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Turns out the Rubik's cube is just right for this stage with A-

| parenting, fun

I spend a lot of time waiting for A-. Sometimes I'm waiting for her to finish reading a book or watching a video. Sometimes it takes her forever to get to bed. She can sometimes amuse herself independently, but she often still wants me around somewhere in the room. Someday she won't, so in the meantime, I wait. I can't be on my phone or laptop during times like that, because then she'll want screentime too. Sometimes I tidy, sometimes I read, sometimes I write.

It turns out that learning to solve the Rubik's cube is an interest that slots neatly into my life with A-. We picked it up recently because A- was interested in my old Pyraminx.

Our order from Cubing Out Loud turned out to be a pretty good introduction to the world of speedcubing:

  • a MoYu RS3 M 2020, a magnetized 3x3x3 cube for $10 CAD
  • a YuXin Little Magic 3x3x3 M, another magnetized 3x3x3 cube for $9 CAD
  • a YJ MGC 2x2x2 M, a magnetized 2x2x2 cube for $11 CAD
  • and some lubricant

The speed cubes were way smoother than the Rubik's cubes I remember from high school and university. The 2x2x2 cube was great for helping A- practise simple algorithms and get that feeling of success. She quickly graduated to the 3x3x3 cubes. She loves solving it from the fish position, so W- and I solve the first two layers, and then she solves it from there. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly she picked up the beginner algorithms that we showed her, and she took great delight in learning finger tricks and being able to do the Sune move in three seconds. I can do the Anti-Sune just about as fast as she can do the Sune, so we trade cubes back and forth. Sometimes I mix things up so that she has to permute the last layer, too. She's gradually branching out to more algorithms, and will sometimes even take on solving it from a full scramble.

Cubing seems to be a good way for her to practise distinguishing left from right, clockwise from counter-clockwise. We talk about averages, minimums, and moves per second. She likes taking apart our cubes, tweaked the tension, and lubing them. (Reassembling them is a job for grown-ups, apparently.) She likes playing around with different patterns. It spread into her pretend play too. She loves watching JPerm and parroting his lines.

For my part, I enjoy slowly learning different algorithms and feeling things start to click. I can usually solve the 3x3 in under two minutes now (nothing remarkable; most beginners get there), and have lately been averaging around 1:30. I'm getting the hang of solving colour-neutral crosses by moving edges around and ignoring centers, and of solving the first two layers together. I like practising algorithms while keeping an eye on her at the playground. I'm getting better at smiling even when A- snatches the partially-solved cube I was working on with the timer running. I'm not aiming for any records, anyway.

Since W- has gotten into cubing as well, we have determined that we need more cubes. Also, to save our phones from A-'s rather enthusiastic timer use, a StackMat timer and a mat are probably a good idea. Speed Cube Shop had a wider selection than Cubing Out Loud, so we ordered a few cubes and accessories from there. She insisted on getting a Gan cube with some of her savings. Hey, at least these highly-engineered bits of plastic generally stay in one piece, don't get scattered all over the floor, don't need to be sorted into various bins, and don't get stepped on. (I'm kidding, LEGO, we still like you.)

In terms of Android apps, I like Nano Timer. It's free and allows me to keep times in different categories, like a regular solve, A- starting from the fish, or co-op. There's even a multi-step timer for breaking down things like CFOP. A- likes Finger Timer because it looks like a StackMat timer.

Naturally, I'm getting the urge to do something about Rubik's cubes and Emacs. A timer that will let me quickly reassign my current time from "Regular 3x3 solve" to "Solved until A- grabbed the fish"? (It'll have to work on my phone - maybe Termux or SSH, or a web-based approach…) An Org Babel block type for visualizing cubes and moves so that I can make my own notes and blog posts? An SVG version of that text-based Rubik's cube that someone wrote for Emacs? A scramble generator that lets me pick the type of scramble I want and then uses the Kociemba algorithm to generate the steps for scrambling it? Anyway, it'll have to wait until I get a few things off my plate, like EmacsConf and the usual year-end paperwork.

In the meantime, I have things to learn while I wait. I think I'd like to get to the point of being able to do the cross blind. I'm also working on memorizing the rest of 4LLL, and then full OLL/PLL after that.. Anyway, so that's what we've been up to in the evenings while waiting for A- to go to bed.

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Making a menu of activities

| sketchnotes, drawing, parenting, play

A- wants to be with me almost all the time. This can be challenging.

A multiple-choice question is easier than a fill-in-the-blank one, especially when it comes to "What do we do now?" A- seems less grumpy throughout the day when she can go from one activity to another of her choosing. I like letting her take the lead. I also like not having to come up with stuff. During bedtime, I sketched this menu:

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Making A-‘s reading visible through a book tree

| parenting

A- loved Rosemary Wells’ books about Yoko. When we came across the idea of a book tree in Yoko Learns to Read, I made one for her. I painted a tree trunk on a large sheet of paper and told her that she would get one book leaf for every book that she could read by herself. It was a great way to make learning visible.

We started staying at home in March 2020 in order to minimize COVID-19-related risks. The book tree grew more and more leaves, marking our progress despite the sameness of our days.

At first, the book leaves mostly came from books we had recently read together, so memory probably played a big part. She sometimes followed the words with her fingers and she could easily correct herself if I pointed to something she’d forgotten, though, so there was probably quite a bit of actual reading there. Later on, she read books that we hadn’t read together in months, or books that I’d read to her only once or twice. There was even a set of beginner readers that I had put aside so that she could read them without having ever heard me read them. She read them all.

Reading has become part of her identity. “I love to read,” she often exclaims. After she finishes a book, she looks up at me proudly and says, “Book leaf?” We’ve been experimenting with letting her stay up late if she reads independently. She still wants me to hang out in the room with her, so as a bonus, I get to read, too. I still read to her during the day and at bedtime, of course. But she reads! By herself! I love hearing her.

It’s amazing to see how the books pile up. Here’s what it looked like in March and what it looked like at the start of September. It’s almost time to make a new tree, I think. It might be interesting to make a book forest.


If you have a kiddo who’s just starting to read independently, you might also enjoy making a book tree or some other visible way to track their reading. Have fun!

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Expanding our pretend play with roleplaying games

| parenting, play

When we reorganized our living room to bring more things down to A-‘s level, W- thought of bringing the LEGO Heroica games down even though the boxes said 8+ years old. A- noticed them, of course. We built the different game elements and started playing. At first, she was too anxious to go near monsters. Her voice quavered and she made amusing attempts to distract us from the game. We said she could pick the wizard, hide behind our characters, use her ranged attack whenever the opportunity came up, and dash in to grab the treasure. She did so gleefully.

She eventually worked up the courage to deal with monsters with 1 strength, and then 2 strength, and even the occasional 3-strength final boss. She mixed in elements from other LEGO sets and invented her own rules, like letting cupcakes and cookies restore 1 health point. In pretend play, she fluidly shifted between being a golem, a goblin, and a wizard. We made up stories about a LEGO Friends cupcake cafe owner making friends with goblins by giving them free samples. She mixed game terms into everyday life: “I rolled shield!” She played with words like ranger and ranged. We took turns reading the comics and the manuals, and she had plenty of questions.

W- was curious about whether A- was ready for other roleplaying games, so he printed out Monster Slayers: The Heroes of Hesiod and The Champions of the Elements. I acted as the dungeon master, she played the wizard, and I played the fighter as well. We used the Heroica figures instead of the paper hero tokens, and we used LEGO cones for health points instead of shading in circles. She got the hang of rolling the dice and taking off the monsters’ health points whenever she landed an attack. (I did the math for her.) It was lots of fun.

I wonder if I can enrich our pretend play to expand her world knowledge, help her practise solving problems, and maybe even motivate mark-making. We’ve been doing a bit of pretending with our improvised version of the LEGO Friends Lighthouse Rescue Center. I’ve shown her a few videos of veterinarians working in rescue centres, including one of a fish getting a prosthetic eye. She pretended to rescue some LEGO animals we had. I asked her to draw diagrams of where the animals were injured, come up with names for them, and write down the first letters of their names and the first letter of her name.

Amazing Tales released 2-page quickstart rules and lots of adventures for free. I might be able to adapt A Very Rainy Day to a wildlife rescue scenario. Hmmm…

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Experience report: Toronto’s Early Years resources were really helpful

Posted: - Modified: | parenting

I don’t know what Toronto’s parenting resources will look like post-COVID-19, but I want to remember how grateful I am for what A- and I were able to enjoy during these first few essential years.

Right from the start of A-‘s life, Canadian healthcare was there for us. She was born okay, but I ended up needing an emergency transfer and blood transfusion. We spent a few days recovering in the hospital. When we returned home, the midwives did the well-baby visits in the comfort of our living room.

A-‘s left eye stayed closed. We didn’t worry. These things happen sometimes. When it stayed closed, the midwives recommended that we take her to a doctor, and the doctor referred us to Sick Kids Hospital. Two weeks after she was born, we had the official diagnosis: microphthalmia of the left eye. A-‘s eye had stopped developing at some point during gestation. Since microphthalmia is often accompanied by other conditions, the midwives helped us find a pediatrician and the pediatrician sent us for a full work-up. A- also had a palpable murmur, so we started seeing a cardiologist as well. For a while it seemed that every time we went to Sick Kids Hospital, we ended up with another follow-up appointment with a different department. A- took to crying as soon as she saw the posters at the entrance of the hospital. I asked the hospital’s child life specialists for tips on how to make this easier for her, and they recommended spending some time decompressing and trying to make a positive association with the hospital at each visit. We made a habit of going to the family resource centre at the hospital to read books and play with toys.

A- went under general anesthesia twice when she was five months old (one eye examination and one liver MRI), and lots of blood tests and ultrasounds. Dazed by sleep deprivation and overwhelmed by all the new terms I learned to spell and search for, I was so, so, so thankful that all of this was covered under public healthcare, that W- was in the thick of all of it with me, and that the Stoic principle of amor fati made it easier for me to embrace everything.

A- wasn’t gaining as much weight as her pediatrician would have liked. It turned out that that was mostly because she started out big and then gradually settled down on being a small sort of human, the way W- and I are–but we weren’t quite sure back then. Better safe than sorry. I hit up all the resources I could find. The Toronto Public Health breastfeeding clinic had lactation consultants and an infant scale that I could use to measure A-‘s weight in between pediatrician visits. When we continued to be concerned, they referred me to the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program (my notes). A nurse and a home visitor helped me keep a close eye on A-‘s development through the Nipissing District Developmental Screen. They answered my questions and taught me parenting skills. They also connected me with the Peer Nutrition program, which included workshops with nurses and one-on-ones with a registered dietitian. This led me to Ellyn Satter’s model of the division of responsibility in feeding, which we’ve found very useful.

Eventually A-‘s growth chart looked more reasonable. (She stopped dropping percentiles, whew!) We could actually start enjoying ourselves. We borrowed tons of books from Toronto Public Library. We went to EarlyON parenting centres to play with toys, ask questions, join circle time, and meet other people. A few centres even had toy lending libraries, so we got to play with a succession of toys at home.

The fog slowly receded as our immediate medical questions were resolved. I could think about slightly longer-term things. What were we dealing with? I worried about potential neurological risks1 from A- going under general anesthesia a couple of times, or other developmental issues that might only become apparent as A- grew. It didn’t help that A- ended up needing dental surgery under general anaesthesia due to tooth decay (which we discovered at a Peer Nutrition follow-up session on oral health, so thank goodness I went to that presentation!). While writing this, I came across a 2016 Canadian study on multiple exposures to general anesthesia 2 seems pretty reassuring, but I hadn’t read it back then. I wanted to keep on top of early childhood development and learn as much as I could.

Many people in Microphthalmia, Anophthalmia Parent Support talked about how helpful occupational therapy and other services had been, even for kids with good vision in one eye. I talked to a caseworker at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She tested A-‘s vision and coping skills with a fascinating array of light-up toys and little things, and she concluded that A- probably didn’t need any services at the time. She sent me a resource kit, just in case. I checked out lots of other resources too, just in case. A- never really took to childminding, so she was always underfoot or in my lap as I attended sessions on parent advocacy, developmental challenges (Let’s Get Started), positive parenting (Nobody’s Perfect) and speech and language (through Toronto’s Early Abilities program). We also attended workshops that were more parent-and-child-focused, such as Make the Connection. I read lots of books and research papers, too. I had never spent much time around kids, so I wanted to learn as much as I could.

As A- passed each milestone, I was able to let go of more concerns and enjoy things more. It felt almost as if going around with a kiddo helped me see another layer to the city. We spent more time in parks, playgrounds, and community centres. We floated and waded in community pools and splash pads. We watched animals at the Riverdale Farm. We regularly went to the Royal Ontario Museum (there was one time that all A- wanted to do was climb up and down the stairs) and the Ontario Science Centre (I always needed to bring extra clothes for her, since she loved playing at the water table). We went to music classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

EarlyON centres were the best of all. I had so many questions, and the centres had teachers and early childhood educators who could give us personalized advice. I loved observing how the parent workers interacted with kids (getting down to the kids’ level, using positive language, singing lots of songs about transitions and routines, empathizing with kids’ feelings, cheerfully distracting and redirecting kids) and how they interacted with other grown-ups (encouraging us, reassuring us, teaching us, showing us by example). As A- grew older, we went to workshops on kindergarten readiness, literacy, and math. We even made friends with some of the other kids and parents who went to the same centre regularly. When the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape, we attended virtual circle times and workshops organized by the same EarlyON folks that A- and I had gotten to know in person.

A- is 4.5 years old now, and we’re slowly shifting toward the school-age stuff. We survived the 0-3 stage, woohoo! I’m writing this to remember what it felt like then and what it feels like now. Who knows, maybe it might add to a policy-maker or agency worker’s understanding of the kind of difference these programs make in someone’s life, or it might inspire other families to cobble together something similar from the programs and resources available in their area. I feel incredibly lucky to be supported by all these people and resources around us. I hope families can still have that kind of support as we figure out what this new world can be.

1 Flick RP, Katusic SK, Colligan RC, et al. Cognitive and behavioral outcomes after early exposure to anesthesia and surgery [published correction appears in Pediatrics. 2012 Mar;129(3):595]. Pediatrics. 2011;128(5):e1053-e1061.
2 James D. O’Leary, Magdalena Janus, Eric Duku, Duminda N. Wijeysundera, Teresa To, Ping Li, Jason T. Maynes, Mark W. Crawford; A Population-based Study Evaluating the Association between Surgery in Early Life and Child Development at Primary School Entry. Anesthesiology 2016;125(2):272-279. doi:

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Book: Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (Paul Tough)

| parenting, visual-book-notes

Here are my notes on Paul Tough’s 2016 book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. It turns out that he’s made the book freely available online, so you can read the book with embedded videos and links.

The main thing I got from it is the importance of thinking about the environment kids learn in. A- has a pretty low-stress environment at the moment, although she might run into a few challenges later on. As I help A- learn, I also want to help her internalize these messages, which I’ve paraphrased from the book:

I belong. I can do that through our relationship by being warm, responsive, and encouraging.
I grow. I can reinforce this by telling stories about how she’s learning.
I can do it. I can scaffold her learning and encourage her when she’s frustrated.
It’s worthwhile. I can show how her learning pays off and I can help her set inspiring challenges.

I can influence the development of non-cognitive traits through our relationship and through the kind of work she does.

When I read the section on home visiting, it reminded me of how much I appreciated the Healthy Babies Healthy Children home-visiting program run by Toronto Public Health. The nurse and the home visitor taught me more about playing with A- by highlighting small things I was doing well. Because they called attention to those practices, that made it easier for me to do more of those things. I like doing something similar with A-, noticing and naming the things she’s doing well so that she gets a sense of her growth.

The book is okay, kinda light, but it isn’t a must-read. It was a good nudge to think about what A-‘s picking up in addition to the things that are easier to measure and observe.

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I’m learning to draw with crayons

| parenting

We have a huge box of assorted crayons left over from J-‘s childhood, so I decided to make it one of my life goals to finish the box. Besides, I think A- will develop a stronger appreciation of how fun making art is if she sees me learning how to enjoy it myself. Today she woke up pretending that we were fish, so I drew a fish.

A- wanted to draw one too, so I put my drawing under hers and she traced over it.

I also made this drawing of a cloud a few weeks back. I liked the way adding grey made the cloud feel more cloudy.

I’ve even been able to use crayons to doodle a sketchnote exploring some of my thoughts. After I scanned it, I used Krita to rearrange and ink it. I’m waiting for the Free Software Foundation’s go-ahead to post it on my blog when they put it up on their site (next month, probably?), so you can’t see it yet. I like the prospect of moving some more thinking/drawing time into doodling time with A-.

Who knows, I might actually expand my visual vocabulary and learn how to draw non-stick-figure stuff. Yay childhood!

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