Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gift Giving: a Guide for the Perplexed

Toys that promise to make your child smarter are probably going to do just the opposite.  Remember  those Baby Einstein videos?  The promise that they would turn your child into a genius, just by watching?  Um, no.  Sitting passively in front of a video screen does not make a child smart.  Moving his body, coordinating his hands and eyes, solving problems, and using his imagination, on the other hand, will.

In the waiting room of the sensory gym where I practice, there is a little wooden castle, complete with moat and drawbridge.  There are princesses to be rescued, kings and queens whose honor need defending, horses outfitted with chain mail and colorful banners, and knights in shining armor to ride them.    The children become so absorbed in the little world contained therein  that they often have a hard time dragging themselves away from it.

What's a good toy for a child?  Being an old fashioned curmudgeon, I firmly believe that the job of a toy is to help a child develop his skills {coordination, imagination, memory, problem solving, socialization, spatial awareness} in some way.  The more a toy challenges and engages him, the better.  And the simpler and more open ended it is, the more likely it is to do that.

Does your child have the basics?  I recently read  Stones Into Schools, the sequel to the life changing Three Cups of Tea.  {If you haven't read them, I urge you to do so.  They are about the work of Greg Mortenson, who travels the villages of rural Pakistan, building schools for the children in the remotest, most impoverished villages, on the condition that the girls in the villages be educated, and that the education be secular.} His daughter scolded him for not thinking about the children's bodies and their need for fun during recess, and challenged him to supply all of the schools with a jump rope for every child.  He promptly did, and was thrilled to see the children in those poor villages forget their problems for a while, laughing and playing in the schoolyard.

  Does you child have a selection of balls, a jump rope, roller skates, a Hula Hoop, and a bicycle?  {You would be amazed at how few of the children I evaluate in NYC can bounce or catch a ball.}

Games are a wonderful way to teach social skills like turn taking and being a gracious winner or loser.  How about checkers, cribbage, Jenga, Operation, Connect Four, Guess Who, Tier auf Tier, Memory, and Monopoly?  Or for the older child, nothing beats Scrabble.

I would seriously consider putting a few craft activities on the list this year.  People need to make things!  It's in our DNA.  Until quite recently, we needed crafts {weaving, sewing, leather, pottery, woodwork} in order to survive.  No one ever just sat with idle hands.  After the main chores were done, there was handwork to do: repairing saddles and tack,  spinning, weaving baskets, quilting, making candles and clothing.  When those tasks were completed, hands were turned to decorative arts like carving, leather tooling,  embroidery, and needlepoint.

It's always so  gratifying to me in the clinic when I am working on a craft project with a child and he arrives for his session champing at the bit to get at it.  And the pride and pleasure the child takes in his work is always a thrill.  I was moved beyond words once when I visited the home of a child whom I normally saw at my office, and there was a whole shelf dedicated to his projects in the living room, beautifully and artfully arranged by his father, who is a professional artist.

I confess that although I come from a family where the men can {and do} make or repair anything, I never was much of a crafter myself  -- in fact I practically failed my woodworking class in OT school.  Recently, however, I learned to crochet, and have become so obsessed with it that I haven't picked up a book or magazine in weeks.  The possibilities are endless,  the supplies can be as inexpensive or as costly as you like, and the results are beautiful and useful.  The man who cuts my hair begged me to teach him, because he thought it would help him with his free floating anxiety.  I think it most likely would.  Making things is soothing, grounding, calming, and organizing.  If you have an anxious child, supplying him with an activity that is slightly challenging but requires automatic, repetitive movement, like stitching leather, crocheting, or weaving, can be a huge stress buster.  And nothing motivates a child who tends to give up too easily like success!

If you have a Michael's in the vicinity, you're in luck.  They have a huge selection of structured craft activities as well as the raw materials for things like scrapbooking, cake decorating, painting, drawing, and clay.  I like Perler beads, Loom Loopers, {use a metal loom, the plastic ones are too flimsy} wooden models that you glue together and paint, and the Creatology 3D wooden puzzles that you crack out and put together.  Something all the children like to do is sew a felt stuffed animal from kits and stitch together leather pieces to make a coin purse.

Most small children love art supplies.  How about some gorgeous colored pencils, a supply of stickers, some modeling clay, a collection of fun pattern edged scissors, rubber stamps, glitter, origami paper, a little bag of colored feathers, beads, or a box of watercolors?  I hesitate to recommend markers, unless your child has already developed a good tripod grasp.  If he's still struggling, a chalkboard easel and a supply of colored chalk, which you break into small pieces, would be a big help.  I often play games and do silly drawings on the chalkboard with the children, which strengthens up their arms and hands for writing, and they really enjoy it.

I have to say, looking back, that the gifts that made the biggest impression on me were books.  I would like to thank the woman, whose name I no longer remember, who casually pressed a copy of The Enchanted Castle into my hands one evening as we were leaving her house after dinner.  I must have been about ten years old, and it was not my birthday, so she must have just wanted the pleasure of giving it to me.  I don't know if I ever got the chance to tell her how many times I reread it, how I sought out and read all of E. Nesbit's other books, and how now, as an adult, I still hand out copies to every child who crosses my path.

Buy your child your favorite books when you were his age, and read them together.  Make reading a book together before the child goes to sleep a nightly routine.  Books really are the gift that keeps on giving.  Developing a love of reading will open up the world to a child like nothing else can.

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