Friday, November 08, 2013

Rules of engagement

Okay, so this post on how to keep a toddler engaged without turning on the television AT ALL, has been due for a very long time now. Every time I wanted to sit down and compile my ideas, I gave up because I felt like there was nothing new. Google is swarming with ideas on how to keep toddlers busy, what possible value could I add? But I keep receiving queries from friends and bewdas who are parents, and now I think I understand. Maybe what they want is what I wanted and what Google could not give me. Simple things for parents to do with their kids at home on a daily basis to keep them occupied and happy. Of course, there are tons of websites that have '100 things to do at home with kids' but you can't be doing stuff like making a working model of a volcano every single day; you will go crazy.

In case you're wondering why I'm so anti-TV and what's wrong with kids watching a bit of TV or 'educational DVDs', here is one of my favourite articles on it. (Yes, I must have read all of the Internet on TV and kids.) Simply put, the early years are critical and TV hinders the kid's brain from developing to its fullest potential.

Check this this out too. Many of my friends switch on the TV to watch something and get a moment of respite, or turn on baby TV and let the kid watch it while they get some chores done, or simply keep it switched on the entire time whether anyone is watching or not. Now here's the thing. Even background TV, where it's just playing in the background while your kid is doing something else, is bad.

Yes, TV can teach your kids the alphabet and numbers and good habits. But here's the thing - you can do it too. And better. Without compromising their grey cells.

Two friends of mine, whom I drilled and grilled until they gave up and hopped on to my no-TV bandwagon, reported amazing results. Both kids were having a speech delay and once the TV was off and the remote control hidden away, they started talking. Within days. Their parents were just as amazed as I was.

A friend of mine whose kid used to watch at least 3-5 hours of TV a day asked me, "If I don't let him watch TV, what on earth do I do with him all day???" This post, if anything, is an answer to her question. I have to admit that it is hard to come up with things to engage your kid all day. But not impossible. Now, before we get started, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. I work from home, and I only work when Xena is at school. When she's at home, I am all hers. I don't have any domestic help, so when Viv is at work or cricket, I need to do pretty much everything. And housework does not even begin to compare to the hard work that entertaining a toddler is. It's a little better for me now, since she has started half-day school, but before that, I was spending every single minute with her. (Yes, crazy exhausting, but totally worth it.) Most of these tips are from that viewpoint -- of being with her 100% of the time. So the tips below might need to be modified if you're a working parent.

2. Be CONVINCED that your kid does NOT need TV and you are doing the right thing by keeping it turned off. If your kid already watches TV and you're going cold turkey, you might witness tantrums like some of my friends did, but persist. Do not give in or give up.

3. If you're the kind who will wilt without TV yourself, find ways to watch it. When your kid is napping or away at school. Just don't switch on the TV when your kid is around. If your kid doesn't see you watching TV, chances are that he or she wouldn't be too keen on it either. Viv and I used to watch a bit of TV every now and then after putting Xena to sleep, but soon we realised that between work, housework, Xena and each other, we really don't have time for TV. We promptly disconnected our cable connection and have been living happily since. It's not that we don't watch anything at all. I watch some Hindi stuff online and he watches some cricket stuff online. Together, we watch DVDs, but only after Xena has fallen asleep. We do not watch anything with her around. If she wakes up, we switch off the TV. No compromises.

4. Where possible, I include some learning points in the activities but I try not to go overboard. It's nice that she can count to 40 and say the alphabet, but at this age, the most important thing to do is to have fun. I try to make teaching part of the fun. If she seems uninterested or bored, I go back to 100% play. I started off with a 15-minute slot for each activity, but I would stop and switch if she seems bored.

5. If you absolutely have to let your kid watch TV for whatever reason, do not simply plonk him/her in front of it and go away. First of all, select the slowest possible videos with minimal flashing lights and colours. Be actively engaged and involved to avoid the 'zoning' effect, where the kid seems to be completely hypnotised and has no clue of anything else around. Because that's when you know the brain has switched itself off.

Okay, so here are the things that Xena and I do all day.

1. Toys
Of course. Toys are expected to keep the kid busy. But what if your kid gets bored with each toy after 15 minutes of play? You can't possibly keep buying toys. Compared to other kids, Xena has a very very small toy collection. Soft toys have now been banned by her doctor for her lung issues, but she used to have quite a few of them and that's how she learnt animal names.

We try to make sure that the toys she has are as open-ended as possible. Not only does that help her exercise her creativity in thinking of new ways to play with it, it also increases the life span of the toy. For example, she has this bowling set and the skittles are all shaped like different animals. When she was very young and had no bowling skills, I used them to teach her animal names and colours. Now she's able to bowl and has been kind of getting bored, so I have switched to doing new things with them. For example, I tell them it's time for the skittles to sleep and ask her if she could make them sleep in a row, all facing left or right. She loves it. There's also the 'dahi handi' where I challenge her to make the tallest tower she can make by holding them one on top of the other. Now she's learning some tricks too - such as making sure the giraffe is at the top because it has horns, making it hard to balance any other animal on its head. And something silly and funny Viv introduced recently - bowling conference, which is basically all the skittles standing in a tight circle, with the bowling ball balanced on their heads. It not only looks hilarious, it entertains her so much that lately every day she's been organising the conference.

Other open-ended toys are play-doh and blocks. Play-doh is a life-saver even if you're not arty. It's also great for teaching colours. We make all kinds of random things (fruits, flowers, sun, moon, bowl, spoon, rings, bangles, necklaces, Angry Birds, etc.) and she learns a lot along the way.

2. Books
I visit the library once or twice a week and pick up books for her. Sometimes we read together and sometimes she flips through them herself. Or you can just pick up a magazine or a newspaper and just go through it together, describing what you see. We often try to create stories around newspaper advertisements. When reading the books, you can pause before keywords and let your kid complete them. Or you can ask them to tell you the full story. It's hilarious when Xena tells me her version of the stories in the books.

3. Outdoor time
We have at least one hour of outdoor time every evening, either at the playground or the beach, or just a walk or ride in the park. Both of us love going to the beach. Sometimes we do some digging in the sand, or we play a game of 'Run, the waves are coming!' or we count the number of dogs we see at the beach, or we simply blow bubbles. She has a scooter and a bike which we alternate (she prefers the bike at the moment). To make the most of a walk or ride, ask questions, point out things and use as many new and descriptive words as possible. This does wonders for their vocabulary. Try not to be on your phone even if they are busy in the playground. Firstly because they need to be watched all the time, and secondly, the less they see you on the phone, the better it is for both of you. You can even take a ball outside and kick away. We also have a cricket set for Xena, but she prefers to play with it indoors. Good for me, because fetching the ball after her boundary shots are so much easier!

4. Water play
Sometimes I let her play for a while in the bathtub before her bath. I have a small plastic bucket, a watering can, a sponge, a fishing net and some foam numbers that stick on the bathroom tiles when wet. She LOVES to fill up the bucket, put the foam numbers in, fish them out using the fishing rod and stick them on the tiles. That's how she learnt numbers, by the way. Or she pours water on the sponge using the watering can, and squeezes away.

5. Household chores
Oh, the things I make Xena do. Child labour and all that. But she loves it all and it keeps her busy, giving me precious moments to do some real work. For example, if I'm doing the dishes, I hand her a plastic bowl and spoon and she just sits there at the kitchen entrance (she's strictly not allowed into the kitchen and she knows it) and mixes like there is no tomorrow. Or when I'm making ginger tea, I let her pound the ginger. You can only imagine how gingerly she pounds the ginger, but she has fun and that's what matters. I put her on the high chair and get her to peel boiled eggs and garlic while I do other things like chopping. When I dry clothes, I put her on (ON, not IN, ok? Just close the lid of the machine and plonk the child on top) the washing machine and she sits there, watching with great interest. When I fold clothes, I involve her. She knows what each item of clothing is called and whom it belongs to. She even tries to fold them with not much success, but enjoys the process. Sometimes I ask her to find pairs of socks in the bundle of laundry and she tries to do that. She helps me sweep the house (I have a separate broom for her, and I allocate a corner of the room to her). She can follow simple instructions, such as wiping the chairs or the refrigerator door.

6. What's in the fridge?
She loves going through the items in the fridge one by one, identifying and describing them. Of course, when she spots new items, she's thrilled and asks all about them. Before I start cooking, I open the fridge and ask her to hand me the ingredients and she takes great pride in doing that. When I need something from the freezer, she says, "Too high! Mommy, please pick me up." I pick her up and she gets me the item.

7. Scooping
I give her a bowl of say chickpeas or pasta and an empty bowl and a spoon. She tries to scoop them from the first bowl and put them in the second bowl without spilling anything. Such activities are great for fine motor skills too. Of course, you gotta watch them closely in case they try to swallow the stuff. Not a problem for me, because my kid doesn't believe in putting any food item in her mouth. Sigh.

8. Get arty
I got a set of crayons and some fingerpaint for her long long ago and we're still going strong. I put her in the high chair dressed in a full-sleeved bib to minimise the mess. Other than finger painting, sometimes we put coloured blobs on a page and firmly close the book so we get weird and interesting shapes to analyse. She spots butterflies, clouds, sheep and what not in those strange shapes. Sometimes she asks me to draw simple pictures from her books and then she colours them. Lately, we have also been experimenting with mehendi, though she insists on only Hello Kitty patterns for herself! Stressful for me! Sometimes I pick up a bit of origami on the net and together we make something cool like a jumping frog.

9. Music and dance
You still don't need TV for this. And it doesn't matter if you can't sing or dance. Your kid will still think the world of your skills. Turn on some music, hold your kid's hands, and sing and dance away! You can even make it more structured by showing her simple steps to do with her hands and feet. You can give the steps funny names, e.g. we have something called the boinka dance. As for songs, you can pick simple songs with short words and sing them together. Here's an old video of me teaching Xena 'Piyu bole'.

10. Puzzles
The great thing about puzzles is that they are time-consuming, giving you precious moments to do your chores as your kid bends laboriously over the puzzle. Initially I bought some 4-piece and 6-piece jigsaw puzzles for Xena but she never seemed to like them. I would be the one solving them for her all the time. Turns out she probably thought they were beneath her, because the moment we bought her puzzles with 12 pieces and more, she immediately took to them!

11. Bag of things
This is a great trick for when I want to do something where I can't involve her at all, such as cooking or washing dishes. I fill a rucksack or any small bag (preferably with several compartments) with random (but safe) objects. A scarf, a sock, a plastic bowl, a toy, anything at all. She has a field day opening the different compartments and discovering the objects, while I quickly get my work done. Unzipping and unbuttoning the different compartments also hone her fine motor skills. Once everything is out, I simply ask her to put it all back where it was, and that not only keeps her very very busy, it also gives me time to finish up my chores.

12. Flashcards
Flashcards are a bit controversial because many think they are too 'academic' and not exactly toys. In Xena's case, I got her the alphabet flashcards when she started showing an interest in the letters she saw in her books. I got the kind that had a picture on the back of each card. She loved them from the first day, and even now simply loves identifying the letters and then the objects behind. In no time, she had not only mastered her alphabet, she had done it without stress, and with curiosity and joy. Here's an old video of her and her flashcards.

13. Play dates!
No amount of toys can beat play dates. Since Xena is an only child, it is even more imperative that she learns how to be around other kids. So from time to time, I organise play dates for her. I'm not a big fan of large play dates, so I prefer to have a maximum of 2-4 kids. It's a great way not only to make them socialise, but to teach important things such as sharing, waiting and manners. Find kids around the same age as your kid, plonk them together with a bunch of toys, sit back and marvel. But please, intervene when needed. Especially if the kids are being selfish or doing something dangerous or bullying or hurting other kids.

14. Poppy's home!
Viv takes the same bus home every day (or at least he tries) so his expected time of arrival is quite standard. A few minutes before, I make Xena wait at the window for him and count till she sees him. She yells out, "Poppyyy!" when she spots him, making him look up and grin. She then runs to the door and starts counting there until he emerges from the lift. The bathtub foam numbers only taught her 1-9, this has taught her to count to 40.

15. One step at a time
While we are on the subject of counting, taking the stairs is also a great way to kill time, teach numbers and exercise motor skills. When she was just learning to climb stairs, we could take the stairs everywhere and I would hold her hands and count. Now she does it on her own, both the climbing and the counting.

16. Girly time!
Since Xena takes forever to grow out of each outfit, from time to time, I take out all the pretty clothes that she has received as gifts but is still too small for, and we make a fun activity out of it. She tries on each, and gives me her verdict - pretty, too big, not nice, don't like, etc. Sometimes, we organise my earrings on the rotating earring holder, and she loves to hook them there. At times, she picks some of my outfits and asks me to try them on and gives me her verdict - pretty, too big, not nice, don't like, etc. Or we take out my box of bangles and we go through all of them. She has picked up the concept of 'matching' and will tell me which earrings, shoes and bracelets go with which outfits.

17. Shadow play
Since she was much younger, she has been fascinated with shadows, as is evident from this video. We still do lots of shadow play and simple puppet shows.

18. Make up stories
She's now reached the stage where she absolutely adores listening to stories. In fact, she gives me random characters and I have to make up a story about them. For example, she would say "Hello Kitty and bicycle wala story sunna hai!" or "Plant and elephant wala story sunna hai!" and I would have to make it up on the spot. In most cases, I use the same formula. Someone needs help and someone helps. Then I include the whole thank you and you're welcome bits at the end, which she remembers so vividly, she's particular about thanking people who help her or give her something. For example, in my plant and elephant story, a plant is thirsty because the gardener forgot to water it, so the elephant brings some water in its trunk and waters the plant. The plant turns out to be a banana plant that thanks the elephant by presenting it with its favorite food - bananas.

19. Errands outside the house
Viv does almost all of our grocery shopping, but if I have a short shopping list, I take her with me and go. I point to the fruits and vegetables and she tells me their names and colours. When she spots something unfamiliar, she gets very curious and excited and quickly asks for its name. Every day, after our outdoor time, we go down to the mailbox in the basement and she likes to open it and hand me the letters. The other day, I was separating glass and plastics for the recycle bin, when it struck me that I could involve her in it. She was very excited and even proudly announced to her friend's mother whom we met on the way that we were going to "thow the containers into the recycle bin". As she grows, I intend to make her (and myself too) a little more environment-conscious.

20. Skype
I regularly skype with my parents and parents-in-law, and I involve Xena fully. She knows that her grandparents are "inside the laptop", waiting to talk to her. She greets them and shows them her toys, talks about school, and also says goodbye when it is time to go. I think we need to show kids how important it is to be in touch with our loved ones who don't live with us.

So this is my random list, and I will keep adding on. Please feel free to add yours as well for I am forever in need of more ideas. :)


Prathima said...

Thank you so much, Sayesha for giving such a detailed list of activities. Should be of great help to me with my one year old (We don't have a TV). However, my one regret is that I can't take him outdoors often due to the very harsh winter where I live. Thanks for the knowledge you have shared about the ill effects of TV watching. I'm sure it'll help many.

Kanan said...

I'm not a parent but love the list. I think adults should have limited tv time too for the greater good of course!
How about learning to play musical instrument like drums. Hopefully no neighbors mind the ruckus that goes with it ;)

Stone said...

Are you sure you're not Shreya Ghoshal in disguise?

Btw, awesome tips as usual.

Arun said...


If you take the Sayesha out of Shreya Ghoshal you are left with
hrGhol, a difference which doesn't make sense :))

Anonymous said...

I love these posts - you make parenting sound like so much fun (which Google does not ☺️)

Arun said...

Maybe she'll like learning to peck out a simple nursery rhyme tune on an electronic keyboard :)

Whatsup said...

At least in here in US, we are told that kids need lot of stuff etc. the truth is they don't. They just need some time and safe way to play. Your list is a standing example of it. I love open ended toys, play dough, crayons. Thinking of it they are the only ones we use in our house. As your child grows, the amount of fun would only grow :) enjoy.

aequo animo said...

We avoided TV, but instead of banning it all together, from Age 2.5 on wards we started allowing her 30 minutes a day .. and now @ 4.5 yrs a maximum of 1 hour on weekends.
Main aim being
1> She should learn self regulation early on, so that she would be able to regulate herself in a planned/agreed manner for TV and other things
2>TV/youtube is inevitable, the early on we teach its not as good as it seems, the better.
So far its working, she self regulates. ( one thing that helped was my kid learnt concept of time and being able to recognize time in 1/2 increments pretty early.. probably by 2..)

KP said...

You are being an awesome mother Sayesha. And the whole list is really interesting and very useful. Xena is going to be a great person when she grows up. And Nice singing of Piya bole..both of you :D

Technofun said...

you are great parent.. although we don't have any kids yet, I have bookmarked your post for future

Arun said...

Overheard at Xena's school: keeping mommy entertained ar home keeps me so busy, I am happy to be at school. :)

gugun said...

Thanks Sayesha for another great post !
I am not a parent, but this sure is an excellent go-to list when having a bunch of kids around! Wish I had it easy with point no 18 though :D I guess you are much more a natural at this than most of us. As with the singing too !!

Few things I can add here:(maybe for kids a little older than Xena though)
-> (an extension of play-doh category) is to do some origami, rockets, boats etc:we enjoyed it a lot as kids.
-> making some toys listed on this page:
-> plant some seeds, water them; watch them grow !

t said...

Absolutely loved this post Sayesha! You are doing a fabulous job and kudos to you for that! We don't have kids yet (trying and trying!) but I am looking forward to using your tips when I become a mother! Can't wait!

How do we know said...

i shared this on facebook and m raj also said on facebook that sayesha's new post is awesome. then i wondered if i hve come back here to tell u that master! we bow to this post.. and well, we hadnt!! so master, you and Gundi Zena rock!

Bloomsandbugs said...

Sayesha, I have said that earlier and I will say it again. Bravo! to you and Viv for keeping Xena away from TV...I haven't been successful at it.
However, I thought I will add my 2 cents to your list:
Since she is interested in playing with playdough, you may want to try let her make the playdough ( its just our atta with food coloring..although you could find more elaborate recipes on internet). It takes my daughter 15 mins of time to knead the playdough and then she would play with it for a while. I have to do a little bit of cleanup afterwards but it is fine.
For a little older kids - mine is 4 - Journaling. I give her a notebook and let her first write the date ( I tell her the date) and then let her write whatever she likes. Right now she makes a box and draw items from a particular letter and then writes their name ( I tell her the spelling). She really enjoys it.

Ruminating Optimist said...

Wonderful compilation of ideas Sayesha. 20 ways to keep them off the TV screen. Need to implement many of these for myself :)

Ketaki... said...

I thought you would like this.. Its an endearing video and made me think of you and Xena..

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