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I am totally that person who has their Christmas shopping done before Halloween (lies). I also love, love, love shopping for toys (more lies), and get so much pleasure out of meticulously wrapping and decorating each package with a color coded theme that changes each year (okay, that part is true).
I’m not writing this piece to give you holiday anxiety, but my kids’ birthdays are both coming up, so gift buying is on my mind. I have one born in October, one in November and then Christmas in December, so we refer to this as the three months of endless celebration and card swiping. I will brag on myself a bit though, I’m really good at finding interesting presents that are both educational and fun. We really don’t have anything in our house that doesn’t get played with and most of what we have incorporates some aspect of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) approach to learning and playing. The idea is to find toys that allow kids to have a new experience every time they pick them up. So, whether you’re getting a head start on Christmas shopping or you need an idea for that next birthday party you’ve been invited to, here are a few of my favorite toys that will get those kids thinking at every age. I will provide a link to the particular ones we have (or will be purchasing), but a simple Amazon search will bring up other options that may be a better fit depending on your child’s age.
Magnetic Gears: From the time my kids could sit up, they loved playing with magnets at the fridge while I cooked or worked in the kitchen. We had letters, animals, and these awesome gears.
Nuts and Bolts Play Set: These come with design ideas for the kiddos or they can innovate and make their own creations. Following directions – good. Following your imagination – even better.
Balance Scale: My kids have spent hours weighing everything they can get their hands on. I actually bought this after my son’s teacher said he had stayed in the Math area all morning doing exactly that. I never would have thought to pick one up, but I’m glad I did!
Fort Construction Kit: These are basically giant Tinker Toys (also a great STEAM toy). You will seriously have as much fun with these as the kids do. There is no limit to the possible combinations, and after putting the pieces together you can drape a sheet over it for a private, multi-room fort.
Snap Circuits: Okay, this is some serious brain fun, and it sparks really interesting discussions about electricity, cause and effect, sound and movement. My son enjoyed following the directions with me and then innovating to create his own circuits.
MATH and TECHNOLOGY
Letter Construction or Alpha Build: These are kits that allow kids to experiment with letters in a tactile way. Letter Construction is a snap together set, while Alpha Build is a magnetic kit. Both have pieces to build capital or lower case letters (or other fun shapes and designs). It’s a great way to work on letters before kiddos have the fine motor skills required to write them.
LITERACY and ENGINEERING
Geode Kits: My kids are obsessed with rocks. We have collected them from all over the world and have built up quite an interesting collection. Geode kits are a great introduction into the world of rocks. With this kit, you can break open the rocks to reveal fun surprises like fossils, crystals or small toys.
Spirograph: I had one of these kits when I was young and remember having hours of fun with it. It does require well developed fine motor skills, so it’s better for older kids. While kids create interesting designs, they are also learning about the impact that small changes can have in shape.
MATH and ART
Animation Studios: These are so much fun for young and older kids. You create scenes with 3D inanimate objects such as Legos or clay or 2D drawings, then using an included camera or smartphone app, make the scene come to life. Kids can make movies by adding music and voice overs. Wouldn’t this make for a fun date night at home too!
TECHNOLOGY and ART
Space Explorer Kit: This box has 6 space exploration activities inside. Kids can create a constellation mobile, a star kaleidoscope, and more.
SCIENCE and ART
I hope these give you some fun ideas for your next gift. It is by no means a complete list, so hop on Pinterest or Amazon to do a search for STEAM or STEM toys to find the perfect brain building activities for your kiddos. I like to do a themed gift set by adding a corresponding book.
If you have a great STEAM toy that I have not included but that you just love, please tell us about it!
You can probably relate when I say that I’m in the car A LOT. We live in North Kansas City, and we have weekly occupational therapy appointments downtown, twice a week play therapy, dance, drums, swim lessons, and I go into school several times a week to write in peace. As if the traffic, cost of gas, and endless sitting isn’t bad enough, it used to seem that my kids became somewhat possessed as soon as they got in the car. But I recently discovered a cure, and it didn’t require an exorcist. Let me explain.
I’m not a big music person, and I really can’t handle that much news, so for several years, I’ve been listening to audio books. I use the Overdrive app so I can check out books through my library account for free. I download the book to my phone and then listen to it over Bluetooth in the car or through my Echo while doing dishes and just about everywhere else.
A couple weeks ago I realized just how much my kids were listening and absorbing the material when they started asking questions about the plot line of a historical fiction novel I had checked out. I was actually pretty impressed that they were able to multi-task tormenting each other while listening to a fairly complicated story. The material was totally fine for them to hear, but I thought, if they were really engaged in material that was more relatable could we bring about a sort of peace? This began my obsession with Podcasts. I had been aware of Podcasts, and one of my mommy friends had played them for my kids several times during our vacations together. I just had never really explored them myself. Enter Pinterest. There were so many articles that I got simultaneously excited and overwhelmed. I started putting together a list after exploring at least 20 articles. It took me a while, but here’s the list and a short descriptions of each Podcast so you don’t have to spend the time searching!
Podcasts for Kids
Aside from providing peacekeeping entertainment, there is a lot of educational value in listening to Podcasts. The content is the first obvious source of enrichment, whether you’ve chosen a science rich episode or a classic fairytale, your kids are absorbing thought provoking material. In addition, the simple act of listening expands attention spans and the ability to focus. The added bonus is that you’ll probably enjoy them too and more than likely will learn something new.
How to listen to podcasts: Download a podcast player app on your smartphone. Stitcher, Podcast Player, or iTunes all work. Open the player and search for the Podcast you want to hear. In the car you can connect to Bluetooth to listen wirelessly. You can also use your Amazon Echo or Google home. Just say, “Hey Siri, Play Houston We Have a Podcast,” and you’re off and listening!
This week Spectrum Station’s downtown location was honored to welcome City Councilman Quinton Lucas for a tour and informal conversation about providing high-quality early childhood education to children of working parents. Lucas recently kicked off his campaign as a mayoral candidate for the 2019 election. The councilman expressed an interest in touring downtown Kansas City’s premier early learning center and also in having future conversations regarding the practical, financial, academic, and social aspects of increasing access to quality programs for all of Kansas City’s children.
We appreciated the councilman’s visit and look forward to sharing our programs with more public figures in the future. We truly believe that we set the standard in early education and consider it our duty to the community to help influence how policies that affect centers like ours are written and implemented.
The end of summer is fast approaching, and families all over Kansas City are thinking about heading back to school. For me personally, I’ll be taking my son to his first day of Kindergarten. I remember wondering, when he was a baby, how I’d handle dropping him on that first day. I was a stay at home mom and, as he transitioned through infancy to toddlerhood and turned into a boisterous three year old, it became glaringly obvious that I, alone, was not equipped with the resources - time, curriculum, supplies - to really set this kiddo up for success. I had been a teacher, for heaven’s sake. I taught a room full of English Language Learners to read before the end of Kindergarten, but I couldn't get my son to color a picture with me. The search for help began. I found Spectrum Station Early Childhood Development Center about 6 months after we moved to Kansas City, and it was such a perfect fit for my kids. By then I had a one year old too. That’s not to say we didn’t have to adjust, but once we did, we were all so happy we started their program. Then, when my son turned four, he was accepted into the North Kansas City Early Childhood Development Program after being diagnosed with a Sensory Processing Disorder. He began attending the first school at which I would not be working – queue the tears, but this was another step toward school readiness that worked out wonderfully for us. Not only is he more prepared for Kindergarten, but so am I. I think I’ll only cry for one morning instead of the whole first week.
Now, that was just my story in the world of the value of early childhood development programs, especially Preschool and Pre-K, but parents, educators, and community leaders everywhere are recognizing and discussing the importance of this phase of a child’s intellectual development. In 2013, the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce put “Building Kansas City’s Workforce of Tomorrow through Kindergarten-Readiness” at the top of their Big 5 for a Greater Kansas City initiative. They recognized and asserted that the human brain grows the fastest in the first five years of life and the most between birth and age three, making these incredibly formative years for developing pre-academic skills. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from the success of future generations to the growing economic and social success of a community. Two major studies often cited to show the significant long and short term benefits of high-quality early education programs are the High Scope Perry Preschool Study and the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention Project both of which have followed the former students well into adulthood. The statistics consistently show that students who have attended a high-quality program will benefit from:
Wechsier, M., Melnick, H., Maier, A., & Bishop, J. (2016). The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs (policy brief). Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
From The KC Chambers President and CEO, (2018). News Room, KC Chamber
Research on Early Childhood Education, (2017). National Education Association. http://www.nea.org/home/18226.htm
I feel like did a pretty good job of documenting my son’s first year and a little beyond that. By “pretty good” I mean that I filled in everything in his baby book until he started walking and then proceeded to plaster it with sticky notes of the pictures and milestones I wanted to add. So, yes, my son’s baby book is about 11 pages and a stack of about 300 sticky notes (but they are the colorful ones). And my daughter? Ha! Are you kidding? I think there are maybe four entries in my maternity book with a bunch of ultrasound pictures shoved into it. I don’t really know if I even bought a book for her. I’ve had numerous ideas about keeping a journal with notes to my kids or filling in the quote book someone gave me as a gift. And I start them, but it’s usually just an introductory couple of posts (usually an apology for not handling a particular moment as well as I should have, and how I really do love them more than they can know).
If you are able to keep up with documenting your child’s life, I’m envious and happy for you. No, really: You are awesome. I still, however, think you’ll like this service I found: Qeepsake. Maybe most of you already know about it, but it was new to me, and I think it’s a great parent resource. Just to be clear I receive absolutely nothing from the service for telling you about this. I tried, but the founders didn’t get back to me in time, and I couldn’t wait to share it! You can try it for free! It's such fun and solves one of my major sources of “Parent Guilt”. Here’s how it works:
The reason I like this service so much is because I receive these short text messages with simple questions that I can respond to immediately and quickly. Some of the questions I’ve answered so far are:
Q. What is Milly particularly good at right now?
A. Milly is especially good at dancing and whining. She is a phenomenal snuggler and excels at wasting food. She is also really great at scaring the heck out of people with her accident proneness.
Q. How does Andrew show you love?
A. Andrew shows love with hugs and kisses and “I love you Mommy” delivered randomly and frequently. I’ll be in the kitchen and he’ll be downstairs playing. He’ll run up the stairs, hug me, drop and “I love you” and then disappear back down to resume playing. The first couple times I went down to see what he had broken, but I now know that he really just needed to give and get some loves.
I just thought someone might have the same struggles with documenting the precious, hilarious, tear-jerking, and sometimes painful moments, so there ya go!
If you have a service or app that has made parenting just a little easier, please share it!
It’s cliché to say but so true that “a picture speaks a thousand words.” These pictures of Spectrum Station summer students and their creation highlight everything a STEAM education program is about and then some. In January I wrote a post about what STEAM looks like in each of our classrooms (Read about STEAM here), but seeing this project come out of our class last week really drives the value of the program home!
A group of 5 students ranging in ages from 7-10 yrs. chose to go to the construction craft station on Thursday morning. They were given piles of supplies and little more direction than to create a building that represented the current theme – Europe. The students used computers to find Google images of the Eiffel Tower and set to work. So much about this makes us beyond proud to call these kids Spectrum students, and it really brings to the forefront the value of an intentionally structured, yet student led summer education program. Our students are having so much fun that they don’t even realize how much learning is going on. In this one project alone these seven young people cultivated skills in the following areas:
The teachers in the room help to draw attention to different aspects of the activity in order to scaffold the subject matter, cement the learning, and add new levels of challenge, but the students were left to their own innovation. One of the most interesting aspects of project based learning is always watching the interactions between the students: the way they make decisions together, the way the divide up jobs, the way they congratulate or constructively critique each other, and the way the work through a problem before asking for advice. These students will be well equipped to work through the unique challenges that their future educations and careers will present them.
Our last post outlined a few family friendly activities and itineraries, so this week we’re heading up to the Northland. Before I get to some of the activities we have found and enjoy, I want to share two great on-line resources. I get weekly e-mails from these sites, and they are packed with things to do for families with kids of all ages.
Resources for KC Parents
History and Nature Go Well Together
Parks, Parks and More Parks
Escaping the Heat (but you will have to pay)
Just as with my last post, this only scrapes the service of what you can do with the family in North Kansas City, so I really hope you will add your favorites below. Coming Soon: The East and the West.
My family and I have had so much fun exploring Kansas City since moving here nearly three years ago, and summer is probably our favorite time to get out and be on the go (It would be Spring if we had one here). I wanted my next post to offer you some ideas for itineraries around Kansas City, but as I started brainstorming, I realized there was just so much I wanted to put in front of you! So, here is the first post in what will be a series of summer adventures – Free and Nearly Free Downtown!
First thing first, though, I strongly recommend getting each of your kids a disposable camera or two. They can document their own impressions of what they see and do. After each outing have the kids dictate (or write on their own if they can) a few notes in a journal. At the end of the summer have the photos developed and put them in with the corresponding journal entry. This way the children get to experience each trip again and further cement the memories in their minds.
City Market – Union Station – Crown Center
Art and Music
Doing Good Feels Good
History Can Be Fun
This is by no means a comprehensive list of free (or nearly free) downtown activities, so please comment below with an additions you’d like to share with the other parents. Next up: North KC!