aspects of literacy and language in early childhood: Continuity and change from preschool to Grade 2' (2009) 22 Journal of Neurolinguistics 219

Coplan et al, 'The Role of Child Temperament as a Predictor of Early Literacy and Numeracy Skills in Preschoolers' (1999) 14(4) Early Childhood Research Quarterly 537.

Deckner et al, 'Child and maternal contributions to shared reading: Effects on language and literacy development' (2006) 27 Applied Developmental Psychology 31

Diamond et al, 'Development in early literacy skills during the pre-kindergarten year in Head Start: Relations between growth in children's writing and understanding of letters' (2008) 23 Early Childhood Research Quarterly 467.

Fisher et al, 'Conceptual split?  Parents' and experts' perception of play in the 21st century' (2008) Vol 29  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology  305

Gest et al, 'Shared book reading and children's language comprehension skills: the moderating role of parental discipline practices' (2004) 19 Early Childhood Research Quarterly 319.

Levy et al, 'Understanding print: Early reading development and the contributions of home literacy experiences' (2006) 93 Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 63.

McGinty et al, 'Does context matter? Explicit print instruction during reading varies in its influence by child and classroom factors' (2012) 27 Early Childhood Research Quarterly 77. (another 2012 ref!)

Pasnak et al, 'Promoting early abstraction to promote early literacy and numeracy' (2009) 30 Journal of Applied Devleopmental Psychology 239.

Skibbe et al, 'Schooling effects on preschoolers' self-regulation, early literacy, and language growth' (2011) 26 Early Childhood Research Quarterly 42.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quote a Day #9 - Playful Parenting

The Book: Playful Parenting by Lawrence J Cohen.

The Quote:

 I learned a great game from Jimmy, my eight-year-old neighbor.  Jimmy's little cousin would come visit, and he would take her to the swings across the street.  He would stand in front of her and give her a push.  When she came back toward him, he would stand so that her feet just barely touched him on the chest.  Then he would make a big show of falling over and pretending to be mad at her.  He would get up and say, "You better not do that again!"  She would laugh with delight and he would patiently play this game with her again and again.

Why is this such a great game?  It manages to cover all of the deep purposes of play, as well as just plain being fun.  The contact, or near miss, is a great way to play with connection.  Having the younger child be the more powerful one builds confidence.  Besides, why are toddlers called toddlers?  Because they fall down a lot.  Having someone else fall down, in a funny way, lets the toddler release--in waves of giggles--all her frustration about walking.  Much better than finding another toddler and pushing him over, or whining to be carried because walking is so difficult.

I often use Jimmy as my model when I think of ways to help children out of their twin towers of isolation and powerlessness and into the open vistas of delighted, exuberant play.  First and foremost, what Jimmy did at the swing set was join the younger child in her world.  He went to her level and played in a way that was most fun for her.  Playful Parenting begins with an eagerness to connect with childrne in the way Jimmy connected with his cousin, and willingness to provide children with unlimited refills of love, encouragement, and enthusiasm.  Loosening up--literally and figuratively--also helps, as most of us adults are rather stiff when we try to get down on the floor and play.  Since fun and laughs are the currency of children's play, we may need some work on lightening up a bit.  When we get disconnected from children--and we do, again and again--play is our best bridge back to deep connection with them.


I read this book about a year ago, and this passage stuck in my mind.  Many months later, when I was watching Bethany grappling with her new skill of walking (around 11-12 months), I saw her lose her balance and fall down over and over, and become more frustrated and upset each time.  Just when she was on the verge of a major meltdown, I had a flash of inspiration.  I jumped up and said: "Bethany!  Oh no, mum fall down!" and fell over dramatically.  She looked at me startled, then grinned.  So I got up and did it again.

She giggled.

Then followed much more giggling as I almost managed to walk across the room and fell over in different ways, including almost on top of her so that I ended up kissing her tummy.  After a few minutes of this  she got up and tried to walk again, and this time when she fell over, she looked up and grinned at me.  Then she got up and tried again.  No more tears (for that afternoon).

Play had communicated, in a language a toddler could understand: it's ok to make mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  Even if you don't succeed, it can still be fun to give it a go.  You are worthy and loveable no matter if you succeed or not.

I found Playful Parenting a wonderful read.  Not too long, a conversational style, but full of insights that felt fresh, and grounded in a strong understanding of child development.  The author is a child psychologist who specialises in play therapy, and he draws on many years of experience to give lots of wonderful examples of play ideas that can help you connect with your child, learn appropriate skills and behaviour, and defuse difficult situation.  I cannot tell you how many almost-tantrums I have managed to head off by adopting some of the ideas in this book.  It also contains one of the most brilliant, practical metaphors I have seen for understanding and fostering attachment (the 'cup filling' metaphor).

The book is aimed at parenting children of all ages (except babies), from toddlers to teens.  The beauty of the approach is that it doesn't assume you have to be a super-parent, and it forms a useful accompaniment to any other parenting style.  Playful Parenting is different.  It is genuinely a positive, realistic, and very practical book that gives you a toolkit of ideas you can try, rather than making you feel guilty about what you're not doing.

Cohen does explain why play is so important and addresses many common fears or misconceptions about getting involved in playing with your children.  Most importantly, I think, it discusses how to play in a way that will be most effective.  There is an excellent chapter in particular on play-wrestling and how to handle violent play in a way that respect's the child's needs and curiousity, but does not glamourise or support aggression.

Play is what our children are geared up to do, because their brains know it is what they need to develop. Rather than fight their nature by expecting them to understand logical explanations and exercise self-control on request, playing swims with the current - it is a parenting tool to encourage cooperation and understanding that children not only understand, but enjoy.  And because it can address underlying issues which motivate other negative behaviour, it can be one of the most effective tools for actually preventing problematic behaviour before it starts.  It teaches self-control by creating situations where children are actually motivated to control their behaviour for the intrinsic reward of enjoying a game.

My TEDx talk & Childcare - or Why This Blog Has Been Silent

It's been about 2 months since I posted on here.  There have been a number of reasons for this, but a major one is that I was preparing to give a talk at the TEDxDarwin event.

What is a TEDx event?  Basically, it's a mini-conference where speakers apply to present an interesting idea or original perspective in a polished speech (without notes) under 18 minutes.  You are mic'ed up, videoed, and all the talks are released online under a creative commons licence (meaning it can basically be shown and shared by anyone for free).

TEDx events are a spin-off from TED events.  TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Started as a four-day conference in California 26 years ago, TED has grown to support those world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. At TED, the world’s leading thinkers and doers are asked to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Talks are then made available, free, at TED.com. TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Richard Branson, Benoit Mandelbrot, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Isabel Allende and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.   In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organised events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.  The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organised. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)

So I had to submit a proposal to the organising committee, along with a bit about me and my experience as a public speaker, and I was fortunate enough to be selected to speak.

My talk was called Empowering Parents Through Information, and you can watch it here (the picture's a bit dark on some angles, particularly the opening shot, but the sound is clear):

Feel free to share with parents, health care providers, or policy makers who you think might be interested.  You can link back to this blog post, find it on Youtube under my name (Caroline Norrington), or here on the TED website.

Brave New World of Childcare

The other major reason that this blog has been silent is that I am now working 4 days a week.  Bethany is transitioning from being cared for by her Granny to a childcare centre for 2 days a week and her Aunt for another day.  The fourth day of work I am doing flexibly in evenings and on weekends.  As you might imagine, fitting in two more days of work is going to severely cut into blogging time.

I am very happy that we have been able to find Bethany a place in a lovely childcare centre - a community-run organisation, the Nightcliff Family Centre.  Unfortunately it's a bit out of my way, which is a pain as I am still breastfeeding her at lunchtimes, but I am happy to do the extra driving time to have her somewhere as stable as Nightcliff appears to be.

I thought I'd post a few notes here about what I looked for in a childcare centre and why, because when Bethany was first born I had no idea what I was looking for, and I thought some notes might help parents who are looking.

In order of importance:

1) Recommendations of other parents.  I asked around.  I particularly took note of the opinions of parents who I thought probably had similar parenting philosophies to me.

2) The extent to which the carers engaged with the children lovingly and sensitively, as opposed to just doing feeding / sleeping / crowd control.  For a 14mo, long daycare has to be a home away from home, and babies are still really forming their understanding of whether they are worthy and that comes from being shown love and sensitivity and having the chance to interact one-on-one with a carer.  I found this out by asking parents, and also by going to the centres and watching the carers interact with the children.  Daycare centres will have routines, but good centres will also do their best to adapt to your baby's routine.

3) The extent to which the children going there seemed to be happy.  This involved again talking to other parents and visiting the centre (although I think when you visit the centre you can catch them during a bad day or a busy moment, so take the visit with a grain of salt).  Great signs were children who ran in to cheerfully hug the carers in the morning, and parents who say that their child still speaks fondly of their carers some years later.

4) Transparency and parental engagement.  I visited one place where the carer flat out refused to let parents come and settle their children in or drop in during the day.  This is not on, in my view.  A 14mo old needs to gently adjust to a new care environment by being gradually transitioned, and a 14mo cannot tell you what happens to them at daycare, so the ability for the parent to be involved and for parents to scrutinise how care is being provided is essential.  Good centres actively encourage parents to help their children transition, because this makes children happier.  Beware any childcare providers who discourage this, because it suggests they either know very little about child development, and/or your child's psychological and emotional wellbeing is not high on their agenda.

5)  The quality and quantity of one-on-one attention my baby was likely to receive.  For example, avoid having your toddler / older baby being cared for in the same room as very young babies.  Very young babies require intensive attention, and leave the carers with very little time to be responsive to your older baby / toddler.  I tried to find a centre that didn't take babies under 6mo, or has the younger babies in a separate room.  I actually found a centre where Bethany is basically in a room of 1-2yo's, so that's great.  Look at the ratio of carers to babies.  The required ratio is changing from 1:5 to 1:4 in 2012, but it can still vary from centre to centre.  I was particularly keen on centres with 3 carers to 10 babies.

6) Stability of the centre and longevity of carers.  This is actually really, really important, but I put it lower down my list because it's very hard to find.  Children bond to particular people, not to the centre per se, so if your centre has a high staff turnover, that can be very disruptive and upsetting to them.  Ask how long the carers have been there.  I was incredibly lucky to find a centre where two of the carers in the baby's room have been there for over a decade (one for almost 3 decades) and are committed to staying there.

7) Other things I looked at were policies on sleeping and behaviour management.  Most childcare providers I spoke to were happy to use gentle methods to get my baby to sleep if I preferred.  No childcare providers are supposed to use corporal punishment.  You can find many centres this day which practice positive discipline and do not use humiliation strategies like time out / naughty corners.  That's not important to everyone, but it was to me, and it's good to know that this is quite common in centres and not at all too much to expect.  I found that the centres who did well against all my criteria generally were also very positive about me coming in to breastfeed.  (In fact, I had a carer suggest the other day that perhaps I could come in to feed Bethany twice!  Unfortunately that's not feasible, but I do appreciate how welcome they made me feel.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Explanations for Your Cranky Baby

Your baby is cranky.  Their sleep is all over the place.  You've ruled out ill health, hunger, thirst, dirty nappy, too hot, too cold...  You think it's overtiredness, but even after a good nap or first thing in the morning they're still clingy and easily upset.  What can explain it?

It seems that some crankiness seems to be part of normal, healthy baby development.  Think of it like morning sickness.  It's not much fun, but on the upside it's usually a sign that everything's on track and the baby's developing normally.  There's nothing you have to do about it, except to do your best to comfort your baby and show you care.

Here are some of the most popular explanations I've found for baby crankiness.

The Period of Purple Crying (0-12 weeks)

It is normal for babies to be placid in the first 2 weeks after birth, then round week 3 they start to cry more and more.  The crying just happens for no reason and can be impossible to soothe.  One way of thinking about this is as 'The Period of Purple Crying'.  'Purple' is an acronym that stands for Peaks at 6-8 weeks, Unexpected, Resists soothing (no matter what you try), Pain-like face, Long-lasting (up to 5 hours a day in some cases), and Evening (because it seems to occur more in the late afternoon / evening).  Here is a video:

It is so common for 0-12 week old babies to have an inconsolable period in the evening, that it can be known as the 'witching hour' or 'arsenic hour'.  There are some great tips on how to realistically approach soothing a baby at this age here on the Period of Purple Crying website.


Colic is not a condition so much as a name that is applied to babies who cry a lot.  As in, colic literally means that the baby cries a lot and we don't know why.  A colicky baby cries a lot.  We're talking hours of endless crying, and no amount of soothing seems to help.  Colic is defined as 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, for more than 3 weeks.  This is a bit of an arbitrary division that researchers use when classifying babies as colicky or non-colicky.  No one has found a definitive cure or explanation for really persistent criers or colicky babies.  Some claim to have some success with baby-wearing, probiotics, switching formula or certain types of bottles for bottle-fed bubs etc., so you can always try these things and see if they help.

Growth Spurts

It is not so much that growth spurts are associated with crankiness, but that they are associated with a trying time for parents, particularly in the early days, because at least the 3 week and 6 week growth spurts seem to throw a baby's sleep out of whack, and breastfed bubs feed round the clock during a growth spurt to get enough milk and bring up the milk supply, making it a demanding time for mum in particular.  There are typically growth spurts at 7-10 days, 2-3 weeks, 4-6 weeks, 3 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 9 months.

Wonder Weeks

I just noticed in the last day or so Bethany seems to have suddenly got... well... smarter.  It's hard to explain.  It's as though when I look at her I see that the cogs in her brain are turning that little bit faster.  Turns out there is a '55 week' wonder week, after which babies have a much more refined sense of cause and effect.

Wonder weeks are mental growth spurts that all babies allegedly go through over the course of the first year.  This idea comes from some Dutch researchers, Frans Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt who set out their theory in the book The Wonder Weeks.

What is so useful for parents about the wonder weeks concept is the idea that when the mental growth spurt happens, most babies go through a period of being inexplicably cranky.  They are easily upset.  They sleep poorly.  And some of the 'weeks' go on much longer than a week.  Knowing this clingy, cranky behaviour can be normal and will soon pass can really help you be patient with your baby during these trying periods.

You can look up more detail about when the wonder weeks are supposed to occur and what is developing on the Wonder Weeks website.  If you want a quick, useful reference for where your baby is at, there is an iPhone app about wonder weeks.


Some people speculate there is no such thing as teething, although most parents will swear there is.  Once the period of colic ends, unexplained fussiness and whinging gets labelled 'teething' whether there's any teeth in sight or not.  All babies seem to go through a very 'mouthy', dribbly period regardless of whether teeth appear then or much later.  My baby was particularly clingy and whingy as her first teeth were coming through (6-9 months), but whether that was due to the teeth, to separation anxiety, or something else, I have no idea.  Perhaps some teeth hurt and others don't.  Perhaps it varies between babies.  My baby has been getting her first molar this last week, and apart from being a bit more distressed when she woke at night, there were no behavioural changes that I noticed at all - and as mentioned above it was apparently also the right timing for a wonder week, so who knows?  I've tried a few things for teething, such as toys for mouthing and Bonjela, but didn't notice her take to them.  I didn't try an amber necklace and the pain hasn't been noticeably bad enough that I would give her Panadol.

That said, some babies seem to get quite marked symptoms like a rash or diarrhoea when a tooth is coming through.  Sometimes teething seems to really cause a lot of pain - other times it is just a bit annoying, so that your baby can be distracted, but when he gets tired and things go quiet he gets really upset.

Sleep Regressions

Babies often sleep better, then worse again, then better, then worse.  Sometimes this is explained as having a 'sleep regression'.  There is talk particularly of sleep regressions at 4 months and 9 months.  This may, however, just be caused by wonder weeks.  See this discussion.

Breastfed babies often start all-night feeding binges round 4-6 months because they are so much more alert that they are too distracted to feed enough during the day.


It is not a novel idea that some babies react poorly to some foods.  We are all on the lookout for major reactions the first time we offer foods like nuts, eggs, shellfish, dairy, gluten etc.  Babies with reflux can become worse with foods that are too runny, or if they don't get enough of a chance to burp upright.

But an intolerance to foods or food additives can also be more subtle and ongoing.  I only really looked into this when I thought Bethany had a mild rash in response to grapes sprayed with sulfur dioxide.  I found this website on the FAILSAFE method really useful for understanding what food additives there are, how to watch out for them / avoid them, and how to do an elimination diet to try and identify whether any of the additives are having an effect.

There are also culprits like caffeine to watch out for.  You probably aren't giving your baby coffee or chocolate, but if you are breastfeeding, it can go through your breastmilk.

Contrary to popular belief, there seems to be increasing evidence that sugar is not responsible for making kids hyper.  Our perception that it does may be in part a placebo effect, both on the parents (who perceive their child's normal exuberance as sugar related) and kids (who learn that hyperactivity is expected of them after sugar).  But it also may be to do with all the other things that normally come along with sugar - such as excessive amount of articificial colourings and flavourings, and caffeine.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Quote A Day #7 - Discipline Without Distress

The Book:  Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment, or bribery by Judy Arnall

The Quote:

Perhaps it's time to rethink the way a time-out is used.  A time-out should be away from the aggravating situation, not the parent.  Adults often take time-outs for themselves when they are angry and frustrated.  They go for a walk, blow off steam at the racquetball court, or just stay in their rooms and listen to a soothing piece of music.  The time-out is a useful skill to teach your children, but the way it is used is a big factor in achieving the results that you desire.  If you want a great way to calm down children, focus them on their actions and restitution, and connect the parent-child relationship, try the 'child directed time-in.'  Here are five differences between the two types:

Parent-Directed Time Out

  • Used as a punishment.
  • Send the child away for a certain number of minutes per year of age.
  • Gives the child nothing to do and instructs the child to 'think' about his actions.  Often, the child is really thinking about his anger, the unfairness of the situation, and/or how to retaliate.
  • Parent requires the child to be alone.
  • Parent decides the location, such as chair, bedroom, corner, or 'naughty step'.
Child-Directed Time In
  • Used as a calm-down strategy
  • Suggest the child take a time-in.  Let the child decide when he's calm enough to start problem-solving the issue.  Talk softly, rub shoulders, show how to breathe.
  • Gives the child calm-down tools to suit his learning style, while he sorts out his feelings: (auditory learner: soothing music; visual learner: paper and markers; kinesthetic learner: lego, ball)
  • Ask the child if he wishes you or another adult to stay and talk with him or be with him.  An extraverted child may need a sounding board, whereas an introverted child may need solitude.
  • Child chooses location such as bedroom, special fort, going for a walk, or even the basketball hoop.
I used to use parent directed time-outs.  My son was constantly put in time-out and learned nothing.  He threw blocks at the door and trashed his room while I was trying to keep the door closed and the other two children out.  Neither of us were calming down.  Neither of us were learning anything.  Emotions were escalating.  I was getting angrier; and he was too.  Clearly, time-outs were not working.  THe books said to keep at it and show him who was boss, but he was not relenting!  After weeks of that behaviour, I gave it up.  We never did time-outs again.

I would ask my daughter, when she was eight, what she wanted us to do when she was throwing tantrums and screaming in anger.  I chose a time where we were both in a good space.  We had been using time-out as a cool down strategy, whereby we would carry her to her room and shut the door.  Her flailing resistance made it hard for me to keep calm.  In anger, I probably carried her to her room rougher than I meant to.  She would keep screaming and shouting.  She told me that she wanted us to give her a hug, reassuring words, and not force her anywhere.  The next time she was in a mood, I did as we had discussed.  She calmed down much faster, and we were much more connected.  Now, I notice that when I'm upset or one of the children are upset, she is the first person to get up and hug us!

Time in: stay cool - help calm - teach later.


Time outs are very much in vogue, promoted as a discipline tool to replace spanking.  They are at the heart of programs like 1-2-3-Magic! (which is little more than a time out guide) and a staple on programs like Supernanny.  However, there are many reasons why you might look for an alternative to time outs.  Perhaps your child does not respond to them, perhaps they send your blood pressure sky-rocketing, perhaps you want your child to focus on what their behaviour does to others rather than on whether they are going to get punished.  But even if you don't want to use punishments like time outs, it can be hard to work out what to do instead.

I thought it would be a good example (not to mention useful) to quote her explanation of how to do a time-in.

Arnall's book is unusual in that it is a hands-on practical book for parents that offers not only alternatives  to punishments like time-outs, but also alternatives to approaches that involve manipulative rewards and praise.  It took me a long time and a lot of internet research to discover this book because it doesn't retail in Australia.  I ended up ordering it through Amazon.  It is a decent size - over 400 pages long - because it does not just discuss the techniques, but also includes quite a lot of evidence-based discussion of the merits of various techniques.  But even though the book is long, it is broken up into chapters and sub-chapters, and well indexed, so you can just jump in and get what you want.  That said, I read it from start to finish and found it a fascinating read in its own right.

Of all the books I have, this one was a real stand-out for me.  If you are going to get one book on discipline, get this one.  You may not decide to use all these ideas, but it does really open your eyes to how a non-punitive, non-manipulative approach can work.  It is not as simple as Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Discipline Solution (reviewed here), but it is much more thorough, so it offers a lot more options and a lot more thorough understanding of how to problem-solve parenting challenges.  It has loads of evidence-based theory, practical toolkits arranged in handy charts, age by age chapters: eg. a chapter for 0-1 years (mostly about baby proofing and fostering attachment), 1-2 years ('this is the time for damage control, not moral teaching'), 3-5 years (natural consequences, modelling, problem solving), 6-12 years, and 13-19 years.  For each age group it summarises physical, psychosocial, and cognitive milestones.  It provides a list not only of helpful parenting behaviours, but unhelpful behaviours that can unwittingly trigger the behaviours you are trying to discipline your child out of, discussions of typical issues and practical approaches for dealing with them.

There are also chapters on different temperaments and learning styles, a chapter specifically on dealing with new technologies like the internet and mobile phones (with the philosophy 'educate: not ban'), a chapter entitled 'good parents feel angry: separate your anger from your discipline' and a really good discussion on approaching discipline when you and your partner may have different ideas.

Arnall raised five children to adulthood using these methods, so she has had a lot of practical experience ironing out the crinkles and looking at the long-term effect of the methods on her children, their behaviour, and her relationship with them.  She has worked extensively as a parent-educator teaching these techniques.

The greatest strength of Arnall's approach is that it really focuses on building self-discipline rather than externally imposed discipline.

Bear with me here on a tangent that will become relevant...

Once upon a time I used to write and direct plays - for fun, nothing professional - and at that time I took some short courses in directing.  Before I took those courses I thought you directed people by saying: stand here, do this, speak up, count to five before you respond etc.  That's obviously how you direct, right?

But when I took those courses, I realised that what seemed so obvious missed the fundamental point that a great actor does so much more than remember a list of commands.  A great actor feels the character, expresses the character in their body, expresses shades of meaning in their voice and the slightest gesture.   It only happens by actors being given the opportunity to explore and experiment with their role.  Being told what to do shuts down that creative opportunity, and the performances that result tend to be wooden, stereotypical, and unsubtle.  The actors find something more meaningful in theatre than just worrying about the applause if they are focused on the creative journey rather than whether their performance is 'right'.

The basic point is this: it is not you as the director who has to get up on stage and perform.  Once they step out there in front of the audience, you cannot keep yelling out commands.  You cannot tell them to stop and do the scene again.  The actor themselves has to have the skills to improvise when someone forgets a line, to respond to the nuances of the performances of the other actors, and to make subtle adjustments for the audience's reaction.  You cannot do it for them.

And this is something I always have in the back of my mind as a parent.  You cannot live your child's life for them.  You cannot follow them every second of the day.  You cannot be watching over her shoulder when your teenager sneaks off to a party.  You cannot make her be self-confident by demanding it.  You cannot force your twenty-five year old to take any notice of anything you say whatsoever.

Working with actors to find the character in themselves is much more time intensive.  It took about twice as many rehearsals to use the 'exploration' method than the 'point and command' method.  But 'point and command' relies on your actor already having the necessary skills to give a good performance, whereas the 'exploration' method can take result in a brilliant performance from an actor who was uncertain or unskilled to start with.  The 'exploration' method can completely transform the kind of performance or mannerisms of an actor into a new approach, whereas the 'point and command' method will only make small refinements to what the actor is already offering.

The sad thing is that when you direct with a 'point and command' method, you never see and so never realise what performances were actually possible from the actors.  You don't realise that the actor could often come up with something better than your own suggestion.  When an actor cannot manage to give you the performance you imagine they ought to give, you are at a loss to do anything except yell or throw your hands up in despair.

The 'point and command' style of directing has much in common with the 'punish and reward' style of discipline.  It can produce more swift results, particularly if the child is talented and the expectations are realistic, but it also teaches the child to rely on their parents rather than their own conscience, and to do what they can get away with rather than to problem-solve and be empathetic.

Arnall's approach is about using every opportunity for internal skill-building that will serve your child well when you are not around to tell them what to do.  As illustrated in the time-in example, it is not about allowing your child to run riot - it is about using boundary-setting as an opportunity to build a connection, not drive a wedge.