Category Archives: parenting

Expanding our pretend play with roleplaying games

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.


2020-07-01 Heroica #sketch #moment.png

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…

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

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. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-0351
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: https://doi.org/10.1097/ALN.0000000000001200.

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


2020-07-05a Helping Children Succeed – Paul Tough #book #education.png

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.

I’m learning to draw with crayons

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!

Capturing moments

A- sat in her sled for a long time after she slid down the hill. I went over to check on her. She said, “I want to sled down with someone.” I said, “I’m here.” She said, “I want to sled down with someone who is a kiddo.” I checked with nearby friends, but no one was available. We talked a little about making friends.

It felt like a big moment. She’s starting to turn towards her peers, and that’s wonderful. I knew I wanted to make it my moment of the day. No picture of it, of course, but it was easy to jot a few keywords into my journal and then flesh it out after putting her to bed.

“I want to sled with someone who is a kiddo.”

I tried something different with this sketch. I drew it on paper with a gel pen, took a picture of it, and imported into Medibang Paint as line art. I tried using layer masks to isolate areas for painting, and that made colouring it more fun. It took about 45 minutes.

This sketching thing is pretty fun. I prefer colouring on my phone, since it’s easy to adjust the colours and I don’t need lots of markers. I’m okay sketching on my phone, but scrolling around is a bit tough. Paper might be handy for keeping the big picture in mind, and bond paper is thin enough for me to trace a second version of the drawing if I want to refine my sketch. I haven’t settled down on a favourite pen yet, so I’ll check out the art store. I think getting the hang of paper might be better than going digital for now, at least for the base sketches. Paper makes it easier for A- to pick things up, lowers the risk tremendously, and makes it easier for me to do it pretty much anywhere.

Here are a few other sketches.

A- loves pretending to be an astronaut. Today she put together a hygiene kit and had fun using it.
Look at me jumping rope!
I got in first!

Making the most of the next three weeks of kindergarten readiness

A-‘s kindergarten readiness program will wrap up in three weeks. So far, the best uses of my two-hour drop-off sessions have been:

  • working on time-sensitive consulting requests
  • drawing and writing thoughts
  • updating my journal
  • reading parenting books and taking notes

After the program ends, I can shift back to taking A- to drop-in centres. I’ll move consulting back to Saturday babysitting sessions, and I’ll try to make time for reading and thinking after A- goes to bed or during independent play practice time. I can use the 1-hour drop-off music class for Emacs News and a little journaling, so that’s taken care of too.

What can I do with the remaining 18 hours more of drop-off focus time so that the next phase is better?

It’s been nice having some overlap with business hours when consulting and I enjoy developing my Python skills, but I can also accomplish that by moving babysitting sessions to a weekday. If I want to move the needle, I think I need something else. Thinking and writing, then. Sometimes it’s hard to give myself the permission to explore thoughts during my once-a-week babysitting sessions because there are so many other activities with clearer and more immediate payoffs, like working on client requests, tidying the house, or preparing food. If I invest the time into planning what I want to learn, thinking through my questions, reading key resources, and reflecting on how things are going, though, I think that might help me give myself permission to make more space for things like that.

E-mail, texts, and social media are still pretty far down on the priority list. I’m not quite at the level of feeling time affluence again, but I’m sure I’ll get there someday.

So, what do I want to learn more about?

I recently read Happier (2007) by Tal Ben-Shahar. It got me thinking about how to increase the present benefits and future benefits of my parenting-related activities, since those take up the vast majority of my waking time. I’ve also been thinking about Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research on flow and the interplay between challenge in skill. High challenge and low skill results in anxiety, low challenge and high skill results in boredom, and flow happens when things are just right. I wonder how to have more flow experiences while parenting.

I’ve been gradually reducing my parenting-related anxiety by checking my perceptions of challenges and testing how things really are. For example, the kindergarten readiness program helped me test A-‘s ability to separate from me, connect with teachers, adapt to classroom routines, and be with other kids. Her growing interest in playing with other people and her ability to tell me how she feels about her interactions reassure me that she’ll probably be able to make good friends. She’s still self-conscious about her eye, she hangs on to perceived slights for a surprisingly long time, and she occasionally resists having to do things for herself, but all those things are probably pretty normal and we can help her slowly work through them if she wants. She sometimes tells me that she’s bored, so I’m helping her figure out how to challenge herself. I think she’s going to be okay.

I’m finding it easier to not get bored playing with A-, too. Inspired by what I’ve been learning from textbooks about play therapy, Reggio Emilia, and other topics, I’ve been challenging myself to be a researcher trying to discover A-‘s interests, projects, and thoughts about the world. I’m working on stepping back, observing, making hypotheses, and testing those with questions and suggestions. I’m treating this as a chance to improve my mindfulness and creativity. I also want to make the most of the ways that parenting is different from programming, such as negotiation, co-learning, and surprise.

So, how can I use these short snippets of time away from A- to make better use of time with A-?

I want to invest some time in thinking about how to make daily space for me to update my journal and reflect on questions. It’s hard to do it after she goes to bed. Since I still snuggle her to bed (great for heart-to-heart conversations), I sometimes end up falling asleep myself. I might be able to stay awake and get a head start on thinking by reflecting on a clear question while I wait for her to fall asleep. Waking up early hasn’t worked in the past because she sometimes ends up waking up early too, throwing the rest of our schedule a little off, but maybe I can do it if I write on my phone while she dozes beside me. She’s also slowly getting better at independent play time, which gives me a little time to draw or write on a sketchpad. I don’t want to update journal entries on my phone then, since it just looks like phone time, but sketching thoughts on paper seems to be okay.

It might be interesting to see how I can get better at sharing that documentation with her. I bought a few books on pedagogical documentation that might be good to review. A- really liked the quick 4-picture collage I threw together in Canva and printed from my phone. She liked looking at the pictures and numbers, having someone reading the captions to her, and even pointing at the pictures and telling her own story. When we switch to spending more time at drop-in centres, I’ll be able to capture more of her interests. If I set a goal of printing out a sheet like that once a week, it might spark more conversations and follow-ups. If I spend some time on my laptop and make a Canva template that I can easily update from my phone, that might reduce the effort.

A- seems to like my little drawings in the calendar, so we could try adding that to our evening routine. Later on, if I want more space to draw or write in, a Hobonichi Techo or some other paper diary might be a good approach. I wonder if I can even glue small photos into it.

It might also be worth updating our list of favourite meals and researching a few things to try, especially ones that A- can help me prepare. If I can move some tidying into the week, that frees up some babysitting time too. And if I can think of ways to encourage J- and her friends to help around the house, or to take advantage of any babysitting time they can spare, that can move time around as well.

Structured activities are a bit of a hit-or-miss with A-, who often has a clear idea of what she wants to do. I like taking advantage of the activities at the drop-in centres, since other people have gone to the trouble of collecting materials and setting things up. It was nice trying out Playing Preschool’s themed reading lists and activities, though, so it might be worth spending a little time in the afternoon (maybe during independent play time) getting those ready. Also, if I read about the ideas behind activities, then I might be able to make better use of the activities at drop-in centres. I can also ask parent workers while I’m there.

So it might be good to use the time from kindergarten readiness for:

  • writing and drawing reflections on what A- and I are learning, so that we can build on that
  • thinking about how to improve our daily and weekly routines
  • learning about early childhood education, pedagogical documentation, and other things that can enrich time with A-
  • improving my photo workflow so that I can make something I can share with A-

At the end of the kindergarten readiness program, I think it would be wonderful if:

  • I’m ready to make the most of the activities at the drop-in centres by suggesting the right level of challenge, providing interesting vocabulary words, and capturing her interests for follow-ups
  • I’ve figured out how to update my journal at least weekly and maybe share my reflections on a more regular basis
  • We’re all set to cook together and do other household chores
  • I can make at least one photo collage a week, maybe even involving her in the process

Might be fun!